There or thereabouts

When Keith Alexander passed away on March 3, 2010, football lost one of its nice guys. Rob Bradley pays tribute to a true gentleman of the game

From 2000 to 2005 I was chair of Lincoln City Supporters Trust and chairman of the club. For three of those years Keith Alexander was our manager and I got to know him well. Keith liked his sayings. We liked them too. They lifted us when the finances were bad or when we were worried about the results. “We’ll be there or thereabouts,” was his favourite. And our favourite too because it reassured us when the going had got tough. Or had got even tougher.

“They’ve ruined my weekend, so I’ll ruin theirs,” was another Keith-ism, as he climbed into the team coach after an away defeat, although there weren’t too many of those. Minutes earlier, he’d told the players they had to come in for training the next day, Sunday. Then, a couple of hours later, the first player to be dropped off at a services somewhere would walk down the aisle past him and sheepishly ask what time in the morning. He’d look up, smiling, and say: “Get off home, I’ll see you next week.”

That’s why the players responded. They loved him. They played out of their skins for him. Many of them had come from non-League and he was the only manager who knew they had something, and they ran through a wall to prove it, game after game. The fans loved him too. The club had nearly gone under, was still on its uppers and everyone expected a relegation fight. But we saw these giant centre-halves winning headers in both penalty areas, two shaven-headed full-backs bombing down each wing terrorising their counterparts and a diminutive ex-postman blasting the ball into the net from all angles.

Keith created a team costing peanuts that beat bigger and better clubs and inspired our fans to believe that surviving needn’t be the only ambition. And it culminated with fireworks and razzmatazz as Keith led them out at the Millennium Stadium and there wasn’t a dry eye in the house.

Managers at the highest level are given millions to spend, even if their club hasn’t got it, and are held up as icons when success is defined as not failing. Lower down the football ladder, most managers have to put together squads of players for a modest sum and Keith often found himself with a budget of far less than that. With assistant Gary Simpson by his side as always, he would seek out and recruit players for hundreds not thousands. And he wouldn’t just attract them into his squad, he’d mould them into a team, and then make sure they were all happy in their work.

He’d listen to the young lad living in digs a long way from home who’d spent all his meagre wages well before payday and give him a sub. He’d give a player with a long-term injury an extended deal because he wouldn’t want him at home with his wife and kids worrying about what was going to happen in the future. Every gesture to each player told the whole squad they’d got a great gaffer and they knew they would never want to let him down.

Four successive play-offs meant that the club paid off its debts and the average gate grew each year. Then Keith became one of a rare breed of Lincoln City managers when his departure came down to his decision and not the board’s. His roles since then had been accepted with the condition that he still lived near Lincoln for the sake of his children. That was best for them and pretty good for Imps fans too because we would bump into him and he’d tell us how he was getting on. We wouldn’t support the team he managed any more but after what he’d done for us, and after his serious illness in 2003, we still wholeheartedly supported him.

Being nice isn’t generally recognised by those in the know as a quality that gets you places in the football industry. Being a bit rude or not stopping for a chat is often excused because of pressure or lack of time. Keith Alexander was a gentleman and found time for everyone. He connected with the people at every club he was with and supporters respected him and loved him for it. Beyond that he went about his local community winning people over. Not intentionally but naturally, just by being himself. By being nice.

Now he’s gone and we’ll never see him patrolling the touchline in those yellow socks again. All we’ll have is memories but, as long as there’s a Lincoln City, which there will be thanks to him, those memories will always be there. Or, of course, there or thereabouts. Rest in peace, Keith Alexander.

From WSC 278 April 2010