Sir Nigel Gibbs is the unofficial knighthood bestowed upon him by fans and Leeds supporters might just follow suit. Phil Hay reports.
Sir Nigel Gibbs they call him at Watford, or SNG for short. The nickname went with him to Reading and might stick at Elland Road if his service to Leeds United is anything like his career as a whole.
The unofficial knighthood is one of those titles given to players and coaches who develop lasting affection with supporters. Gibbs is touched by it but embarrassed too, anxious to tell you that the S in SNG was not his idea or added at his request. Even his Twitter account, @Sir_NG, was created by someone else.
“I was at Watford for so long that they started calling me Sir,” Gibbs says. “Reading cottoned on to that and the name stayed with me there.
“I’m a low-key guy and very humbled by it but I want people to know that I had nothing to do with the name. I never call myself that, except on Twitter, and a friend set my account up. He said ‘SNG is how everyone knows you.’ That’s the only reason.”
Behind every good manager there is usually a good, industrious and trustworthy assistant and Gibbs ticks the relevant boxes – good enough to find work within a month of being sacked by Reading. The 47-year-old has been the hidden face of the management team who came to Elland Road in April but when Leeds made contact with Brian McDermott, Gibbs was among the first to know. Their partnership goes hand in hand; friends, allies, confidants.
“We were at Reading together for seven years but we’d known each other for a long time before that,” Gibbs says. “We’ve got a great relationship so my intention was always to go where Brian went. That’s his decision ultimately, he picks the assistant he wants, but our working relationship is terrific. I was chuffed to bits to come to Leeds and be his assistant again.”
McDermott and Gibbs are a settled, established partnership. So is their formula. Neither United’s manager nor his second in command have tried to deny that the strategy and methods which brought the Championship title to Reading in 2012 are being re-employed at Elland Road, albeit with tweaks here and there.
“If something works for you then you stick with it,” Gibbs says. “What we did at Reading worked. I still felt it was working when the two of us were sacked.”
Gibbs is too nice a man to be bitter about the way in which he and McDermott were turfed out of the Madejski Stadium in March, with relegation threatening but enough time left to keep Reading afloat in the Premier League. He felt for McDermott more than himself but was disappointed all round; ruthlessly dismissed after three good years with Reading’s first-team squad.
“Brian was harshly treated,” he says. “There’s no question about that. At the time it was strange and I couldn’t understand the decision but you have to respect the owners. They run the club and they call the shots. The one thing we’ve both tried to do is to accept what happened and move on. We had a fantastic, successful time at Reading so we went with our heads high.
“It was a shock at the time, mainly because it came from nowhere, but the oddest thing about football is how quickly you look forward. One week you’re reflecting on leaving Reading, the next you’re being asked to go to Leeds. Your focus changes like that. It’s been good for both of us to get back into the game so quickly. This is what we do.
“Initially my wife wanted to go on holiday and I promised that we would. In the end it never quite happened so that’s a bit of an IOU. It was a difficult period though, the first week especially. I loved working with the players and that first morning when you realise you’ve nowhere to be is surreal.
“We had contractual issues to sort out but within a couple of weeks I was going to watch training with a couple of clubs. I went to QPR to keep myself ticking over and I flew over to Paris St Germain as well. It was a case of keeping myself busy and keeping my eye in, using the time well. Before I knew it my phone was going and we were on the road to Leeds.”
Neither he nor McDermott had any expectation of suitable work arriving quickly and no great desire to wade into a club with four or five games of the season to play. As it happened, their summons to Elland Road was a blessing in disguise, allowing the pair to take on a club who enthused them and to start creating the framework for pre-season. From United’s perspective, their rapid arrival ensured that relegation was a passing threat.
The changes to the coaching team left behind by Neil Warnock in April were substantial.
Gibbs joined immediately as McDermott’s assistant and Neil Redfearn, Leeds’ development squad manager, was given a dual role promoting him to the position of first-team coach. Jon Goodman has since taken the job of fitness coach, largely the same role he occupied at Reading.
Under certain managers, the responsibility for organising and running training would be left primarily to Gibbs. Central though Leeds’ number two is, his boss is permanently hands-on; never absent from the training field and intent on running the show his own way.
“He’ll be there for every session, every single session,” Gibbs says. “This is his job now and he wants to know what’s happening, to get in amongst the players and encourage them. That’s why he’s been successful.
“As a person he’s very good company and his man-management is excellent, not only with the players but the staff as well. It’s easy to assume that the staff look after themselves but your coaches need a good working environment just as much as the players. Speak to anyone here and they’ll vouch for that.
“Brian’s got a good sense of humour but more than anything he’s a winner – an ambitious, driven individual who wants to win games. We all do. We enjoy our work but we only enjoy it properly when we’re getting results.”
A demanding boss then? “I wouldn’t say he’s demanding in the sense of hassling you constantly but you know he’s got high standards,” Gibbs says. “To be fair to myself, I’m right on his wavelength. I demand a lot of myself. We work in a way which helps every player to be the best they can and that takes a lot of hard graft. Give everything – that’s the minimum requirement.”
That message has been reiterated to every player in the squad, largely because McDermott expects to use most of them. After Reading won the Championship title last year, the club did a detailed assessment of the contribution made by each squad member, identifying the impact made by them over the course of 46 league games. The most impressive statistics concerned their substitutes.
“It was quite phenomenal,” Gibbs says. “You wouldn’t believe the impression made by our subs – goals scored, chances created. That’s why you need everyone to feel involved and, equally, for everyone to show the right attitude. What happened at Reading came down to more than 11 players. That’s not a cliche, it’s proven by stats. We’ve been stressing that for a while.
“I’m happy to admit that there were better individual players at other clubs than we had at Reading but as a team and a squad we were stronger. We were able to use every player and so many of them made a consistent impact. The telling run was outstanding – 15 wins out of 17, one draw and one defeat. It was a record across Europe at the time. The players bought into what we were doing.”
The subject neither man will discuss is promotion. Gibbs and McDermott are strangely non-plussed about the topic. “You’ll hear it many times from us – it’s all about the next game,” Gibbs says. “Is that boring? Maybe to an outsider its boring but that’s our philosophy. It was the philosophy at Reading and it did us no harm.”
It is that sort of grounded thinking which earned Gibbs the title of Sir. After 23 years at Watford as a player and a coach and seven with Reading, McDermott can count on his loyalty. There was no divide in Gibbs’ emotion when Leeds cancelled Watford’s party by winning at Vicarage Road on the final day of last season, denying his old club automatic promotion.
“Make no mistake, I was delighted to get the result,” he says.
“We’d won only three games away from home all season and it was good to prove that we could still do it. You maybe thought it was a nothing game but it was far more important than that. Watford, I felt for them. But my loyalty’s to Leeds United.”