Kinnear adds brain to brawn

The Crazy Gang have matured thanks to their manager, says Glenn Moore

In a converted transport cafe overlooking the public park where Wimbledon train, Joe Kinnear was describing the manager's version of fantasy football.

He leaned back in his chair and purred: "a 40,000-capacity all-seat stadium; 10 practice pitches with surfaces like bowling greens; a youth system from six-year-old to adult with all the best kids in the city; and money to burn."

If this is what it is going to be like no wonder Wimbledon want to move. But no, Kinnear is not describing a possible future in Dublin or Cardiff; he is recalling an actual past, a job he held for six years in Dubai.

It is a long way from managing Wimbledon, but in the circumstances, Kinnear could be forgiven if he felt temporarily disorientated. The mooted move to Ireland or Wales comes from a club which has three bases already, none of which are really home. The first team play at Crystal Palace; the reserves at Plough Lane; and both train in the park off the A3.

Even if Wimbledon do not move, Kinnear might. He is one of the favourites to follow Jack Charlton as manager of the Republic of Ireland.

All this speculation has been accompanied by a damaging run of form that has raised the spectre of Wimbledon finally slipping out of the elite, after 10 rumbustious years among them. They began the Christmas programme without a win in 16 starts.

"We should have won several of them," said Kinnear. "We are playing better and we are getting fitter," he adds, reeling off half-a-dozen returning serious injury victims. Significantly, they include the bulk of the back four.

Wimbledon, more than most clubs, cannot afford an injury crisis. They have had to use 27 players this season, stretching their thin resources too far. The response has, however, been typical. They took on Newcastle with four centre-forwards, and repeated the trick away to Leeds. "Sometimes you fear the worst when you look at the sides, but we gave it a blast - it seemed to work in our favour," said Kinnear.

In both games they got the better of the draw and the 3-3 tie with Newcastle was arguably the game of the season so far.

Not so long ago, Wimbledon would have sought to beat a team like Newcastle by intimidating them physically, the league points being paid for with disciplinary ones. In that match, the only bookings were for Newcastle and Wimbledon attacked down the flanks rather than with the long punt down the middle.

The change illustrated Wimbledon's development under Kinnear. The reputation lingers, but they are no longer an ugly, bruising side. Fash the Bash took his elbows to Aston Villa, and the Jones boy, having been dropped, is contemplating a move.

"He is the last of the dinosaurs, the old Crazy Gang," Kinnear said. "He has been monumental to this club, phenomenal. And we have been good for him. When he goes, people will perceive it as the final break.

"It was a conscious decision to change the style, but to do so without losing what we had. You get criticised whichever way you do it. Journalists come to me and they say: `You have gone soft. You don't kick people anymore and hit it long. Don't you think you had better get back to the old Wimbledon way and frighten the life out of people?'

"But football has changed, it has moved on. We have all-seater stadiums, new rules have come in and players get booked willy-nilly. Everything is staked on forward play to make the game more attractive. The thing you must have now as a defender is pace. The old sliding tackle I used to make is gone. I tell my defenders to stay on their feet, do not tackle in the box, get the blocks in instead. Years ago people would break their necks to get a tackle in, now, if he goes down, it is a sending-off offence."

Change was not made with reluctance. A devoted, but jargon-free coach with a wall full of videos at home, Kinnear would not have been happy teaching a team to kick and chase for long.

Wimbledon's image has changed off the pitch too. Having had a jibe at the cafe, it is only fair to note that inside it is more homely than the training facilities at Liverpool or Manchester United.

Inside, there is a big fireplace decorated with Christmas cards and pennants. Photographs of players dot the walls. Yet, when Kinnear took over as manager, following Peter Withe's brief, ill-fated, spell four years ago, it still was a transport cafe.

"It was diabolical. All the truck drivers would come in the morning, the place would stink of bacon and eggs. We would be going out to training and some of our lads would be going in there. I remember Alan Cork and Sam [Hammam] having a cup of tea and a bacon sarnie then going out to training.

"I said to Sam: `What about spending a bit on this, do it up and put the offices here. We spent pounds 250,000 on it. Sam said: `That could go towards a player'. I said: `This is here for life. It is for the future, for the kids, the parents. When you show them around we have a lovely treatment room, a weights room for the kids. It is money well spent, and it is a base."

Wimbledon also bought the six nearest pitches on the adjacent playing fields. Undersoil heating ensures they are fit for play when the public pitches on the far side are not. An alert groundsman keeps the dogs off (incidentally, neither Arsenal or Spurs own their own training grounds).

The youth system is vital to Wimbledon. "We are a selling club. We have to find pounds 3m a year just to break even. What if we reach a stage when we do not find them anymore. Then it is not a case of selling one player, it is selling five."

Kinnear's own career was spent at the other end of the spectrum. For seven years the right-back was often the only youth-team graduate at Tottenham. The added pressure cost him, he estimates, 25 caps. "In midweek, we would be playing in the Uefa Cup and Ireland would have an international - that is how bad their planning was. The choice was mine, but I knew if I did not play for Spurs I might not get my place back."

Kinnear has a clause in his contract guaranteeing his release if Ireland do offer him the manager's job. "If it happens, I can consider it with Sam's blessing. He has suggested I could do both, but I could not."

International management would not be new to Kinnear. When he retired as a player Terry Venables, a former room-mate, offered him the job of youth team coach at QPR. But he had enjoyed travelling with Ireland and Spurs and applied to work overseas, beginning in Nepal. He then worked with the national squad in Malaysia and India before moving to Dubai.

"I had six years there and won four titles. There were coaches from all over, Cesar Menotti who had won the World Cup with Argentina, Brazilians, Yugoslavs, Russians, Dutch. The facilities and lifestyle were fantastic. I earned enough to be financially secure, if not rich.

The swimming-pool life palled eventually and Kinnear, who had spent most of his holidays at Lilleshall attending coaching sessions, came back to look for a job in England. Within a week, Dave Mackay, who had also been in the Gulf, made him assistant manager at Doncaster.

From there he moved to Wimbledon, first as assistant to Ray Harford then, in January 1992, as manager. He is happy there. He and Hammam get on well, he is popular with supporters and committed to the club. But Ireland attracts. Chirpy and chubby Kinnear is the antithesis of Charlton, but both possess much sharper tactical minds than their image might suggest.

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