Lawrie Sanchez is recalling a recent conversation he had with his Fulham defenders in training when, to illustrate a point, he talked about names from his own past – John Scales, Terry Phelan, Eric Young, Andy Thorn. They had, at one time, formed one of the most combative, effective defences in English football. "Anyway," Sanchez says, "after training Gibbo [his assistant Terry Gibson] came over and said to me, 'The players don't know who the hell you're talking about'."
So Sanchez checked with Fulham's American international Carlos Bocanegra if this was the case. "Carlos said to me, 'Sorry boss, but I've never heard of any of them'."
That is the problem when you were a player at a club that has ceased to exist – history tends to forget. But for Sanchez the Wimbledon days are just the early chapters of his story. As the manager of Fulham since April he is building a management career in which he has a reputation as something of a miracle worker.
He reached the FA Cup semi-final in 2001 with Wycombe Wanderers (then in what is now League One) and, as Northern Ireland manager, had victories over Spain, Sweden and – most memorably – Sven Goran Eriksson's England in September 2005. Today he will have a crack at another big one. Avram Grant's home debut as Chelsea manager should be an interesting occasion just for the reaction of the home fans. That it is against their neighbours Fulham adds to the drama, especially when you remember that the Israeli is defending a 67-game unbeaten home run in the Premier League for the club. It was begun by Claudio Ranieri but continued by Jose Mourinho, who never lost at home in the Premier League in his entire three years as manager.
Sanchez himself has been in charge of Fulham for only 14 matches but he is no overnight success. His management career began at Sligo Rovers in Ireland in 1994 and he has arrived in the Premier League via Wimbledon reserves, Wycombe and Northern Ireland. Along the way he has brought up his son Jack as a single parent and has one thing, above all, that Grant would covet – a Uefa Pro Licence coaching badge. It was obtained as a graduate of the first class in Britain to take the qualification.
Sanchez is a tough guy, a manager who admits that he lets others among his staff do the "cuddly" side of things; before he beat England at Windsor Park he sent home two players for breaking a curfew. He has deep-rooted principles about the way managers should work and he is intelligent as well, a man who thinks hard about the often harsh profession he works in. But he can have a laugh too. "My history died to a certain extent with Wimbledon," he says, "which isn't the worst thing in the world because I can tell my squad I was a good player."
Today's game was supposed to be about Sanchez against Mourinho until the events of last week and Sanchez says he was disappointed to miss the chance of testing him-
self. At 47 he is only three years older than Mourinho and there are certain parallels. Both are university graduates, although Sanchez was playing professionally for Reading while he studied management sciences at Loughborough University. His experiences mean he has an interesting theory on how modern management works and how, he says, it is important to manage "upwards and downwards" at a club.
"He [Mourinho] had been unbelievably successful and to a certain extent I am sure he believes that if he touches something it will turn to gold," Sanchez says. "Now that won't happen all his life. You only have to look at Louis van Gaal, the Mourinho of his day, and now he is at AZ Alkmaar. The trouble is when you start off you're brash and bright and gonna change the world: 'I get results, therefore bollocks to everything else.' At the top clubs it's not quite like that. Managing the expectations of the people above you is a major factor – managing upwards.
"I don't know what happened at Chelsea but if the chairman is going to spend £30m on a player then really what you should be managing is how that £30m is spent. If he wants a glamorous one, you'll be thinking, 'Well, I have won the title, now he wants something else – can I give it to him?'
"With all managers the team has got to be more important [than individuals] but at the top clubs the game is about having some massive players who satisfy the crowd. Alex Ferguson has shown under pressure he has always been able to manage the situation downwards and upwards very well. He has had 20 years at Manchester United and 100 years from now he will still be up there with Sir Matt Busby in their history.
"Mourinho in 100 years' time will be a footnote manager in Chelsea's history, one that brought them the league after 50 years but the one after him will probably do it with the money available to him. His three years will be considered good but it will be three years, it won't be 10 years, it won't be a dynasty. I am sure in a very short space of time he will be very successful, but what [Arsène] Wenger and Ferguson will have credit for is having built something solid in their time."
There is a deep-seated realism in Sanchez about what it takes to succeed and, although he does not mention him by name, it is clear that he takes the ambitions of his Fulham chairman, Mohamed al-Fayed very seriously. It is a lesson he learnt when he was still a player at Wimbledon under the legendary Dave "Harry" Bassett – that, in Sanchez's words, every manager "needs to find out what the bloke upstairs wants and give it to him.
"Bassett had bollocked me after a game. I said: 'What age do you have to be when you are too old to be bollocked? I am 28 years old, I am a grown man, I have a child at home and you are bollocking me.' Bassett said: 'I bollock you, Sam [Hamann, then Wimbledon chairman] bollocks me and, when he goes home, his missus bollocks him. So you are never too big or too old to get bollocked.' And that's a fact of life.
"You can be 44 years old, you have won four titles in five years and everyone is saying you are a 'special one'. You believe it, but there is always someone bigger and richer and more arrogant than you somewhere. You need to work that out – not to the extent you compromise your principles – but admit that's the reality. Until you are the richest, the biggest and best manager in the world there is always someone upstairs."
Sanchez took over Fulham on a trial basis last season with five games left, saved them from relegation and got the job. At 17th in the table it has not been an easy start – and Sanchez was on the attack over another refereeing decision in the Carling Cup defeat against Bolton on Wednesday – but he has an unshakeable belief in the right way of doing things. At Northern Ireland those principles took his team up 97 places in the Fifa world rankings and last season he left with them top of Euro 2008 qualifying Group F, having beaten Sweden.
