Keith Alexander: Footballer who became a role model for black managers

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The Independent Online

If there was a certain symmetry about the football career of Keith Alexander, in that his first club as a player, Notts County, was also the scene of his last match as a manager, there was nothing neat or clear-cut about his attempts to establish himself in the sport during an era in which racial stereotyping was widespread.

Alexander was not the first black man to become "permanent" manager of a Football League club, a distinction which fell to Tony Collins, who took charge of Rochdale between 1960 and '67. However, he was the second, and was one of only two, with Paul Ince at Milton Keynes Dons, managing in full-time football at the time of his death.

In the context of the modern game, his appointment by Lincoln City in 1993 was a landmark to rank alongside the appearance in the England team of his fellow son of Nottingham, Viv Anderson, in 1979. He was also the longest-serving black manager. Despite major health problems six years ago, he had worked in a variety of managerial roles for 17 years until his death, aged 53, in Lincoln hospital shortly after Macclesfield Town's 1-0 defeat in the city of his birth.

Alexander, who was a qualified referee, was a quietly dignified advocate of equality and spoke at forums organised by the anti-racist Kick It Out campaign. As the Sky Sports summariser Chris Kamara noted, he did not "bang the drum", preferring to be judged as a manager who happened to be black rather than a black manager.

Compared with his time as a player, which took in spells at no fewer than 20 clubs, Alexander's managerial CV proved a model of brevity. A 6ft 4in centre-forward, he did not make his first League appearance until the age of 31, with Grimsby Town, and was in his mid-thirties when he played the first of three international games for St Lucia, the island from which his parents emigrated to Britain in 1954.

Growing up in the East Midlands, Alexander had encountered what he believed to be racial hatred when a shop owned by his parents was destroyed in an arson attack. He found a measure of acceptance through his ability as a footballer, being offered trials with Notts County as a teenager. When they did not come to fruition, he embarked on a 15-year apprenticeship for his breakthrough into senior football, playing for Wisbech, Worksop, Clifton, Ilkeston, Kimberley, Alfreton, Stamford (two spells), Boston United, Kings Lynn (two spells), Spalding and Grantham.

At Wembley in 1980 he scored one of Stamford's goals when they defeated Guisborough to win the FA Vase. Stepping up to the level below the Football League with Kettering Town, he continued to score regularly, although he later recalled chillingly that he was "nearly lynched" after scoring the winning goal away to the south London club Fisher Athletic.

Barry Fry, then striving to lead Barnet into the League under the chairmanship of the infamous ticket broker Stan Flashman, signed Alexander in 1986. Over the next two seasons he was part of a side narrowly beaten to the single promotion spot, though his next move, to Grimsby in 1988, both fulfilled his ambition to play in the League and brought him under the tutelage of Alan Buckley, who he cited as his biggest influence. He kept moving on search of a regular game: next to Stockport County, then Lincoln and Mansfield, before a 15-game stint with the Belfast team Cliftonville, where the veteran became a cult figure after scoring twice in the largely Catholic club's victory over staunchly Protestant Linfield at Windsor Park.

While the historical difficulties faced by black players seeking to enter management did not deter him, nor, after he had impressed Lincoln's hierarchy by coaching the youth team, did landing the job blind him to reality. After taking over at the club, which he said had "a liberal chairman who did not look at people's colour", he proffered the opinion that "if you're black it's still twice as hard to get on in any walk of life".

Alexander started in management as he would finish, operating on a shoestring. His office at Sincil Bank contained a couch and blankets in a corner. After one season he was replaced by Sam Ellis, and when he did resurface, it was with Ilkeston and Northwich Victoria.

When his mentor, Buckley, took the helm at Lincoln, he gave Alexander the dual roles of director of football and assistant manager. To prevent the fourth-grade club entering liquidation in 2002, Buckley was released and Alexander restored to the post he had relinquished eight years earlier. This time he was successful, reaching the promotion play-offs on four consecutive occasions.

The feat was all the more remarkable given that in 2003, five months after their first play-off final defeat, he suffered a double cerebral aneurysm. After emergency surgery and six months' recuperation, he returned to his post. In 2006, after Lincoln were again beaten in the play-off final by neighbouring Grimsby, came a parting "by mutual consent".

Fry was by then the chairman at Peterborough United and promptly installed him at London Road, proclaiming the "miracles" he had performed on a "limited budget" at Lincoln. Among his signings, George Boyd (from Stevenage) and Aaron McLean (from Grays) would be instrumental in The Posh gaining successive promotions in 2007-08 and 2008-09. Alexander would not share in the triumphs, having been dismissed after only seven months and replaced by Darren Ferguson with the team lying eighth in League Two.

After a spell as Bury's director of football, he became Macclesfield's manager in February 2008. In his first full season his new charges restricted Everton, the eventual FA Cup finalists, to a 1-0 win at the Moss Rose. Alexander's resourcefulness and perseverance again came to the fore; their average attendance of 1,900 was the League's second lowest. Yet when he died following a brain haemorrhage, shortly after he had suffered from severe hiccups for three weeks, Macclesfield stood eight points clear of relegation.

Keith Alexander, footballer and manager: born Nottingham 14 November 1956; played League football for Grimsby Town, Stockport County, Lincoln City, Mansfield Town; won three caps for St Lucia, 1990; managed Lincoln City 1993-94, Ilkeston Town 1995-2000, Northwich Victoria 2000-01, Lincoln City 2002-06, Peterborough United 2006-07; Macclesfield Town 2008-10; married (three sons, one daughter); died Lincoln 3 March 2010.