By Chris Dunlavy
To call Chesterfield’s new manager an eccentric is a little like saying Muhammad Ali was talkative.
From leaping into the Solent and swimming across the Tees to begging a bed on the Notts County club website, Martin Allen has re-written the rulebook on maverick management.
The 52-year-old’s antics are varied, legendary. Some are mundane – in a brief three-month spell at Leicester, he decided the training ground needed brightening up, so donned his gardening gloves and personally replanted the flower beds.
In one of his many spells at Barnet, Allen banned video analysis and told his players to stop eating pasta. Instead, bags of sweets, plates of chips and crates of lager became the order of the day. The Bees, seemingly doomed, survived on the final day.
At Notts County, he followed up the aforementioned advert (“I’m trying to find somewhere to kip. I don’t like these posh hotels. I don’t want nothing flash. If you know anyone, it’s for me and my dog Monty who is a very good boy”) with a plea for someone who could teach him to whistle.
Others are more spectacular. Those naked dips in the Tees and the Solent came during Brentford’s 2004-05 FA Cup run.
“I stripped naked and dived in like Mark Spitz,” he famously recounted. “There was a ruddy great tanker just 100 yards away. I nearly had a heart attack.”
And just to prove that age has not mellowed him, one of Allen’s first acts at Meadow Lane in 2011 was to halt the team coach en route to a game at Yeovil, pull into a lay-by and force his side to practise set-pieces in a field by the side of the motorway.
Not for nothing has the ‘Mad Dog’ moniker of his playing days – a nickname he dislikes – followed him into the dugout.
Part of the famous Allen dynasty, dad Dennis was a legendary inside forward for Reading, while cousins Bradley, Paul and Clive all played in the top flight.
Yet while they were cultured forwards, Allen was a midfield destroyer whose job it was to stultify any kind of creativity. This he did, often with brutal efficiency for the likes of QPR and West Ham, where he won two promotions.
Following retirement in 1998, times were tough. Divorced and penniless, Allen took a job collecting leaves from back gardens for £10 an hour.
Rescue came in the form of Alan Pardew, who asked Allen to assist him at Reading. Since then he has managed Barnet (five times), Brentford, MK Dons, Leicester, Cheltenham, Notts County, Gillingham and Eastleigh. Over 561 matches, his career win percentage is 41 per cent.
“People talk about Martin’s motivational skills and they are exceptional,” said Giuliano Grazioli, the former Barnet striker.
“When he arrived in 2003, I was going through a bit of a lull in my career. I’d considered quitting and going back to university, but he made me fall back in love with the game. Every time I stepped onto a pitch, he made me feel a million dollars.
“But it’s easy to forget that he’s also a good coach. Training was good, his organisation was very thorough. All-round, he’s the best manager I ever worked for.”
Indeed, Allen hates being dismissed as some kind of crank or novelty act.
“It doesn’t follow that you dive in a river and you win football matches,” he once explained. “I don’t just do it to be silly – everything is done for a reason and some things are meant to be lessons in life for the players.”
On the occasion he crossed the Tees, Allen’s players had earlier bragged that they could swim the river. When it came to the crunch, they all bottled it. By taking the plunge himself, Allen was giving his players a lesson in backing up big talk.
A few months later, he thought his players looked edgy before a tie with Southampton, so leapt in the Solent to calm their nerves.
And that ban on pasta at Barnet was pure practicality. The players were miserable and Allen – with just three games to avert relegation – realised that morale was more important than fitness in the short term.
On each occasion, Allen’s methods yielded the desired result. Indeed, last month’s short-term stint at Barnet marked the first relegation of his career.
But despite that setback, it is unlikely that Allen will change his philosophy.
“When I was nine, I fouled this kid who played for Thatcham Tornadoes,” he says. “His parents were furious, but I just walked up and told them to “F**k off”.
“There was uproar – I thought my dad would kill me. But he didn’t. He said, ‘If that’s how you felt, you’ve got to do whatever you can to be the best’.
“My dad always taught me that you have to stand up for yourself and do what you think is right. I’m no different now.”
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