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Friday 26 November 2010
John Scales talks about the Dons and the FA Cup

John Scales will be appearing on the ITV FA Cup highlights show on Saturday night, and we’ll be welcoming him to the game itself. We took the opportunity to catch up with John, who on one of his last visits to Kingsmeadow presented the club with a grant cheque from the Football Foundation after our successful application for funds to help pay for the extension of the Paul Strank Stand.

John continues to work closely with the Football Foundation, lending support when it is needed. But he is now doing more and more work with Premier League TV, reviewing live games on its televised magazine programmes. He can also be seen on ESPN, most recently covering Europa League games, and has spots on Five Live, Sky, the BBC and Al Jazeera. “The work is increasing, and I’m doing more than ever before. People want to hear insightful opinions about the game, and it’s work that I love doing.”

All of this takes him back to his days at Wimbledon, where there was analysis every Monday morning, although it lacked the politeness of the TV studio. “Everybody would pick out what we’d done wrong, and fingers were pointed. It was very powerful stuff, and I found it really hard. I didn’t go through the usual development route at a club as I was picked up quite late, though I’d been doing lots of sporting activity - as a result this was a real shock to me. I spent some time with Leeds, where I started as a striker, and then had two years at Bristol Rovers, but joining the Dons was the event that formed me as a footballer and also as a person.

“The club was full of big characters like Wally Downes, Vinnie Jones and Dennis Wise, and it just made me wake up – it was a very harsh environment, and you were challenged at every step of the way to be part of the team. At times I didn’t think I’d get through it. Some players couldn’t cope with it, and for a while I thought I’d be one of them. But there were great coaches and motivators there, and after I got used to it – and especially when I moved to centre-back from full-back – I felt I’d finally settled.”

We asked John if he thought there could ever be a modern-day Crazy Gang. “Yes, absolutely. Some of what we did you can still see around, for example the spirit that Ian Holloway has introduced at Blackpool has similarities from a management point of view. We created an ‘everybody hates us’ mentality and that drew people together. And we’d set out to bully teams, gain a psychological advantage over them before we started – though remember that we had some very good players, better than people gave us credit for. That brings me back to the analysis. We knew where and how we scored most of our goals, and we worked really hard at that.

“The game is much the same today as it was then, in terms of tactics. You still set out to nullify opponents and impose your game – that’s not changed. Of course it’s a lot faster, but where it has moved on is in the science of physiology and the quality of the physiotherapy. So the players’ conditioning is better, and their well-being is given more attention. But that’s only a small percentage of the game.”

What about managers – how have they changed since John was playing for the Dons? “It’s still about motivating people and getting them to play as a team. The great players don’t always make the best managers, perhaps because they struggle to cope with players of lesser ability. If you were like me, you were always doubting yourself, feeling insecure, looking for ways to improve, and knowing you’re not a great player. But the very top players never needed to do that and probably didn’t understand what it was like to feel that way. They only had to deal with themselves, not two dozen players, each with different needs.

“José Mourinho is a great example of how to motivate a team. He makes every training session interesting and challenging; he is totally focused; he shows what you can achieve when you get players to buy into a vision. But he wasn’t a very successful footballer.”

We asked John to compare his two cup finals, obviously the one in 1988, but also in 1996, when he played for Liverpool. “To be honest, I can’t remember a thing about the 1988 final. I was only 20, and I’d been injured and didn’t expect to play. I was lucky to be on the bench as I wasn’t really 100% fit. It just raced by. I remember the celebrations better – but only just! I recall the drive through Wimbledon village and Plough Lane. The next morning Dennis Wise and I were on TV, and we were almost unable to speak!

“We were seen as one of the biggest underdogs ever, although we had a very good team that came sixth that season. But the history of the two clubs, our rapid rise and the quality of Liverpool made us massive underdogs.

“I remember almost everything about 1996. By then I knew what Wembley was about – we’d won the League Cup the year before, and there was huge hype because we were playing Manchester United. We had a very talented squad, though the game was really poor. But I still thought it was great, until that Cantona goal that went through a crowd of players, including me. It was one of my biggest disappointments in football that day. I’ve never watched the game again.”

In addition to his media work, John also has an events management company, Be Sport, where he acts as a consultant, and a TV production company, Popkorn, which made the recent Footballers Behind Bars programme with Ian Wright. He does other corporate work, and is looking to create a world football museum. And he still finds time to spend with his two young daughters.

We asked why we don’t see more of him. “I really should come down. I’d love to see AFC Wimbledon succeed, and it would be great to be involved.” We’ll be taking him up on that but, meanwhile, we look forward to welcoming John as a TV pundit to Saturday’s game.