Ratcliffe inspires unlikely charge from Chester

Guy Hodgson talks to the former Wales captain who is bouncing back after a baptism of fire as a manager
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The Independent Online
There is nothing like a encouraging start to a new job, and Kevin Ratcliffe got nothing like one when he turned up at Chester City. Just six players arrived for pre-season training and only three of them were under contract. As the Dunbar advert would put it: "There may be trouble ahead..."

Trouble there was. Within nine months the club had lost two managers and Ratcliffe, originally signed as a playing assistant to Mike Pejic, was propelled into a seat so hot it was smoking. He took charge just in time to preside over the club's relegation from the Second Division. "Under the circumstances," he said, "we did pretty well."

Which is a fair summary of how the club are doing now. Ratcliffe, a winner of 59 Welsh caps, has turned round a club that appeared to be heading irresistibly downwards. They are in a play-off place in the Third Division with a crucial phase ahead of them - last night's goalless draw against Wigan was the first of three successive games against promotion hopefuls.

It is some achievement for a man who admits to having had no interest in managership when he was young, and who has started at the basement of the profession while his peers have gone straight into high-profile clubs. Ratcliffe, the erstwhile captain of Wales, is juggling with free transfer players; Bryan Robson, England's former skipper, can spend millions on Nick Barmby and Juninho.

"If someone had asked me when I was 20 or 21 if I wanted to be a manager I'd have said 'no way'," he said. "But as you get older you see people involved in the game who perhaps shouldn't be, and you think maybe you've got more to offer than they have. To be honest I love it here. It would need a very good offer to tempt me away."

On his influences, Ratcliffe is as frank as his tackles were hard. Howard Kendall? "He had the knack of picking the right team for the right match. You'd think it was luck if he hadn't done it so often that it had be down to good managership."

Frank Clark? "A good tactician and a deep thinker on the game. I expect him to be England manager one day."

Derby County? "A club full of spoilt kids who got too much too soon. They thought they knew everything when they were still learning the game."

Eddie May at Cardiff? "From him I learnt how not to handle players. A little bit of honesty has to come into it. He ruled by fear."

It is with Everton that Ratcliffe is most closely associated. A lightning quick centre-half, he and Peter Reid were the backbone of the side that won the title and the European Cup Winners' Cup in 1985, and the championship again two years later.

Yet that fulfilment is tinged with frustration. Heysel denied Everton a crack at the European Cup that the players believed they were good enough to win, and a predominantly young side was allowed to disintegrate prematurely. Kendall, Gary Stevens and Trevor Steven left in search of European competition while Reid was allowed to go, in Ratcliffe's opinion, too soon.

"Reidy was past his best, but with all due respect to players who were brought in they were still not as good as he was. They were learning the game while Reidy was the finished product."

"Maybe I should have gone as well, as it might have helped my career. But I loved the place, it was my pride and joy. I was born and bred an Evertonian and when I was out of the side all I wanted to do was get back into it, while other players would have said 'Sod it. I want away.' At any other club I would have done."

If the timing was awry at Goodison, he believes he arrived at the right moment at Chester. Pejic, he says, was unjustly pilloried given the restrictions placed upon him. But the ranting had a cathartic effect and, once Derek Mann had decided the job was not for him, bought Ratcliffe time.

"The club needed someone like Mike to come in for six months to take the shit from the fans, be hollered at, abused and then be sacked. He was in an impossible position. Without him, it would have been me getting the criticism."

Inheriting the manager's job last April, Ratcliffe escaped blame for the relegation. He changed the personnel, bringing back Billy Stewart, buying Nick Richardson for pounds 22,000 and acquiring Cyrille Regis, 38 but still a handful, on a free transfer from Wycombe.

The effect was startling and supporters could envisage a championship when the team started with eight wins in 10 matches. Reality dawned as points were dropped during a period disjointed by frequent postponements.

"I won't be disappointed if we finish 10th this year because the players have shown me what they can do," Ratcliffe said. "Cyrille apart, it's a young team and a lot of pressure was put on them. They've done better than expected because I feel we've got a way to go before we're a promotion side."

That was the pessimist speaking. Ratcliffe also has a flip side. "Having said that, if we play like like we did at the start of the season we'll go up. We built a gap which has been worn away now, but what people don't realise is that we've played the teams above us home and away. Other sides have still got to face Gillingham and Preston.

"An ideal world for the chairman and myself would be if we could get up through the play-offs. You earn more money through the play-offs than you do for almost the rest of the season."

The next month should indicate Chester's destination. Wherever it is, their troubles appear to be behind them.