'I followed Chester when I was at Juventus'

The Liverpool legend has come late to club management, but knows there is no place like home from which to start the job. He spoke to Phil Shaw
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The Independent Football

In the days when a place in Chester City's first team was just a distant, glamorous ambition, Ian Rush was a self-confessed tearaway. The PE teacher at his school in Wales called him "trouble-prone", while to one senior player he was "the worst apprentice I've ever known".

In the days when a place in Chester City's first team was just a distant, glamorous ambition, Ian Rush was a self-confessed tearaway. The PE teacher at his school in Wales called him "trouble-prone", while to one senior player he was "the worst apprentice I've ever known".

Rush left for Liverpool and matured into the marksman supreme, his talent taking him to European Cup finals, Serie A and the global stage. Today, though, he is back at Chester. This afternoon's League Two derby with Macclesfield Town at the Deva Stadium is his first home match with the club in a quarter of century.

Things have changed - and how. The difficult teenager is now a disciplinarian manager. The goal-poacher has turned gamekeeper.

An Anfield contemporary who is now a rival manager, Jan Molby of Kidderminster Harriers, welcomed him to the fold with a warning to be on his guard with errant players. "Jan's right," Rush says. "If they sense a flaw in a manager, they'll try to exploit it. I know that's true because we did the same ourselves. You've got to nip it in the bud straight away."

Another Liverpool legend, Kevin Keegan, called management the "Grey Hair Club". Rush, now 42 and his temples already silver, jokes that it might prove to be the "No Hair Club". Either way, many in the wider football world responded to his appointment with a scepticism last provoked by Keegan's arrival at Newcastle after a seven-year golfing sabbatical in Spain.

Chester, having parted acrimoniously with Mark Wright on the eve of their first season back in the Football League after four years in the Conference, were already in bottom place. According to conventional wisdom, what they needed was a steady, experienced hand. Someone like John Aldridge or Brian Flynn, both former team-mates of Rush's.

The chairman, Stephen Vaughan, instead turned to Rush, even though neither he nor his assistant, Mark Aizlewood, had managed at this level. When Rush was breaking scoring and transfer records, he laughed off the thought of ever joining the profession of Bob Paisley and Bill Shankly; running a pub was his stated aim. Goals were his business - and yet his own goals have altered completely over two decades.

He admits he is "a novice", especially compared with the Premiership veteran in the opposition dug-out today, Brian Horton. Yet he gained experience as a strikers' coach under Gérard Houllier at Liverpool, while he and Aizlewood also honed their tactical nous with the successful Welsh Under-17 side.

Rush's feeling for his first club is beyond doubt, even if the ground where he sprang to prominence, Sealand Road, is now an industrial estate. "I was attached to Chester from the age of 14," he recalls. "In school holidays I was there all the time, cleaning the dressing-rooms and painting the walls. Though I didn't even play a full season in the team, I was steeped in the place.

"My debut was at home to Sheffield Wednesday in 1979. The player-manager, Alan Oakes, told me an hour before kick-off that he was injured and I'd be replacing him in left-midfield. Later I realised he was OK; he just wanted me to get the experience. My first goal is equally clear. I was on as substitute at Gillingham and I equalised five minutes from time. A scuffed shot!

"Even at Juventus, I always looked out for Chester's results. I was gutted when they were relegated out of the League and it was great to see them back."

The emotional bond was once so firm that he "hated it" at Liverpool during his first year as a shy young reserve. However, he "stuck at it" and became feared and revered throughout the game with his whippet's pace, predatory instinct and almost freakish understanding with Kenny Dalglish. But the Scot graduated to Anfield's famous managerial academy, the Boot Room, nearly 20 years ago. What took Rush so long?

"When I was a player at Liverpool I never gave it a thought. I just focused on scoring goals and I didn't want any distractions. I tended to assume all the top clubs were the same. It was only when I got to Leeds and Newcastle that I started thinking: 'Some of these lads need coaching'.

"You're easily forgotten in football, but I haven't come here out of nowhere, as some have suggested. I've run soccer schools all over the world and I also had my coaching work with Liverpool and Wales. Gérard Houllier asked my thoughts on his forwards and agreed with my analysis. He reckoned the players would appreciate it coming from me. At first I just sat and listened to Gérard. Gradually he gave me more to do. In the end I was taking sessions myself.

