PREVIEWS FROM THE NATIONALS
Lesser lights take to centre stage
By William Johnson
The new itinerary for the Nationwide League play-off finals means the honour of bringing down the curtain on the domestic season this afternoon goes to the lesser lights of Huddersfield and Mansfield.
League officials will be hoping there is no Millennium Stadium anticlimax as Peter Jackson and Keith Curle send out their respective sides in search of the remaining Second Division promotion place.
Mansfield coach Curle said: "From our chairman's point of view this is a sexy way to promotion because it is done in front of a big crowd at a major stadium. But for that to come about we have to make sure that we do our job properly."
Jackson is equally optimistic of his Huddersfield team's chances, set up by what he described as the "most important" goal his captain Rob Edwards will ever score - the late equaliser in the play-off semi-final second leg against Lincoln, which secured a 4-3 aggregate success.
Booth aims for move upwards
By Lawrie Madden
When Andy Booth joined his former home-town team Huddersfield for the second time, he believed he was back where he belonged.
Instead, he joined a club heading for extinction. In five seasons they had gone from a respectable position in Division One to relegation to the Third Division.
Booth said: "We had five players turn up on the first day of pre-season training, we were in administration and at times the town barely knew there was a football club."
But Booth believes that Huddersfield have turned a corner and is full of optimism for the future. The 30-year-old striker said: "The young lads in our team are getting better and better."
The new mood is sweeping the town. Everywhere there are posters and banners displayed and up to 30,000 fans will follow the club to the Millennium Stadium for today's final against Mansfield.
From the depths of despair, a team has been cobbled together of nurtured home-grown youth combined with hardened experience.
Booth has fond memories of the play-offs and will be hoping history repeats itself. In his first spell with Huddersfield, Booth was part of the winning side that gained promotion in 1995 and knows what the play-offs involve.
He said: "It's not just a day out. You realise that your whole season is based on one day and that is an incredible feeling."
Pilkington hopes to raise glass to dad
By Peter Lansley
KEVIN PILKINGTON has come face to face with managerial madness at both ends of football's spectrum, from Manchester United to Mansfield Town, but do not think that doffing his cap to Sir Alex Ferguson and Keith Curle betrays any absence of character. As the Mansfield captain leads his team out against Huddersfield Town for today's Nationwide League third division play-offs final, Pilkington has every reason to hold his head up high.
The former United youth-team custodian, who won the FA Youth Cup in 1992 when playing alongside David Beckham, Ryan Giggs, Gary Neville and Nicky Butt, saved the penalty in an otherwise impeccable shoot-out against Northampton Town 11 days ago that clinched his club's place in their first play-offs final. A year after puncturing a lung in a collision with Curle, his player-manager, Pilkington has coped with terrace criticism and the death of his father this season to remain Mansfield's only ever-present.
“I played eight first-team games in my six years at Old Trafford — I did have Peter Schmeichel ahead of me — and I got the hairdryer treatment from Alex Ferguson a few times. He had a go at me after we drew 2-2 with Sunderland in the FA Cup, I remember, when he thought I was to blame for the goals. I didn't think I was — not that I told him that.
“Keith has brought a much more professional attitude since he took charge here (18 months ago) and some of his team-talks are like nothing I've ever come across in football before. He uses a whole range of subjects to motivate the lads, from sex to going out.”
Before Mansfield, relegated last season after gaining promotion the year before, clinched their play-offs place away to Huddersfield this month, Curle placed a box in the middle of the changing-room. “He said to us, 'Do you believe in your ability?' and we had to take it in turns to step into the box face to face with him and give our answer,” Pilkington said. “No one said no.”
Mansfield, gaining a psychological boost for today's match, won 3-1.
“When I walked into this football club, I needed someone professional, reliable and honest who was prepared to be the voice of the players,” Curle, who has 21 of his 25 players falling out of contract tomorrow, said. “Kevin's been spot on with that, a credit to himself, his family and his profession. I think he's had a good season. He came in for a bit of stick from sections of the supporters but he dealt with that with dignity and maintained the belief that he's a good goalkeeper.”
It was while he was at Port Vale that Pilkington's father, Tony, became ill and in October, at the age of 53, he passed away. “He'd been a massive support right through my career and I miss him hugely,” the goalkeeper, whose second child was born 11 weeks ago, said. “He'll be in the forefront of my mind on Monday, as always. Any success we have I'll dedicate to him.”
