An Interview with Huddersfield's First England International, Bob McNab
Over the years, 59 Huddersfield born players have worn the famous blue and white stripes. No. 19 on that list was also one of three to have played for England. Robert ‘Bob’ McNab became the first to do so in 1968, making his debut against Romania in Bucharest.
From Rawthorpe to Leeds Road
McNab was born in Huddersfield on July 20th, 1943, and grew up on Rawthorpe Lane, just a stone’s throw from Leeds Road. He attended Rawthorpe Secondary Modern where his headmaster once told him, “I should have an automatic caning machine for you!”
Despite his subsequent career in football, McNab also followed rugby as a youth:
“I was a rugby fan and followed Fartown. I remember the Henderson and Cooper. I also liked football but couldn’t afford to get in so me and a few mates would sit on the banking. They’d open the gates 10 minutes before a game, so we’d sneak in and go and stand on the terrace.”
McNab had a very humble upbringing:
“Ours was the end corporation house before you got to the private houses. There was a 5-foot wall and I’d be pinging balls at it all the time”.
However, following a nasty accident as a child, McNab’s career was very nearly over before it had even started:
“We would play on the construction site at the school, while it was being built. I remember once getting a rusty nail straight through my knee. I spent two weeks in hospital. Penicillin saved my leg.”
McNab played football at school, captaining the school team, but despite his talents as a footballer, he was never picked up by Town. Instead, his first introduction to professional football was a short spell at Blackpool:
“I thought I might scouted up by Town, but I never heard anything. I was noticed by a chap called Jack Jackson, who had the post office at Salendine Nook. He was also a Blackpool scout. I remember one day we picked up Jimmy Greenhoff and we went to Blackpool.”
Blackpool had a certain Stanley Matthews playing for them at the time. Matthews was every schoolboy’s hero, though was coming to the end of his time at the club, having been there since 1947.
“Stanley Matthews was my hero and I remember he had these continental boots and I just wanted to see them.”
Blackpool were impressed and keen to sign McNab:
“I was offered a part-time contract, but my Dad wanted me to finish my apprenticeship at JW Wimpenny. It made sense really because in those days football was different. If you’d paid for your house by the end of your career you’d had a good one.”
McNab was a hard worker even in his early youth:
“I was the richest kid in Moldgreen! I was delivering groceries on one of those bikes and I would get tips. I was on £4.50 a week when I left school and I’d also clean a bus every Sunday. When I think back, it was pretty clever. This lad would sell vegetables door-to-door from the back of this bus. I thought it was a good idea and I’d clean it every Sunday for 7/6. I was on £2 and two pence for my joinery apprenticeship. I was going to go down the pit for £6.50 but my mother wouldn’t let me.”
McNab first came to the attention of Town after he played at Leeds Road in a local final in 1962:
“I was playing for Moldgreen CYC and played in a final at Leeds Road. We won 3-2 and I got two goals. I went and played in the youth side at Town, in the Northern Intermediate League. Vic Metcalfe was the coach and Brian Gibson would come along occasionally.”
Although he found it hard to fit in to begin with, McNab soon became one of the lads:
“I remember when I joined Town and I got murdered in my first game. I sat on my own on the bus, but I learnt a lesson that day. I wasn’t a cards man, but I ended up playing cards that day and I lost. After that they were all friends with me. I was once 12th man against Newcastle United and it was really foggy. Ken Turner couldn’t get in—he was stuck in fog—so I played, and I never gave their winger a kick. I had a great game and from then on was one of the lads.”
McNab still had to split his time between a more traditional career, his education, and football:
“I worked as an apprentice carpenter for 46 and a half hours a week, trained with Town twice a week and went to college three nights a week. We had to work four hours on a Saturday so I would stay later through the week to work it off.”
At college, he eventually passed his City & Guilds qualification.
After numerous games in the Northern Intermediate League and the Central League, where he had played in midfield, before settling at full-back after feeling at home there, McNab’s debut finally came against Leeds United in October 1963, where he played at left-back.
When he was on the fringes of the first team, the likes of John Coddington and Mick Meagan were stalwarts of the Town defence:
“John Coddington and Mick Meagan were better than Terry Neil and Ian Ure. Coddy was a good player. He could have played in the Premier League. And he could take a penalty. He would hit the left side of the stanchion all the time. Even when they knew he was going there, he’d still score. He would practise them and always get 10 out of 10.”
McNab also has good memories of some of his other teammates, including Chris Balderstone, though he recalls how he was sometimes a target for the boo-boys:
“I loved Chris Balderstone, but the crowd used to hammer him. I remember one game we were playing, and Les Massie wasn’t fit, so the announcement went up, ‘Les Massie will be replaced by No.10 Chris Balderstone’, and they booed him! He was a really good lad and I don’t think they realised the harm they did sometimes. Allan Gilliver and John Rudge were also great lads and despite all the time Rudgey spent in football, I never bumped into him in all those years.”
