Born to mining stock in Tredegar, Wales, a town at the head of the Sirhowy Valley, Neil Kinnock always had an unlikely claim to the destiny of high success. Most likely at birth to follow in his father and gradfather’s footsteps and go down the pit, Kinnock was nevertheless born and brought up in a tightly-knit community which valued solidarity and hard-work. A massive iron and coal production centre in the 19th century, Tredegar had remained firmly rooted in coal even as the iron production re-located to other areas of South Wales. An area with a reputation for militancy stretching even farther back than Chartism, the inhabitants of the area were also said to be loquacious and temperamental.
Kinnock’s father, Gordon, and his mother, Mary, were intelligent and self-educated but lived in a world of hardship and relative poverty. Gordon would continue to mine, while Mary gave up her nursing before Neil was born. Although living most of his early life in a bedsit at 1, Vale View, Neil nevertheless grew up in a happy existence, surrounded by distant relatives and doting parents. Mary in particular was insistent that Neil should escape the life of the mine through education. Though intelligent much like his parents, Kinnock would struggle at school and passed out of the local Earl Street School having failed the eleven plus. Kinnock focused less on high achievement and more on his interests join the police, the army or an apprenticeship with the National Coal Board.
Kinnock had always, like his father, been deeply fanatical about sport, however, and it was in sport that he would increasingly turn as preparatory to joining either the army or the police. Contemporaries report, perhaps predictably, that Kinnock was absolutely immersed in sport from a young age. Playing football at school and a for a local youth side, Kinnock would increasingly find himself absorbed by the game. Kinnock’s dedication to youth football would eventually attract the attention of serious powers within the sport in the form of Cardiff City. Sitting down with Kinnock’s parents, it was agreed that Neil would join Cardiff after leaving school. While a relatively short train journey from Tredegar, Cardiff also offered an element of freedom to the young Kinnock, and an escape from the relative likelihood of going into mining had he stayed in Tredegar. If it was not quite the escape via a university that his mother had hoped for him, it was at least an escape.
SIX YEARS IN CARDIFF AND MILAN
Kinnock arrived at a Cardiff who were a respectable, if unremarkable, Second Division side who had recently been relegated from the top flight. While this was an improvement over a still relatively recent absence from the league entirely, the club still had some grounds to hope for promotion back to the First Division. It was an ambition fulfilled in the season prior to Kinnock’s appearance for the first team in 1960. After initially playing at the front at school, Kinnock had drifted into the midfield, mainly due to the concerns of the time that his height wouldn’t allow him to ‘cut it’ as either a striker or a centre back. It was a role which suited Kinnock’s personality perfectly. ‘Bossing’ the midfield is an overused phrase, but teammates remember Kinnock, even age eighteen, being a commanding presence with his combination of gutsy determination and never-die attitude. Though Kinnock admits he was never the most athletic of players, technically, he could easily pick a pass or cross and had a high work rate on the pitch. Cardiff would go on to finish twelfth in the ’60-’61 season, and then a high sixth in ’61-’62 – with Kinnock winning increasing plaudits in both campaigns.
The performances also drew the eye of outsiders. Gigi Peronace was an Italian football agent who had oversaw the transfer to Juventus of Kinnock’s idol – and near-future Wales teammate – John Charles, and who specialized in the transfer of British players. Greaves would later note that Peronace “folded his jacket like origami” and could “charm a bracelet”, though Greaves’ transfer would end disastrously, with Greaves hopelessly unprepared for the rigour of Calcio in the sixties. Kinnock, however, had always had a strong internationalist streak, deeply influenced by his parent's concern with global issues. When Peronace approached, then, Kinnock’s head was turned with the chance to experience life in another culture.
Arriving at AC Milan, Kinnock would later joke, was like “going behind the Iron Curtain.” Milan were managed by the formidable Nereo Rocco, a stocky, sergeant-major of a manager who ruled the team with a rod of iron, drank copious amounts of alcohol before sleeping on top of the lockers in the changing room, liked to humiliate the younger players and who was almost the personal embodiment of Calcio of the sixties. Under the system of ritiri, players were expected to go ‘into retreat’ for days before a match at training grounds or hotels. Their private lives were also spied upon – Rocco liked to drive around in his car, tailing players – and they were forced to adhere to strict dietary regimes. It is easy to see why Jimmy Greaves did not make it in Italian football.
After Geaves had left, his place had been taken by Dino Sani, an overweight, balding, twenty-nine year old Brazilian who became known as il champione de cammina, the walking champion, due to his immobility on the pitch. Sani proved, however, to be an astute passer and a solid organizer on the pitch – but when Kinnock became available, Milan took the plunge on the younger man.
