Curbishley content to take seat backstage

Charlton manager says his experience in the music business has helped him make bookmakers' charts in race to succeed Keegan
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During a dinner last season at The Valley, home of Charlton Athletic, the guest of honour gave an eloquent and warmly received speech in which he predicted that the Charlton manager, Alan Curbishley, would one day become manager of England. That guest of honour was Kevin Keegan, whose unexpected resignation on Saturday has indeed propelled Curbishley into the minds of Messrs Ladbroke and Hill, and probably Davies and Crozier too.

During a dinner last season at The Valley, home of Charlton Athletic, the guest of honour gave an eloquent and warmly received speech in which he predicted that the Charlton manager, Alan Curbishley, would one day become manager of England. That guest of honour was Kevin Keegan, whose unexpected resignation on Saturday has indeed propelled Curbishley into the minds of Messrs Ladbroke and Hill, and probably Davies and Crozier too.

"I think I've been quoted at 14-1," says Curbishley, with a smile. "It reminds me of when I was at West Ham as a first-year pro, and Ron Greenwood was 7-1 for the England job. He came back and let some of the boys know that he had got through to the final shortlist. One or two of the senior players had a decent-sized bet." Which begs an obvious question, met with another smile. "No, I won't be telling my lads to have a bet. One of them told me this morning that I'm between a Frenchman and an Italian. I didn't bother asking who they were."

Curbishley echoes widespread criticism of the Football Association when he adds: "There should be somebody already lined up. I thought when Terry Venables was manager and Bryan Robson was helping him that there would be a natural progression, but that seemed to fall by the wayside. There really shouldn't be a list of odds on the next England manager. It doesn't happen in too many other countries. Yet even if Kevin had stepped down in the summer, after Euro 2000, we would still have been in the same position, with nobody in the pipeline."

He's right, but given how the FA have botched things, and even though Curbishley has already appeared to rule himself out, might he still be persuaded? With characteristic agility, he sidesteps the question. "A lot of great players have been given jobs as league managers, and it hasn't worked out. It's the same stepping up from club to country. You need to know the scene because a lot of things go into an international match that most people never think about: the training, the facilities, hotels, the boredom factor. It's very difficult if you're not already part of that set-up. That is why I think England should always have someone in the background, gathering experience."

In fact, Curbishley has been offered precisely that role. Earlier this year, Howard Wilkinson invited him to work with the England Under-21s. Reluctantly, he declined. "We had just been promoted and the chairman felt that I should concentrate on the job in hand," he explains. "If the team wasn't doing well and I went off with the Under-21s, I'd be open to criticism. At the moment, club management is what it's all about for me. But I would not be averse in the future."

We are sitting in the homework room at Charlton's Sparrows Lane training ground, in unlovely Eltham, south London. It is called the homework room not because it is where Curbishley bones up on the opposition, but because Charlton's youth-team players do their homework there. And indeed, there is an engaging homeliness about Sparrows Lane, much more so than I have encountered at any other Premiership training ground. In the background a frantic game of table tennis is in progress, with loud encouragement from the sidelines. Elsewhere, the club physiotherapist is, in a curious reversal of convention, having his leg pulled mercilessly. I can see why Curbishley is not yet ready to leave, why he yearns to establish Charlton as a force in the top division, rather than a perennial favourite for relegation. But he must have opinions on the succession. Who does he think should succeed Keegan?

"I don't know. I do know it's a very difficult decision. Because an English candidate doesn't exactly hit you between the eyes. Peter Taylor says he doesn't want it at the moment and, in any case, he's inexperienced as a Premiership manager. Most of the top club managers, like Alex Ferguson, Arsÿne Wenger and Gérard Houllier, aren't English, and might not want it, and anyway, appointing a foreign coach maybe brings its own problems. I think they should take their time. I think Howard is more than capable in the short-term, perhaps with Bobby Robson or Terry Venables to help him. And I know that a lot of English minds and eyes are being opened by the influx of foreign ideas, so a couple of years down the road there'll be no need for people to talk about a foreign coach."

OK, so let's take a hypothetical journey a couple of years down the road. What qualities does Curbishley think he has to make him worthy, then if not now, of serious consideration as England manager?

"I don't complicate things too much. As in any factory or office, when certain things happen, you have to react. I think I react quickly to situations. I ask my players to work collectively. Having said that, a lot of England's problems have had nothing to do with Kevin. Some of the big-name England players are relaxed and expressive playing for their clubs, then seem to go rigid when they cross that line. But don't forget that we were playing a good side on Saturday, and the game panned out for them. In international football if a team goes 1-0 up early, it's very difficult to break them down. But if we get a good result against Finland, then we're back up there again."

