Football: Toast to the right-hand man

Richard Slater studies the appeal of a coach driven by dual demands
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The Independent Online
IT WASN'T showy, just a simple request. A short, polite call on the mobile to ask if the landlord could open up a few minutes early; he had an appoint- ment to keep. Derek Fazackerley was welcomed into the pub which has been his local for 14 years and, as they trickled towards the bar, regulars nodded their greetings to the England and Bolton Wanderers coach and he acknowledged each by name.

Stability is the underpinning tenet of Fazackerley's life and career, a characteristic which has been attractive to many of the key names of British football since the 1970s. As a player he spent 18 years making a record 671 appearances in the heart of the Blackburn Rovers defence, working under such luminaries as Howard Kendall, Jim Smith and Gordon Lee.

Spells learning the coaching trade followed at Chester, York, Bury and Kumu in Finland before Smith, by then manager at Newcastle, lured him to Tyneside as reserve team coach. But, despite the fact he was now approaching the big-time, Fazackerley, born in Penwortham, just a few miles away, resisted the temptation to uproot his family from the hilltop village just outside Blackburn which was home.

"The game is full of insecurities," he said. "We were settled as a family, my children were happy in their schools, so it didn't seem appropriate."

His assessment was justified. Within a few months of Fazackerley's appointment, Smith made way for Ossie Ardiles, Kevin Keegan taking the helm soon afterwards.

Fazackerley, now 47, was one of the few constants in a turbulent era at the club, a period which saw Newcastle escape relegation to the Second Division by a whisker before striding into the Premiership and, subsequently, into Europe.

"It was a great time, both rewarding and exciting. The attendances shot up and we were playing with the kind of football principles Kevin and I believed in - determination to win and at the same time trying to entertain people."

The opportunity to work closer to home, though, meant his partnership with Keegan was temporarily severed as Fazackerley rejoined Blackburn Rovers as Ray Harford's coach in time for the fruitless Champions' League campaign.

An equally dismal run in the league preceded Harford's departure, but again Fazackerley remained in place as the walls around him fell.

Only when Brian Kidd replaced Roy Hodgson last December did Fazackerley, for the first time in a professional career which began in 1969 when he signed for Blackburn, find himself at the sharp end of the game and out of work.

"I can't deny that it hurt me to have to leave Blackburn Rovers, but there was no bitterness and I respected Brian Kidd's decision to bring his own staff in," he said.

"At first I enjoyed the break, the phone was constantly ringing and people in the game were checking after my well-being. But then the calls stopped coming and the reality of being out of work hit me."

Then the phone rang again. Kevin Keegan, just about to announce to the nation he was temporarily taking charge of England, was on the line. "He said he wanted me on board for the four games he was going to be involved in and, after I'd picked myself off the floor, I felt very proud. Football's like that - it's either feast or famine."

And the feast was to continue. After some indifferent results and performances by England under Glenn Hoddle, Keegan, with Fazackerley at his side, contrived a vital 3-1 victory over Poland in the European Championship qualifiers. It was the first match at Wembley, barring an appearance for Blackburn Rovers' Veterans in a 1-1 draw with Billingham Strollers, that he had been involved in.

Over the next seven days he is to make two further visits. Tomorrow he will be with Colin Todd for the play-off final between Bolton and Graham Taylor's Watford after helping right a downward spiralling promotion campaign in its final weeks, while next Saturday England take on group leaders Sweden in the latest round of Euro 2000 qualifiers.

Fazackerley is modest about his achievements. He never played at a higher level than the old Second Division yet he was relied on by a string of fine managers. They recognised his cool, assertive reading of the game, his robust style, his tempered aggression. Without trying to second-guess the precise reasons why both Keegan and Todd called upon his services, he responds only that they must have respect for the way he goes about his business.

One might expect that, with two of the biggest games of his career looming this week, Derek Fazackerley may betray a hint of tension. But not a bit of it; he is calm, assured and considered. Above all, he exudes that in- demand quality of stability.