Football: Talbot is forever Diamonds

Ronald Atkin finds an ex-Gunner has sights firmly set on the League
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IN THE foyer of Rushden and Diamonds hangs a signed photograph of Joanna Lumley, extending the club her "warmest good wishes". This classy lady is in a classy setting; glistening brass, discreet lighting and the sort of marble flooring that must have made Brian Talbot think of one of his old clubs, Arsenal, when he arrived just under three years ago.

On Tuesday, his Conference team are at home to Sheffield United in a third-round FA Cup replay. Most managers of non-League clubs would be punching the air in anticipation of a season's highlight, but to the 46- year-old Talbot it is simply another step on Rushden's staircase to glory.

The club have existed for only eight years following the amalgamation of two failing teams, Rushden Town and Irthlingborough Diamonds, who were harnessed to the impressive cash flow of the Dr Martens shoe tycoon, Max Griggs, and have become the best-known and best-equipped non-League organisation in Britain.

Since the arrival of the former Ipswich, Arsenal and England midfielder in February 1997, the pace of progress has quickened. "We've got the best stadium outside the League and the best training facilities," said Talbot on Friday. "The 20-odd playing staff are all full-time. There will never be a part-time player signed again."

The set-up was an eye-opener for Talbot, whose baptism in managership came at West Bromwich where, as a 35-year-old player, he was thrust into the hot seat to replace the Spain-bound Ron Atkinson. Dismissed two-and- a-half years later, he went to Aldershot but resigned after six months because the players were not being paid. Next came a four-year stint as head coach to the Malta club Hibs before he became South-east regional coach to the Professional Footballers' Association.

In February 1997 Griggs rang to ask if he would help out at his club, bottom of the Conference. Under Talbot, Rushden won eight of their last 12 games and stayed up. "I wasn't sure if I wanted to come back into management," he said, "and if it hadn't been for Mr Griggs I wouldn't have done. Managing can be a horrible job, there is far too much pressure and aggravation and there are a lot of chairmen I couldn't work for. What's most important is that you enjoy coming in to work every day.

"I never knew this sort of set-up existed outside the League, how much work people put into it. So it is very much a challenge. I want to make this club as big as possible. Being a non-League manager doesn't bother me. People have sounded me out about going elsewhere but I wasn't interested because I couldn't be working for better people."

Talbot insists he has "no desire and no need" to be like the Leeds manager, David O'Leary, his former team-mate and room-mate with Arsenal. What if O'Leary offered him the job of assistant? "I would think about it. For one second. Then I'd say, `Thanks very much, but no.' But having said that, when we went to Sheffield United last Sunday it was lovely: big stadium, big crowd, great atmosphere and you think, `That would be nice'. But then I got back on our bus and realised how tremendous the people at Rushden are. I am helping to build a football club and I'm very much a part of it in terms of ideas because they are not football people, they are shoe people."

Griggs has poured pounds 20m into the club, their stadium and the adjacent Diamond Centre, a restaurant, hospitality and training area opened in 1995 by the Prince of Wales. There is money available for new players but Talbot has a flourishing home-bred policy. He pointed out an 18-year- old, Gary Mills, who has come through the youth team and said, loudly enough to make certain Mills heard: "He's got a great chance, if he listens. He used to be big-headed but he's getting better. He will save me 50 grand if he comes through, maybe 100. If he can't do it, bad luck, I'll have to buy someone." The trouble with buying, says Talbot, is that the sellers double the price when they know it's the glittering Diamonds.

Last season Leeds, with his old pal O'Leary in charge, were held to a draw in the FA Cup in front of a record 6,500 crowd. Your magic Rushden moment, eh, Brian? "No. That was when we beat Halifax 1-0 in April 1997 and stayed up. If we had gone down it would have put the club back two years.

"So now we have in place all the things we need. People say we have to get promotion this year and I suppose with our facilities and resources we should. We've got a game in hand and if we win that we'll go top. If we win all the rest we definitely go up," he grinned. "Then I would be so pleased for the community and the people who have backed the club. But also for myself, I have to say."

So, in Cup and League, let's join Joanna Lumley in sending "warmest good wishes" to Max, Brian and the lads.