He also recalls going away with Mick O’Grady after he’d made his England debut and feeling like he was in the presence of a star:
“I once went to Jersey with Mick for 6 weeks. He was an England international then and I felt like I was beneath him at the time because he’d played for England. Some years ago, when I was back in Huddersfield, I had a few drinks with Mick, Les Massie and Ray Wilson.”
Old School Coaching Methods in the First Team
Sadly, McNab’s experiences with some of the Town coaching staff of the time weren’t the best. His first manager was Eddie Boot, who had been at the club since 1937 having been a player for 15 years and the reserve team manager. He finally became manager in 1959 following Bill Shankly’s departure.
“In those days, there was no coaching or advice, they just used to give you abuse. Although Eddie never swore, it was always ‘flipping, fluffing, flinking’.”
During his early days at the club, McNab suffered from cartilage problems and spent around 15 months out injured:
“I did my cartilage and Eddie Boot just slaughtered me. My knee was so full of fluid that I couldn’t bend my leg. They put me under the heat lamp, which is the worst thing you could do with fluid. The medical side of things was useless. This was on the Monday and by the Wednesday I was having surgery. I was supposed to do my rehabilitation but when I came to Town, I had to do a three-mile run and my leg blew up again. They ended up taking my cartilage out in the end.”
McNab’s memories of Tom Johnston are just as negative:
“It wasn’t much better with Johnston. He had a sports shop, so we’d train in rugby gear. I presume it was stuff he couldn’t get rid of in his shop! We’d be playing with size 4 leather balls, and we’d ask if we could play 5-a-side. ‘No!’ he’d say.”
However, once the former Manchester United player Ian Greaves arrived at the club as a coach in mid-1964, things changed for McNab:
“Ian Greaves came in and was a breath of fresh air. He said to me, ‘You’re Bob McNab; I’ve heard you’re a good player’, and I said, ‘You must have a good memory then!’ as I hadn’t played for about a year! He asked me to come in and work with him early in the morning before everyone else had turned up and within three weeks, I was back in the first team. I played against Swindon and Mike Summerbee slaughtered me but it motivated me to get fit.”
McNab cannot speak highly enough of Ian Greaves’ influence on his career:
“Greaves saved my career. I was going nowhere before he arrived. When he arrived, it was the first time anyone had ever spoken about tactics. Eddie Boot once said to Ray Wilson “Don’t come here with those fancy ideas!” With Ian Greaves, it wasn’t just getting my knee right. I cannot emphasise how good he was.”
Following the resignation of Eddie Boot in September 1964, Ian Greaves took over as caretaker manager for a period of 13 games, of which McNab played four. Eventually, the York City manager Tom Johnston was appointed as Boot’s permanent successor in October, with the club sitting in 20th position.
McNab eventually got himself fit again and broke back into the side in January 1965, playing in the unfamiliar position of outside-left. He then switched to right-back and played 15 consecutive games, helping Johnston achieve safety easily. Town finished 9th in Division Two, ending the season with just two losses in their last 17 games.
The following season, 1965-66, is still often talked about as a missed opportunity in the club’s history. Town had lost just three of their 22 games and were top of the table at Christmas.
“We played Coventry and beat them 3-0 and we were top of the league”, McNab remembers. “I thought, we’re up here, we just need another forward, but we never improved the squad and I think that said everything.”
Town continued to flirt with 1st and 2nd throughout much of the season and still topped the table with three games to go. Sadly, following a draw with Cardiff City and losses to Carlisle United and Coventry City, Town ended up finishing 4th, missing out on promotion by just three points.
By now, McNab was well established in the side, with only him and John Oldfield playing all 42 games of the season. He had become the club’s most valuable player. Still, just months into the 1966-67 season, his Town career ended on a sour note:
“I never missed a game. I played 62 consecutive games and I knew that the 1st team were on £35 basic. I was on £25 plus £10 appearance money. My new contract offer came through and it was £25 with £10 appearance money. I was offended, so I went home and wrote a transfer request. This was at 2pm and by 4pm, it was in the Examiner and the club had said my demands were ridiculous! I went to see Johnston and he said, ‘You’re off to see Bill Shankly tomorrow at 9:30, then you’re off to see Bertie Mee at Arsenal afterwards. We’ve accepted bids from both of them so it’s up to you’. And then he said, ‘And don’t come back here looking for money’. I didn’t want more money, I just wanted to play!”
Learning from Micky Meagan at Arsenal
The talks with Shankly didn’t go well and McNab ended up signing for Arsenal for a fee of £50,000, a record for a full-back at that time. He went straight into the side, making his debut against Leeds United on October 15th 1966, the first of 365 matches for the side. He soon made the left-back position his own, becoming one of the best full-backs in the country.
In his early days at Arsenal, the club adopted a man-to-man marking system:
“Dave Sexton had us going man-for-man—it was bloody nonsense! I remember once running down the line against Coventry, I crossed the ball and then had to chase my man all the way back to the opposite line and tackled him outside the box.”
