In an interview originally given to Everton's matchday programme for the Blues' home clash with Brentford last month, Gary Rowett talks about coming to the Club with unrealistic expectations, his enthusiastic – and productive – socialising on Merseyside, career-defining conversations with Joe Royle and the man who provided his first management opportunity and finding a spiritual home at Millwall...
Gary Rowett recalls only two matches from his under-the-radar Everton career with any real clarity.
Neither memory is especially precious and both probably serve, in Rowett’s opinion, to “sum up my 15 months at the Club”.
That’s not to say Rowett didn’t enjoy Everton. On the contrary.
He was barely 20 when he joined, harbouring the belief – naively, Rowett recognises in hindsight – that nearly 100 appearances for Cambridge United would feed into regular Premier League football.
His fond vision was replaced by the prosaic reality of a diet of regular ‘A’ team games.
Equally, Liverpool, offers Rowett euphemistically, “was too good a city”.
“I was in a group full of great lads: Neil Moore, John Doolan, Tony Grant,” continues Rowett.
“We’d play for the ‘A’ team on Saturday morning, then go out and enjoy the city.
“I didn’t commit to my football career, at that time, I was out of the team and it was easy to socialise more than I needed to.”
There was one especially unforgettable – and unregrettable – night on the town.
Rowett jokes over his good fortune at meeting wife Jenny when “out with a mate, not the team… she’d have probably gone for one on a bit more money”.
“She was 18 and I can’t believe to this day, her dad, a proud scouser, let her go with me when I moved to Derby County after we’d been going out six months,” laughs Rowett.
“I have two daughters older than 18 and there is no way they’d be moving in with anyone.”
Rowett’s parents-in-law were raised in Walton and married in St Luke’s Church on the corner of Goodison Park.
They never did get to see their daughter’s husband-to-be play for the home team in L4.
Four Everton appearances comprised substitute’s outings away against Sheffield Wednesday and Leeds United, soon after joining in March 1994, and starts in 2-0 defeats at Manchester United and Southampton on successive Saturdays early the following campaign.
When Joe Royle replaced Mike Walker as manager, Rowett was briskly ushered on loan to Blackpool.
To Hillsborough, then, scene of Rowett’s first distinct Everton playing recollection.
He replaced Brett Angell with 11 minutes remaining and Walker’s team trailing 3-1. The match ended 5-1.
“I’d been on about five minutes and felt my hamstring go,” says Rowett. “It was a nerve injury, not a muscle problem, and I thought, ‘I cannot come off, I am playing for Everton against Sheffield Wednesday in the Premier League’.”
Rowett was with the reserves when Everton’s final-day victory over Wimbledon secured Premier League survival. “But I remember the elation,” he relates, “and I am pretty sure I made the party and the evening out”.
Everton were flailing, once more, when Rowett was pitted in opposition to consummate full-back Denis Irwin for a game at Old Trafford.
The idea was for Neville Southall to aim goal-kicks to Everton’s right flank, where the aerially prodigious Rowett would dominate Irwin.
“I don’t think I won a header all game,” says Rowett.
“He was so clever, using his body, leaning into me and manipulating me. It was a good lesson.
“I was brought down in the box by Peter Schmeichel, too, and discovered why Manchester United don’t concede many penalties.”
Rowett grew up on the Isle of Wight, a champion sportsman but isolated from professional football and, consequently, unconvinced over his prospects in the game.
Cambridge United, however, spied Rowett – a striker in his youth – playing for Cowes High School in a 1990 English Schools Trophy quarter-final tie – they would lose the Goodison Park final to Campion High School, who counted Doolan and future Everton midfielder Billy Kenny among their number.
Rowett was stacking supermarket shelves part-time and set on a leisure and tourism course in Portsmouth when he met dad Eric to buy a 50cc Scrambler to propel him across the Island for the ferry to the mainland every day.
“When I got there, dad said, ‘You need to forget the motorbike, you’ve just been offered terms by Cambridge’,” says Rowett, who arrived to learn he was actually in a two-way fight for an apprenticeship, which he won.
