Racing: Channon rides the carousel

THE MONDAY INTERVIEW: One of racing's rising stars in the training ranks shares a personal bond with Newcastle's ex-manager. He talked to Richard Edmondson
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The Independent Online
While the Grub Street scribblers were skulking through the Everglades in search of Kevin Keegan, it could have paid them to patrol a wildlife centre closer to home.

For at Upper Lambourn, in Berkshire's valley of the racehorse, resides not only Mick Channon, Keegan's great friend from playing days with Southampton and England, but also five thoroughbreds he has entrusted to the footballer turned trainer. Keegan and Channon share a strong bond. This was the pair that was once resting on an airport luggage carousel on international duty when a Yugoslav policeman took Keegan away and explained with his fists that he did not appreciate the seating arrangements.

This was also the pair at the centre of the performing troupe at The Dell in the bridge over the 1980s, a company that also included Alan Ball and Peter Osgood (soon to be was good). It was Keegan, too, who helped launch our prospective trainer eight years ago, when a stayer he bred, Golden Scissors, became M R Channon's first winner.

"When we played together we went out just to enjoy it, and that attitude was probably Kevin's downfall as a manager," Channon says. "We used to believe that if you got beat trying to win it was acceptable, but if we got beat trying to draw or conserve something then that was wrong. That seemed to be what they were saying to him at Newcastle. Scratch a few more 0-0s and try not to get beat."

A further factor may be that "three bags full sir" is not a phrase Keegan uses often."He's definitely his own man and there could have been a clash of personalities up there," Channon added. "He'd want to do it his way. There's a lot happening up there with the floatation and they probably would not have been able to spend money between now and the end of the year. I would say politics must have been involved.

"You get to the stage where there are only your rules or no rules at all. Knowing Kevin, I would think something went off that we haven't been told about yet. He's a pretty shrewd businessman - he's had more practice than me because he's always had more money - and he doesn't have to do it for the money. You could say he's not done bad for a miner's son from Doncaster."

Mick Channon occasionally uses phrases you never encounter at a Tupperware party. He likes the popular adverb of the streets and a noun which sounds like "shop". "I don't give a shop what people think of me," he says. "I'm single-minded and I just want to get on and have winners. If that has to be at Carlisle or Edinburgh, I don't give a shop."

The little lad from Orcheston on the Salisbury Plain has not done badly for himself, either, though he prefers to accentuate the negative. "I'm no different to any other footballer; I'm as thick as shops," he says. "Let's be fair, we're not the brightest bunch in the world, are we?"

Channon likes to portray himself as some yokel, as naive as a farm boy sitting on the back of a swaying hay cart. This though does not fully explain how he has managed to get to the top of two disparate pursuits. The footballing statistics are impressive. Channon made 718 League appearances for Southampton (two spells), Manchester City, Newcastle United, Bristol Rovers, Norwich City and Portsmouth, scoring 233 goals along the way. He represented his country 46 times, twice as captain, and found the net on a further 21 occasions.

More than this, though, Channon made one of the greatest contributions to the game of the 20th century: a celebration of a goal which to this day is copied in the Football League and Sunday pub matches alike. Professional athletes and blokes with beer tummies can still be seen making propeller motions with an arm as if an attempt to get airborne.

The Channon gesticulation was the fountainhead of the choreographed group absurdities of today, a gesture that was joyous, distinctive and, most of all, just plain silly. "It just happened one day and after that it was expected of me," the originator says. "I should have copyrighted it. It's still probably the most original way of doing it."

Early in his active career Channon followed the footballers' dedicated off-the-field prescription: betting shop, snooker hall, pub (repeat the following day, not necessarily in the same order). But while any self- respecting current player is passing under the awning at Cinderella Rockafella's these winter nights, Channon is merely yawning and getting ready for his cocoa. Well, it's Bovril actually, a legacy from his playing days. "It's best out of those thin plastic cups," he says. "So hot you can hardly pick it up."