Despite his brilliant penalty save from Eric Sabin in the semi-final second leg at Field Mill, Pilkington has not been preparing to defend another shoot-out. “I've been practising taking them, though,”, he joked. “I'm thirteenth on the list to take one.”
Curle, a regular penaltytaker in his playing days with Manchester City and Wolverhampton Wanderers, said: “Practising penalties is a playground thing for eight-year-olds. You can't recreate what it will be like in front of 50,000 fans at the Millennium Stadium. I don't think it's going to go to penalties anyway, I think we'll win. If I didn't, I wouldn't turn up. I'd say I was ill.”
If anyone can, the bandanna man can
By Rick Broadbent
THERE is a website devoted to 101 Things You Can Do With A Bandanna with suggested uses including as a dog muzzle, tea-strainer and emergency toilet paper. Efetobore Sodje will add some fresh ideas to the list today when he sports his latest fashion statement to honour his mother and raise money for terminally ill children.
In the nether world of the third division, a Sodje bandanna has become the cult accessory for discerning Huddersfield Town fans. Thousands have been sold in the club shop, each bearing the “Against All Odds” slogan that sums up the meandering fortunes of both the club and the Greenwich-born Nigeria defender.
“People don't know my name, they just know me as the bandanna man,” Sodje said as he prepared for today's play-offs final against Mansfield Town. “It was my Mum's idea. When I left Nigeria to come back to England in 1995, she told me to wear one. I never asked why.”
Sodje has had an equally perplexing career. He started out at Stevenage Borough and stifled England in the 2002 World Cup while a Crewe Alexandra player. “Peter Jackson (the Huddersfield manager) says to me, 'Sodje, when you've played 769 games like me, then you'll be a player'. I tell him one game in the World Cup counts for more.”
The World Cup proved his downfall at Crewe when, according to Sodje, Dario Gradi, the manager, gave him an impossible choice. “It was go to the World Cup or play for Crewe,” he said. “It was bizarre. He never sat me down to explain but he decided not to play me. Then I got a call from Huddersfield last summer and the way Jacko sold me the club was amazing.
“He said, 'I'm the best-looking manager in the division, so why go anywhere else?' I didn't care what league it was. I just wanted to play.”
It has been a season of revival for his club and manager, too. When Jackson assumed control last June, five years after being sacked, the club were in administration. Not a single season ticket had been sold because of doubts about the future and there were eight players at pre-season training. A 4-0 defeat away to Macclesfield Town, one of Sodje's old clubs, in December proved both the nadir and turning point. “We were so low after that,” Sodje said. “We sat in the changing-room for 20 minutes afterwards just thinking.”
Huddersfield went on to overcome the sale of Jon Stead, the club's outstanding striker, to Blackburn Rovers, but squandered an automatic promotion place. “Now we have to do it the hard way,” Sodje said. “But to come back from all the crises would be wonderful.”
His mother, Elizabeth, will be the first on the telephone after today's match. “I come from a family of ten but my brothers and sisters aren't coming to Cardiff because they thought we were going straight up and booked their holidays,” he said. “But my Mum rings me after each game. They actually get to see quite a few matches on television in Nigeria.”
After agreeing to be a patron for Hope House, a children's hospice in Oswestry, close to the England-Wales border, Sodje can put today's game into perspective. “On my bandanna I have a sponsor's logo and they give a bit of money to Hope House,” he said. The “Against All Odds” phrase was his own idea. “When I came here a lot of people had doubts about me,” he said.
“Managers and the press were saying he makes mistakes, he won't be able to do it.”
All of Huddersfield hopes that the bandanna man continues to use his head to good effect in Cardiff.
Curle has ideal record to inspire Mansfield
Monday May 31, 2004
There was a time when Third Division football was synonymous with long balls crashing towards corner flags and managers failing to trust their teams to operate in anything other than a rigid 4-4-2.
These days, though, the influx of foreign players and managers at Premiership level is exerting a filter-down effect and many lower-division clubs are staffed by surprisingly talented individuals.
Keith Curle is one. Thirteen years ago he became Britain's most expensive defender when he joined Manchester City from Wimbledon for £2.5m. Now 40 the former England central defender is manager of a Mansfield side renowned as the Third Division's best passing ensemble.
Part of a still ludicrously small band of black managers - Keith Alexander, whose Lincoln lost their semi-final against Huddersfield, and Leroy Rosenior, whose Torquay went up automatically, are two others - Curle was appointed in December 2002 but failed to prevent Mansfield losing Second Division status. "Relegation really hurt," he said. "It made me realise how lucky I was to have had such a great playing career."
