Football: Entertainer Allner ready to upset his beloved Blues: Paul Newman on the Kidderminster manager keen to overthrow the club he has supported all his life

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The Independent Online
GRAHAM ALLNER is a Birmingham City fan whose loyalty stretches back to the days when the Blues played the likes of Internazionale and Barcelona in European competition more than 30 years ago. He will be at St Andrews again today for the visit of Kidderminster Harriers in the third round of the FA Cup, but he will not be rejoicing if Birmingham win: Allner has been Kidderminster's manager for the last 10 years.

Nobody could have been happier when the draw was made for the Worcestershire club's first appearance in the third round in their 108- year history. Not only does the tie pit Allner against the club he supported as a child, but it also brings him face to face with his most familiar adversary. Allner is the longest- serving manager in the GM Vauxhall Conference; Birmingham's Barry Fry is the only other manager with longer service in the competition, although his reign at Barnet, which ended just nine months ago, came in two spells.

Allner still lives on the outskirts of Birmingham, but as a child his home was less than five minutes walk from St Andrews. 'I even used to go to Sunday school at St Andrews Church,' he said. 'I was a very dedicated Blues fan. I had the hat, the scarf, the badges, the scrapbooks - the lot.

'I remember my brother going to the 1956 Cup final (Birmingham lost 3-1 to Manchester City), when I wasn't old enough to go. Then there were the great matches in the Fairs Cup. I remember seeing Blues play Inter Milan, Barcelona, Ujpest

Dozsa, Roma. They got to the final twice. I can remember being at games where there were 50,000 people inside the ground and more locked outside.

'Birmingham are still a big club and Barry's a good appointment for them. He's already knocked Big Ron off the back pages of the local press and the fans are coming back. When I saw them play West Bromwich over Christmas there was a full house and a fantastic atmosphere.'

A crowd of at least 20,000, including 5,000 Kidderminster supporters, is expected today for a match offering the real chance of a Cup upset. Birmingham are in a transitional stage under Fry, who took over only a month ago, while Kidderminster are enjoying a run of success which has taken them to the top of the Conference for the first time in five years.

Kidderminster lost five of their first seven Conference matches this season, at which stage Allner backed his team at 33-1 to win the title. Sixteen matches and only one defeat later - a sequence which included eight successive wins - Allner believes he could be in charge of the best team he has assembled since he joined Kidderminster in October 1983.

Under Allner, Kidderminster have earned a reputation as one of the most entertaining and attacking teams in non-League football and few other managers enjoy his popularity. When Graham Kelly, the Football Association's chief executive, attended Kidderminster's second-round victory over Woking last month he was regaled with chants of 'Allner for England'.

Allner, who spent most of his playing career in non-League football after winning England youth international honours at Walsall, has taken Kidderminster to two FA Trophy finals at Wembley (they beat Burton Albion in 1987 and lost to Wycombe Wanderers in 1991), but in the Conference a lack of consistency has been a problem.

However, the current team have more experience than in recent years and Allner believes they are well equipped to handle the pressures of the race for a place in the Football League. The Wembley team of 1991 have been reinforced by the arrival of Chris Brindley (the club's record signing at pounds 20,000) and Paul Grainger, who both enjoyed Cup success at Telford, and by three players with extensive League experience, Kevin Rose, Simeon Hodson and Jon Purdy.

'The players have coped with everything that's been thrown at them and in particular they've handled things very well since we reached the third round,' Allner said. 'When there's a big cup game on the horizon some teams get distracted, but we've taken 11 points from five difficult games since we beat Woking.'

Promotion would give Allner a long-awaited chance to work in the professional game. Although he says he has always been happy at Kidderminster, it irks him that League clubs rarely appoint managers who have been successful in non-League football. Three who fall into that category, Fry, Neil Warnock and Brian Little, have all enjoyed success recently in the League, but each had their initial chance only because they led their teams to promotion from the Conference.

In the meantime, Allner has the task of attempting to add to Kidderminster's meagre contribution to FA Cup folklore. Their 1955 match against Brierley Hill Alliance was the first FA Cup tie played under floodlights, while their 3-1 defeat away to Darwen in the first round in 1891 earned a footnote in the history books when it was ordered to be replayed after the visitors complained about the state of the pitch. Not that Kidderminster will want reminding of that occasion: they lost the replay 13-0.

(Photograph omitted)