Why Ling dreams of Vegas - and a nice little Cup 'Hearner'

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The Independent Online

If publishers ever required an expert contributor to aRough Guide to the Four Divisions, they would look no further than football's Michael Palin, a man who has come full circle.

From Exeter City, as a 15-year-old, to Southend, on to Swindon - and a season-long flirtation with the Premiership under and alongside player-manager Glenn Hoddle - it was as a well-travelled explorer that Martin Ling returned to Leyton Orient, within two miles of his Forest Gate birthplace, in July 1996, harbouring ambitions of coaching and management.

The opportunity didn't arrive until 28 months ago, following the departure of Paul Brush. For a time, he had a less than firm hold on the management role at Brisbane Road. "People called my position 'a caretaker manager on a day-to-day basis'. I called it 'a caretaker manager on a minute-to-minute basis'," the 39-year-old recalls wryly.

"If Barry [chairman Barry Hearn] is honest, I don't think he'd say that I was his first choice. He told me that he was looking for a senior man 'unless my results took his breath away'. Luckily, that's what happened. I earned an 18-month contract out of that. Results stayed good, and it moved on again."

He smiles at the memories. "I can actually breathe a bit easier myself nowadays."

It is the first day back at training after football's festive slog-athon, and the Christmas decorations have still to be taken down at the Ford Sports and Social Club, the Os' training base in Newbury Park. Strain your ears and it is possible to imagine you can just hear the refrain of "We Three Kings Of Orient Are"... It is chorused by Hearn, Ling and Orient's captain and top scorer, Gary Alexander, a trio who are primarily responsible for the east London club lying third in League Two, and rewarded for a successful FA Cup run with today's lucrative third-round tie at Fulham.

Fate, in the form of a career-terminating car accident and Jean Tigana's departure, offered Ling's counterpart today, Chris Coleman, a similar opening. "I'm sure Chris would agree that you've got to be in the right place at the right time, but I'm not envious, no," Ling maintains. "I have ambitions to be there. I'll be honest; my aim is to manage the England team, because if you haven't got that ambition, you're only going to fall short of what you are capable of. I can't see any reason why a person like myself, who started at the bottom, can't go on and realise those dreams, and get to the top as an English manager."

He adds: "As a player, I always wanted to play for England. It never happened. But I aimed high, and I ended up playing in the Premiership with Swindon. I had nine years in the lower Leagues before that opportunity came along. I had to earn my spurs as a player. It's the same with management."

The club's website deems him a "creative midfielder" as a player. He concurs with that description, saying: "Certainly, I couldn't tackle and I couldn't head... though I had high energy, to be fair. That's why I'm better off playing in the higher Leagues."

It was Hoddle who induced the best from Ling, the zenith of his playing career being the 1993 First Division play-off final against Leicester. Swindon won 4-3 and Ling was named man of the match.

"Glenn's philosophy was wonderful," he says. "He was a player-manager then, so we also had him in the team, which didn't go amiss, especially if you were a midfield player looking for a nice through-ball; he could find you through the eye of a needle."

He adds: "For me, as a player, Glenn was brilliant. I was a good footballer down in the lower Leagues before I went to Swindon. Glenn got me a reputation of being a good footballer in the First Division and the Premiership because he allowed me to express myself. As a manager, I've placed the same emphasis as Glenn on us trying to be a footballing team. But there's no side in League Two who are fitter than us."

Hearn, the boxing, snooker and darts promoter, has already promised to take the entire playing and administration staff to Las Vegas in July if the Os secure promotion. There could just be an added monetary bonus if they depart with a replay, if not victory, from Craven Cottage.

In fact Ling perceives his team's Cup run in purely financial terms. "The main benefit about this is that it has allowed me to go out and get a couple of players in the transfer window to finish this job and get out of League Two," he says. "Other than that, we're going for a good day out.

Just a day out? "We've had Fulham watched three times, and [Brian] McBride came out with massive plaudits, as did [Sylvain] Legwinski and [Luis] Boa Morte. Before today, there was a ban on the F-word, and although we touched on them this morning, I've concentrated on what strengths we've got rather than over-worry my team about theirs.

"Gary [Alexander] has scored 13 for us, Jabo [Ibehre] has got three in the last four. If their defenders have an off-day, I feel they can score goals. If all 11 of our players perform and only three or four of theirs turn up on the day, you never know, do you?"

On such calculations are FA Cup upsets fashioned. And, from Ling's perspective, managerial reputations created.

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