Football: He is the new manager of England... and his name is Ramsey

Alex Hayes meets the man on a quest for African glory

"I'M MY own man," said England's newest manager. "And I'm in dreamland." Not the one who admitted he felt like a kid in a toy shop, but rather the man entrusted with guiding the nation's Under-20s side to the World Youth Championships, which begin on Saturday in Nigeria.

Chris Ramsey is neither as celebrated nor as garlanded as Kevin Keegan, but the man they call "Alf" - because of that strikingly familiar surname - is full of the kind of ebullience and panache usually associated with Fulham's chief operations officer.

"I've been very fortunate," said the cool yet upbeat Ramsey, sitting in a conference room at Lancaster Gate. After nine months as assistant to Howard Wilkinson - the Football Association's technical director - with the Under-18s, Ramsey was given sole charge 10 days ago. "I feel very refreshed that Howard has trusted me to do the job. I'm in dreamland," he said, excited at the prospect of England's opening game against the USA on Tuesday week in Kano.

His appointment, on the springed heels of Keegan's arrival, is viewed by many as confirmation of a new dawn in English football. "I think that the `new dawn' has been Howard, actually, and the way the technical department has developed," Ramsey said. "Our ultimate vision is to be world champions. It's going to be a long hard run, but we've got things in place, which should allow us to reach those goals."

Significantly, Ramsey is the first black male national football manager; a feat he is naturally proud of. "Racism is getting better. Britain has made a lot of radical changes, and now we've just got under the door with a black national manger. On the eve of the millennium, I think that shows forward thinking by the FA."

But Ramsey is at pains to point out that his promotion was not just a publicity stunt. "I'm not interested in being a symbol. I don't want people to think I got the job because of the colour of my skin. I think I'm actually quite good. I wouldn't be here otherwise."

The job of managing what is in effect the Under-18s swansong (by the time they have finished qualifying few of the players are under 18, so Fifa changed the job description to Under-20s) is a far cry from his shaky beginnings. Having played for Charlton Athletic as a schoolboy and completed his apprenticeship at Bristol City, Ramsey finally signed his first professional contract with Brighton and Hove Albion in the early Eighties. "The club was going through a bit of a purple patch. We reached the FA Cup final in 1983, for example, which was a special moment for me."

Despite that early promise at Brighton, and three successful seasons with Swindon Town under the guidance of Lou Macari, Ramsey never reached his full potential. By 1989, a persistent back injury forced him to retire at 26. "I immediately thought of all the things I should have done with my money," he said with genuine regret. "I thought I would be OK, though, because I had a few businesses going. But I soon realised that my acumen wasn't really top-notch. In the end, I had to get the boots back out within two years."

The indomitable Naxxar Lions of Malta were Ramsey's next port of call and, although this was not quite Serie A, Ramsey insisted he learned a great deal from his three years there. Not least about himself. "It was one of the best things I ever did; a real maturing period for me. When you are a player here, and you have most afternoons to yourself and you often don't maximise your time in the way that you should. All professionals know what being a good pro means. It's whether they do it."

In 1994, having made the difficult leap from player to coach, Ramsey caught everyone (including himself) by surprise when he returned to London to study. "I enrolled at North London University as an extremely mature student to read Health, Physical Education and Recreation."

Anxious to keep in touch with football, though, he completed his FA coaching badge and managed both Leyton Orient and Newham Ladies over the course of his four-year degree. It paid off when, in May 1998, just a month before graduating at the age of 36, he successfully applied for the job of regional director for London and the South-east of England. "My brief there is to support the academy system and help the clubs adopt the FA's plans."

Ramsey also fits into the wider scheme of things. Like David Platt and Nigel Spackman, he is part of a new breed of young managers being groomed to ensure a smooth transition. "Howard basically wants to have a pyramid system, so that there's a big development programme at the bottom where kids are allowed to blossom in their own time, an elite at the summit, and a large pool in the middle who are able to make a living.

"And all the academies are like-minded in the way they develop players. It means that when they meet in an international team, they gel together easier than if we were all going off on different tangents."

If the idea is to develop a common playing style, though, flexibility is the key. So, one philosophy or formation will not be imposed throughout. "What works for one manager might not work for another. It's not systems that win you games anyway. It's players."

Ramsey is unconcerned that Premiership players were not available. "With our overall development plan, they weren't part of the equation anyway. The fact that they are Premiership regulars proves that the system is working. They're further down the line than those we are taking to Nigeria, so this tournament is a great chance to look at others."

Ramsey is confident of his team's chances - qualification from a group which comprises Cameroon, Japan and the USA is achievable - and delighted with the facilities on offer. "We were pleasantly surprised," he said. "Nigeria had a lot of negative publicity, but we were more than satisfied with the hotels and the friendliness was overwhelming. With our excellent medical staff also present, the players' safety is assured."

He is revelling in the spotlight. "I'm my own man. But it doesn't mean I do things totally alone. That would suggest that I have nothing left to learn, but I'm very much a person who likes to learn. I realise that I didn't take advantage of my 11 years of compulsory education. So now I'm trying to cram in as much as I can."

Nobody has influenced him more than Wilkinson. "Working with someone who has been as successful as him has been like a dream for me." The umbilical cord may have been severed, but the mentor-pupil links remain strong. "Howard has been busy with the first team, but I know he'll phone."

In Nigeria, Ramsey will be the sole driver. "Be there or be square," he beamed before embarking on his Keeganesque journey of discovery.

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