Football: Come in No 2: Your time is nigh

Nothing quite prepares an assistant manager for the big step. Norman Fox talks to some who took it
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THE assumption is that Brian Kidd will be confident and successful in his new job as Blackburn's manager mainly because he served such a long apprenticeship under Alex Ferguson at Manchester United. Ask the Premiership managers who have acted as chief coaches or assistant managers and you get divided opinions on that prediction, but all are certain of one thing. Nothing really prepares you for the step from the training ground to easily severed head of responsibility.

Not that the majority of Premiership managers have ever worked for any length of time as chief coaches at other clubs. By and large they either came into top management as big-name players or through having managed other clubs. In theory the recent appointments of David O'Leary at Leeds and now Kidd give hope to those deputies who think they are capable of the No 1 job. In reality most of the No 2s are happy doing what they most enjoy, mixing day-to-day with the players and not having the pressures associated with management.

O'Leary's eventual promotion to replace his former boss, George Graham, at Elland Road was unusual. He was one of the few first-team coaches who had always looked management material. Positive in outlook, strong-minded and good at communicating (or refusing to do so if it suits), he said: "The first thing I needed to avoid when, in the end, the offer came up was to feel so flattered that I just said 'yes' because I knew I could do the job, and worry about the terms later."

As with many other important but not always properly rumunerated chief coaches, he was aware that a club for whom you may have worked hard for many years are quite likely to undervalue your contribution. The managers take the credit as well as the criticism. "That's until some other club comes along and makes an offer." Only then do your own club take you seriously. Significantly, United improved Kidd's salary only when his name was associated with vacancies elsewhere.

Whereas Blackburn claim that Kidd was always the man they wanted, O'Leary knew that Leeds really wanted Martin O'Neill. He had to be mentally tough to stand his ground when negotiating with the Leeds board, whom he suspected thought he would sell himself more cheaply than he did.

O'Leary is convinced that he can remain a hands-on manager, still doing the bulk of the coaching. Many try, few succeed. Take Frank Barlow, now chief coach at Sheffield Wednesday. He had a period managing Scunthorpe. His idea was that it would be the first step along the management road. "I'd never do it again," he said, recalling being responsible for just about everything. "But management has changed now. We've moved towards the Continental way of doing things. There's a coach and there's a manager, each with his own responsibilities."

With courses now being run for would-be managers, there is a tendency to believe that the recommended route to the top is through the lower divisions before becoming an assistant manager. O'Leary said he never considered it because it could end up as a dead end. It was much better to learn the job by watching the "boss". John Gregory, whose return to Aston Villa has revitalised the club, thinks otherwise, believing he benefited from his experiences at Wycombe though not from a painful year at Portsmouth after which he was out of football for another year ("with a lot of rejection letters").

Gregory's own "boss", the Villa chairman Doug Ellis, confesses that when Brian Little left he automatically began to think of big-name managers. However, he was convinced that the club's decline could be traced back to the day when Gregory stopped coaching the club's first team and moved into management. Gregory says he has never been a natural No 2 but added: "When I took the job at Portsmouth it wasn't long before I knew that I had taken the wrong step. I should have worked under somebody else for a few years and then moved into management. I was grateful Wycombe took me on. It was there that I learned everything from top to bottom."

Even that failed to prepare him for his Villa return. "I'd never really worried about anything, but on the first day I had to choose the team to play Liverpool. I didn't sleep all night."