SUNDAY TIMES ARTICLE
Curle on the ball
Brian Doogan, The Sunday Times
Victory over Huddersfield in tomorrow's Third Division playoff final will cap a rapid recovery for Mansfield's manager
Billy Whizz is how Keith Curle has always known him. The life and soul of the party, the joker around whom Curle and 30 mates have planned their annual summer trip to Tenerife for the past several years, the one man he could rely on when his car was broken down in Portsmouth and he needed to get back to Wolverhampton and it was already past one in the morning.
“Billy Whizz would whiz you anywhere, any time you wanted,” Curle says with a smile, “make you laugh on your worst day, pull everyone together. A big kid with a heart of gold and an infectious laugh, that's how I've always pictured him.”
Until now. Months have gone by since they last saw one another, the former Wolverhampton captain and his trusty Wolverhampton cabbie. The cancer that has taken 6st stone off Billy Whizz's frame has filled Curle with a sense of dread about seeing him.
The picture in his mind no longer makes him laugh. But as they embrace in the reception area of Field Mill, by the door of the main office where scores of Mansfield fans are still queuing outside for tickets for Cardiff, Curle's fear gives way to relief.
“I'm really glad to see you, mate,” he says. “You're looking well.”
“If it's a lift to Cardiff you're after,” replies Billy Whizz, “forget it.”
They laugh, a powerfully infectious laugh, and chat for a while before Billy Whizz leaves, passing the fans queuing for their tickets, turning to where Curle is stood at the door as his car drives by. Nothing matters more in Mansfield than tomorrow's Third Division play-off final against Huddersfield, you might think. “Look here in the Chad (the local paper), there's a bloke spending £250 to fly back from holiday in Tenerife to see the game and fly out again to rejoin the family Tuesday morning!” The seeds of a success that could be realised in Cardiff's Millennium stadium were planted at the end of last season. After defeat at Tranmere in their penultimate game — the final loss of an ignominious campaign which Keith Curle was only belatedly able to influence, taking charge as player-manager when the Stags were already eight points adrift at the foot of Division Two, their fate sealed — Prenton Park was deserted by the time the Mansfield manager allowed his players to leave the dressing room. When he finally let them go on holiday, the season was three weeks over.
“Nobody complained and everyone worked hard. As a group of people we grew closer together,” Curle reflects. “We went to Cornwall for four days, just to play golf, go bowling, to relax. It was a reward. I didn't set any curfews but I made it clear that if they went out, they would go together and come back together. Where we stayed, we were in the middle of nowhere, so they had to take the coach wherever they went. But they all stayed together and looked after one another and that pleased me.”
Still he was not satisfied.
“I brought the players back early (for pre- season) and at the start of this season I issued a challenge,” he says. “I started by accusing the players. I said that there aren't enough winners in this team. One player said to me, as players do, to name names. So I did. There were 19 players in the dressing-room and I went round them one-by-one and asked, 'Do you think you're a winner?' There were 17 who said, 'Yes'. One more said that he's winner but he wasn't that particular day, and the other said he's a winner, but only when he's happy, and he wasn't happy. I then asked all 19 if they felt surrounded by winners, and no one said that's how they felt.
“Their definition of being a winner was different to mine. It's not simply about wanting to win. Of course, you have to have that desire to be a winner. But can you also influence the people around you to be winners? Can you have that effect on others? If someone's doing something wrong, can you help him on the field, off the field, in training, in people's attitude to training? Can you pull your teammate back into the fold? That's what I call being a winner because there can be no individual winners in a team game. And I believe that there's a unity here now that reflects that.”
Curle has had little or no money to spend, but the nucleus of the team is formidable for this division. Kevin Pilkington, the goalkeeper and captain who made a handful of appearances at Manchester United in the mid-1990s having been part of their famous FA Youth Cup winning side, is a natural leader, strong and vocal, qualities that Curle himself conveyed as a player.
Liam Lawrence, the Stags' star man, has scored 22 goals this season from midfield. Rhys Day, a Welsh Under-21 international from Cardiff, has contributed eight more while producing outstanding performances in central defence and, in midfield, Tom Curtis has experience of the big stage having played for Chesterfield in the Third Division play-off final in 1995 before encountering Middlesbrough in 1997 in the semi- final of the FA Cup.
“I got into a little bit of trouble at the end-of-season dinner when I said that the one thing a manager always wants from his chairman is for him to be consistent,” says Curle. “Then I turned to him and said, 'And bloody hell, have you been consistent!' ” The Mansfield chairman is Keith Haslam, whose father, Harry, managed Sheffield United. In 1978 he identified a 16-year-old Argentine striker whom he wanted to sign, but the board could not afford the £350,000 transfer fee for one Diego Maradona. “We couldn't afford him here either,” quips Curle. “Even now.”
Adversity and the struggle to overcome have been central elements in the 40-year-old's football life. At 16, he was released by Bristol City, but signed for Bristol Rovers three weeks later, making his debut as a 17-year-old winger and scoring in a 2-2 draw against Chester. A loan spell at Torquay was followed by a return to Ashton Gate, then a move to Reading. He was 26 before he made it to the top flight when Bobby Gould brought him to Wimbledon before he spent five years at Manchester City and four at Wolves. “There's no way that anyone who saw me at Bristol would ever have said that I'd enjoy the career I did, playing in the Premiership, playing for England,” he insists.
Now, as one of the few black managers in the game, he is determined to make his mark. “It's a very serious issue, the lack of black managers in football,” he declares. “I remember being subbed as a player at Bristol Rovers once, and as I came off somebody saying, 'Same kind of player, just with a re-spray'. But all of that was always water off a duck's back. People who aren't courageous enough to confront me can say what they want and I don 't worry about them.
“Not many black players desire to become managers. If you were to conduct a poll among current players, there probably wouldn't be many who see that as the direction in which they will go. All I can say is that I became enthusiastic early in my career about the coaching side of the game. So when I moved from Wolves to Sheffield United and on to Barnsley I was looking at that point towards becoming a manager, and when the opportunity came here I, grabbed it. Ultimately, I want to manage in the Premier League. I know it will be a long journey, but I'm prepared to put the hard work in now to get there.”
At Mansfield, this can even mean manual work. “I've taken a sledgehammer into the changing rooms and knocked down a wall that didn't need to be there, moved the toilets, splashed some paint on the walls and made one of the rooms off the boardroom into a press room.
“We've put pictures of the players up on the walls and I got them to buy into the idea of getting a club suit so that we'd all be dressed the same on match days. The chairman made the initial outlay and the players paid the money off, £20 a month over 10 months. The response has been exactly what I've looked for. We're a Third Division club, but looking to be part of something bigger.”
A 3-1 victory against Huddersfield at the McAlpine stadium at the beginning of this month and victory over Northampton on penalties in their play-off semi-final have given Mansfield this chance. Whatever happens, Curle knows that Billy Whizz will be around to see him home.
Latest | May 2004