Football: Allner's vision lets 'Kiddy' grow up

Kidderminster visit their mirror image in today's FA Cup tie at Gresty Road. Phil Shaw reports
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The Independent Online
Only one part of the furniture avoided being slung in the skip when the old architecture of Kidderminster Harriers' home gave way to plush new offices, changing rooms, reception area, restaurant and bar last summer. His name is Graham Allner, writes Phil Shaw.

In an era when chairmen remove managers with all the subtlety of cowboy builders ripping out fittings, Allner has become a fixture at Aggborough. At the start of this month he began his 14th year in charge of the Worcestershire club, a reign unrivalled in Vauxhall Conference history.

Today, the FA Cup's enduring capacity for coincidence pits the 47-year- old Brummie against the only member of his profession who has survived and thrived longer at one club. By the time Kidderminster lured Allner from the now-defunct AP Leamington, Dario Gradi was already six months into his tenure at Crewe Alexandra.

The achievements of the men occupying the respective dug-outs at Gresty Road bear witness not only to the value of continuity, and of a patient board, but also to the vision of Allner and Gradi. Both were determined to create a club whose involvement with the community extended beyond relieving them of their cash every other week.

Crewe, festering away in the former Fourth Division for two decades, are again vying for promotion to the First. Their success has been founded on Gradi's ability to spot and develop talent in players as young as seven or eight. There are clear parallels with the set-up Allner has evolved at Kidderminster, who are themselves on course for the Football League place they were so harshly denied in 1994 because of the standard of their stadium.

"We've gone down the same road as Crewe, though it's not so easy to do as a non-League club," Allner said. "I think we're the only one in the Centres of Excellence scheme, and we've got well over a hundred boys attached to the club.

"I always say to people: 'If you want to see this football club at work, at its best, go to the Astroturf when all the kids come on a Thursday night'."

Gradi's production line of prodigies - from David Platt through Rob Jones to Neil Lennon - is legendary. Allner has raised pounds 300,000 by selling home- grown players like Richard Forsyth, Paul Jones and Steve Lilwall to League clubs, and he currently has a forward, Lee Hughes, attracting six-figure bids. Hughes has recently rejected offers to train with Premiership teams, preferring to be judged on his form for Kidderminster.

"Lee feels it would be disruptive," Allner explained. "And since we're in the black, for the first time I can remember, there's no pressure to sell. He's capable of playing at the highest level eventually, but he wants to see us into the League first."

(Allner had just said how much Hughes had matured when, to our mutual mirth, we noticed a photo of him, sticking his tongue out a la Gazza, on the cover of the Harriers fanzine The Keeper Looks Like Elvis.)

Kidderminster are three points clear at the Conference summit. With a swish new stand in place, they had the requisite ground-grading to be accepted into the Third Division even before the latest refurbishments. After three Wembley finals in the FA Trophy, two Welsh Cup finals, one championship and a run to the last 16 of the FA Cup, promotion would be Allner's crowning glory.

"We're a League club in all but status now," he said, though they were bottom of the table when he arrived in the carpet-making town. "The short- term aim was to get out of trouble. In the long term I wanted to build a top non-League club, like an Altrincham or a Telford, who were the Manchester United of our level.

"The facilities were very basic and we had just 15 players with no reserve team. Our average gate was 600 (it is now 2,200), and there was a cycle track round the pitch which meant there was no atmosphere. When the wind was blowing up here on a Saturday afternoon, it was desperate.

"On my first day we lost at home to Willenhall in the Staffs Senior Cup. But on the Saturday we beat Machynlleth 9-1 in the Welsh Cup, which raised spirits a bit, and I remember saying to my assistant: 'That lad doesn't look bad'. It was Paul Davies, who's still here as player-coach having played [checks programme] 596 games plus 26 as sub."

Davies, the Conference's all-time record scorer, is one of a dwindling band of survivors from the title campaign. After two seasons in which a horrendous injury list and a reaction to the anticlimax of being kept down blunted their challenge, Allner, by now working full-time as manager, set about rebuilding on the pitch. His probable front three at Crewe - Hughes, James McCue (from Partick Thistle) and Neil Doherty (ex-Birmingham) - exemplify the new "Kiddy".

Mention of Birmingham makes Allner misty-eyed over what he describes as the highlight of his Kidderminster career, the third-round victory there three seasons ago. "I remember watching the lads and the chairman (Dave Reynolds) run over to the Spion Kop. The Blues fans rose to them. To see that, at the club I'd always supported myself, made my spine tingle.

"I go flat immediately after a game, and it was the same at St Andrew's. I don't go silly until five hours afterwards when I've got a few drinks down me. I still live in the city and it was fantastic being out that night. Every now and then I'd look up and there I was, being interviewed on Sky."

There have been dark moments, too. After a Trophy defeat at Yeovil in 1992, angry fans rounded on him "big time". Allner also squirms at the thought of how he persuaded a dubious Reynolds to sanction an overnight stay before a match at Barrow, late in the same season. "We lost 5-1 and ended up having to win our last game at Gateshead to stay up."

By another coincidence, Kidderminster's last comparable defeat was inflicted by Crewe in August. "We lost 6-1 at home, and they were scintillating in going 4-0 up by half-time. But you can't really compare a pre-season friendly to a cup-tie. At least I hope not!

"I'm looking forward to going there because they're a model of the kind of club we want to be, both in the way they're set up and how they play. And the upper Second Division is something we can realistically aspire to. If we get the principles and the structure of the place right, and don't spend more than we take in, there's no reason why we can't gradually progress."