Mad Dog dreaming of his day in the big time

When Martin Allen joined Brentford in March, the club were battling relegation. Today, they lie second in League One.
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The Independent Football

It was March, in Darlington, the sun was going down and so was the mercury. So Martin Allen stripped to his shorts and went for a swim. Watching were a gaggle of schoolchildren and a cluster of Brentford footballers. Some of the children clearly thought Allen was nuts; some of the players knew he was. After all, Allen, who had been appointed their manager nine days earlier, had long been known in the game as "Mad Dog". This, surely, was proof.

It was March, in Darlington, the sun was going down and so was the mercury. So Martin Allen stripped to his shorts and went for a swim. Watching were a gaggle of schoolchildren and a cluster of Brentford footballers. Some of the children clearly thought Allen was nuts; some of the players knew he was. After all, Allen, who had been appointed their manager nine days earlier, had long been known in the game as "Mad Dog". This, surely, was proof.

Allen, when we met, did not appear mad. Enthusiastic and imaginative he may be, possibly hyperactive, but there is method in any apparent madness. The escapade in Darlington, for instance, earned him £40 and, more valuably given Brentford's relegation battle, three unexpected points.

Sitting in his office at the club's west London training ground, which is relatively cosy given the breeze-block walls, he takes up the story. "We'd had a hard week's training, morning and afternoon, then a long journey up there on the Friday. We found a park with a river running through it and went for a walk. One of the players offered another a tenner to swim the river. He said no. Someone said £20. He again said no. I said: "I'll do it for £40." They laughed, but £40 is a lot of money, you'd have to earn £70 before tax. I said I'd do it after training. They all ridiculed me saying I was chickening out.

"After training the sun was going down and it was cold. I stripped down, ran along the river bank, over a bridge and back until I was facing the players in trainers and shorts. On the bridge were a dozen school kids looking at me thinking 'what the hell is he doing?'

"The river was only 15 yards wide but it looked the length of an Olympic swimming pool. That first step, going down into the marshy mud by the bank, I thought: 'Oh my God.' My foot went down into the mud to my calves. On the other side there were holes in the banks where the mice and rats were probably hanging around. I swam across there quicker than Mark Spitz, pulled myself out and with the players cheering and laughing ran the half-mile back to the hotel. In reception, covered in mud and river water, I had to walk through a busload of Americans checking in.

"When I collected my money I said to the team: 'If you say you are going to do something, you go on and do it. It is no good just talking about it. We won the next day, it was the first time Hartlepool had lost at home that season.'"

Brentford, one from bottom with one win from 19 games when Allen arrived, also won at Barnsley a month later. Before the game Allen had the squad and staff, all 22, lying on mats in a dark dressing room meditating for five minutes. "I had them doing breathing exercises and visualising the game they were going to play: being calm, cool, confident and decisive."

At Sheffield Wednesday, where they drew in front of 20,000, Allen led the squad in a pre-match sing-along to Kylie, Dexy's Midnight Runners and the Bay City Rollers. "What it does is take away the tension," he said. "It shows I'm not nervous, that it doesn't frighten me going to these big clubs. You can't play football if you are stressed out. You have to be calm and comfortable.

"If you are sitting there punching the walls before you play you'll run around madly for 15 minutes, but after that you'll be exhausted because your energy levels will be spent." There is method in the madness, though Allen adds: "My elder son George, who's an intelligent lad, said to me: 'Some of the things you do are genius, some are madness. Win and you're a genius, lose...'"

As far as Brentford fans are concerned, there is more genius than madness. The Bees won five and lost one of their nine remaining Second Division games to survive on the final day. After a summer clear-out which saw a dozen players leave and nine arrive, that good form has continued in the renamed League One. Today, Brentford lie second as September's manager of the month takes them to Milton Keynes.

"The transformation is unbelievable," said Allen. "When I came in I cut the squad to 18 and trusted them to stay up but I had to bring in some experience." The headline arrival, former England cap John Salako, is only four years younger than 39-year-old Allen, but if the latter is a young manager he is no novice. Those who remember him as a tough-tackling, back-talking midfielder with QPR, West Ham and Portsmouth may be surprised to discover that the Mad Dog was a businessman off the field running a network of soccer schools.

"When I was 20 I started a soccer school in Reading with 30-40 kids coming in the holidays. By the time I was 31 I had 13 towns across the south of England with 60 staff and a residential camp in the New Forest. I had four international sponsors and 1,400 children a year. I started it in preparation for management. I learned promotion, public relations, delegation, looking after customers, logistics and contracts.

