Man of the people

Highly popular at each of his nine former clubs, Chris Powell is now looking forward to his 23rd season in professional football. Yet he also wants to project his ideas about the game, and the changes he has witnessed, to a wider audience. Mick Collins talks to the well-travelled left-back

When Chris Powell was named in Sven-Göran Eriksson’s first England team, the London Evening Standard reacted in strident terms. “Chris Who?” it demanded across its back page, seeking a cheap and patronising laugh. So what of the various parties now?

Eriksson is the director of football at Notts County, the Standard has about 50 per cent fewer readers than it did in 2001, while Powell is chairman of the PFA, has just collected a League One winners’ medal with Leicester and is preparing for the 23rd season of a seemingly endless career. By comparison, “Chris Who?”, as he admits with a grin, has done rather well. “What’s not to be happy about? From a young age I was enthralled by the game, and I still am, whatever standard I was at, from playing for my school to playing for my country. I used to watch Tooting and Mitcham play, run home, pick up a copy of the Evening News, catch the final scores and that was my Saturday. I got picked up by Palace from school and signed by them and it’s gone on from there.”

He made his League debut on Boxing Day 1987, for Crystal Palace, but it was three years later that his career really got started, when Dave Webb brought him to Southend. Powell stayed for six seasons, before joining Derby. The fans of both clubs loved him. “Southend was the making of me as a player and as a man. Dave Webb was fantastic, a hard task master, but if you worked and put in the effort, he made you feel incredible. Jim Smith was the same at Derby. You could call them old-school managers, I suppose, but they were terrific. If you put in that effort, the fans recognise it. They know you’re not the greatest player in the world, but they just want to know that, whatever happens, you’ll run yourself into the ground. I’ve always tried to do that. I got Player of the Year at Southend and at Derby, and almost got it at West Ham. Mind you, I came second twice at Charlton, beaten by Mark Kinsella and Darren Bent. That still rankles!”

His time at The Valley was the happiest of his career – “Great club, wonderful fans, like a large, extended family.” Alan Curbishley signed him in the aftermath of Charlton’s promotion to the Premier League and, even in a season culminating in relegation, Powell offered composure, diligence and experience – all the poise of a Premier League footballer with none of the problems.

He stayed at The Valley for six and a half years and returned twice more, between stops at West Ham and Watford, before moving to Leicester. And now, within a month of his 40th birthday, he looks forward to the new season with as much enthusiasm as ever. “When I train, I honestly still feel like I’m just starting out. The introduction of science in training has helped, because I’ve taken it all on board. When I started out, players still ate steak and chips for their pre-match meal.”

If his enthusiasm hasn’t changed, aspects of the game certainly have. “There was a thing called the Tuesday club, which was a tradition – a drinking session players had before their Wednesday off. If they went out when there was training the next day though, you knew, because they’d wear bin bags under their tops to help ‘sweat it out’. Madness. I looked on as a 16-year-old and thought ‘Is this what I’m supposed to
do, then?’”

The chairmanship of the PFA has now allowed a wider audience to appreciate why the fans at Powell’s various clubs have taken to him so warmly. When he talks about the game, fans recognise a man who feels the same way as them. “I hate people describing it as a product. It’s not a product – it’s part of the culture of this country and it’s beginning to lose a bit of its soul. Take all the money and trappings out and there’s still nothing in the whole world like seeing your striker score a goal. We should never forget that.”

Powell’s enthusiasm, though, does not blind him to the modern game’s problems.

“I have concerns about the future. You can’t fail to. Look at the situation with Manchester City, for example. Once upon a time, they would have bought a player from, say, Chester, and Chester would have used that money to balance their books. Now, City don’t even look at picking up promising young players – they just pay whatever they need to in order to get a series of finished articles.

“Because of that, we’re seeing the death of clubs like Chester and that’s a disaster. Look at the banter fans have and the experience of an away day and all that it involves. Imagine if that was just taken away from you, all of a sudden, because your team ceased to exist? You can’t just pick up a new side – that team was part of you. Imagine if you didn’t have that? Unthinkable.”

But do players honestly understand that? Aren’t they getting increasingly removed from reality? “Some, yes. There’s a few that need to be a little bit more humble, if you want my honest opinion. They need to retain a relationship with supporters, because without them they’re nothing. The average wage in this country is £24,000 a year. If you’re getting £150,000 a week, that’s six years’ wages for the people who pay for the tickets and television subscriptions that make those wages possible.

“It’s not like that all through the leagues, though, by a long way. There are lads lower down playing in order to pay the bills, just like people in ordinary jobs. That gets overlooked among the hype about some of the huge salaries.”

The message from Powell the footballer, head of his professional association, is reassuringly clear, but how long will he be there? Turning 40 in September, surely his mind has to switch to a future off the pitch? “Management, eventually. That’s the aim. I’ve played at every level and it would be foolish of me to walk off and leave it all behind. It’s only right for me to see if I can become a good manager.

“And I’ve got a responsibility – the game needs more black managers, because given the number of black players, not enough get the chance at management. I saw one of my idols the other night, Keith Alexander, and I told him I wanted to do what he had done. I’d love him to know that he’s inspired and influenced someone. Nigel Pearson’s been great – he lets me sit in on all the meetings and sit in the dugout and take notes. If I’m making notes about the same things he is, then I know I’m on the right lines. As a player you’re quite singular, worrying about yourself only. As a manager you need to take a far broader view of things.”

After 23 years, his view is broader than most and, whatever their faults may be, it’s hard to imagine that the footballers of England could have chosen their leader much more wisely. His playing career may be coming to an end, but “Chris Who?” is far from finished with the game he loves.

From WSC 272 October 2009