Football: King gambles on reviving the Stags: Mansfield's exuberant manager relishes tonight's Coca-Cola Cup rematch with Leeds. Phil Shaw reports

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TO HEAR Andy King reflect on his playing days is like being a priest in a confessional. 'I've not been a perfect professional,' the man who now manages Mansfield Town admits. 'I haven't lived a perfect life.'

King, whose Third Division stragglers defend a 1-0 lead at home to Leeds United in the Coca- Cola Cup tonight, was an associate member of the maverick band which included Tony Currie, Charlie George, Alan Hudson and Frank Worthington. He earned just two England Under-21 caps, though the fact that Ray Wilkins and Glenn Hoddle were his midfield partners says as much for his talents as about how, comparatively speaking, he squandered them.

On re-signing King for Everton, the club he still describes as 'my spiritual home', Howard Kendall hailed him as a 'technically superb player and finisher'. King, alas, was by then obsessed with the finishing technique of his four- legged friends.

'Certain things happened I'd like to have changed,' he said. 'For instance, I wish I'd never seen a racehorse. But footballers get into that because they have

afternoons to themselves. That's why I preach to the kids now that they should take up a second trade. Gambling is a great thorn in football's side. It has ruined better players than me and certainly took a toll on my life.'

Now 38 and still turning out for the reserves, King also looks back on two failed marriages and eight changes of club. At Mansfield he demands loyalty and discipline; a case, possibly, of goal-poacher turned gamekeeper. 'I think being able to show where I went wrong makes me better qualified to deal with players. But it's like when your Mum and Dad tried to tell you things - do they listen? When I'm telling the lads to stay out of a betting shop, I have to pinch myself.'

It would be misleading to portray King as being consumed by regret. The exuberance which characterised him as a player is still striking, though of course it takes more than the gift of the gab to make a manager. King played under some of the biggest names - Venables, Docherty, Bingham, Kendall - yet offers a typically unpredictable view of who influenced him most.

'While you absorb ideas, obviously, the person I respected most was Colin Harvey, who now works with me here. But the best preparation I had for this job was being commercial manager of Luton. As a player you know nothing: you travel, play and go home. In that job, I learned how to budget, how to balance incomings and outgoings, and be accountable to a board.'

Luton, his home-town club, helped launch King's return to active service. 'I did a Yosser Hughes and rang David Pleat, saying 'gissa job',' he recalled. 'He didn't really have anything for me, but the general manager asked if I could sell. I said if I could park my car at a football club every day, I'd do anything.'

When Mansfield dispensed with their 18th post-war manager last November, King accepted the poisoned chalice. It was the Kenilworth Road connection again; the chairman, Keith Haslam, is the son of Harry, the late Luton manager.

He inherited a team in the lower half of the basement section, squeezed between the catchment areas of the Sheffield clubs and Nottingham Forest. He also found a town with only one surviving pit, a collapsed hosiery industry, no railway station, no jobs, and, some argue, no future. King is 'acutely aware' of the problems, and only hopes to be there long enough to help dispel the gloom.

'I'm in love with football all over again,' he says, surveying Field Mill's unlovely environs, 'though the biggest problem about being in love is losing it. It's inevitable it'll happen to me sooner or later. People say it takes a sacking to make a good manager, but I'd like to think there was a second job in the wind before I found out if that's true.'

This may sound unduly fatalistic, but King saw what befell Steve Wicks, a former QPR colleague, who was dismissed by Scarborough after two pre-season friendlies. 'I'm convinced I was under pressure if we'd lost heavily at Leeds. I was starting to feel it.'

Instead, Simon Ireland's goal ensured that Mansfield triumphed where Manchester United failed 10 days earlier. King had a game plan, involving midfielder Paul Holland as one of five at the back, which his players implemented so well that they could have won more emphatically. 'Holland and Ireland,' he mused. 'Probably as close as I'll ever get to Europe.

'But seriously, Leeds didn't take us lightly, which made it all the better for me. We actually deserved to win, but from my experience they'll be confident of turning it round. In case we lose 8-0, I'm taking the credit now.'

For a fortnight he has indeed been King of the Stags. However, the task of reviving Mansfield will go on long after Leeds leave town. 'We've come on leaps and bounds, but as a manager I realise the only proof of that will be the League table.

'I've certainly altered our style so that we now reflect my football principles: pass and move. I don't believe that the way that Preston play, for example, can ever be good for the game. What I would say is that if John Beck gets success from it, that's what matters. He may stay in management longer than me. So I don't knock it - I just couldn't do it myself.'

In other respects, King is truly a changed man, as evinced by his recollection of the journey back from a recent defeat at Carlisle. 'I was mulling it all over, reliving every kick, and I could hear the players playing cards and laughing. It's not that they don't care, but they soon forget, whereas for a manager it's a seven-day punishment.'

The beautiful pain is relieved by the practical joking which goes on at every club. Before Leeds, King's training-ground moniker was DH. 'As in dickhead,' he explained. Suddenly he became TG - 'tactical genius' - but he is placing no bets as to which title he will hold tomorrow.

(Photograph omitted)