FIERY SCOT Neil McNab left Brighton for a sizeable loss on their initial outlay and went on to be voted Manchester City’s Player of the Year twice.
No stranger to brushes with the football authorities, McNab joined Brighton in the second half of their first-ever season in the top flight.
In his autobiography, manager Alan Mullery said: “Neil McNab was a Scottish whippet, a fierce competitor in midfield who never stopped running or competing.
“I bought him halfway through the season from Bolton Wanderers and he gave us the extra edge we needed.”
The player to give way at the time was Republic of Ireland international Gerry Ryan and it would be fair to say the football writers were impressed by the tenacious Scot’s early impact.
After watching a 5-1 drubbing against Southampton from the subs bench, McNab made his debut at home to West Brom in a game that finished goalless. “McNab showed some touches of class in his home debut but scarcely as much as the home crowd expected from their £230,000 capture,” said Harold Palmer in the Sunday Express.
The News of the World’s Peter Jarman was slightly more effusive and described it as “impressive” and John Vinicombe in the Evening Argus said: “McNab, on his home debut, impressed with his industry and general involvement.”
Of his second game, a 1-1 draw away to Leeds, the Sunday People’s Keith Ray observed: “McNab looked light years from the off-key young man that Bolton sold. His prompting coupled nicely with Lawrenson’s hard work, and Ward had two chances to hit the target before he made the vital strike.”
A demonstration of his appetite came in the next game, another 1-1 draw, at home to Coventry, when he ran 25 yards to stop Peter O’Sullivan from taking a corner that he fancied for himself. He whipped the ball in and Ray Clarke thumped a header past Jim Blyth in the Coventry goal.
Gordon Smith, another Albion player who moved to Manchester City, remembered McNab’s quick wit in his autobiography, And Smith Did Score.
When it looked like Brighton were heading for relegation, Mullery, in fear of losing his job, famously threatened the players that he’d run them down in his car if that happened.
Smith recounted how the players were huddled round trying not to laugh at the astonishing outburst. “I almost fell off my chair when Neil leant over and whispered, ‘If he loses his job, he’ll no’ have a f****** car!’”
It was no laughing matter for player or club, though, when the tenacious McNab was suspended for four matches for pushing a referee. In the following season, he was up before the FA again after a skirmish with World Cup winner Alan Ball at the end of a 5-a-side tournament at the Brighton Centre.
Charged with bringing the game into disrepute, Ball was fined £100 but McNab was given a £250 fine and a two-game ban.
Manager Mike Bailey was clearly relieved and told the Daily Mail’s Brian Scovell: “Neil was expecting more but the last instance was entirely different. It was on the field of play when he touched the referee.
“We got a fair hearing. We’re not complaining. Both were guilty but the crimes were different as Neil’s part was unfortunately physical while Ball’s was verbal.”
McNab had the third highest number of appearances (44 plus two as sub) in the 1981-82 season, which saw Brighton’s highest ever finish of 13th, and all four of the goals he scored were from the penalty spot.
However, the safety-first style of play adopted by Bailey created a disconnect between players and fans. In the final home game of the season (a 1-0 defeat to Ipswich), McNab was substituted in the 62nd minute and the crowd booed him off.
The often-obtuse Vinicombe reported in the Argus: “When McNab was withdrawn, 30 minutes from time, his gestures to the crowd were capable of only one interpretation.” In the Daily Mail, McNab told Brian Scovell: “They are the worst crowd I’ve played for. When you do something good on the ball they don’t clap and if you make a mistake they give you stick.”
Worse was to follow after the row at the beginning of the 1982-83 season when Steve Foster and Michael Robinson slapped in transfer requests in protest at chairman Bamber refusing to sanction the acquisition of Charlie George, the former Arsenal, Derby and Southampton maverick, who had been on trial pre-season.
In what was supposed to have been a clear-the-air meeting, McNab let his feelings be known in no uncertain terms.
McNab still had five of six years left on his contract. They tried to offload him on loan to Newcastle, but the midfielder refused to budge. Instead, he made a bitter personal attack on the chairman, accusing him of picking the team, and slapped in his own transfer request.
McNab blasted: “The club is petty and small-minded, and players are treated disgracefully.” McNab made it clear he didn’t see his future at the club and after a few months eventually went to Leeds for a six-game spell and also to Portsmouth.
That came after Bailey had been sacked and his replacements, Jimmy Melia and George Aitken, gave the team a big shake-up, dropping McNab and adopting a more adventurous approach (which ultimately led to relegation).
