Trials of life at the bottom of the pile

MONDAY VIEWPOINT Alan Murray, the ex-Darlington manager, on the fight for survival
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The Independent Online
It's tough at the top, so they tell me, but how many Premiership managers have experienced how tough it is at the bottom? The very bottom. Ninety-second place and 12 points adrift.

They should feel the weight of the pressure down there. It's crippling. That old joke about the team at the bottom being the strongest because they support the rest isn't so far from the truth. Certainly the manager has to be.

I'm sure Everton's Mike Walker was pretty pleased with himself at avoiding relegation on the last day of last season. The public might not have noticed it, but I did the same after taking over at Darlington and I reckon I had much more reason to be proud than Walker. The fact that no one was relegated, because of ground problems with the Vauxhall Conference champions Kidderminster, didn't lessen my achievement.

This season I moved seven players out and got six in - all on a free transfer. It was a major overhaul by anyone's standards but so well did the players respond that I was encouraged to predict with confidence that we would be challenging for a play-off position.

That's where I shot myself in the foot. What I should have said is that we would attempt to consolidate our position and move comfortably clear of relegation - which is exactly what we have done. The board and the supporters would probably have accepted that, but I set my sights high and paid the price.

I don't know what they expected - a miracle, I suppose. People point at the success achieved at Darlington by Brian Little but what they seem to forget is that he left in 1991. When I arrived in October 1993 I was the fourth manager they had hired since Little. It wasn't a case of inheriting a successful side - quite the opposite.

But like most clubs in the Third Division, Darlington don't have a reputation for patience. I was the 26th manager since the war. Now there's a 27th. No one's given time to build a platform. About the only club in the Third who have shown patience is Crewe Alexandra and look how Dario Grady has rewarded them.

It may be boom time in the North-east, but not for the likes of Darlington, who have to fight all the harder to hold on to their fans (our gates had been admittedly poor, an average of 2,200), not to mention trying to compete with the Newcastles and Middlesbroughs for the best of the region's youngsters.

What I wouldn't give to swap jobs - if I had one - with Kevin Keegan. He must be fretting how to spend his £7m windfall. Correction. £7.025m. I gave him £25,000 for Matthew Appleby, a defender, at the start of the season. That was my total outlay on transfers in 17 months.

Carlisle, the League leaders, spent £120,000 on one player. If I had been lucky enough to have that amount I would have been expected to buy at least three players with it.

The cost of people like Andy Cole has only made our position at the bottom worse. Managers nowadays ask ridiculous sums of money. Only recently I inquired about a player who had moved from one First Division club to another on a free transfer, but couldn't get into the team. They wanted £65,000.

But the salaries that the top players are demanding are such that clubs will have to prune their staffs. I predict an almighty glut of free transfers at the end of the season in the Third Division. Sadly, there's going to be a lot of young men joining me on the dole.

Playing staffs are trimmed to the bone. We had 22 at Darlington, including three goalkeepers and five first-year professionals. They had seven injured and one suspended for Saturday's match at Colchester. And you're only allowed five loan players during the season. We paid an average of £270 a week.

We alternate our training between the local school pitch and the public park. You provide your own kit, and wash it, too. The ground is shared with a cricket club but administered by a trust, so that improvements take time and money.

I came into management at Hartlepool, where I was chief executive, when poor Cyril Knowles became ill, and I feel that at 45 going on 19, I've still got a lot to give. I'd even be willing to experience how tough life is at the top.

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