Fairclough still feisty as he plots the fall of Fergie
Basement boys Barnet have a manager who has shaken the aristocracy before
Paul Fairclough, the man in charge of Barnet, details his day. "You'd be amazed what I have to do," he says. The hotel costs need to be lowered because "it's just too much for us" and the canine issue is simply a result of not having adequate facilities which is - pardon the pun - a bone of contention for the League Two club who are at war with the local council.
"People say they are not co-operative," says Fairclough. "That's not true. It's not fair. They are downright obstructive." Plans for a new stadium to replace the "antiquated" Underhill, he claims, are constantly held up - "the amount of money we have spent," he sighs - while the implication is that the club have achieved in spite of, rather than because of, the council.
He's certainly a feisty enough character, the manager. Aged 55, he's probably the oldest to embark on a career in the Football League having run away with the Conference with his young, vibrant Barnet side.
"Here is me, at the age of 55, standing opposite him," the Liverpudlian says of a much-anticipated meeting with Sir Alex Ferguson on the Old Trafford touchline on Wednesday. "I've had 16 League games, he's probably had 1,016," Fairclough says. "The man is awesome." Not that he intends to be intimidated. "We're not going to go to United to abuse the opportunity," he adds, sensing also that the match, for which Barnet expect to take 4,000 supporters, will be significant for their opponents after their faltering start. "We're not going to go and not come outside our half," Fairclough continues. "We're going to entertain. We're going to try and win the game."
So much so that after the impressive victory over Bristol City in the LDV Vans Trophy last week, Fairclough was asked whether - if he had to choose - he would take three points against Mansfield Town in the League or a victory over United. "I'm supposed to say 'give me the three points any day'," Fairclough says, mindful of his club's plight near the bottom of the League after a "rude awakening" of the demands involved following their step up after a four-year exile. "But," he goes on, "if I'm honest I can't say that. We'd love to beat United and obviously there would be spin-offs. It would really boost the confidence of the players."
Fairclough acknowledges that they need it. He has complete faith in his team - "they've given us a magnificent ride" - but admits they are still "acclimatising". In terms of talent, there is no contest against some of the "functional footballers" they face. But it's also about experience and consistency. Indeed he just has two players - striker Giuliano Grazioli (left) and club captain Ian Hendon who is a "terrific influence" but also one who can give the "hairdryer treatment" - with any significant League experience.
"Most other teams have quite a few old heads," Fairclough says.
His own experience, therefore, is vital. Fairclough began his playing career at Liverpool under Bill Shankly, but it didn't work out and he went on to university, playing football for non-League clubs such as Wealdstone. By 28 he had his coaching licence, "and I thought I was going to be the next Alf Ramsey". It didn't happen.
"The football fraternity is incestuous," Fairclough argues. "It's like the Freemasons. You have to be a member to get in. Every door was slammed in my face. I won four championships in six years but didn't get any recognition in terms of someone saying we would like you to run our League club."
The most bitter lesson was at Stevenage, who were in the Second Division North of the Isthmian League when he took over, then, nine years ago, won the Conference but were denied promotion because of inadequate facilities. It hit Fairclough hard. "A nasty blow, a serious setback. I did the role of victim for a while and wallowed in that."
During that time there was also a high-profile FA Cup run that culminated in a fourth-round defeat away to Newcastle United. "I like having a strategy for every scenario," says Fairclough, a former sports consultant. For that game he even discussed with the players what would happen "if Alan Shearer scored inside the first three minutes". He did, and Stevenage dealt with it to earn the replay at St James' Park.
If that sounds like the sort of preparation undertaken by Jose Mourinho then Fairclough, who remains the manager of the England non-League team, is also associated with Arsène Wenger, having scouted for Arsenal. Not that he will be turning to the Frenchman for advice right now. "I've not got £1m footballers," he says. A conversation has been had with Alex Inglethorpe, whose Exeter City earned a Cup replay against United last season.
The League Cup meeting will, however, be settled on the night. "It's a game which will be the biggest some of my players may ever play in," Fairclough says. "Hopefully, they will go on to greater things but they might not." For the manager himself it is also "a dream come true" and an opportunity well-earned. "We won a championship on picking up dog muck," Fairclough says. He hopes to leave United a nasty surprise too.
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