Jobi McAnuff has a lifetime of experience in football but the last few months have been something else. In April came the ecstasy of captaining Leyton Orient to a football league return. Then came a crushing low when much loved Orient boss Justin Edinburgh died aged just 49. Under that long shadow, Jobi prepared for League Two football as a player, coach and leader…
How did you develop the leadership qualities you’ve drawn on so much lately?
I started at the Wimbledon academy and it was tough. It was a really good grounding and I developed a work ethic, an appreciation. We didn’t have the luxuries a lot of other clubs had. I knew Arsenal lads and it was a different world. We had to graft, we had to travel. In terms of leadership, a lot of it is probably my dad – he is quite a leader, very forthright in his views and not afraid to speak when the time is right and not just for the sake of it. I’ve tried to have that as part of my game and to help others and lead by example.
What’s the best advice you’ve had in football?
Be yourself and be genuine – don’t try to fit into anyone else’s shoes or do things that someone else does. The managers I have enjoyed playing under have been genuine and honest.
You were nearly signed by Harry Redknapp – was that a big ‘what if?’ for you?
Yes. At that time it was crazy at Wimbledon. We were in administration. You’d get in and there was no food at the training ground, no washing powder to wash the kits – we didn’t know whether there would be a club the next day. As players we were commodities. Myself and Nigel Reo-Coker assumed the deal was done to go to Portsmouth. We’d met Harry Redknapp and shook hands on it. We got back to the training ground and the manager said he wasn’t accepting the offers because they were derisory and the administrators hadn’t consulted the football people.
You went on to great things at Reading, captaining them to the Championship title in 2012…
I achieved a lifetime goal and something I’d worked towards every day – to make it to the Premier League. You get to the age you think it might not happen, particularly losing the play-off final the year before, that gave it an extra sweetness when it finally happened. Captaining the side was the icing on the cake for me. But you don’t need an armband to be a leader. I believe the teams I’ve had the most success in, it’s not because I or someone else was a captain, it’s because a group of players take on that leadership.
Were Reading ready for the Premier League?
We just weren’t good enough. Sometimes in life you just have to hold your hands up. Top to bottom, we weren’t really organised – not managerially but as a club. Our recruitment wasn’t particularly great, and that’s not knocking the lads who came in, we were crying out for two or three recognised Premier League players. It’s an unforgiving league.
Did you enjoy mixing it in up there, despite relegation?
Yeah, but it was still a disappointment. You want to get there but you want to be competitive. You want to stay there. That’s one of my biggest regrets – not playing in the Premier League longer.
Getting Orient back into the league last season must have been another career highlight for you?
Yes, especially after how it went in my first spell here. Just to go back and play football was special but to be able to lead the boys and get the club back is an achievement that probably hasn’t quite sunk in in terms of the club’s history.
You were first signed by Orient in 2017 at the start of owner Francesco Becchetti’s disastrous reign. What vision were you sold?
It was very straightforward. The team had gone close to the Championship and they wanted two or three players with a bit more quality and experience to take them to the next level and promotion. But it couldn’t have gone any worse. Instead of promotion we were relegated to League Two. It was an incredible time in my career, I don’t think anyone would have envisioned that happening really.
What went wrong for you in that spell?
There were just real inconsistencies off the pitch. It was completely bizarre to me, things I had never experienced in my life. The chairman interfering… It ended up being a really negative place to be. There was speculation about the manager, Steve Davis, as soon as the season started, then he left and another guy got three or four games, then a director of football who had never managed before, then an Italian who couldn’t speak English. It was just things that shouldn’t be happening that had a knock-on effect and it was impossible to be consistent with everything going on – and that spread to the terraces. As newer players you get your fair share of the blame because everything was fine the year before. To be fair, the lads who were there the year before weren’t performing and neither were the newer lads, myself included. It was a really disappointing first season.
And the next year you were basically frozen out…
That was the lowest point for me professionally. It wasn’t necessarily just because of the football but people were questioning my character and that is something I will not tolerate. I have always given absolutely everything to every team I’ve played for. Whether that’s in the dressing room and places people don’t see or out on the pitch, whether I’ve played well, badly or indifferently I’ve always given everything. It was a really difficult year. I was very fortunate there were some good people who got to know my character and I owe them a great deal. I had to train with the kids, which was hard.
So, you came back to Orient and wanted to prove the doubters wrong?
In my first spell, I hadn’t been anywhere near the level I’d been at previous clubs. That was a huge disappointment to me, first and foremost. I’ve never shied away from that. So getting the opportunity to come back, I used the first experience to drive me on.
You’ve signed an extension for another year as a player/ coach – are you now more focused on coaching?
Initially I signed a year to play. I played 41 games last year. To be able to do that at my age in a demanding league was massive. I don’t want to make up the numbers. The coaching thing came off the back of Justin passing away. We’d had conversations and Justin was keen for it to happen. Obviously it has been brought forward a little bit.
You also played 32 times for Jamaica – how was that experience for you?
Brilliant! I played in some brilliant tournaments with fantastic players. It was a real good mix of homegrown Jamaican lads and six or seven of us from over here. We spent a lot of time travelling together, bouncing between Jamaica, US, Central America, Costa Rica. The passion for the game over there is incredible. Any match with Mexico involved is an atmosphere that is second to none – 80,000 Mexicans is something to behold!
How did the football contrast with here?
You’re going to a place where the resources and coaching abilities are nothing like here. We wanted to make an impact on that and that’s something I’m looking to revisit, whether it’s coaching or mentoring. There’s so much potential there, a lot of it is about having good people driving it. I’d like to go back and work in that area.
In 2012 you said players should have a wage cap – do youmstill believe that?
Yeah. We have to be careful we don’t price real fans out of football. If clubs are generating millions from one player, then of course the player should get a slice of that – you carve that up on the commercial side. In terms of playing football, the big boys are always going to earn that whether it’s through sponsorship or commercial means. When you come down the leagues and youth academies some of the figures are ridiculous. We have to be careful we’re not stunting the players’ ambition and drive because of the kind of money we’re throwing at them.
Is it about delayed rewards?
Possibly. It shouldn’t be about money at that [youth football] stage. Money will come with success. It should be more about what’s right, their career plan at the club, am I good enough and am I willing to do what is necessary to get into the first team? I haven’t got a business plan for all this but it’s something that can be looked at.
Justin Edinburgh’s legacy
When Leyton Orient clinched a return to the football league last season, the celebrations were jubilant – and tragically short-lived.
Leyton Orient manager Justin Edinburgh suffered a cardiac arrest then died on 8 June, weeks after guiding the club to League Two. The contrast in emotions for Justin’s family, first and foremost, but also everyone involved with Orient could hardly have been more extreme.
“It’s only just now I’m starting to process it and trying to get an understanding of what happened,” says Jobi. “It was like a sledgehammer. The fact we were on such a high and Justin was such as big part of that, his character, his energy… He was a driving force
“Justin was behind everything good at the club and that’s why it would be difficult to lose him at any time. But coming off the elation of a promotion, you’re at a peak. It’s as high as I’ve been. Then to go as low as I’ve been…
“The first weekend it was announced was horrific, I just wanted to lock myself away and pretend it didn’t happen. But it does help to get out there and talk about it, to let that emotion out.
"Same at the funeral and memorial service – not bottling things up, facing things head on. He’s someone I have huge respect for. He treated you as a human first, being a footballer was secondary. He knew if he got you on board and was honest with you, you’d go to war for him, which we did.
“You want to remember the good times and celebrate them. I’m fortunate I had them with him. I know he was in a really good place. I’ll look back on it and be glad I was part of that part of his life.”