Kinnock, installed in a luxury flat, would later admit to being dazzled by the facilities and aura of Milan, a world away from the position of Cardiff. Although the new regime proved to be a short, sharp, shock, Kinnock adapted far better than the likes of Greaves. Kinnock’s quick friendship with Gianni Rivera – which would last into later life - would also help him to settle. Despite the brutality of Rocco’s ‘initiation’ of him, Kinnock soon won over the big man through his sheer workrate and ability on the pitch. When Sani was injured before the 1963 European Cup Final, it was Kinnock who played in the midfield beside Rivera – and helped Altafini score the winner with a brilliant pass from outside the eighteen yard box. And it all took place in Wembley Stadium, the seat of English Football - prophetic, perhaps. Two other Serie A titles, and one other European cup would follow in the next two years. It was the height of the famous ‘Grande Milano’.
LEEDS, CARDIFF - AND A REVOLUTION IN HEREFORD
In 1966, Kinnock decided, after four years in Italy and finding the cost of living increasing onerous, to return home, “after serving my years in the army” as he would later quip. Adapting to the English game at Leeds would prove to be difficult, however, and in 1970 he was sold back to Cardiff. Kinnock, however, never quite seemed to be able to readjust to the pace of the English game; never a pacey player, his time in Italy had consumed his peak years. Though enjoying an Indian summer at Cardiff, leading them to the league cup and promotion, Kinnock began to turn his thoughts towards coaching. Many have noted that Kinnock always had one eye on a turn towards management; commanding on the pitch, opinionated and passionate (He had come close on more than one occasion to seriously falling out with Rocco) it seemed a natural progression.
When Kinnock was appointed as player-manager at Hereford United in 1974, they were a team languishing in the Third Division, never having known much in the way of fame or prominence. Though later talk of Kinnock bringing a ‘revolution’ to Hereford is arguably overstated, Kinnock was to pioneer many approaches to management which were indeed cutting-edge at the time. Insisting on a rigorous and scientific approach to player fitness inspired by his time in Milan, Kinnock had no compunction about laying down the law with players; but he also proved to be a brilliant man-manager. The insistence on fitness was married to Kinnock’s pionnering of a pressing game in English football which was physically demanding of players. Though taking a pragmatic tactical approach in his initial seasons, Kinnock, like Gianni Rivera, was a player who played under Catenaccio but never accepted it, and as the quality of his players increased, so Kinnock’s teams played an increasingly expansive, passing game. Hereford would win promotion to Division Two in 1976; two years later, they were in the First Division; and in 1980 they finished third and won a spot in European competition, having won the FA Cup along the way in 1978. It was an astounding rise, which quickly marked Kinnock out as one of the best young managers in the country.
By 1982, however, the steam seemed to have run out of Hereford. With many integral players reaching the autumn years of their career, the team had arguably reached the end of its natural life-span. The performances and the results started to decline, with Hereford finishing eight in 1981 and then eleventh in 1982. When Leeds came calling at the end of the season, it was time for Kinnock to move on.
Kinnock inherited a Leeds side which had underperformed and underachieved since Don Revie’s departure for the England job in 1978, but were nevertheless still a force in the First Division. It was Liverpool who had increasingly overtook Leeds since the late seventies however, going on an astonishing run of form both domestically and in Europe under Bob Paisley. Kinnock knew Leeds as a former player, knew the mentality of the club, and had partly been inspired by Revie’s man-management and rigourous, dossier-based assessment of the opposition as a manager. The young, dynamic manager seemed exactly the right fit to shake Leeds out of their torpor and return them to the very top. The Kinnock era at Leeds proved to be a minor golden age for the club, under players such as Kenny Dalglish, Mick McCarthy, Keith Edwards and later Denis Irwin; in four years the club won two league titles, one league cup, two FA cups, and a European Cup, beating Barcelona in a memorable final; Leeds’ mid-eighties dominance would only begin being eroded with Alex Fergusson’s arrival at Anfield in 1987. By 1986, Kinnock was broadly acknowledged as being one of the greatest British managers of his generation, and the FA were interested in doing what, until then, was the unthinkable – employing a non-English manager. (If it was only a Welsh one)
'GROTESQUE CHAOS' - BUT WE'RE ALRIGHT
The unorthodox move was prompted by years of frustration and trophyless discontent. England had come closest in 1966, but since then all had been barren; Holland's dominance under total football in the seventies had completely passed them by, with England making little impression internationally and failing to qualify in 1974 and 1978. Don Revie, moving up to the England job in 1978, had come closest at the 1982 World Cup, taking England to the second group stage before they were lashed by the eventual champions, Brazil, 5-2. The defeat had stung (Perhaps moreso by Scotland progressing to the semis); but many in England had come away from the defeat believing that a more fluid, creative style of play was the future. By 1986 England were desperate; and turning to Kinnock-style attacking, possession football seemed like the obvious move. Besides, in 1990, England would once again host the finals, and home advantage would surely count for something. England would have their best chance of winning in twenty-five years.