"When the Chester job came up, Gérard told me I was ready for it. He knew that me and Mark Aizlewood had done well with the Welsh boys. In the last European Championship, we beat Portugal, the world champions at that level, beat Israel and needed only a draw with Greece to qualify for the next phase.

"We lost 2-1 but that tournament proved to me that I could run a team. I wouldn't have taken it without Mark. He's as highly qualified as a coach can get in the UK. In terms of training and organisation, he's second to none.

"We were officially in charge at Boston on Monday though we hadn't worked with the players. We conceded after two minutes and again on 45 and I thought: 'I can't let this go on'. I told Mark: 'We've got to say something here'. They were harsh words, too. They have to be because your neck's on the line.

"In the second half we were the better side and though we lost 3-1, I was happy because people didn't give up and showed a desire to win. Now we have to instil that from the off. A starting point would be winning home games. Chester have lost all three."

To that end, Rush and Aizlewood have had their squad in training mornings and afternoons this week. The response, he insists, has been positive. "At this level you have to teach people. I've said to them: 'If Michael Owen, Milan Baros and Harry Kewell are willing to learn, there's no reason why you shouldn't'.

"If you can improve Michael 1 per cent, you've done your job. With repetition, practice and hard work, I believe we can improve the players here by 10 or 15 per cent. Then they're more likely to make the right decision in a split-second judgement in the heat of a game."

Aizlewood has concentrated on what Rush terms the "functional" work - Chester are leaking goals at set-pieces and high-riding Macclesfield are a big side - while the "gaffer" attempts to gauge the bigger picture. "Bob Paisley seldom spoke in training. Then when you came off he'd pull you aside and say: 'Do you think you should have passed when you shot?' I realised he'd observed everything in minute detail. I'm trying to do the same."

He also looks forward to pitting his wits against old adversaries like Tony Adams, Keith Curle and Colin Calderwood. This season, success will be "stabilising Chester and keeping the club up". In an ideal world his long-term aim would be the role currently filled by his old attacking foil, Mark Hughes, "because any Welshman would want it".

Does Rush worry that Chester might be the only chance he gets? "It could be and I'm aware of that. If, after two years, it looks like I can't do it, I won't need anyone to tell me. I see becoming a manager as like when I moved to Italy. If I'd never gone, I'd never have known; I would have always wondered. But I'm going to work as hard as I can, and so is Mark, until we get this right."

ANFIELD STUDIES RUSH'S TEAM-MATES WHO WENT ON TO MANAGE

KENNY DALGLISH (right): Won championships with Liverpool and Blackburn Rovers but FA Cup final defeat was pinnacle at Newcastle.

GRAEME SOUNESS: Lifted string of honours at Rangers but only 1992 FA Cup at Liverpool. Moved to Galatasaray, Southampton, Torino and Benfica before promotion and League Cup win at Blackburn Rovers.

STEVE NICOL: Thriving in the US where he has led New England Revolution to title.

PHIL NEAL: Took Bolton to promotion and Wembley then had moderate time at Coventry. England coach under Graham Taylor.

STEVE McMAHON: Struggled at Swindon. Led Blackpool to promotion before resigning last summer.

JAN MOLBY: Returned to Kidderminster, who he steered into league, after short and difficult spell at Hull. Yet to repeat success.

BRUCE GROBBELAAR: Coached in Zimbabwe and South Africa.

PAUL JEWELL: Kept out of Liverpool side by Dalglish and Rush but proved able manager at Bradford City and, after a hard time, at Sheffield Wednesday and Wigan.

JOHN ALDRIDGE: Five initially successful years at Tranmere with League Cup final at his peak. Left in 2001.

MARK LAWRENSON: Managed Oxford but despaired of Maxwellian interference.

PHIL THOMPSON: Capable caretaker-manager at Liverpool during Gérard Houllier's illness. Left coaching staff when Rafael Benitez arrived.

RAY CLEMENCE: Brief spell as joint-manager at Spurs. England goalkeeping coach.

RONNIE WHELAN: Failed to make an impact at Southend, later worked in Greece.

MARK WRIGHT: Impressed at Southport but left Oxford after racism accusations he denies. Won promotion to league with Chester but left suddenly.

JOHN BARNES: Failed to last a year at Celtic.

NIGEL SPACKMAN: Under-funded spells at Sheffield United and Barnsley.

JIMMY CASE: Managed at Bashley.

Glenn Moore

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