Curbishley, continuity and the Old Trafford template

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The Independent Online

When Sir Alex Ferguson and Charlton Athletic's Alan Curbishley were honoured by the League Managers' Association at the end of the 1999-2000 season for having won their respective leagues, Curbishley suggested in his acceptance speech that the stability provided by a long-serving manager was an important factor for both clubs.

Two years on, with that continuity having been threatened and then re-established at Manchester United, while Charlton are stronger than at any time for half a century, he felt entitled to repeat his conviction on the eve of this afternoon's meeting between them at the splendidly refurbished Valley.

"Some clubs have had three managers in six months," Curbishley said, hoping no doubt to cause a blush or two in the vicinity of Derby. "Short-termism is very dangerous. Changing the manager and staff and then the players is all very difficult and expensive. Look at Ipswich, who were the only team in the bottom three who didn't sack their manager and are now getting the reward from that.

"Of course, you've got to be successful – I wouldn't have been here 11 years and Alex wouldn't have done however many he has [16] if it hadn't been going right. But it bucks the trend."

There is a mutual admiration between the two, who, despite their 16-year age difference, have a not dissimiliar background: a working-class upbringing in Forest Gate and the Gorbals respectively, solid if unspectacular playing careers and a coaching and managerial apprenticeship that bigger names often cannot be bothered with.

Curbishley, while quick to emphasise the differences in scale, is proud to have helped build his club in the same manner as Ferguson: "Alex has done it the right way, establishing a youth system, building up the first-team and the stadium. And I think he has admiration for what we've done, seeing someone else doing things along similar lines. I spoke to him in the week and told him he'd notice a few changes at our place, like the new stand, which we're really proud of."

If that stand is full for the first time today, the attendance will be over 26,000, the largest at The Valley since 1977, when Curbishley was just making his name as a dashing midfield player with West Ham. By the time he took up his first coaching appointment, at Charlton in 1990, they were in exile at Selhurst Park on gates of 6,000. When Lennie Lawrence left in 1991, Curbishley oversaw a season back at his old Upton Park stamping ground as a joint manager with Steve Gritt, possibly on the basis that he knew the back-doubles to get his players through the east London traffic in time for the kick-off. He recalls frequently handing in the team-sheet with only six or seven having arrived, as well as selling Robert Lee to help finance the Valley move.

That return was the defining moment in the club's modern history. Close behind it, in retrospect, was a decision taken in the summer of 1995 by the incoming chairman Richard Murray to dispense with the popular Gritt and give Curbishley sole responsibility. "I didn't think having joint managers was working," Murray said. "So Alan and I have been working together ever since. For our particular club, I think he's the best manager we could have. He takes an interest in everything from the youth set-up upwards, and also the way Charlton is run as a business, partly because he was involved when we were struggling to pay the weekly wages.

"He's seen the other side of it. He's only been able to spend what the club can afford. But before signing any player he does a lot of homework and over the years his track record in transfers is comparable with anybody's."

Last season, Curbishley's hand-picked crew – like Ferguson, he has been in the job long enough to have signed every one of the current first-team squad – achieved Charlton's highest finish (ninth) for 47 years. To be sitting in a similar position again despite an horrendous injury listis hugely encouraging for one of the country's most admired young managers, who now says: "Our aim at the end of this year was to be able to say we've got a 27,000 all-seater stadium sold out every week and we're in the Premiership. And for me that, in relative terms, will be a greater achievement than Man United winning the Premiership."

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