"As a player I hated it when managers talked about their past, it's the most boring thing in the world but there is one point I like to make to my players," he says. "I say as a player I have walked out of Old Trafford, Anfield, Villa Park, White Hart Lane and Wembley as a winner. With a small club. So we can do that but you need to trust in what I am doing. Do as I ask you and we will achieve that.
"I said the same thing to the Northern Ireland players three years ago and I knew that half of them were thinking, 'Yeah, right'. That half weren't there when we beat England, Sweden and when we beat Spain from being behind twice. The people who wanted to be part of a successful team were there at the end. They had worked for it and they achieved success. The people who weren't [there] didn't want to be part of that because they didn't conform to what I wanted and they will never have those moments in their life.
"I said the same at Wycombe and they played in an FA Cup semi-final. One of them is a painter now, 28 years old, not playing football any more. And yet he played in a semi-final that day, a moment that will live with him for the rest of his life. Raising players above their level is my job as manager and I think I can do it."
When he looks back at his time at Wycombe, life was a lot more difficult on a day-to-day basis. "At the bottom you have to be the best coach, the best scout, the best motivator, the best man-manager, the best everything," he says. "At the top level you can delegate and protect yourself to a certain extent." He started laying the foundations for a career in management as early as possible – in fact, a few weeks after he scored the winning goal for Wimbledon against Liverpool in the 1988 FA Cup final he and his team-mate Dave Beasant, now Fulham's goalkeeping coach, did their Uefa A-licence coaching badges.
When the Uefa Pro Licence course was introduced in 2000, Sanchez was, along with the Bolton manager Sammy Lee, among the first intake of students under Howard Wilkinson and Les Reed, now on his staff at Fulham. The dispute simmering between the League Managers Association and the Premier League with Chelsea over Grant's lack of formal qualifications can seem like a minor quibble, but for managers who have done the course it remains important.
"Having been told that you had to have it to manage in the Premier League and having got to the Premier League and been told you don't need it, I would like them to give me my back my £7,000 because it was quite expensive," he jokes. "At one stage you could appoint a postman to be team manager, there was no criteria for whoever was in charge. It's not about having the licence, it is about saying, 'I have thought about my future, I have given up some of my time to progress through the system because that is what I wanted to do.'It isn't about saying, 'I'm 35, I've finished, what shall I do now? Oh, I know, I'll manage a team.'
"Managing is completely different to playing. You do need to do something different when you are manager of a football team. If you put yourself out and say, 'I am going to find the time and do the courses', at least you have done some preparation."
Even the Uefa Pro Licence does not teach all the things Sanchez has learnt in football. Like the day he had that infamously brutal fight with John Fashanu in training. It was a challenge he took on knowing he would lose because he had to clear what was "10 years of antagonism" between the pair. Mostly he stood apart from Wimbledon's "Crazy Gang" phenomenon, an "onlooker" he says, but there are certain aspects of it that can still make him smile.
Some time soon, the Fulham players might be hearing what Sanchez described as his "default" team talk at Wycombe, a brilliant motivational tale about a former Wimbledon team-mate of his. "I would tell my players that I have played with a bloke who always thought he was the best player on the field whether he was playing against Bryan Robson or Alan Shearer," he says "And I tell them that now he is in Hollywood, if he walks on to a movie set with Robert De Niro, he thinks he's the better actor. It just shows what belief in yourself can do."
He's talking, of course, about his friend Vinnie Jones, once of Wealdstone, now of Beverly Hills. But equally it could be applied to Sanchez, a strong character who won't have any fears about taking on Chelsea's famous names today. "If you are a manager, you have to work by certain principles," he says. "Once you start letting those principles shift or you think, 'I'll let him off because he's special', what tends to happen is that you come undone."
A step down? Life after national service
International managers used to retire but Lawrie Sanchez is the eighth at a Premier League club who have coached a UK national team – with mixed fortunes.
* SVEN GORAN ERIKSSON
England 2001-2006, Manchester City 2007-
After a bright start with England the lustre faded. Will early promise be sustained at City?
* SIR ALEX FERGUSON
Scotland 1985-1986, Manchester United 1986-
Was a caretaker for his country, the Godfather at Old Trafford.
* GLENN HODDLE
England 1996-1999, Southampton 2000-2001, Tottenham H 2001-2003
Began rebuilding his reputation at Saints but disappointed after controversial return to Spurs.
* MARK HUGHES
Wales 1999-2004, Blackburn Rovers 2004-
Future looks bright having imp-ressed with country and club.
* KEVIN KEEGAN
England 1999-2000, Manchester City 2001-05
Famously quit in Wembley toilets. Took City up, but quit again.
* BOBBY ROBSON
England 1982-1990, Newcastle United 1999-2004
Left England for the Continent, but could not resist returning to his Geordie roots. Sacked after coming fourth, third and fifth.
* GRAHAM TAYLOR
England 1990-1993, Watford 1997-2001, Aston Villa 2002-2003
First ex-England manager since Sir Alf Ramsey to return to the domestic game when he went to Wolves in 1994. Failed to reach the Premier League with them but did so after making an emotional return to Watford.
* TERRY VENABLES
England 1994-1996, Leeds United 2002-2003
Arrived at Elland Road as the club went into meltdown. Left as the team was sold around him.Reuse content