Although completely out of the first team picture from early December 1982 onwards, McNab was to play one last game nearly five months later.
With Melia struggling to field a team because of injuries and suspensions, McNab got the nod for an away game at Notts County on 30 April 1983.
But he was unable to join in the FA Cup run to Wembley because he had been cup tied during his spell at Leeds. The 1-0 defeat to County was the Scot’s last ever Seagulls appearance.
Relegation led to the release of some of the high earners, and while Robinson and Gary Stevens were sold for sizeable fees, McNab was sold to Manchester City – who had been relegated with Albion – for just £35,000.
Born on 4 June 1957 in Greenock, McNab joined his local club, Greenock Morton, at an early age and made his first team debut at just 15.
He made 14 appearances for them before being snapped up for £40,000 by Tottenham Hotspur in 1974 and made his first team debut for Spurs while still only 16. A former teammate at that time, Andy Keeley said in a recent interview: “I’ll never forget how he played in a friendly match; first team v reserves. He controlled the game from start to finish. He was outstanding. He had a very good career but I never understood how he didn’t become a superstar.”
In four years at White Hart Lane, McNab played 72 matches and was selected by Scotland at under 15, under-18 and under-21 level, but never made it to the full Scotland team.
In November 1978, Bolton Wanderers paid £250,000 for him but after only 35 appearances for the Trotters, in February 1980, Mullery signed him for Brighton.
When the former Scotland and Celtic captain Billy McNeill captured McNab’s signature in the summer of 1983, he began what would be a long association with Manchester City and he turned out to be a bargain buy considering in 1986-87 and 1988-89 he was voted City’s Player of the Year.
“Combative and always willing to stick a boot in, McNab was a key figure in City’s drive to promotion on more than one occasion,” was how manchestercity-mad.co.uk described him, while mancity.com, looking back at past players of the year, said: “Like a fine wine, got better as time went on.”
Acknowledging his initial signing failed to excite the City faithful, it added: “McNab developed into a skilful, combative midfielder who became a huge crowd favourite. Not unlike Asa Hartford, McNab was a schemer who could pick a pass and kept the team’s tempo ticking over.”
McNab scored 19 goals in 261 league and cup games (plus five as sub) for City but when Mel Machin’s successors at Maine Road (caretaker Tony Book and Howard Kendall) discarded him, he continued his playing career at Tranmere Rovers who paid £125,000 to take the 33-year-old to Prenton Park.
“The combative midfielder added nous, steel and no little skill to the Rovers midfield, ending his first season in Birkenhead with two appearances at Wembley including the Leyland Daf Cup victory over Bristol Rovers,” said the Liverpool Echo.
He played 105 games for Tranmere, scoring six goals, and was part of the squad that secured promotion to English’s football’s second tier. He also earned the dubious distinction of being the first and thus far only Tranmere player to be sent off in a European game – a 2-1 win over Cosenza in the Anglo-Italian Cup.
Determined to carry on playing, McNab had an 11-game loan spell at Huddersfield Town, returned to his native Scotland to turn out for Ayr United, appeared briefly for Darlington, played 13 games in Northern Ireland for Derry City, went non-league with Witton Albion (12 games) before finally calling it a day with Long Island Rough Riders in the States.
In 1994, he returned to Maine Road as youth team coach, when his old Albion teammate, Brian Horton, was City manager, and kept the position even when the aforementioned Alan Ball replaced Horton. But eventually he lost his job during another managerial upheaval in 1997 and took up a similar position at Portsmouth, once again working with Alan Ball.
In October 2002, he finally landed a managerial position when he took the helm of League Two Exeter City. The reign was shortlived, though, and with only six wins in 26 matches (eight draws, 12 defeats) he was relieved of his duties.
McNab’s twin sons, Neil junior and Joe, who were born in Brighton, followed in their dad’s footsteps and were part of the young age group sides at Man City and Portsmouth. But after struggling to make the breakthrough, they moved to Wilmington, North Carolina, and have played for various sides in America.
Neil senior followed them to the States and in 2008 became director of coaching at Chiefs Futbol Club in Atlanta, Georgia, with Neil junior the club’s executive director.
In August 2017, it was reported Neil senior had suffered a severe stroke which left him fighting for his life.
On 2 March this year, a message was sent via freelance writer Spencer Vignes to say that McNab had finally managed to return home after five months in hospital and in rehabilitation. “He has made tremendous progress, but still has a long way to go,” his son said.