Racing: Interview Mick Channon - Champion of Keegan cause

Football hero who made his name in another field welcomes new England order
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No fear of flying for this Dennis Bergkamp, the one with four legs, flowing mane and who is still a few days off his second birthday. The imposing bay colt is fairly flexing his limbs over the Lambourn gallops, in common with his 20 or so companions. "Nice 'orse," barks Mick Channon in that familiar Wiltshire burr as he grimaces. "But what a terrible name."

You raise your eyebrows, conscious that the character who was among the principal bruisers when TV football pundits really used to engage in verbal fisticuffs is about to make one of his typically acerbic pronouncements. He is not, it seems, in reverential mood where the Double winners Arsenal are concerned. "Boring," he declares. "Well, the back four are still pretty dour, aren't they? It's what they inherited from Don Howe and they haven't changed much." Eventually he concedes: "All right, they've got a bit of spark back now with Anelka and Bergkamp."

It was 14 years ago that his football career ended at Portsmouth. Yet, the former England forward's links with the sport he still loves - and the opinions he holds - are as strong as the foundations of a burgeoning racing empire, which includes the stand-in England coach Kevin Keegan and his horse-loving wife Jean among the patrons of his Upper Lambourn stables.

Twenty-two years in the professional game, winning an FA Cup final with Southampton and playing 46 times for his country in the process, should have been total fulfilment for the man whose whirling arm was the trademark gesture to celebrate every one of his 200-plus goals. There is a sense of disbelief that his after- football life has been so bountiful, too, in his reincarnation as one of the country's most successful trainers. Something akin to enjoying 20 years of married life with Raquel Welch, being divorced, and then setting up a new home with Kim Basinger.

Not that the transition was smooth. "The only time I was down in my life was when I got to 38 and didn't know what I was going to do," he says. "When you're finished with football, the phone doesn't ring and nobody wants you. It's a terrible feeling. I got off my arse when I retired, but many of my team-mates didn't have the same opportunity. That's why I've got no problem with what they earn today. Bloody right they should earn that kind of money.

"All they are is a commodity. If David Beckham broke his leg badly and was finished next week, they'd say `Sorry, David, but you're no use to us.' There's good players from my day who've got nothing now.

"I was fortunate. I had a stud farm and I started buying and selling a few horses and, really, I drifted into the racing side. We started with 10 horses 10 years ago, and all of a sudden we've ended up with over a hundred."

It is through his two-year-olds that the Channon name has prospered in a career that began with breeding talented commoners, like the decent Flat stayer and hurdler Jamesmead from his mare Cathy Jane, but is now more readily associated with equine aristocracy at his Kingsdown stables which were once home to the 1974 Derby winner Snow Knight.

"We've created a monster," says the 50-year-old father of four. "For an ordinary lad from Salisbury Plain it's real frightening when you look at the financial commitment that you've got and the responsibility for all these people's livelihoods. But I love it."

Although he underwent an apprenticeship as assistant to John Baker and Ken Cunningham-Brown you suspect that the racing world might have considered it was taking the Mick when the sometimes maverick footballer sought membership of the conservative world of the Turf fraternity. But he insists: "People assume that you've got to have been a jockey or a public school boy to train horses, but that's a load of bollocks. Neither do you need to be a brain surgeon. Racing folk give you a chance; they judge you by results. If you produce, no one can knock you."

This particular morning, as we talk, his lads and lasses are riding out the second "lot", all juveniles, and all learning to be serious racehorses. He walks as feelingly as one of his lame horses to where his charges have assembled, spread out like Red Indians breasting a ridge before him. His slightly arthritic gait is the painful legacy of his previous career.

"There's major work tomorrow," he bellows. "I don't want them working today." He is firm, but not unkind. This is no Gordon Ramsay berating errant sous-chefs.

They pass us in threes at half-speed. "That's a lovely horse, Ma Yoram, one of the Arab horses; Master Fay, he could go for the Brocklesby [the first two-year-old event on Thursday when the turf Flat season makes its annual bow at Doncaster]." Other early types to look out for, he says, are Barringer and Cotton House. Channon points out a Daarshan colt. "That's Talaash. He cost 380 grand, and is one of Sheikh Ahmed's, a lovely horse. I don't know whether he's any good yet, but at that price he should be."

A month ago, another of Sheikh Ahmed Al Maktoum's contingent, Bint Allayl, didn't make it back from the gallops. Of five two-year-olds sent to him last season by the Sheikh, Josr Algarhoud won the Gimcrack Stakes before departing to Dubai to join the Godolphin operation and Bint Allayl was champion juvenile filly. It made her favourite for this May's 1,000 Guineas, which could have given him his first Classic.

She broke a leg on these wind-scoured gallops and despite attempts to save her, had to be humanely destroyed. He issues an oath, then adds: "It's not a shock to someone who lives with it. In 10 years I've lost four horses and she had to be one of them, unfortunately." You suggest that he had received much sympathy over his loss. Channon grunts, not overly impressed. "When you're in the s***, 80 per cent of the people don't give a f*** and the other 20 per cent are over the moon."

You can only assume such a cynical view of life might have had its basis in football. Indeed, it is probable that a series of England coaches and managers would concur. Maybe Keegan, one of his closest friends and former strike partner at The Dell and with England, will do so after his four games in charge of the national side. Channon doesn't believe he will give the critics a chance.

"Kevin will do well because he understands what it's like to be a big- time player. He was responsible for the smile-on-your-face football brought to Newcastle. The way he put his teams together there, at least you know England are going to try to win games."

He adds: "It's the best thing that's happened to England and not just because Kevin got the job. I just don't think it should be full-time. All managers have to worry about for the next two or three months is who they're going to play. And with you lads [the media] telling them who's playing great, by the time the game comes, he's changed his mind six times. It's a ludicrous situation. The England team manager is not a full-time job. Never has been, never will be. It ruined Don Revie. He was the most influenced man that I ever knew. He was so enthusiastic about England and about the team. By the end of his time, he was totally disillusioned. He was changing the team every game.

"Players shouldn't be with England if they're not good enough. They need organising, but they don't need coaching. The great thing about Alf Ramsey was that all he asked you to do was what you'd done at club level. Nobby Stiles used to do the same as he did at Man Utd, kick the f*** out of everybody. Bobby Charlton would rip them in from 20 yards, Bally [Alan Ball] could run all day, Martin Peters did the same as he was used to, and so did Geoff Hurst and Bobby Moore."

Channon adds: "Kevin's a very proud man and desperately wants to win. What else do you want in an England manager? The players are good enough; the question is whether the team is good enough and will they perform? I spent a lot of time with him in our playing days, and if I know one thing it's that he won't be influenced by anyone else. He'll be his own man, and he'll live or die by that."

A bit like his old football pal. And if Keegan is anywhere near the England coach that Channon is trainer, Euro 2000 qualification is assured.