Countdown to the Premier League: The odd couple

By picking Archie Knox as his No 2, the new Blackburn Rovers manager Paul Ince opted for someone very different from himself. Ian Herbert explains why the partnership might just work
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Paul Ince and Archie Knox would have had some notes to compare on the less glamourous aspects of management when the Scotsman, who has been appointed to help guide the new Blackburn Rovers manager through the challenges of Premier League management, first arrived at Ewood Park five weeks ago.

House-sharing, for example. Ince had been squashed into a rented property with his assistant Ray Mathias and two coaches before the call came from Blackburn – an experience Knox remembers all too well from his early days as Sir Alex Ferguson's assistant at Manchester United, when the two of them shared a place. Memories of the day Ferguson left a box of matches on the hot grill when it was his turn to cook breakfast live long in the memory.

The points of comparison do not stretch too much further than that, mind you. Knox might have been the man who, with Ferguson, took Ince from West Ham to Old Trafford for £2.5m in 1989 and guided him into the big time over the course of two years. But when he and Ince take up seats together in the Goodison Park dugout for Rovers' League opener on Saturday they will be the odd couple of the managerial circuit – Ince, the ambitious 40-year-old arriviste, deeply aware of the significance of his appointment as the first black manager in the Premier League; Knox, the seasoned football man 21 years his senior, back in Premier League terrain he thought he had left forever when Bolton Wanderers released him at the start of the summer.

A wise head beside him is something Ince most clearly needs at present, though. He was barely a month into the job when suggestions surfaced that his players were not enamoured with his training methods. This has affected him deeply – Ince has told friends that he feels as if the side have been "relegated before the season has begun" – and Knox has been a much needed sounding board. Like most things in football, he has seen it all before. "There might be people who are disgruntled and these things can grow arms and legs," Knox says. "That's been no different for the time that I've been in football. Paul knows within himself that he can't let it worry him. I see no evidence of anything that's hurtful in terms of his relationship with the players or anything like that."

There are some ominous symmetries here for Knox who, having been appointed to assist Sammy Lee a few miles down the M61 at Bolton in August last year, saw similar suggestions of dressing-room strife drive Lee into a state of high dudgeon towards the end of his six-month tenure in the seat Sam Allardyce had vacated. Knox, who joins a backroom team which includes Mathias as Ince's assistant, dismisses suggestions that Lee was destined to be another of football's perennial assistant managers. But the fate which befell Bolton a year ago underlines the importance of the management's relationship with players and this is an area of coaching in which the Scot – kept on by Gary Megson at the Reebok last season because of the players' huge affinity with him – has always scored highly.

Knox is characteristically understated about it all – "I've always felt you can't get too close to players," he says. "Maybe you can get closer than the manager can at times. You've got to keep your distance" – but the stories of his droll humour and ability to deliver the mot juste in the dressing room are legion. Craig Brown, who installed Knox as his assistant both in the Scotland national set-up and at Preston, remembers a dressing room dissolve into fits of laughter after one member of the Scottish squad boasted about his latest romantic assignation and Knox, always one to offer the footballing analogy, chimed in with: "I've seen her, she's not even an overhead kick from the goal-line."

It certainly does not seem likely to be a good cop/bad cop routine with him and Ince. "I just don't believe in that. It's got to be bad cop/bad cop," Knox says. His training regimes are tough at times and Ryan Giggs has recalled in particular the fiendish long distance runs Knox set at Old Trafford. Giggs' main recollection is of him being "a real man's man. When he shook your hand you had to untangle your mangled fingers afterwards, 'Call that a handshake' he'd say as he crushed your hand into his."

But players who have worked under Knox talk most about his legendary training sessions, with their variety and technical interest. "Players like imaginative, bright sessions and in Archie's they always saw an immediate value in them. There was a relationship with what would be happening on Saturday," Brown recalls.

Many managers have already discovered the value of this input. Long after leaving United to become Walter Smith's assistant at Rangers in 1991, forming part of the team which collected six titles in seven years before the two moved to Everton, Knox has developed into something of a guru for young managers. He had spells at Millwall and Coventry City, assisting Mark McGhee and Eric Black respectively, before returning north as Richard Gough's assistant at Livingstone.

