Football: Hollins has a Field of new dreams

As an Arsenal man seeks to make White Hart Lane white-hot again, an old team-mate samples life on the flipside; A former Chelsea manager feels he has landed the big job in football. By Nick Townsend
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The Independent Online
"IT'S FUNNY," John Hollins leans forward in his office chair and reflects, in a quiet, self- mocking tone. "My career as a player went from Chelsea to QPR, to Arsenal. My coaching and managerial career has gone from Chelsea, to QPR, to... Swansea. What happened to Arsenal? That's what I want to know." He laughs loudly before adding: "Arsene Wenger, that's what!"

One thing is certain about the perpetual managerial mystery tour is that it can drop its passengers off at some mighty strange destinations. Yet, while the former Chelsea manager can appreciate the irony of finding himself set down at the Vetch Field, somewhere in the darker reaches of Nationwide Division Three, he regards it not as a last resort. More a staging post to more exalted times, which may not necessarily lie back across the Severn Bridge.

"The fact is that no one came in and poached me for a million quid a year and I haven't got pounds 20m to spend, but I'm here enjoying it. The question is - do I look content?" You have to concede that he does, as the Swansea manager of three months gestures towards a chart of results which confirms they are unbeaten in eight games before yesterday. "To me, this is the big job in football. All the opportunities..." he pauses before adding enthusiastically, with a narrowing of the eyes, "... could be here."

At the beginning of last month, around the same time as people first scoffed at George Graham being mentioned in the same breath as Tottenham Hotspur, Hollins, his one-time playing contemporary at Stamford Bridge, took a Swansea side on the long haul to Carlisle for a night game. It had closely followed a series of three defeats, and, if anyone outside Cumbria and South Wales looked up the result, it would have been only to speculate whether he was destined for a similar fast-track return to unemployment as Alan Cork and Micky Adams (who lasted a mere 13 days before resigning). They had departed the Vetch Field during the previous year, preceded by Jan Molby, who actually took Swansea to a Wembley play-off before being dismissed after a wretched run of results. You imagine the local inscriber of long-service awards must be long out of business.

Swansea won 2-1. "It was six hours, but I really enjoyed the journey home," recalls Hollins. "We didn't get back until four in the morning, but the sandwiches tasted great, and the coffee, tea, and Lucozade, and I felt wonderful the next day. Then we won the next game and all of a sudden everyone's shoulders got a bit broader."

Such frissons of pleasure may begin to explain precisely what a man always associated with London and, for the most part, excellence, is doing deep in the Principality, where the oval football tends to take precedence. At the beginning of the year, the prospect of Hollins being encamped at the Vetch Field would have been no more likely than, perhaps, Graham at Tottenham and John Gregory in charge of a table-topping Aston Villa. But football has a habit of laughing at the predictable.

It is not merely because of the adjacent Swansea prison that a gallows humour permeates a club which, at one glorious moment in its history, was home to a distinguished Wales forward line of Ivor Allchurch, John Charles and Cliff Jones, but which has been losing around pounds 1m a year and last season finished fourth from bottom. Four managers in nine months suggest that, as poisoned chalices go, the one clutched by Hollins could well be the one handed down from the wives of Henry VIII. "Hello, there goes another one," mutters the club's commercial director Mike Lewis mischievously, when a car backfires in a road outside the Vetch Field, where any preconceptions about its antiquity is confirmed by the official entrance, squeezed between numbers 23 and 24 Glamorgan Street.

Appearances are deceptive; the apparent dying swan is beginning to revive itself and flaunt new plumage. The club is now owned by Neil McClure, who runs Silver Shield, the windscreen company, and there are plans for a new pounds 14m stadium on the east side of the city. Swansea have also appointed two former Tottenham backroom staff, Lewis and chief executive Peter Day. Lewis has been responsible for introducing the much-loved mascot Cyril (derived from the Spurs song "Nice Swan Cyril", he riles the visiting English supporters by doing a "Beckham" lying in the centre of the pitch, face down with one leg in the air). The mascot is a huge favourite with youngsters who are the club's future. No fewer than 250 turned up when the club advertised its school of excellence.

Hollins adds: "John Toshack came and took this club to the top. I'm still young, I'm only 52, and if all goes well, and there's a continuation of the progress we've made, who says we can't get into Europe again? Where success leads, I don't know. But I do know it's very exciting, building something."

Hollins must be unique in inheriting 28 players, and neither adding to nor subtracting from them. "If I'd have judged them after the first half- dozen games I'd have gone out and bought 28, but I like to take longer to assess players," he says. "At the moment we're not setting anything alight, but we seem to have turned things round."

An articulate, thoughtful midfielder, who always cajoled his team-mates with a smile on his face, he was the alkaline to the acid of Peter Osgood, Tommy Baldwin and Alan Hudson, men who scorched the King's Road in their day. Managership at top level seemed assured and when Chelsea entrusted their old boy with the job it was no more than the natural order of things. But after a troubled period he was cast aside. That is why Hollins regards promises and good intentions in football with wariness. "I've had two 'jobs for life'. Both of them have lasted for three years," he says wryly. "This summer I was at QPR as reserve team coach, I was looking forward to my holiday, then suddenly Vinnie Jones arrives, and... no job."

But he has learnt how to survive in any environment. "After being sacked by Chelsea, I had six years in the real world. I had to go out and find work doing anything. Coaching, selling insurance, public speaking and being an agent. It makes you realise what you can do if you have to."

Yet he disputes any suggestion that he had under-achieved. "You have to have the opportunity to do that, and I haven't," he says pointedly. "People say you learn a lot by being sacked. Well, I've been sacked twice, and I've learnt a hell of a lot. But I don't look back, I look forward. I'm always told I was too serious at Chelsea. Well, I'm not serious now. I'm going to enjoy it, because that's how I played."