Mr Motivator

There's one manager even the Krays said they'd turn out for

Joe Kinnear used to have a message on his answerphone which said: "If you're ringing from Real Madrid or Barcelona, leave a message now. If not, piss off."

This was during his years managing Wimbledon, taking them to sixth in the League and three Cup semis. Then, in 1999, he had a heart attack. While he was recovering, I went to his house in Mill Hill most days, writing his biography. It was partly therapy; it took his mind off his health problems. The book didn't do very well. It's best to be a legend to sell football books, like Gazza, or at the height of your powers at a big club. Joe was still out of work when the book came out, so he had no constituency.

He wasn't born Joe Kinnear. He was born Joe Reddy in Dublin in 1946. But when his parents' marriage collapsed, his mother fled to England, met and married a man called Kinnear and changed Joe's surname.

In 1967, Joe played in the FA Cup final for Spurs, the youngest player on the pitch, and was named man of the match. I first met him in 1972, when I was doing a book about Spurs. I'd ring him up if I'd missed training or an away game, and he'd tell me what had happened. He was 25 at the time, a handsome, dashing bachelor, lean and fit, just 11 stone, always in the latest fashion, hair well coiffeured, driving about in an MGB sports car.

And yet he was still living at home with his mum in Watford. Young players often did in those days, as even the stars didn't earn more than £200 a week. He did have a girlfriend, Bonnie - later his wife - whom by chance I had met before I got to know Joe. She had her own boutique in Hampstead, which I occasionally frequented in those brief moments in life when I bought new clothes. Unusual, then and now, for a footballer to have a middle-class girlfriend with her own business.

At the time of his heart attack in 1999, Joe was 16 stone and, er, not exactly fit or coiffeured. When he was ranting in the Wimbledon dugout, the away fans shouted, "You fat bastard."

Despite the best efforts of Bonnie, his diet had been appalling - not eating all day, except breakfast fry-ups at a transport caff beside Wimbledon's training ground. Going to games every evening, coming home at two in the morning, buying fish and chips to eat in front of the video, watching more matches. After home games, win or lose, Sam Hammam, the owner, took him and Bonnie to Quaglino's, where they began with champagne and oysters, going on to smoked salmon, steak and the best Fleurie.

He did recover, and went on to manage more clubs, and is now filling in at Newcastle. At least he was ten minutes ago. He is a motivator, understands players, likes a laugh.

When he took over at Wimbledon in 1992, he was asked by the press what the team needed. He replied, two strong midfield players. Had he any in mind? "Yeah, Reg and Ronnie Kray, they'd do for me."

About a week later, his secretary said there was a letter from an HM Prison, sent from R Kray, prisoner number 73338.

"I thought fucking hell, he's going to send the boys after me for taking their name in vain."

Inside was a nice, if rather childlike, handwritten letter from Ronnie: "It was very good of you to speak well of my brother Reggie and me. I am quite willing to play for you on Saturdays if you can get me out of here. Ha ha. I would like to wish you all the best in the world."

Joe will need it at Newcastle.

Hunter Davies is a journalist, broadcaster and profilic author perhaps best known for writing about the Beatles. He is an ardent Tottenham fan and writes a regular column on football for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 06 October 2008 issue of the New Statesman, Perils of power