Channon started easing off the Bigtime Charlie routine in his mid 20s, by which time his interest in racing was already growing like bamboo. As a breeder on his small farm, he produced the memorably successful Jamesmead and Ghofar, and, after his joints started disobeying instructions, he became an assistant to trainers John Baker and Ken Cunningham-Brown. Now he is a commander himself, and supervising 75 horses and 30 odd staff at Kingsdown Stables is the nearest he is prepared to get to management. "I'm my own boss to a certain degree here," Channon says. "If I fall out with one owner I'm not going to lose all my horses, but if you're a football manager and you fall out with a chairman, you've lost your job."

Kingsdown is the yard from which Peter Nelson sent out Snow Knight one June morning in 1974. The trip to Epsom so upset the colt that he kicked out several rails at the course and treated any human digit that came near him as if it was a chocolate finger. When he calmed down, however, he did manage to win the Derby.

The new master has yet to send out a Classic winner, though he has won a Group One race, the 1995 Nunthorpe Stakes at York, with Piccolo, a horse he bought for 18,500gns at the sales and later sold for stud duty at close to pounds 500,000.

The year of 1997 will be a watershed for Channon, who has thus far made his name on sending out hard-working two-year-olds. The trainer has never been one to dwell on defeat and, if his juveniles lose, he just runs them again. During his footballing days he would be showered, cologned and out of the dressing room before Alan Ball had taken his head out of his hands. However, Channon now realises he must exhibit the thought and strategy that goes into plotting paths for animals in their Classic season. "The proof will be what happens this year," he says. "We'll see if I can train now because we know we're all right with two-year-olds."

At the beginning of our morning Channon supervised a section of his string on the indoor gallop and it appeared he did indeed have inmates of particularly great merit. "That's Common Grounds," he said, "then Alzao, Mujadil, Forzando and Night Shift." Only after a while did his sleep-starved visitor understand the man was talking their sires and not the actual fledgling beasts before us.

Out on to the all-weather gallop and revival came quickly to this passenger as Channon sent his Land Rover over the sandy track as if Rommel's driver had been his instructor. "You can't beat this," he said as the wind screamed over the vehicle's roof. "Much better than being inside, isn't it?"

For those of us who used to see Channon either on the football field or Sportsnight with David Coleman, a worrying thought is that he will be 50 next year. He occasionally wears spectacles and the little bit of his scalp that is not grey is pink. What strikes you most about the man, though, is the effect football has had on his body. Channon walks as if he has upset a punishment squad. "As a footballer you never think you're going to get old and you don't think you're ever going to be 40, never mind 50 like I'm nearly now," he says. "I probably played on too long and I was definitely struggling at Portsmouth. I got terrible problems with arthritis in a foot and for a week after games I couldn't do anything.

"They wouldn't do today the things we did then and I remember having the toe nail off the morning of one game and playing in the afternoon with painkiller injections. But it's not something I like to whinge about because you do anything to play. Saturday was everything and if you didn't play there was no point to the whole week. When it's cold and damp like now I get a few more aches and pains than normal, but good horses have a habit of getting you out of bed, don't they?"

Channon has also contributed to the lexicon of football commentary, following his assessment to a television audience that "the boy done great". But, it must also be remembered, he was not slow to come forward when he thought the boy hadn't.

Channon's current bete noire is football's modern infatuation for multi- faceted athletes. As a player who marked as many A-level papers as he did opponents, he now preaches what he practised. "All this stuff about tracking back is a load of bollocks. What some talented players have to do now is incredible. When I see Andy Gray on Sky pushing his counters around and asking star players to come back, I can't help thinking how that wouldn't have gone down too well in my day."

Channon still enjoys going to The Dell - where only Le God can match him for supporter affection - but is anxious to be recognised not as a former sportsman but a man still making his way in life. "I suppose I'll always be known as the footballer, but that's all behind me now. It's past, it's gone," he says. The scent of international duty remains in Mick Channon's nostrils, however. He has already saddled the winners of Group prizes on the Continent and he would now like to clock up further air miles in the pursuit of riches. "Of course I'd love to win the Derby and big races here, but it would be even more exciting to go with a good horse to Japan or Australia or even America," he says. If he manages these destinations, Channon may one day come across a jostling circle of pressmen and an old friend fighting for air in the middle.