Life at the sharp end of football

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The first in a series of blogs from Iffy Onuora, lower-league journeyman turned coach...

Well there’s a lesson in the realities of football, painfully learnt.

You spend weeks helping to hone your team in to the physical, technical and tactical magicians of your dreams and imaginations, confident that the largely young group of players you see before you every day are being shipped and shaped into footballing supermen.

Then some city slickers from a division or two above turn up, and go and spoil it all.

So it was that my old club Sheffield United turned up with some familiar faces in their ranks, dripping of Big Club mentality and players to match, to win 2-0 at a rainy Sincil Bank.

Yes, welcome to life in League Two – as told by your part-time faithful writer and full-time Assistant Manager of Lincoln City.

This is the start of my second full season here at Sincil Bank, having arrived here to assist my good friend Peter Jackson. Before arriving I’d been first-team coach at Gillingham, with a spell scouting for Blackburn Rovers for good measure.

Prior to that, I’d spent a fairly depressing year out of the game, punctuated only by some media work and part-time work in the coaching department of the PFA.

The year out came after I’d been replaced as Swindon Town manager by Dennis Wise in May 2006 after eight months in the post and failing to keep the club from relegation into League Two (do keep up please!).

I’d stepped up to the post of manager from Head of Youth Development at the club where I’d enjoyed an enjoyable and successful spell.

But managing it? Well that was another story altogether!

With disaffected players, a budget haemorrhaging money and a fly-on-the-wall reality show featuring the recently-disgraced Ron Atkinson, my spell there had it all as a cut-out-and-keep guide to crisis management.

Iffy as Swindon gaffer: "Doh!"

But it was an excellent learning curve, and definitely stood me in good stead for the future, as well as underlining the difference between this management malarkey, and my playing career.

And what of that career, I hear you ask?

Well put it this way: had you picked up the fictional Rothmans Football Dictionary and looked up the word “journeyman,” you would've seen my ugly mug staring back at you.

I was essentially the Big-Centre-Forward-For-Hire in a 15-year career featuring 10 clubs (including second spells and loans), and the money shot: 133 goals in nearly 500 appearances.

I look back with a great deal of pride and affection on that. I think I gave good service in general, except for my final year's tour of duty, when Old Father Time had come calling – and apologies for that to the good people of Sheffield United, Tranmere and Grimsby.

The highlight was probably at Gillingham, winning promotion at Wembley in 2000 before establishing ourselves in the Championship for three seasons after that.

My final appearance was in the play-off semi final for Huddersfield against my present employers, Lincoln City in 2004.

We eventually triumphed over two legs and won promotion against Mansfield at the Millennium Stadium, despite (or more likely because of) Yours Truly not making the final squad when I was left out by the manager... a certain Mr. P. Jackson!

Jacko: "I was right, Iffy..."

So the irony is not lost on us as we aim to chart a course for promotion this season at Lincoln, a smashing club of modest financial means compared to some in the division, but with excellent training facilities and high on ambition and goodwill.

It's 20 years since I made my debut and the game has changed beyond all recognition in the intervening years.

Who would have thought that a man who only three short years ago was leading England to a World Cup quarter-final place would turn up in League Two at our rivals, and neighbours Notts County, transforming them instantly into the box office draw of the division?

Well certainly since the inception of the Premiership, money talks and if it walks too, it seems to have made its way through the divisions right down to the oldest football league club in the country.

Interesting times ahead for them, certainly, and perhaps for all of us in this division, who may feel the spotlight more keenly as a result.

Other teams like Bradford, Rotherham and Shrewsbury will be among the Big Beasts of the division, leaving teams such as ourselves to target the dark-horse seats at the top table, come the end of the season.

At this level of the game you can go a long way with an excellent youth policy and good coaching, and teams like ourselves pride ourselves on just such commitments.

And from here on in, I shall be chronicling all the blood, sweat and tears along the way from Lincoln and League Two.

Sexy football all the time? I can’t promise that, but some of it may surprise and certainly excite you.

The best players on the planet plying their trade? Hmm, not exactly – although you may see some stars of tomorrow starting out at the beginning of long careers.

I can however promise you an awful lot of honest endeavour from men playing where the notion of a club at the very heart and soul of its community hasn’t completely been lost.

Call me old-fashioned, but it seems to me that’s not a bad place to start.

Keep coming back to read the adventures, good luck to your team (as long as it’s not playing mine), and above all – keep smiling!

---------------------------------------------- More to read...
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