When word spread that Martin Allen had been diving into the English Channel with his new charges at Gillingham, it seemed like "Mad Dog" was up to his old tricks again. Nearly a decade after his management techniques came to notice with a plunge into an icy river near Darlington, he was making his players do it as well.
What else, one wondered, was Allen inflicting on his League Two squad? This is the manager who issued Brentford players with a booklet detailing fines for such misdemeanours as ordering room service after 9pm (£50), failing to wear a tie and buttoned collar on match day (£20) and taking newspapers into the medical room (£5). The 2012 Mad Dog is, though, a different animal, more of a pussycat and not the big one allegedly roaming Essex. He is a living embodiment of the Football Association coaching department's progression from teaching a "command" style approach to one aimed at giving players "ownership" of a session. It looks to be working: the Gills have won all four matches this season to go joint-top of League Two with Oxford United and be, in Allen's eyes, favourites to defeat Championship club Middlesbrough at Priestfield in the second round of the Capital One Cup tonight.
Allen, who joined Gillingham last month, said yesterday: "We had a policy from day one that no one – including myself – would criticise anybody. The players have made all the rules – in fact, there are no rules. They wanted to be treated like adults. There were signs in the cafeteria: 'Please don't eat on the sofas.' I took them down and said: 'I'll tell them once and they won't do it again.' They haven't.
"In the dressing rooms there were all these signs – 'Don't clean your boots in the showers' and stuff. It was like a prison camp. They've gone. We've said to the players: 'If you are late you'll pay a tenner, if you're continually late we'll have a chat and find out why.'
"I also said: 'I don't want to know what we are doing that's good, but if you have a problem or are unhappy come and tell me.' Before our first game I showed them the DVD of the first four minutes of our friendly with Watford then left them with the remote control, a flip-chart, paper and pens. We gave the players the ownership and got them to think about what they can do, what we can do better. They filled out the chart with what they thought was wrong in that four minutes. Then I sat down with the coaches to put some sessions on to work on that."
It obviously worked as Gillingham won that match, against Bristol City at Ashton Gate, to earn tonight's tie. For a club that have missed the play-offs by one place in two seasons their league start is even more significant. "The players have been fantastic," Allen said. "Normally I get hired to change the culture, hit hard, sack people, but there was not too much wrong here."
Allen is seen, not entirely to his liking, as a lower-league, Red Adair-style firefighter, notably at Barnet, who account for three of his nine jobs in 10 years. Aside from four matches in the Championship at Leicester City, where he fell out with owner Milan Mandaric (probably on who chose new signings), a player who spent most of his career in the top flight with QPR and West Ham has managed off-Broadway.
He wants and believes he can manage higher. The 47-year-old has taken the Uefa Pro Licence and the League Managers Association's Warwick University qualification, and regularly attends courses such as Leaders in Football. He has run coaching schools, an initiative to get rejected young players back into football, and been to Botswana for the charity Coaching For Hope. Contrary to his image (which arose when he shaved his head at West Ham when his son had alopecia) Allen's is a restless, enquiring mind.
"I have obviously done things wrong in the past but I have tried to adapt," he said. "It is not managing the players and the staff, it is managing myself, maintaining a good relationship with the chairman, the director of football, not letting frustration get in the way. It's about building better communication and being more patient with people. Perhaps I have challenged too many bosses, that's probably why I am not working at the top level.
"I have changed a lot, society has changed. When we were growing up head teachers could give you a stick or a slipper. The generation growing up now, 16-18-year-olds, have not been shouted at, not been disciplined. Management methods have had to change. I have undertaken courses to look at leadership, being more open-minded. It wasn't like that for me ... It was 'This way or the highway'. An infamous saying of mine was FIFO – Fit In or … Off. Not any more."
What about the swimming? "We would run along the beach at half-seven in the morning then I'd lead everybody into the waves. Three of them couldn't swim, but the others supported and encouraged them. It helped bond everyone. We did three sessions a day with curfews at night and no alcohol. For some reason the players loved it. I heard one say it was the hardest pre-season he has ever done, but he's never laughed so much in all his career. We couldn't have had a better compliment."
The target is to end the season on the beach as well. Allen said: "The chairman [Paul Scally] has promised everyone a trip to Benidorm if we go up. The cheapest two-star hotel, cheapest 4am flight. We will have a great time. I don't want to go to Vegas – it's bring on Benidorm."