Platt keeps the faith

Liam James meets a goalkeeper turned manager set for first Wembley visit
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The Independent Online
It is one of football's received wisdoms that former members of the net-minding union do not make sound management material. The 30,000 Devonians expected to invade Wembley on Saturday would not beg to differ; their proud Plymouth Argyle were almost sunk by Peter Shil- ton's less-than-secure managerial keeping before Neil Warnock steadied the sinking ship.

Yet Darlington, Plymouth's opponents in the Third Division play-off final, provide irrefutable evidence that goalkeepers can make managers, an exceptionally good one in the case of Jim Platt. In six months as a sole- responsible manager in English football, the former Middlesbrough and Northern Ireland No 1 has transformed Darlington from relegation candidates in the Football League's basement div- ision into promotion contenders.

Platt, who made three of his 23 international appearances beneath the twin towers at Wembley, took joint charge of Darlington with David Hodgson after the side finished third from bottom last season. Hodgson, another Boro old boy, put the entire squad on the transfer list after a 2-1 home defeat against Scarborough in late September left the Quakers shaking, fourth from bottom of the table. He was the first to leave, however, resigning in December because of financial constraints.

Since then, Platt has performed his minor miracle. His team, undefeated in all but one of their last 22 matches and beaten just once away from home in their league campaign, have simultaneously confounded and delighted the club historian Frank Tweddle. He once described the two decorative towers above the main entrance to Feethams as "the only twin towers Darlington are ever likely to see".

In contrast to Warnock, whose reconstruction work has cost pounds 750,000, Platt has not spent a penny. The pounds 95,000 cost of the team he will field at Wembley was spent before he arrived.

The most impressive feature of the born-again Quakers is their polished passing game. Their attacks are crafted from the back, more often than not by Matty Appleby, a young libero Ossie Ardiles blooded at Newcastle but whom Kevin Keegan deemed surplus to requirements; the veteran Gary Bannister, a Wembley loser with Queen's Park Rangers in the 1986 League Cup final, performs a more-than-passable Peter Beardsley impression in his scheming role on the fringe of the opposition box; and the teenage striker Robbie Blake, who has been watched by Liverpool's chief scout, Ron Yates, provides the cutting edge in attack.

An impressive graduation ceremony would increase the likelihood of the out-of-contract Appleby, Blake and the impressive centre-half Sean Gregan all moving higher up the Football League ladder. With average gates of 2,000, Darlington cannot afford the luxury of holding on to such saleable assets.

Promotion would also shorten the odds against Platt following the career path of the last success story among the record 27 managerial recruits at Feet-hams since the Second World War.

Brian Little, who ventures into Europe with Aston Villa next season, took Darlington from the GM Vauxhall Conference into the old Third Division in two seasons.

"Obviously it would be great to do something like Brian has done," Platt said. "I make no pretence of the fact that I'd like to move on to a better club if the chance came along."

Prospective employers might care to note that Platt is already one step ahead of Little in one managerial respect. Before returning to English football, the Ballymena man guided Coleraine into the Uefa Cup in three successive seasons.

At 44, he can also draw on the experience he gained while sitting alongside Billy Bingham, as cover for Pat Jennings, watching some 50 international matches.