Meet the 'odd couple' among Europe's elite

The Irish champions enter the Champions' League this week with a very rare claim to fame: English management

Sligo

When the strains of the classical strings burst into the sky in Ireland's north-west on Wednesday night, Ian Baraclough might just crack a wry smile.

The irony of the Champions' League anthem being written by an Englishman is not lost on him. Composer Tony Britten could hardly have known when he put the arrangement together back in the early Nineties that so few of his countrymen would ever stand in the dug-out to hear it.

It really will be the briefest moment of contemplation for Baraclough, though, because this after all is the biggest night of his career. The 42-year-old will join an almost ludicrously select group of six Englishmen who have taken charge of a side in the Champions' League when his Sligo Rovers, champions of the League of Ireland, take on Molde FK from Norway.

A man who played over 600 Football League games in a solid career with, among others, Notts County, Queens Park Rangers and Scunthorpe, might not seem the likeliest candidate. But then Sligo Rovers, the heartbeat of a town with less than 20,000 inhabitants, are not a likely Champions' League side after bridging a three-and-a-half-decade gap between league titles in Baraclough's first season.

In such alien surroundings, he is glad to be able to call on his unlikely sidekick. Gary Stevens didn't have a career with the longevity of Baraclough's because it was cut short through injury. But he did play in a World Cup for England, win European honours with Tottenham and score in an FA Cup final for Brighton. They are a pairing that you might call, well, unlikely.

"I don't know how you'd describe it. We've been called the odd couple, a little bit of Morecambe and Wise, Hinge and Bracket," laughs the always affable Baraclough. "We live together here. It's not about being nice to each other and making sure we have to agree because we have to go back to the house in the evening and someone's got to cook the tea and whatever.

"It's about finding the best way to improve Sligo Rovers and improve ourselves. It's working. I've enjoyed having Gary here and I've learned from what Gary's spoken about. Knowing that we were coming into the Champions' League, that was a lot of the thought behind getting Gary in."

The influx of foreign managers, under the eyes of so many overseas owners, is often pointed to as a reason for the problems of English football and the lack of success of the national side. But Stevens is having none of it. He has a harsh truth for his peers. "Everything is cyclical so it will change around for sure, but for too many years too many English coaches have been lazy," he insists. "I'll give you an example: how many English managers can speak a second language? You go to Spain or Italy or Germany or France, most of those coaches will speak another language and often a third. You try to take an English coach to Spain, how's it going to work?"

Stevens, whose career ended at the age of 29 having failed to fully recover from a horrific challenge by Vinnie Jones in 1988, worked his way into coaching at Charlton before assisting Tony Adams in the relative obscurity of FC Gabala.

"I wanted to get back into football... and I had to go to Azerbaijan to get a job," says Stevens, who was with the former Arsenal defender at the wealthy club for almost two years. "I guess I was thinking, 'I'm prepared to look anywhere in the world'. It comes back to the laziness. If you did a survey of all the coaches out of work in England and asked them would they be willing to go to Azerbaijan, I'm not sure how many of them would have said 'go on then'. Tony Adams did. And I did. You have to put yourself out there."

Baraclough's first stint in a dug-out lasted six months after replacing Nigel Adkins at Scunthorpe in the Championship in 2010. He spent 11 months looking for a second chance. "I found it very, very hard," he says. "Even though I had started to work... work was not maybe the right term for it. I was with the Under-15s and 16s with the Leicester City academy. I was doing it for nothing. But I was working with players, again I was learning. But you do start to question yourself. Am I going to get another chance?

"It would be interesting to see how many sacked managers go away and feel sorry for themselves and wait for something to happen and come to them compared to how many actually get out there, watching games, keeping learning."

Before taking on the Norwegians, led by the former Manchester United striker Ole Gunnar Solskjaer with whom he studied for his coaching licence, he added: "I bumped into a fair few people when I was out of work, but how many of them were sitting there saying, 'I've done this, done that, I have it all on my CV, I'll just wait for something to drop in'. It was the case for me that I'm not a household name, but I wanted to carry on learning."

So when Sligo Rovers came calling, after Paul Cook had jumped ship to Accrington, he took a chance. Lawrie Sanchez and Steve Cotterill have been thankful in the past to have Sligo as an early launchpad. Now Baraclough's career is about to take another giant leap forward.

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