However, the Finns could easily puncture that scenario in Helsinki this evening and, in the Charlton striker Jonatan Johansson they have a man quite capable of inflicting further embarrassment on Martin Keown and co. "Yes, he's a good player," says Curbishley. "He came off on Saturday [against Greece] and apparently missed a couple of chances, but we've been very happy with him. He's quick and two-footed, and if he gets presented with anything he finishes it off more often than not. We were pleased to get him. We tried to sign him [from Glasgow Rangers] two years ago but didn't have enough money."

Curbishley's pockets are not exactly weighed down with bullion even now, but he is a budding Bill Gates compared with his former self. He is, incidentally, the second longest-serving manager in the Premiership, behind Ferguson, and one might say that the recent fortunes of both Manchester United and Charlton Athletic, in their different ways, underline the benefits of managerial stability. When Charlton were relegated two seasons ago, the board's response was to offer Curbishley an improved long-term contract. He repaid that faith by leading Charlton straight back into the Premiership, where they now occupy sixth place. Moreover, it is symbolic that they have already won 1-0 away to Newcastle United, to whom they were once compelled to sell the much-cherished Robert Lee, and that they visit Elland Road this Saturday on more or less level terms with Leeds, to whom they were forced, in similarly straitened circumstances, to sell their rising star Lee Bowyer.

If Curbishley were the England manager, I say, unwilling to let that particular subject drop, would he find room in his team for Bowyer? Again, he throws me a nifty sidestep. "He's certainly got the attributes to be an England player. He's got pace and aggression and heart. I used to play him wide on the right, where he wasn't too comfortable, but we got an injury one day in the Worthington Cup at Barnet, so I moved him into midfield, and he never looked back. He's still got to work on a couple of things. His off-the-field stuff has haunted him over the past couple of years and he could be more consistent over 90 minutes. Actually, I think he left us a year too early. Howard [Wilkinson] bought him but then George [Graham] came in and wasn't too sure, so he lost a year when he could have been playing for us, getting stronger. But at the same time, we needed the £3m." The bulk of that £3m was invested in Charlton's venerable ground, The Valley, from which the club spent several miserable years in exile.

Curbishley was given just 10 per cent of it to spend on players. But the following season, in May 1997, the board stumped up the best part of £1m to buy Clive Mendonca from Grimsby. "And for the first time," Curbishley recalls, "players were coming in but nobody was leaving. Then we beat Sunderland in that play-off final, which was very important for us, because otherwise we would have needed to sell a couple of players.

"A year in the Premiership made us much stronger. We used a third [of the television income] on the stadium, a third on players, and a third went into reserve in case we were relegated. Which we were, but we didn't have to break the team up. Really, we are unrecognisable from 10 years ago [when he became player-coach]. In those days we operated out of Portakabins, at Selhurst Park and Upton Park. I showed the players three ways to Upton Park in case they couldn't get through and even then they sometimes struggled. There were times when we handed the team-sheet in on a Saturday afternoon and only five of the players had turned up. On one occasion John Bumstead reached the Canning Town flyover and it was all jammed up, so he ran the last two miles."

Curbishley, who was brought up in Canning Town and knows the back doubles to Upton Park blindfolded, had no such problems. He registered as an apprentice with West Ham in 1973, and it's worth knowing that the name on the form was Llewellyn Charles Curbishley. "But I've always been known as Alan," he says. "There weren't too many Llewellyns in Canning Town."

He was a good player, too, a regular in the England youth midfield alongside Peter Barnes, Ray Wilkins and Glenn Hoddle. "And at West Ham we were playing other great youth teams every week. Arsenal had Rix, O'Leary, Stapleton and Brady. Ipswich had Butcher, Osman, Gates, Burley and Wark. These days, the youth players don't move up like they used to, because of the foreign influx. I'd played 100 games for West Ham before I was 20. If you did that these days, you'd never have to work again."

Such is the modern status of the Premiership footballer. And Curbishley is in a better position than most to observe that football is the new rock n' roll, for he is on pretty intimate terms with the old rock n' roll. His brother, Bill, has been manager of The Who since 1972. And when Bill recently got married, with Curbishley as his best man, guests included Roger Daltrey, Pete Townshend, and Led Zeppelin's Jimmy Page and Robert Plant, the latter a Wolves nut, who apparently uses the Wolves badge as his backstage pass.

This nugget of useful information comes from Curbishley, who worked as a roadie for Plant in 1988. "And I realised then that music is very much like football," he says. "There are stars but it really is a team game, in which everyone works hard and nobody gets something for nothing. The difference is that when rock stars don't perform, or their records aren't selling, they might not earn so much money. Footballers are guaranteed money whether they play or not, although I wouldn't say that's wrong, because with one bad tackle it could all end tomorrow." Or with one poor result in a World Cup qualifier against Finland, if you're the caretaker manager of England. In which case, the FA could yet be knocking on Curbishley's door.

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