"Then, at 28, I signed for West Ham and within two months the fans had given me the nickname Mad Dog. So I go into London, and I'm sitting opposite the European head of Fuji Films trying to promote the soccer schools. At the end of the meeting he said: 'Why do they call you Mad Dog if you are looking after children?' These are the moments when you don't want that nickname.

"People had this image of me with a skinhead haircut, bulging eyes and a frothing mouth, a ripped shirt, baggy shorts and socks tucked into the back of my shin-pads. The clothes and look came because I used to virtually hyperventilate before playing and I felt constricted. The skinhead was because George [whose arrival in 1989 infamously led to Trevor Francis, then QPR manager, fining Allen for walking out before a match at Newcastle to be at the birth] developed alopecia as I was about to join West Ham. When he had his hair cut I did mine. And there was some bad language at times, some naughty tackles. Trying to let parents have Mad Dog look after their children was difficult."

Nor did it help when Allen finished playing and began seeking a way into management. He said: "I always thought directors would have this image of me as Mad Dog but most people don't know I'd always done a lot of extra work. I never played snooker, golf, or gone horse racing. I went home, studied and organised my soccer schools. I'd just take a two-week family holiday each summer. In Portsmouth I raised £80,000 for the local hospital through private events. That experience helped me with the commercial department here and at Barnet."

All that experience, more than 400 professional games, mainly in the top flight, and his family contacts - he is cousin to Clive, Paul and Bradley - counted for little when he stopped playing. Like many players, he found doors closed, commercially - sponsors lost interest in his schools - and professionally. Footballers live a charmed life when playing but Allen paints a bleak picture of what follows when the final whistle blows.

"When that last contract expires, and all the other players go back to pre-season, you're at home with no income, struggling to pay the bills and with nothing to get up for in the morning. After all those years of being valued by the public suddenly people don't talk to you, the phone doesn't ring. You take your children to school, you pick them up, you go shopping. There's nothing to do and there are a lot of temptations. You are bored and you feel worthless."

Allen feared that, like his late father Dennis, a professional, primarily with Reading, who never bridged the divide, he might also fail to get that first management job. In an effort to do so he coached, unpaid, at Barnet and scouted, for expenses, for Kevin Keegan's Fulham. And to keep himself occupied, and create alternative employment, he expanded on a hobby.

"I took up gardening for £10 an hour. I was collecting leaves at people's houses. I got recognised a few times but that was not a problem. I'd always been a keen gardener so I had a fair idea what I was doing. There are some big houses round Gerrard's Cross and I was looking to buy a van, get some gear, and start a business. I'd applied for loads of jobs in football. A lot never returned my calls or wrote back. Then Alan Pardew got in touch and it all changed."

After assisting Pardew at Reading, Allen got his first management job at Barnet, taking them into the play-offs before moving to Brentford last March. It was 31 years after the club had interviewed, then rejected, his father for the post.

He still has Mad Dog moments. Last season he was sent off for kicking the ball away [he was in the technical zone at the time] against Colchester, but said he had "calmed down a lot". He added: "The year I had with Peter Shreeves at Barnet helped considerably. He'd tap me on the shoulder and tell me to 'calm down son, relax, get your points across'.

"The players here were a bit quiet at first, they were probably wondering if I would fight and kill everyone on the first morning. I went out, laughed and joked, showed them how I wanted them to play. We had fun from the first minute and the players will tell you we laugh our way through the week."

But there is strict discipline. Allen has a fines system with players penalised for all manner of sartorial and behavourial misdemeanours. It thus comes as no surprise to hear him reveal his mentor to be George Graham.

"He was my youth coach at QPR for four years," said Allen. "Just about everything I do, my sessions, my ideas on discipline and organisation, come from George."

Indeed, he still has the workbooks in which he recorded Graham's drills more than 20 years ago. "We were not the most talented team of individuals but we hardly ever lost a game such was his attention to detail. He knew exactly what he wanted and if you didn't get it he would take you out in the afternoon and go over it again and again. If you didn't do what he said, you didn't play."

Graham also began his management career in the lower reaches, taking Millwall out of the old Third Division [now League One] before moving to Arsenal. The increase in foreign coaches and the reluctance of Premiership directors to look down the leagues means it is harder to make that step up now. Allen, though, is not discouraged.

"I went to see Chelsea in the Champions' League. I got there an hour early to watch them warm up. When I saw Jose Mourinho come out I visualised the future, hoping one day it would be me."

It is a big ambition for a rookie manager in League One, but after an hour in Allen's company you begin to believe he can make it. The question, as he puts it himself, is whether "a plc, based in an office in London, will say: 'Let's take the Mad Dog on.'" One day, it may not be such a crazy notion.