Out of the frying pan and into the fire

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The Independent Online
As a player, Barry Fry's crowning moment came at Wembley. The cross came from the left, he timed his jump to perfection and smoothly headed home England's winner against Scotland. An exultant crowd of 93,000 roared their approval for the inside-forward's perception.

It was all downhill after that. Fry never again rose to the heights he reached during that schoolboy international. He was an apprentice at Manchester United but never appeared in the first team. His league career embraced three other clubs and 15 appearances. It was all over by the time he was 22.

"I impress that on my young players now," he said. "I tell them not to waste their opportunities. Matt Busby took me to Old Trafford but it wasn't his fault I didn't make it, and nobody else was to blame elsewhere. It was down to me. I'd got five goals in six games for England Schoolboys and I thought I had what it took. I'd think nothing of a night at the dogs and going on to a club. Stupid, really stupid."

Fry survived, of course. He spent a few seasons playing non-league football and, briefly, became something of a legend with his hometown club, Bedford. But it is as a manager that he has found something approaching fulfilment. He took his first job at Dunstable when he was 27, and while the journey he began then has not been without disruption, he has gone on to become the most celebrated manager outside the Premiership.

Somehow, it was no surprise when he bought Peterborough United in May. Sacked amid familiar controversy by Birmingham City barely a month earlier, it seemed perfectly appropriate to his brashness and self-belief.

"What I've done is no more than buy the club's debts," said Peterborough's new owner and director of football. "I don't want to reveal too much but I suppose that's about a million quid. I don't own the freehold but the organisation's mine. It's up to me to make it work: to sell the tickets, the hamburgers, the shirts and to buy the team. The great thing about being owner is that you don't only sign players, you decide how much you can pay them. I should have done this years ago."

Fry is a showman. He also possesses unquestionable charisma. In three months at Peterborough, a place where the football temperature usually hovers around freezing point, he has presided over a record number of season-ticket sales, a record signing and a flurry of passion, which in its minor way is redolent of that witnessed 250 miles up the road at Newcastle.

At pounds 350,000, Martyn O'Connor is not Alan Shearer, but he is widely held to be the best player in the Second Division and Peterborough was not his natural destination when Walsall were willing to sell. Fry persuaded him that great achievements lay ahead at Posh and having done so negotiated the wages as well.

"When I arrived I knew I couldn't just be all mouth and trousers," he said. "I'm not the greatest football tactician in the world but I can get players to play for me. I really believe that and I think the fans believe it."

He has so far spent pounds 750,000 on players by way of example. There is no Sir John Hall in the background. This is Barry Fry's money.One thing Posh fans can be sure of is that their club will have a high profile. It is in their owner's nature.

When he took over Dunstable, their gates were all but in single figures and they were bottom of the Southern League. Fry persuaded George Best, a fellow apprentice from his Old Trafford days, to play three games. Dunstable had never seen its like. Fry, if not Georgie, took them to promotion.

Subsequently, he spent 14 years - in two stints - at Barnet and took them into the Football League, still probably his finest achievement. Briefly, he did well at Southend, but at Birmingham he never quite established the team he wanted.

There remains a doubt over his ability to manage a better class of player, and never having played in the top flight, he makes no secret of his wish to manage in it. "I've given myself three years to get in the First Division, 10 to get in the Premiership," said this amiable man. "OK, so deep down I know it'd take a miracle but I happen to believe in miracles." Like all showmen.