Keith Curle: Determined to end Notts County's chequered past
After five years working for Neil Warnock, the new Magpies manager wants to follow in his footsteps
Keith Curle occupies the hottest hot seat in English football: Notts County manager. A variety of Magpies owners have worked through 21 previous managers in 19 seasons, the last six dispensed with since 2009.
Fortunately Curle is not an easy man to discourage. Back in 1991, when Neil Warnock was becoming the last man to survive more than three seasons at Meadow Lane, Curle was called up by England for their summer tour of Malaysia and Australasia. He began his first training session full of pride, and ended it full of pain having suffered a broken jaw in a collision with David Batty.
Curle can laugh about it now, just. "We were playing a game and Batty was on my side. It was a freak accident," he recalled when we met. Curle, his jaw wired up, stayed on tour and by its end was joining in non-contact training.
"I'd spent all my career trying to play for England, to be in that environment with players like Gary Lineker, and I wasn't going to leave it," said Curle. His response stuck with manager Graham Taylor and, combined with his versatility, won him a place in the Euro '92 squad. When left-footed Tony Dorigo rejected the chance to play right-back, Curle filled the breach. "I couldn't displace Des Walker, but I'd play anywhere to play for England," said Curle.
The 48-year-old's determination proved invaluable when he replaced Martin Allen at County in February. "I wasn't a popular appointment, because they didn't want Martin out," said Curle. "I had to win football matches and lots of them, quickly."
He won the first four on the bounce and enough thereafter to take County to within a point of the play-offs. This season, despite losing in injury-time to Stevenage on Tuesday County are fourth. Tomorrow they take on Tranmere, the League One leaders. It is the type of match Curle returned to management for having accepted County in favour of resuming his partnership with Warnock at Leeds United.
Curle played under Warnock at Sheffield United before moving into management with difficult spells at Mansfield Town and Chester City and a third at Torquay. He then became Warnock's coach. Five seasons' valuable experience followed in which the pair endured administration at Crystal Palace, won promotion at Queen's Park Rangers despite the involvement of Flavio Briatore, and were then sacked by rookie owner Tony Fernandes.
"It was disappointing because I think we could have kept QPR up," said Curle. "Our remit was 'keep us in touch, be competitive, don't get cut adrift'. We ticked all those boxes, but we were gone. Tony Fernandes and [chief executive] Phil Beard are great people, but they may have had their heads turned. Sometimes people can listen to the wrong people and make the wrong decisions. But we move on."
Under pressure of circumstances the management team made mistakes as well, notably in recruitment during a frantic transfer window after Fernandes's August 2011 takeover. "Neil, [assistant manager] Mick [Jones] and myself created an open, honest environment at QPR. When we left that had changed. It wasn't as friendly a place to be probably because of the personalities we brought in, in a short space of time, in hurried fashion. Some didn't fit, if we'd had more time to check on them maybe we wouldn't have signed them."
Curle is not naming names, so I do. How was Joey Barton? "I got on very well with Joey, I never had a cross word with him. He has the ability to play in the Premier League, but he has issues. Sometimes, for Joey to feel at ease with himself he has to say what he has to say and he doesn't care if someone can't deal with it. If you are able to communicate with him on the same level, take on board what he says and express your views to him, he might have a problem with it – sometimes he can be venomous, sometimes he can take it. We had differences of opinion but they were always cordial."
Curle said he learned much from working with Warnock, including, perhaps surprisingly, to be calmer on the touchline. "I was volatile early in management. I used to run games from the side of the pitch. I don't do that now." He added that he helped keep Warnock calm in return noting "Neil was never sent off when I was working with him".
Now he is trying to emulate some of his mentor's achievements at the game's oldest club, though a repeat of Warnock's back-to-back promotions may be asking too much of anyone. He is also a standard bearer for black managers being one of only three in the professional game (the others being Chris Hughton, at Norwich, and Charlton's Chris Powell). Not that he sees it that way. "I am manager who happens to be black." He added: "When I did my A licence I noticed there were no other black coaches on it, gaining the qualification people need to go into management."
Curle will be able to see for himself whether there are more minority coaches coming through as County have a deal with the Football Association to train at the new St George's Park complex, which is to be the hub for coach education. It is also where England will be training next week. Curle might just look across the pitches at Roy Hodgson putting the squad through their paces, and feel his jaw twitching in memory.
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