Motivational slogans are nothing new, but the message on the board at Brentford's training ground could not have been plainer. "FA Cup draw, Third Round, Sunday afternoon. Our game finishes at 3.45pm. Make sure you're in it." The League One club's tie is away to Hinckley Town today, and the message posted by manager Martin Allen is part of the preparations.
As was locking the first team out of their dressing room on Thursday, bundling them into a minibus and heading for a local park. "The changing rooms were cold, there were no lights and the pitch was poor," Allen explains. "We had a chat and said, 'This is what it is going to be like on Sunday'."
Yesterday the Brentford players arrived at Hinckley's decaying Middlefield Road ground - the Conference North side move soon - "to acquaint themselves with the facilities". "There will be no derogatory remarks and no excuses," says Allen.
That morning he had woken at 4.30am, which is not unusual. "I was in the garden with a cup of tea, visualising, working out what I could do, what I could say for this game," Allen says. "I don't unwind, I'm terrible. When I was a player I was the same."
He was a self-confessed tough-tackling, back-chatting "explosion of energy" who played more than 400 games in midfield for West Ham, QPR and Portsmouth. "Mad Dog", they called him. It was a superficial nickname, although when asked to recall his most painful cup memory there is bite. "I was playing for West Ham against Nottingham Forest," he says, "and Mr Keith Hackett sent off Tony Gale after 20 minutes for a professional foul. We went on to lose that semi-final. That was a shocking day.
"Believe it or not, Mr Hackett is now in charge of all the referees, and I was invited up to West Brom for a meeting with the referees to discuss the rule changes. I was drinking coffee and the first person to stand up to speak was Mr Keith Hackett. I dropped my cup and spilt my coffee every-where. I almost shouted out, 'How the hell can you be doing this when you ruined my dream of going to Wembley?' But I kept cool."
Allen is living his dream, nevertheless. He races through his career after he stopped playing. "I'm only 39, and one of my coaches at QPR was Don Howe. He was like a schoolteacher, very matter-of-fact, with grace and honour, and he said, 'Don't be a manager until you're 40. Until then you must do all the jobs in a football club. You must serve eight years' apprenticeship'. And that has happened - scouting, youth teams, reserves, out of work, doing people's gardens from 7.30am, assistant to Alan Pardew at Reading, then to Peter Shreeves at Barnet, then manager at Barnet. Then here."
Allen arrived at Griffin Park last season with the club second from bottom, with one win in 19 games. The Bees then won five and lost one of their nine remaining games and survived. The play-offs are now the aim, and Allen has been busy. "There were 29 players,now we are down to 19." Fewer players means he can employ better ones on better wages. "We also had to make a lot of cost cuts," he says. So the doctor went, "we saved £10,000 on a kit order" and the players replace their boots if they lose them. Also to go was the chef. Players now bring their own food.
"It's interesting to see which ones prepare their own and which ones have got it from a garage," Allen says. It's another lesson; a footballer's body is "his engine". "You soon see who sulks or comes in with a McDonald's. If they do, they are rapidly out of here."
Allen's apprenticeship started when he was seven. His father, Dennis, was manager of Cheltenham Town, and on match days Martin sat on the bench. "I remember my dad on Friday nights with a pad and pen working out his team and I would help him," he says. At 13 he was playing for Reading Boys, and was asked by a schoolteacher which of two players to select. One was his friend, but the other boy was better. Allen chose the latter. The teacher said: "I never expected you to pick your friend." That teacher now scouts for Brentford.
Loyalty is important. In a couple of weeks a group of children will watch Brentford. Winchester City under-eights, for whom Allen's son George played, were the first team he coached. "There was a guy called Alex. He had a painter and decorator's outfit, skinhead, covered in tattoos. Great lad he was," Allen recalls. Unfortunately he wasn't a good coach, and after a 9-0 defeat he asked Allen to step in. Within two years the boys were top of the league. "It was perfect," he says. "That was my best experience."
He still uses some of the same techniques. "I remember when the children showed a skill I would give them a sweet. I used to have a big bag of Skittles in my pocket. You might not believe me but I still do that," Allen says. "I give the players Skittles. You should see their faces. They love it."
What didn't work was a trip to Marble Arch last season with Barnet. It brings back another bad FA Cup memory. "A change of scenery was the idea. Imagine the sight. Marble Arch on a Monday morning. Packed. Eighteen players getting changed on benches. There were tramps, Japanese tourists taking pictures. We put our kit on and played five-a-side underneath Marble Arch. Needless to say we were removed rather rapidly by a policeman. The tramp opened one eye and told us to eff off.
"That Saturday we lost 5-1 at Yeovil. The next day my wife cooked a beautiful Sunday dinner. My son watched the Cup draw and said Yeovil got Liverpool at home. It was so close to that Sunday dinner going right across the table. It was a fantastic opportunity missed."
Hinckley beware. One of the game's most progressive managers won't let it happen again.Reuse content