By Ian Ridley
Remember that car in Wacky Races that had the rain falling on them all the time, Martin Allen asks me. “Well, that’s what the club was like when I got there.”
The cartoon car in question was called the ‘Gruesome Twosome’ and thus far at Chesterfield for Allen and the club, it’s been a mixture of wacky and gruesome. And after a sunlit start, it’s raining heavily again.
Three opening wins after he took over as manager in the summer were followed by eight defeats in ten games before Saturday’s trip to Maidstone, leaving the Spireites precariously perched above the National League’s bottom four only on goal difference.
A third consecutive relegation down from League One? Unthinkable. But then National League North is packed with sides – Stockport County and York City for example – still wondering how it came to this.
After two home defeats in four days last week, by Gateshead and Maidenhead, Allen had to endure the inevitable questions about his job being on the line. However, much the owner Dave Allen might want to support his manager and stabilise the club – and vindicate his own choice – when gates drop from almost 5,000 to just over 3,500 in six weeks, the whole set-up is going to come under scrutiny from media and fans.
The manager, who sees his playing-days nickname of ‘Mad Dog’ as “a backhanded compliment”, remained defiant, however. In return, he questioned what another change of manager will do for a struggling club that has had five in the last three years.
“Nothing’s changed,” he insisted to me post-Maidenhead. “I’ve met with the owner and he said, ‘Come on, you can do it. We can do it. Let’s carry on.’
“And I haven’t moved up here with my wife, taken players from part-time football who’ve moved here, to walk away from this challenge.”
It’s still a bit of a mystery how Allen ended up in Derbyshire, back in football management, after an ill-fated 14-game spell at Eastleigh last season when he became the latest figure to look unlikely to deliver the Football League dream to then owner Stewart Donald before he quit to buy Sunderland.
In fact, Allen told friends that he was finished and, then 51, was re-evaluating his life after two serious health scares left him wondering whether “the stress, the strain, the tension, the drama” of management was worth it.
“It is 24/7, you can forget what anybody says,” he says. “There ain’t no break, never a day off. You’re always thinking – ‘What team am I going to play? What training do I need to plan? Who do I need to speak to? What about this, what about that?’”
After all, he had suffered a life-threatening anaphylactic shock when a graze became infected with mud while out walking his dog and his face and tongue swelled alarmingly. Two EpiPen injections of adrenaline by medics saved him.
There followed a heart problem that took eight months to diagnose before a League Managers’ Association medical found scar tissue around the heart and stabilised him with medication.
And so he settled into “a lovely little lifestyle” at his Berkshire home, working as a match-day ambassador at West Ham, doing two shows a week for Love Sport Radio, and operating for the Premier League as a referees’ assessor – “like Scotland Yard hiring a criminal to find a criminal,” he says. He had also completed a course to sit on FA disciplinary panels and was helping out wife Lisa at her dog hotel.
Then one Sunday night six months ago, he was lying on a sofa at home watching golf when his mobile buzzed. The name “Barnet Tony” came up on the screen. “Oh no,” said Lisa when he told her who it was.
But he couldn’t resist answering the call of owner Tony Kleanthous to come and manage them for the FIFTH time, this time to try and keep them in League Two. There were nine games left and the cause looked hopeless. In the end they came close to staying up, thanks to 13 points from their last five games, but it was just beyond him.
Dave Allen took note, his Chesterfield, who accompanied Barnet down, losing 3-0 at The Hive on the final day. Within a few days, after an interview at the owner’s casino, the new manager was in situ, on a rolling one-year contract.
“What brought me back? Well, I won championships with Gillingham and Barnet and I wanted one more,” he says. “Everybody told me it was a big job and I knew it would be. After two relegations, it needed a big clear-out and we got £21,000 a week off the wage bill with players leaving. I don’t think I realised how big a club it is until I got here, though. It has such a passionate and loyal fan base.”
There was a happy honeymoon, when his forthright musings on the club’s website – signed off with “Take care, Martin” – were warmly welcomed, but he was never under any illusions, due to underlying issues at the club.
“When clubs leave the Football League, the players and supporters hate it. There is a shadow of negativity. Look at Orient and Hartlepool last year. They struggled and it took them a good few months to get going.
“The best players leave and the rest get the hump because they are in ‘Non-League.’ And the supporters don’t want to be going to what they see as awful little grounds.
“But it ain’t like that. The grounds are fine and the coaches and managers are very good. The players don’t have any negative thoughts about playing in the ‘Non-League’. If you’re walking around with a chip on your shoulder that you should be a League player, you’re never going to win matches.
“The teams we’ve played this year are full of fire, passion and energy. The National League is a great league. You’ve got to be a special team and manager to win there – the managers, the coaches, the players, the training, the facilities, the crowds, the referees, the standards have all got better.
“I spoke to Danny Cowley at Lincoln about what’s needed to get out of this division and his philosophies are virtually the same as mine – a mixture of the passing game and the direct. You’ve got to be solid with a blend of quality in the final third. If people thought we were going to just turn up and roll over other teams, then they’re mad.
“We need to get through this patch, learn from it and get better. Then it will be more rewarding when we start winning games. And we will start to win games.”
Can he win that third championship, and a second promotion back to the Football League?
“The title? Looking like a tough challenge,” he admits. “Can we go up this year? Yes. I fully expect seven, eight and nine thousand people to come and watch us because we will be up there challenging. No doubt about it.”
If not, there’s always working at Lisa’s dog hotel to fall back on, a job he describes as “basically cleaning up the dog muck”.
Cue your own joke here about football management in general and Chesterfield FC of recent years in particular.
*This article originally featured in The @NonLeaguePaper which is available every Sunday and Monday for £1.50 in all good newsagents and supermarkets