Cambridge were under the rule of manager John Beck, the martinet headmaster in charge of the hardest of schools, who oversaw an ascent from the old Fourth Division to the cusp of the top-flight.
“I was used to a strong environment, I came from an autocratic household, my dad was a prison governor and my brother was in the Royal Marines – my mum was the only softer one,” says Rowett.
“You had to stand your corner and give a bit back to the senior pros. On other occasions, you accepted what was said and got on with it.
“Survival of the fittest is an archaic term but in football back then it was the truth.
“At times, you were bullied and treated with disdain. You had to go through that process to be accepted as a person and player.”
Beck would watch Rowett leave senior pros trailing on pre-season runs along the canals and order the young man to retrace his steps; alone and quicker.
“I was winning the races by five metres,” begins Rowett, “one day, John told me, ‘You have to think you are better than these, win the races by 30 metres, because I will sell you to a bigger club for £1m’.
“He was ensuring I didn’t settle for being a third division player.”
Beck forged Cambridge in his own identity. The result was a super-tight squad and tactics employed with “military precision”.
Rowett has similar freedom at Millwall, where he was appointed manager in October 2019.
“There are some places – including Everton – where if you sweat blood and tears for the shirt and add excitement, which might be goalmouth action, or quick attacks, it is appreciated,” says Rowett.
“Some clubs accept what they are more than others, in my opinion.
“I wanted to manage somewhere I could do it how I wanted and not feel I had to play a different brand of football.”
Rowett draws on the qualities of former bosses, including hardline Beck and master man-managers Royle and Jim Smith.
“Everyone in coaching and management plagiarises to some degree,” he says,
“But I have to be me, with elements of those people underpinning how I want to play football.”
Rowett remaining true to himself means adhering to a football model that divides opinion. The subject is pertinent following the conflicting reactions to the ‘good guys versus bad guys’ Champions League quarter-final between Manchester City and Atletico Madrid.
“When I watch Atletico Madrid, with their speed and aggression and energy, the hairs on the back of my neck stand up,” says Rowett.
“I always admired Barcelona and they have those qualities – but one team is possession based, the other is more destructive out of possession, which I enjoy.
“When I shape a team, it has to go down that line… or it’s not authentic.”
Rowett is sitting behind his office desk, kitted out in training gear prior to a run along the Thames.
The running, besides spending time with family located in Derbyshire, is a “crucial” vehicle for refreshing mentally.
Evenings are spent working in the apartment he shares with a staff member and his son.
Rowett is a manager to his core, then, absorbed by the profession. But it would be remiss to skate over a thriving playing career post-Everton – albeit: “When I look back with my manager and coach’s head on, I should have achieved more… I had more potential than I realised”.
Royle bluntly told Rowett he didn’t own the “eye of the tiger” required to flourish at Everton, supporting the suspicion of Cambridge coaches who considered releasing him after one year because “I didn’t show that desperation to be a footballer”.
“As annoyed as I was about what Joe said, he was probably right,” says Rowett.
“Those words motivated me for the rest of my career.
“I had to find ways to summon that extra aggression, I wasn’t naturally that way inclined.
“I played against Joe many years later and he told me he’d tried to sign me for another club.
“It was nice he saw the change.”
Moving to Derby in summer 1995, says Rowett, “was one of the best things that happened to me”.
“In my mind,” he continues, “I’d failed at Everton and had a point to prove.
“I was in a relationship, which settled me down, and far more professional.”
Rowett, mobile and comfortable in possession, slotted neatly into the back-three favoured by Smith, who “lit up a room when he walked in, similar to how I imagine Howard Kendall”.
Promotion with a Derby team populated by a “group of up-and-coming, hungry players, with great camaraderie”, was followed by two sound Premier League campaigns.
Rowett, though, “felt under-valued at times, probably wrongly” and left for second-tier Birmingham City – a £1m transfer proving Beck right, to a point – in summer 1998.
“I had to take one step backwards for three steps forwards,” says Rowett.
The significant advance came after two stellar Birmingham seasons, Rowett choosing Leicester City from three top-flight suitors and playing every Premier League game in his opening campaign.
