Paul Gascoigne becoming manager of Kettring sounds like an April Fools joke or a publicity stunt, but, as Toby Skinner reports, the man behind the appointment means business

A month into Paul Gascoigne’s first spell as a manager, things are looking rosy at non-League Kettering Town. The team have been solid since Gazza took charge and have lost only once in the Conference North. The FA Cup defeat to Stevenage saw this century’s highest attendance at Rockingham Road – almost 4,500, compared to the usual 800 or so – and was followed by the slightly over-awed players receiving new boots and the team getting new balls.

According to the new chairman, 27-year-old business tycoon Imraan Ladak, the long-term plans are in place to turn Kettering’s postmen and Argos workers into full-time professionals who will take the club into the Football League. But while the cash has been rolling in, the same niggling questions remain: will Gazza stay and, if he does, will he really be anything more than a marketing tool at his new club?

Most of us know about the brevity of his stays at Boston United, China’s Gansu Tianma and Portugal’s Algarve United. At Boston, in Gascoigne’s only other English coaching role, he says he was simply expected to do book signings and look pretty for the cameras. According to Ladak and his manager, things will be different at Kettering, but the jury is still out. When Gazza called up his players after being unveiled in October, half of them laughed in disbelief and put the phone down on him. He then missed his first training session because of “prior engagements” in London.

The memory of Gazza’s inauspicious start has not been entirely erased by a run of good results in the Conference North. In the dugout, it has seemed as if new first-team coach Paul Davis has been dictating the play, not the manager. Then there was the outburst at Alfreton, where the hitherto subdued Gazza started to show that he might be unable to live up to his new role as Paul Gascoigne, serious football manager. After the referee called the game off because of heavy rain, he threw a tantrum, dismissing the decision as “bollocks”. He is then said to have marched his players on to the team bus, given them £50 and a pack of cards each, and ordered them to gamble their way home. The old Gazza, it seemed, was showing signs of peeping out from behind his new serious self.

Of course, there are benefits of bringing in an England legend to such a footballing backwater. But all the benefits – the big crowds, the media piling into the tiny press box – will only mean anything if Gazza stays and, just as importantly, shows that he has what it takes to be a manager. William Hill offered 6-1 on a walkout by Christmas, prompting the new boss to tell his friends to put money on him staying. But his colourful past is an inescapable fact and Ladak’s plans to take Kettering into the League will not look as credible without his boyhood hero on board.

It would not be the first time that a clever economic ploy has failed at Kettering. In 1976, manager Derek Dougan looked at the practice of continental clubs such as Bayern Munich putting sponsors on shirts and did a deal with Kettering Tyres. Dougan refused to be defeated by the subsequent FA ban and sent his players out with “Kettering T” on their shirts, only to be foiled again by a complete ban on slogans. When some Football League allies forced the FA into allowing shirt sponsorship, Kettering couldn’t find a sponsor; Derby made history with their Saab shirts.

Gazza’s appointment could be read as the latest in a line of Del Boy-esque plots to make fast money – their most famous manager Ron Atkinson once sold an underperforming player for a lawnmower – and however well planned the journey to the Football League is, there is still a very real potential for pitfalls.

If Gazza does walk out, fans will wonder whether it was wise to get rid of the previous manager, Kevin Wilson, and chairman Peter Mallinger, both of whom were highly respected. In the place of the long-serving Mallinger, who had been vice-chairman at Newcastle United, is a 27-year-old with no experience of running a football club who, before offering him a job, had only met Gazza when he was asking for an autograph. Wilson, meanwhile, has been pushed out by one of the game’s most unpredictable characters, likewise with no experience of his current role.

None of this is to say that either Ladak or Gascoigne will fail. In the wealthy Milton Keynes businessman and the impossibly famous England star, Kettering have a duo with the potential to take them places that Mallinger and Wilson could not. But, like most exciting opportunities, there remains a risk that the whole enterprise could fail before it has even started.

From WSC 227 January 2006. What was happening this month

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