Football treasure me two hours of
Iwas 34 years old in the summer of 2002. I was managing Farnborough Town and we had just finished seventh in the Conference after winning the Ryman Premier League the previous season and finished 148th= in English football the season before.
My feelings were strongly of frustration; having been a champion, to follow it up with seventh was a sickening feeling. There were plenty of people to tell me that seventh was creditable since we were a part-time club in a largely full-time league and it was our first season back in a National League.
But I don’t need excuses now and I didn’t then; Stevenage are small compared to Sheffield United but I see that as our strength not a weakness. I knew back in 2002 that I had given it my best and I was a bit stuck with the frustration of that. One man understood my feelings exactly.
While I was away on holiday in Venice, I was fortunate enough to stay at the same hotel as Sir Alex Ferguson. I sent a letter to his room to ask him for a meeting. I told him he wouldn’t know me but that I was 34, dying to get to the top and hungry to learn. I explained I had finished a disappointing 99th in English football and needed his help. I felt embarrassed doing it but I couldn’t resist. I wrote rather than ask in person because I was too young to front up to my embarrassment. The wait for a reply seemed endless but, later that day, Sir Alex walked past my sunbed carrying a letter. I ran into reception to see where that letter had gone. Sure enough, it was in my pigeon hole!
I followed orders to the letter: I rang his room at the designated time and Sir Alex arranged a meeting. I was like a kid at Christmas as I counted down the minutes. I rehearsed how I was going to approach him. I changed my outfit several times. I talked my pitch through endlessly in my head.
And then 7pm came and I walked into one of the greatest lessons of my life. From the start to finish of our two-hour meeting, Sir Alex made me feel I was the most important person in the world. He totally understood my anger at what I saw as my failure.When the meeting ended, I walked back to my room and wrote down the ten key points that he gave me and the three key philosophies that he shared with me. In the 11 years that have followed, I have often referred to Sir Alex’s checklists to guide my development.
I feel certain that his advice is a large part of the reason I moved from Farnborough to Stevenage and from Stevenage to Preston; a large part of the reason that I helped Stevenage to avoid relegation from a desperate position when I first joined and similarly at Rushden; a massive influence on the fact that I helped Stevenage to three play-off qualifications, two Wembley Trophy finals, two promotions and into the top six of League One (50th in English Football); the main reason that I helped Farnborough and Stevenage to enjoy successful FA Cup runs beating sides from much higher levels.
Sir Alex trusted me implicitly, opened up his knowledge and gave me from his head and his heart. I still have the diary notes that I made and the currency value is no less today. They are treasure. The reason I haven’t achieved more yet, and that I have occasionally failed is that I haven’t mastered his guidance sufficiently; some of it takes time to learn, understand, and complete.
His advice was simple; and I have made it my business to act on it. One simple question and piece of guidance related to qualifications. He warned that I would not achieve my ambition to manage a winning club in the Premier League if I did not achieve the full suite of coaching qualifications, and, he warned, those qualifications took a long time.
There is no way that I would be sitting here today as the holder of a UEFA B Licence, a UEFA A Licence, a Certificate in League Management and a UEFA Pro Licence if it wasn’t for Sir Alex. No way would I have started; the importance wasn’t clear to me or the benefit. In particular, I
had no real appreciation of the huge network that you gain when you pass through the system. I did not imagine that Fabio Capello, Roy Hodgson, Rafa Benitez and co would share so much intimate knowledge with fellow coaches; and then to learn from/with/alongside Tony Adams, Roy Keane, Martin Keown, Mike Phelan and co was a hugely beneficial experience.
Eleven years is a long time to have taken to move from 99th in English Football to joint 45th which is where Stevenage will start next season along with 23 others. But, remember, I did not have the advantage of starting my footballing life with a glittering Premier League/top flight playing career. After my short three-year career at QPR and Gillingham, I scored my 200+ goals in reserve and non league football. That was a big hurdle for me and still will be as I fight and learn my way forwards.
But I know 100 per cent that Sir Alex has been central to helping me to achieve what I have done. I wish I could say I have ticked off all of his points in the way in which I ticked off the point about the qualifications. But I haven’t been able to. My goal is to be able to go back to Sir Alex in five years time, as a Premier League manager, able to say that I need more advice because the guidance he gave me is now under my belt. I believe I would have survived at Preston after a dodgy January with seven key players out if I had remembered just one piece of advice (point six!) he gave me.
The fact that he invested in me, gave me his number and then helped me again significantly on the one further occasion when I called him tells you everything you need to know about this great man. His love for football is so great and his sense of humility so big that he cared for me beyond any words of gratitude I can find.
My voice is a small one as Sir Alex moves into retirement. But I was there in Barcelona when that miracle happened in the Nou Camp. Only a true genius can orchestrate that kind of victory. Having shared an Americano with him, I know just how massive his shoes will be for his successor. But interestingly enough, when I joined Preston, I called David Moyes for advice. And guess what? He invited me round to his house for tea, biscuits and a chat. That says it all I guess.
FA TROPHY HERO: Mitchell Cole