Management has certainly given Curle cause for reflection. "I've realised the lack of black managers in football is a very serious issue," he said. "I would love to manage in the Premiership but, being realistic, it will be a long journey; I'll have to progress through the divisions."
He cannot be accused of lacking application, as Peter Taylor, manager of promoted Hull, bears out. "I was at Mansfield's semi-final win against Northampton which went to penalties and the five that Keith's players took were as good as any I've seen taken at any level," said Taylor. "But then Keith spent two full days practising them."
Curle is the sort of über-professional to impress perfectionists in the Jose Mourinho mould. As Michael Merriman, Mansfield's kit-man, explained: "Before Keith came this was more like a pub team but he has made it a professional club. You can feel the difference. He makes sure everyone knows exactly what he wants and usually gets it."
He also allows ample scope for improvisation. Liam Lawrence, for instance, is nominally a right-winger in Curle's 4-1-4-1 system but has freedom to roam. Lawrence boasts an excellent passing range and is a dab hand at set-piece execution, several of his 22 goals coming from dead-ball situations. On Curle's left Huddersfield will also need to be mindful of Wayne Corden, a right-footed left-winger reminiscent of Peter Beagrie.
Peter Jackson is in his second stint as Huddersfield manager, having been sacked five years ago with the team 10th in the First Division because he "was not a big enough name". Implored to return to a club in administration and newly relegated to the Third Division last summer, Jackson constructed a necessarily youthful side, including eight academy protégés. Indeed, despite selling Jon Stead to Blackburn in February, they missed out on automatic promotion only on goal difference.
Yet two oldies may exert the greatest influence today. Confronted with the likes of Lawrence, Huddersfield desperately need Andy Booth, their experienced centre-forward, and Efe Sodje, a Nigerian defender to be at their best. Sodje is likely to start as part of Jackson's back three but could man-mark Lawrence.
Curle, meanwhile, has tried to minimise adverse effects of form and nerves by rehearsing set-pieces with military precision. "Talent is useless without hard work," he said. "Hard-working teams often beat more talented ones. Hard work also makes things possible. I started off as an average Fourth Division pro and ended up playing for England. I've made my players realise good things can happen."
Booth looks to cap career
By Justin Norris
31 May 2004
Andy Booth says victory in the Third Division play-off final against Mansfield at the Millennium Stadium today would be the highlight of his career.
Born in Huddersfield and a lifelong fan, Booth has devoted more than seven years in two spells to the team. His mother and father work on the turnstiles at the McAlpine Stadium and this season Booth became the fifth player to score 100 goals for the club.
"It would be the pinnacle of my career if we went up, without question. We won the Second Division play-off final in 1995," Booth said, referring to the 2-1 win over Bristol Rovers at Wembley, in which he scored. "But this season we've worked so hard and, given what we had at the beginning of the season, and all the young lads that have come in, it would a fantastic achievement if we got promoted."
The last year of Huddersfield's existence - facing financial ruin and with just eight players under contract when the manager Peter Jackson took charge, they finished a remarkable fourth in the table - is typical of Booth's roller-coaster career.
In addition to that goal at Wembley, his CV includes a £2.7m move to Sheffield Wednesday, with whom he spent five seasons in the Premiership, an inauspicious loan spell at Tottenham Hotspur and two relegations upon his return to Town.
"It's going to be daunting for me. You still get nervous beforehand, no matter how many big games you've played in," he said. "But I've got confidence in these lads, they've got confidence in themselves and I don't think there will be a problem."
The Mansfield captain, Kevin Pilkington, will lead his side out hoping he does not have to be the hero again.
Pilkington saved the crucial spot-kick to decide an epic semi-final with Northampton last week to push his side to within one win of the Second Division.
"I didn't have a drink after that win but I felt like I'd had 10 pints when I woke up in the morning," he said. "The night was just a blur really, but it was a night of real highs and lows, and it helped to have a few days off after that.
"I haven't been practising saving penalties this week - just taking them - and I think I'm about 13th on the list at the moment. But if it does go to penalties again I believe I'll always save one out of the five, although I'd rather it didn't."
Installing Pilkington as captain was one of Keith Curle's most significant decisions during his short time at the club, and the Mansfield manager is confident his captain will exert a calming influence on his side in the build-up to kick-off.
He said: "I knew I needed somebody honest, dedicated and professional to lead the side and Kevin has been all of that this season."
Latest | May 2004