Football trea­sure me two hours of

The Football League Paper - - GRAHAM WESTLEY -

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.

Value

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.

LOVE AND

FA TRO­PHY HERO: Mitchell Cole

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