Gary McAllister has been asked to come up with some ideas to revive Coventry on a zero budget. Neville Hadsley is impressed so far, but not quite won over
When Gary McAllister walked into the job of player-manager at Highfield Road, he came with plenty of baggage from his last stint with the Sky Blues – and acquired a few awkward bits of hand-luggage left behind by his immediate predecessors too. His time as a player had not been an unalloyed success: two mediocre seasons (the rest of the team arguably as much at fault as he); another spent injured – no crime there, but hardly a plus point; and a final season in which, thanks bizarrely to a partnership with Carlton Palmer, he performed so brilliantly that he earned himself a free transfer to Liverpool.
McAllister is a top class player, and everyone has the right to consider what’s best for their career. But the feeling that somehow we had not got real value for the squillions Big Ron had invested in him (both in the transfer fee and his wages) was difficult to lose. So when he came back, not only did McAllister have to contend with that, he also had to pick up the tab from every other player-manager we had ever had – most notably the risible Terry Butcher – and every great-player-but-not-a-great-manager we ever had, too. His two immediate predecessors, Gordon Strachan and Roland Nilsson, fell into that category.
Nevertheless his welcome from the supporters was warm. Many recognised that not only were we getting a superb player for nothing, but also a man of great footballing knowledge and integrity – a man who did the right thing and had shown total dedication throughout his career. These factors sat well on the logical part of the brain. The non-logical parts of mine were less generous. Not another dour Scot, I thought. Not another manager with no experience. Here we go again.
Football management is an astounding career. Apart perhaps from prime minister, there is no other profession like it. In what other career could you get the job with no experience whatsoever? Are bus drivers just told to start driving the No 36 on their first day? Do gas fitters just turn up at the door of their first customer and trust to luck? But in football, chairman seem to say: “Hey, you were a decent player, you seem a reasonable chap, you have the job.” And away we go. A club might do that once and learn. To do it twice without success and then try it a third time may strike some as folly.
That opinion, I suspect, was not typical among Sky Blues supporters when McAllister arrived. His footballing reputation and saintly glow made him a popular appointment. All previous sins, like his going to Liverpool just when he was getting good, were forgiven and our sins, like booing him that time at West Ham, were absolved too. McAllister’s magnanimity, like when he refused to celebrate after scoring for Liverpool against us, was presented as undeniable evidence that here was a decent chap. The trouble is, I thought Gordon Strachan was a decent chap. Still do.
McAllister promised a new regime and so far he has delivered. Slackers were out. Young, hungry talent was in. Players would get their chance, he said, and so far they have – England Under-19 defender Calum Davenport and strikers Gary McSheffrey and Jay Bothroyd, for example. Unlike his predecessor but one, who clung to failures like Linus clutching his security blanket, he has proved willing to wield the axe. All this increased his standing among the fans.
And the fact that someone of McAllister’s stature was even prepared to take on the job, given our precarious financial state, also impressed us. McAllister was told he would lose his big stars and had no money – not the usual “no money”, meaning a bit here and there, but the literal nil pounds and nil pence – to replace them. And he still took the job. That’s courage. But while McAllister has been a model professional boss and player so far, there is a distant, reserved aspect about him which keeps feelings between himself and the supporters mutually warm rather than passionate.
Although there have been a few half-hearted attempts, the Coventry City fans are yet to break into a sustained chorus of “Gary McAllister’s sky blue army”. If the relationship were a marriage, the word convenience would be not far off. McAllister knows that success here would put in the frame for top job – Liverpool, perhaps, or Leeds.
For our part, if nothing else, we have his services on the pitch. And if McAllister can just steer us clear of more trouble while the club pulls itself off the precipice, it would probably be enough to earn our eternal gratitude.
From WSC 189 November 2002. What was happening this month