A poor result in the ’88 Euros would see the press begin to turn on Kinnock, but he survived the sack race, albeit somewhat in limbo due to the lack of competitive matches over the next two years. England entered the 1990 tournament not as favourites, but behind the likes of Menotti’s Argentina and Julio Iglesias' Spain. Progressing out of their group, England nevertheless would have a nasty shock at the hands of Norway, with a shockingly physical and bad-tempered match peppered with fouls; Kinnock would later call the match “grotesque chaos.” Once out of the group, however, England would ease past Belgium and then Spain, before a brilliant 4-1 thrashing of Germany in Manchester, a match which many believe to be more memorable than the final. In that match, England would be up against Giovanni Trapatonni’s Italy; it was billed as silky football versus Catenaccio, Il Trap versus the little bald man from Wales. It would, however, prove to be one of the less spectacular of world cup finals. Immovable object met irresistible force for almost eighty minutes, before Gazza finally lashed in a spectacular long shot from outside the box.
Wembley and a country went crazy. It was a true moment of national euphoria, and people went wild in the streets. Car horns honked until long into the night. When Kinnock and the team paraded through London on a bus, they were mobbed by thousands, with many being strangely drawn to kiss the winning manager’s bald pate. In a moment of high spirits, Kinnock would grab the microphone, before leading the crowd in a spontaneous chant; his smooth head listing from side to side, the last word semi-intelligible. “We’re al-right! We’re al-right! We’re al-right,” he would repeat, as the crowd chanted back. The country was indeed alright, alright, and it is the drunken, spontaneous ecstasy of that moment and those words which has symbolised the victory in folk memory more than any other. ‘We’re alright!’ has become the unofficial motto of England supporters, and the England team. Kinnock instantly achieved national hero status as 'this immensely popular Welshman'. (The Welshness of Kinnock would not go unnoticed with the Welsh, either - though some Scots would waggishly claim him also as one of their own due to Kinnock’s ancestors originating from Perthshire.)
BACK TO ITALY, BACK TO ENGLAND
Although the tabloid press, led by the Sun, demanded that the government ‘KNIGHT NEIL’, Kinnock quietly slipped out of the immediate public consciousness almost as quickly as he had throatily commanded it. At forty-eight, though, Kinnock had little appetite to enter comfortable retirement as a national treasure, and after four years of still mostly uneventful international management, he was determined to get back into club management. There was a sense, however, that nothing would quite reach the peak of 1990. Kinnock enjoyed an unspectacular two years at Bayern Munich, before moving onto Juventus in 1992. Though Juve had frequently frustrated Berlusconi’s Inter both domestically and in Europe, Kinnock would experience the bad luck of arriving just as Inter began to finally reach their full potential – a factor hardly helped by still-lingering resentment in Italy over England’s success two years earlier. Four largely forgettable years followed with only one league title, and then one more year following that at Barcelona, before Kinnock made his way back home.
In 1997, Chelsea had very nearly gone bust, and would have done had they not been bought out by the acrylics tycoon - and Chelsea fan - Sir John Major. Though Major was more of a cricketing man than a football fan, he nevertheless had ambitions for Chelsea, and was prepared to underwrite those ambitions financially. Hiring Kinnock was one of the first steps in Major’s plan to carve out Chelsea’s place in the sun. The initial relationship between Kinnock and Major would be cordial, even close – Kinnock would later wax lyrical about Major’s patient, accommodating attitude to matter both on and off the pitch; how Major, despite being a fan-owner, was fully clear-sighted yet still retained traditional fan-owner ambition for the club. Kinnock would indeed go so far as to describe Major as the best chairman he had ever worked for. The harmony behind the scenes would soon begin to show on the pitch, with Chelsea finally forcing themselves into the top four in 2001 – and sustained themselves there subsequently. The club had made it to the big time, and in style. Relations between Kinnock and Major would soon begin to cool, however, with Kinnock complaining that Major often simply told him what he wanted to hear, but with no follow-through. A bust-up over transfer policy would mark the final break, and Kinnock departed at the end of the 2003-04 season, to much lamenting on the part of Chelsea fans.
Though Kinnock would serve two years afterwards as Sporting Director at Serie A’s rising force, Novara, his management days were finally at an end, and in 2008, Kinnock finally caved to persistent demands for him to accept some official recognition, when he was sent to the Lords by Julia Gillard’s new government. Despite Kinnock’s long and widely-known support for Labour, some wondered whether he was putting his status with the nation at risk by becoming involved in politics, even at arm’s length. A settled, more mature and more contented Kinnock seemed to be in play than during his eighties heyday, however, and Kinnock’s public contributions on both football and politics have been both measured and limited. It is this ‘footballing elder statesman’ mode of Kinnock who now chairs government and FA commissions, and is a doyen of the football, media, and political spheres. Best Prime Minister we never had? Perhaps a matter of taste, though many football fans would say so....