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Football: The first step is the steepest, says Platt

For many non-League provides the springboard to managerial success. By Norman Fox
WHEN Nigel Clough recently took over as manager of the Dr Martens League club Burton Albion he fended off endless questions about comparisons with his father, Brian, then remarked that the real question he had to answer was whether he had made the right decision to start his future in management in non-League football. "I'm very aware that if it goes wrong at Burton there may not be a future".

That is the big gamble for any young manager setting out at or near the bottom. It was one that David Platt, the former Arsenal and England player, chose to avoid when last summer he gave up the struggle for a first-team place and decided it was time to think about his long-term future. He explained: "My feeling was that people didn't realise what a big step it was going from player to manager. I thought that only those players who recognised that fact would become the successful managers of the future. I know that my first step as a manager will probably determine my whole career. I want to give myself the best chance." Non-League football does not come into his planning.

Platt is fortunate to have the financial security to travel the world studying tactics and listening to the most experienced and successful coaches and managers. In the past that was impossible yet Brian Clough's initiation at Hartlepool did him no lasting harm, and his son says he willingly took the gamble to go to Burton, where his father's partner, Peter Taylor, also began his coaching career. A more cynical view would be that probably it was the only offer he got. His whole career has been lived in a gigantic shadow; one long struggle to establish himself in his own right. When he retired from playing, there was the possibility of becoming an assistant at a League club, but he felt it was important to see whether he could be a motivator of players with modest ability.

Tom Finney says that in his long experience the finest motivator, not surprisingly, was Bill Shankly. Even as a player at Preston Shankly never stopped motivating others. "In the first game we played together, he kept shouting 'Keep fighting. We can do it'. We were four goals down with two minutes to play." It tends to be forgotten that although his name is synonymous with Liverpool, Shankly himself began his managerial motivating low down at Carlisle, Grimsby and Workington. Similarly, Jock Stein started work at Dunfermline, who were on the edge of relegation and had not won for several months. He immediately inspired them to five wins, and the following season they beat Celtic in the Scottish Cup final.

Although that other Peter Taylor, the England Under-21 coach, could be considered one of the successful few who moved into non-League football after a significant playing career before returning to a higher level, the only flourishing manager who in recent years has made a lowly apprenticeship work as preparation for the big-time is Martin O'Neill, of Leicester and formerly manager of Grantham, then Wycombe Wanderers when they were members of the GM Vauxhall Conference.

O'Neill admits that his decision to manage Wycombe Wanderers was in part born of his well-known perversity - the love of doing the unexpected, which was the aspect of Brian Clough he eventually found both fascinating and instructional. There is a lot of Clough about O'Neill.

He recalls that when he first went to Wycombe people suggested that it was because he was not up to the challenge of moving to a higher level. "They used to say that I had gone into a comfort zone. But I just wanted to see how far I could go with a club that had players who were so keen that they chose to go full-time even though they were earning more as part-timers with other jobs."

O'Neill accepts that Wycombe were in a rich area of the country and had ambition and resources but the work was tough. He would not have had it any other way. After all, the underlying reason he turned down Leeds to stay at Leicester was his singular ambition to emulate Clough and turn a comparatively unimportant provincial club into one of European standing. But would he recommend his chosen path? "Only for me."