Eventually, the man-to-man approach was dropped, partly because of McNab’s ability to control the defence—an ability he credits to Mick Meagan:
“I learned everything from Micky Meagan. He couldn’t run, he couldn’t jump, but nobody ever beat him. When we stopped playing man-for-man at Arsenal, I heard that Bertie Mee had said the only reason he’d stopped it was because I could look after everything at the back. I controlled the defence. Micky never told me anything. I just copied him.”
Capped by England
Just two years after his Arsenal debut, McNab became the first Huddersfield born player to receive a full England cap when he played in an away friendly against Romania in November 1968. He would go on to win a total of four caps, with his other three games coming against Bulgaria, Romania again (both at Wembley), and a Home Championship tie against Northern Ireland in Belfast in 1969.
Along with those caps, he would be involved on a further four occasions. He was a substitute for the Wales and Scotland games in the same Home Championships and was an unused sub against Greece at Wembley in April 1971. He was also part of the provisional squad for the 1970 World Cup in Mexico, but didn’t make the final cut:
“Alf Ramsey picked Terry Cooper in front of me for the World Cup. In the quarter-final, they ended up bringing Bobby Charlton off at 2-0 and brought Norman Hunter on to help Terry, but in the last 20 minutes he was run ragged. Alf never liked me, and I never liked him. I think I was fitter getting on the plane than I was after 6 weeks in the training! The training wasn’t good. We were still having a cup of tea at half time! I went round the world a few times with England. As Alf’s staff were all from Middlesbrough, they were so far behind what we were doing in London. This is why I’d struggled initially in London as they were so far in front.”
He ended up working as a pundit for ITV’s coverage of the World Cup where he worked alongside Brian Moore, who hosted, and Jimmy Hill, Malcolm Allison, Derek Dougan and Pat Crerand. The usual panel of pundits that are seen during every live football match these days originated here.
In and amongst his England duties, McNab had a very successful time at Arsenal. Although he was on the losing side in the 1969 League Cup Final, he was part of the Inter-Cities Fairs Cup winning side in 1970. He also played 62 out of 64 games in Arsenal’s double-winning season of 1970-71, where they triumphed in both the First Division and the F.A. Cup. Incidentally, Arsenal only lost six league matches in that season, one of which came against Town.
His time in London had brought with it some culture shocks:
“When I was at Arsenal, I met royalty, the Queen, politicians, gangsters! I never met the Krays, but the hotel I was staying in when I first went down there was where they would have dinner parties every Friday.”
Adventures in North America (and Portsmouth)
Following struggles with injury, McNab left Highbury in 1975 and after a short spell with Wolves, he went to America to play for San Antonio Thunder in 1976. Here, he was a teammate of Bobby Moore.
“I became friends with Mooro. My friends were his friends and we went to play in America, where we played against Pele.”
While over there, McNab (along with Moore and Pele) was picked for Team America in the 1976 U.S.A. Bicentennial Cup Tournament, which was played to celebrate the 200th anniversary of the U.S.A.’s Declaration of Independence. Team America would take on Italy, England and Brazil in the tournament.
“We were all picked for that, though I didn’t end up playing in it. Bobby Moore gave me a signed poster from Pele!”
Following a short spell at Barnet in 1977, McNab ended up at Vancouver Whitecaps in 1978 as a coach, helping the club win the treble. In Canada, he met with former Town teammates Peter Dinsdale and John Milner, who were both working in real estate at the time. Dinsdale even helped him buy a house:
“John Milner and Peter Dinsdale were great friends of mine. Peter helped me at Town. I didn’t realise how quickly I could run until we were doing the running one day and he was at the front. And you couldn’t pass Peter on the run! I pulled up level with him and he just said ‘Don’t stay with me, you can run, get running! Don’t ever let anyone beat you!’. And after that I learned not to be so self-conscious.”
While his career was winding down towards the end of the decade, McNab went on to run a pub, The Bull in Tottenham, and also a couple of betting shops. He returned to the US to coach the indoor side Tacoma Stars between 1983 and 1986.
Following his career in football, McNab became a successful property developer in the US. He briefly return to the game in 1994 to coach the San Jose Grizzlies, but they folded in 1995. One more flirtation with the game followed in 1999, when he was involved in a consortium led by Milan Mandaric that took over Portsmouth.
After the sacking of Alan Ball in December 1999, McNab was briefly appointed as the club’s caretaker manager, taking charge for five games before Tony Pulis was appointed in January 2000. Following this, he returned to the US and has not been involved in football since. He continued as a property developer but is now retired, with various grandchildren to dote on.
McNab occasionally returns to England and the place of his birth:
“I was in Huddersfield about 20 years ago and was driving round. I went up to Rawthorpe and had a look through the window of the school. I could see that they had this Roll of Honour on the wall and I thought, I might have a chance here, first capped England international from Huddersfield. I looked and I could see Nancy Smith had won the knitting, and this team had come fourth in a competition and...I wasn’t even on it.”
Although his old school might not recognise it, he will always have the honour of being the first England international to be born in Huddersfield, and despite living much of his life away from the town, he’s never lost his Yorkshire accent.
Bob McNab is now living in retirement in Los Angeles, California with his wife, Barbara. He celebrated his 78th birthday last week.