The model is one that other clubs have tried, generally to good effect. David Pleat has been helping Colin Calderwood at Nottingham Forest in a role as football consultant which has coincided with the club's return to the Championship. John Rudge retains a similar role helping Tony Pulis at newly promoted Stoke City. Kevin Keegan has relied heavily on Arthur Cox, whose recent departure from his side at Newcastle was seen by some as a result of the fractious relationship with the club's owners. That said, Terry Venables' presence alongside Steve McClaren in the England set-up – and with Bryan Robson at Middlesbrough – looked an uneasy one at times and Brown believes these partnerships fall down when the manager feels threatened. "It's not the same when you think the bloke next to you has an eye on the manager's chair," he observes. "The one thing these guys have to be reassured about is that the older figure isn't after your job."

Knox certainly has no aspirations to manage a Premier League club. He resolved some time ago that his career lay in the kind of role which made him such a cherished lieutenant for Ferguson in the Eighties. Ince's phone call was unexpected and the chance to throw himself into preparations for the coming season has been a blessing, following the death of his beloved wife, Janice, after a long illness 18 months ago.

He has emerged from his travels around the game with an acute sense of when to speak and when keep his counsel, which he will need with Ince. "With younger managers you maybe want to say something different to what they are saying, but they are the manager," he says. "It can be said quietly after a meeting or after a game."

Of course Ince – and the task facing him – is no ordinary proposition. The expectation around Ewood is that Rovers will again challenge for a Uefa Cup place as they did in the Mark Hughes era and Ince, who has lost David Bentley to Tottenham Hotspur and Brad Friedel to Aston Villa, finds himself with as much to live up to as Lee did at Bolton after Allardyce had gone. He has vowed that no more players will be leaving Ewood, though Manchester City's inquiries after striker Roque Santa Cruz demonstrates the pressure he faces.

Ince did not anticipate having to defend himself before the season has started but he has done just that after the questions about his methods. "If we lose the first five games of the season then yes [there can be questions] but that hasn't happened," he said yesterday. "We've just got to get on with it and make sure we are ready for the start of the season."

The first five fixtures at least present Ince with genuine prospect of progress, with Hull and Fulham at home amongst them and the trip to West Ham. Knox, who considers this his biggest test in coaching, knows from his Bolton days that what Ince needs most is time.

"At Bolton, Sammy was familiar with the place, but everybody coming in here is new. Even the promoted managers probably have more experience than Paul. [Hull City's] Phil Brown has experience at Bolton so he knows the scene. Tony Pulis [at Stoke] hasn't been at this level but he's an experienced manager. Tony Mowbray has a load of experience in Scotland and at West Brom. Paul is the new kid on the block."

He will not know how they will actually operate together until 3pm on Saturday. "That's when we'll find out a wee bit more about each other," he says. "Maybe I would have done something; maybe he would have wanted to do something totally different. You judge on when the occasion arises. You've got to try and keep a cool head and make sure we come to an agreement."

Naturally, Knox believes Ince is up to the task. But it is his strength in the face of adversity, a quality he first saw in him back in the Eighties as the midfielder sort to establish himself at United, that Ince might need to draw on most.

"He was a young player coming into a team with a lot of experienced players back then so it was a big ask for someone," Knox says. "It took him a while to settle down. It wasn't just a case of coming in and fitting in straight away. He had to battle to overcome quite a few things – like how could he replace Remi Moses or Norman Whiteside. But he buckled down. He's a strong-willed character, Paul. He knows what he wants and he won't deviate from that. If he sets his mind out to do something he will stick to that and see it through. That's always served him well."

Coaching double acts: Three of the best

Gordon Strachan and Ron Atkinson (Coventry City)

Strachan moved from a coaching role to the hot seat when Atkinson became Coventry's director of football in November 1996. Strachan duly helped the Sky Blues pull off perhaps the most unlikely relegation survival in Premiership history.

Colin Calderwood and David Pleat (Nottingham Forest)

Forest appointed Pleat to a consultancy role helping Calderwood in August 2006. Pleat was Tottenham's director of football when Calderwood was reserve team manager there.

Kevin Keegan and Arthur Cox (Newcastle United)

The two worked together at Manchester City, in the England set-up and at St James' Park before Cox's recent departure, eight months after being reunited with him there.