DAVID PLEAT was just a couple of years into his managerial career when Sheffield Wednesday and Jack Charlton came to Luton Town, but one particular memory still makes him chuckle today.
“I had met Jack at Lilleshall, but didn’t really know him that well,” explains the 73-year-old to The Yorkshire Post ahead of tonight’s FA Cup third-round replay between two of his former clubs.
The place needed such a clear out. The biggest problem I had was players who had enjoyed great careers not accepting that time was catching up.David Pleat on taking charge of Sheffield Wednesday
“So, I went looking for him after the Wednesday team bus had arrived, primarily to invite him in for a drink after the game.
“I looked everywhere, but there was no sign of him until I walked into the boardroom and there he was, enjoying a drink.
“I hadn’t faced that many managers by that stage of my career, but it was unusual for the opposition manager to have a drink beforehand. I said this to Jack while welcoming him to the club.
“I still laugh at his reply today. ‘When you have managed this team for as long as I have you like to watch them with a nice glaze’.”
Kenilworth Road, barely changed since those heady days in the early Eighties when Pleat led the Hatters into the top flight, will no doubt be reverberating to the sound of clinking glasses again tonight if the League One side can prevail over Wednesday.
A trip to Chelsea and a substantial six-figure cash windfall awaits the victors in a tie that produced a hard-fought goalless encounter in the Steel City 10 days ago.
For Pleat, the tie brings together two clubs who book-ended a career in full-time management that also featured spells at Tottenham Hotspur and Leicester City. His stint at Hillsborough amounted to two-and-a-half years, ending in November, 1997.
“The job tempted me from the moment it was mentioned,” recalls Pleat, who later went on to become director of football at White Hart Lane and is now a hugely respected pundit on BBC Radio Five Live.
“But the place needed such a clearout. The biggest problem I had was players who had enjoyed great careers not accepting that time was catching up.
“Lads like Chris Woods, Des Walker, Mark Bright, John Sheridan, particularly David Hirst and Chris Waddle. All had been fine players and enjoyed a lot of success, but they weren’t what they were. We needed to move on.
“My first year was a nightmare (Wednesday finished 15th in 1995-96). But then we gradually started to introduce new lads to the team, the likes of Peter Atherton, Andy Booth, Ritchie Humphreys and Guy Whittingham.
“We started well the following season, won the first few games, had a decent Cup run (to the quarter-finals) and finished seventh.
“It could have been higher, too, as we drew on the final day against Liverpool, which helped neither me nor Roy Evans. A win and we could have finished fifth.”
Pleat was gone four months into the following season, a 6-1 defeat at Manchester United when Benito Carbone and Paolo Di Canio – both brought to Hillsborough on his watch – were substituted at half-time proving to be the final act of his stay in South Yorkshire.
Wednesday went on to finish 16th under Ron Atkinson, back at the club for a second spell, but a decline that would bring relegation in 2000 was already well under way.
Luton, too, suffered horribly in the wake of Pleat calling time on his second spell in charge at Kenilworth Road in 1995.
Their fall, however, would be much more dramatic than that of the Owls, whose nadir came with two spells in League One. Luton lost their league status after being docked points for financial mismanagement and it is only in recent years that the club have recovered.
Nathan Jones, the architect of that revival from the dugout, left last week to take charge of Stoke City and Pleat believes how the Hatters deal with that upset will be key tonight.
“The tie will be interesting,” he says. “There is not the biggest distance between the two clubs in terms of league places. If anything maybe Luton are slight favourites.
“A lot will depend on the mood. I signed Nathan as a player from Merthyr Tydfil (in 1995). He did a fantastic job.
“The prize in the next round is huge, too. The thing with Chelsea is they get big crowds in the Cup, regardless of the opposition.
“There will be 40,000 there, whether it is Luton or Sheffield Wednesday. That is a big prize financially. Then there is the excitement that comes with being in the fourth round and hoping to go further.”
If Luton do beat the Owls tonight there will be another trip down memory lane for Pleat in the next round, Chelsea having prevailed in the second of his FA Cup semi-finals when at the helm of the Bedfordshire club.
“Playing the semi- at Wembley did not help us at all,” he recalls about that 1994 meeting with the Blues in the shadow of the old Twin Towers.
“I had a team who treated it like the final, not realising there was still work to do.
“Such a disappointment. I maintain even today that if the semi- had been at Hillsborough or Villa Park we would have gone through. I should also have played John Hartson and not Kerry Dixon, who was a Chelsea hero.
“Losing the first semi-final against Everton in 1985 after extra-time was a big blow, too. I would have loved to win the Cup, but it just was not meant to be.”