“I was a senior player and close to the England squad under Sven-Goran Eriksson,” says Rowett.
Pictured: Rowett in action against Everton for Leicester City
A knee injury sustained in the second match of the following 2001/02 season, at Arsenal, pulled the rug from under him.
“I thought I’d be out for four weeks but when I came round from surgery was told it would be much longer,” says Rowett.
“They got the operation wrong and there were a few setbacks I shouldn’t have had.”
Rowett was hampered by another issue after joining Charlton Athletic ahead of 2002/03 and retired in summer 2004, 11 months after his final appearance.
“I could have bummed around in the lower leagues, but knew I wouldn’t be the same player, which would have been difficult to take at 30,” says Rowett.
“That injury and my decision to move on have given me 32 years and counting in professional football, which I am blessed to say.”
Rowett was given his first management opportunity as caretaker boss of old club Burton Albion – he played there in non-league post-retirement to “scratch an itch” – in March 2012.
He began with two defeats and wondered aloud in conversation with chairman Ben Robinson whether he “had what it took”; if Burton’s League Two status would be safer in other hands.
“Ben said, ‘No, show me you can keep us up’,” says Rowett. “That was a big moment in my career. And… I realised I was being an idiot.”
Burton were undefeated in their next four matches and Rowett reflects with humour on the 7-1 loss at Bristol Rovers that abruptly halted that run.
“At 5-1, the centre-half and keeper banged into each other, they fell apart and the striker ran between them and scored,” says Rowett.
“I thought, ‘Oh my, can life get any worse?’”
Rowett reached the League Two play-off semi-finals and final in two full seasons in charge of Burton.
They were set fair for promotion, ultimately achieved, when Rowett was approached by Birmingham; in dire straits near the foot of the Championship and reeling from an 8-0 home whacking by Bournemouth.
“People said Birmingham would be an impossible job, I thought the opposite. They were rock bottom and could go only one way,” says Rowett, who briskly got the “absolutely brilliant” 19-year-old Demarai Gray into his team.
“We changed the psychology and transferred the focus to what we were going to do.
“I wrote up a league table that said, ‘P0 W0 D0 L0’ and said I was interested only in how we finished.”
An immediate turnaround, only two defeats in 15, was the bedrock for a climb to 10th, a finish Birmingham replicated the following season.
They looked good for a play-off spot midway through 2016/17 when new owners dispensed with Rowett to hire Gianfranco Zola.
“From the outside, it seemed crazy, but I sensed a change in how the club was operating,” says Rowett.
“I knew I would get a good opportunity elsewhere, so it wasn’t as devastating as it appeared.
“I was young and ambitious and my focus was ‘Where’s next?’ I’ve learned to temper that trait.”
Rowett swiftly became Derby’s eighth manager, including caretakers, in three-and-a-half years.
“I understood the potential – but also that the lack of stability might bite me,” he says.
He led Derby to the Championship play-offs in his one completed season but left for Stoke City after 14 months.
“I could foresee a lot of the issues Derby are experiencing now,” says Rowett.
“Stoke offered me the chance halfway through the [2017/18] season, but we were second in the league and it wasn’t the right time – which shows it wasn’t about money. When they came back, it coincided with so many things not feeling right at Derby.”
Stoke, admits Rowett, is the one job where he could be fairly reckoned to have “under achieved”, even if 26 Championship games featured only seven losses.
There are no regrets, however, over the “brave decision” to accept a post with a “promotion-or-bust” remit following Stoke’s Premier League relegation.
“You have to learn and grow stronger for it,” says Rowett.
The Premier League with Millwall – consistently skirting the Championship’s top-six under their driven manager – is realistic, insists Rowett, on condition “slow but sure improvement” is sustained.
Revisiting his initial top-tier experience, Rowett concludes: “Everton was one step too far, at that time. I didn’t quite do what I needed to.”
The single-minded Gary Rowett couldn’t be accused of wanting for focus or effort since he journeyed to Derby, with the twin-influences of Jenny and Royle’s provocative words for company.