Phil Robinson used to be chauffeur, after a fashion, to one Stanley Victor Collymore. Now, as player-manager of Stafford Rangers, he is intent on driving his home-town team back towards the status they enjoyed when he cheered them from the Wembley terraces as a boy in a black-and-white scarf.
The year was 1979 and Stafford, who were a power in what is now the Conference, overcame Kettering under the twin towers to recapture the FA Trophy. Robinson, then 12, would play 500 times for Aston Villa, Wolves, Notts County, Birmingham, Huddersfield, Northampton, Chesterfield and Stoke, yet he never lost touch with the club he leads into today's FA Cup first-round derby at Third Division Shrewsbury.
"I not only supported the Rangers but played in their reserves at 15, so I've always had their interests at heart and kept in contact with the club," Robinson said. A prime example was his role in bringing Collymore to Stafford more than a decade ago. They banked a six-figure sum when he left for Crystal Palace and a life of England caps, lucrative transfers and tabloid notoriety.
"Stan and me were released by Wolves at the same time, and when I signed for Notts I told the manager, Neil Warnock, that I couldn't believe they'd let him go," Robinson explained. "He came on trial for a month and I picked Stan up in Cannock every morning. We got on well and I still regard him as a mate.
"Anyway, Neil used to play in training games and he'd run around, closing the full-backs down and making tackles. Stan took a more laid-back approach. One day Neil stopped play and said to him: 'I can't believe this. You're on trial, yet I'm running past you into the corners'." Stan just said: 'Yeah, but I'm scoring the goals, gaffer'."
Collymore did not stay at Meadow Lane, but Robinson phoned a friend at Stafford and persuaded them to take a chance. The rest is his story. This summer, however, it was the matchmaker taking and making the calls at Marston Road, by now a Dr Martens League venue.
"On my first day in the office it dawned on me that I had just one player on contract," Robinson recalled. "The season was looming and I had a blank sheet of paper. I spent hours going through my notebooks, scanning lists of released players and ringing contacts. It turned out to be a good thing – it meant I could hand-pick the whole squad.
"I decided on a policy of younger players with something to prove, people who'd just dropped out of the League. In that respect, the ITV Digital affair did us a favour. I also went for locally based lads because Stafford people respond to them. Now we've got no one coming from further than Birmingham or Crewe."
The competition from Midlands rivals like Tamworth and Worcester – two of the three clubs above them in the race for promotion to the Conference – was fierce. Robinson invited would-be recruits to training, confident they would sign once they saw the way he worked and became enthused by his passion for "high-tempo, attacking football".
With an eye on the future, he also set up a youth academy plus junior and reserve sides. The younger element is epitomised by Danny Davidson and Robin Gibson. Davidson, a 6ft 4in trainee accountant, followed the player-manager from Hereford last summer and has scored 10 goals. Gibson is a winger who Robinson remembered "tore us apart" playing for Wrexham at Hereford in last year's first round.
The experience is provided by Robinson in midfield; by Ryan Price, the former England semi-professional goalkeeper; and by Dennis Bailey, 37, a Birmingham team-mate of the player-manager's and the last visitor to score a hat-trick at Manchester United (for Queen's Park Rangers in 1992). "Dennis is still a superb finisher and role model," Robinson said. "After training last week he was the last one on the pitch. He only came off when we turned off the floodlights."
Bridging the generation gap are the captain, Lee Barrow, a centre-back who was also at Notts, and the wing-back Alfie Carter, who in true Cup tradition returns to Gay Meadow after an unsuccessful trial there on leaving Walsall.
The blend is proving attractive as well as successful. Crowds are up 25 per cent to an average of 850, with twice that number expected to make the 35-mile run to Shrewsbury. After a steep decline – the once-regular giantkillers last reached this stage 10 years ago – Robinson is convinced Stafford can make up some of the ground lost on old Northern Premier League foes like Macclesfield and Wigan.
He realises, though, that living in the town whose team you manage could prove a double-edged sword. "At the moment it's going really well. My son came home chuffed after going trick-or-treating because someone knew his dad managed the Rangers and gave him extra sweets. I had to tell him things could change if results went badly, that it might be awkward going out and about."
The aim today is to make it awkward for Kevin Ratcliffe to show his face in Shrewsbury. Robinson has already beaten his managerial opponent this year, playing for Wolves against Everton in a Masters Tournament. But this is the Cup, and if Stafford are to surprise their full-time hosts the erstwhile "chauffeur" knows he cannot carry any passengers.
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