Martin Allen: My Secret Vice

They might call him Mad Dog, but Martin Allen likes nothing better than getting his green fingers into the gardening...

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I can remember the advert vividly: ‘Gardener available. New to the area. Ten years’ experience.’

It was placed in the shops along Gerrards Cross High Street and in the window of my local newsagents. While I was being economical with the truth, it had the desired effect.

I was charging £10 an hour and it helped keep the wolf from the door. While I wouldn’t say I was penniless,  I’d just been through a divorce and was struggling. Living alone in a two-bedroom flat, I needed something  to fill the void until I got my foot onthe coaching ladder.

I had been scouting for Millwall and Fulham; although this would benefit me in the long term, it wasn’t earning me money. I still had bills to pay and gardening was the obvious avenue to take as I wasn’t completely alien to it.

I was never one for the social side of football – the drinking, the gambling, the horseracing – and gardening  was something I’d always done and something that interested me. I hated seeing my grass long or leaves scattered all over the place. I liked my garden looking good.

So off I went with my bags packed and my bits and pieces in the back of the car. I had a growing band of customers in what is, predominantly, a wealthy area of Buckinghamshire and I was happy.

Invariably, I’d be cutting grass – of some very big lawns I hasten to add – pruning, cutting back and tidying up all types of hedges, and sweeping up leaves. In fact, just 24 hours before I took my first session as newly-appointed Reading coach, I was putting leaves in black bags and dumping them. I’d done that for the whole day.

There is no doubt in my mind that I would have had a few people working for me now, if I’d kept at it. We’d have had decent vans and would’ve been well organised – in fact, we’d have been the best gardeners in Gerrards Cross.

But even when I returned to football, gardening was never far away. I found it a great release – given the stresses and strains I found myself under – to come home, leave the mobile phone inside and just potter about in the garden.

Top ways to spend gardening leave

  • Gardening 

Aside from my family, it’s my favourite way to unwind from the pressures of football. Not a bad substitute income, either!

  • Holidaying

I went on holiday with my wife. One thing I’ve also wanted to do was watch the England cricket team abroad, so I joined the Barmy Army in Cape Town for the Twenty20 matches. The shorts came on, the suntan lotion came out and I had a few beers. I had a great time.

  • Studying

I wasn’t one for studying much at school, but with time on my hands, I’ve taken a psychology A Level to help me understand people better. 

  • Yoga

I am a passionate manager and my ticker had taken a bit of a hammering in the past.  Meditation is a great release.

  • Watching the box

It’s been good to sit down with the family,  watch a bit of TV and not worry about the next day’s training.

My gardening even manifested itself in one post-match press conference at Brentford, when I went off on a tangent, explaining to the press corps that the rabbits had been playing havoc with my wallflowers. I used to wake up early, come downstairs, only to find that the rabbits had eaten them all. I explained to the journalists that I’d come down especially at 5.30am with a shotgun, waiting for the rabbits. It drew laughter but more bemused looks. Looking back I can understand why!

Since leaving Leicester City this season, I’ve been in my garden on a much more regular basis. I must admit the first week was very strange; my mind and body had been used to racing around at 100mph, dealing with players, agents, the media, making decisions on training, picking the team, travelling and watching a host of matches throughout the week. Then it was like someone has just switched off the light. I was still getting up at 6am but there was nowhere to go. It was surreal.

But there have been so many positives. The time off has given me an opportunity to slow my life down.

If I were to use an analogy, the past five-and-a-half years have been like driving on the outside lane of a motorway, with my foot down at 90mph. If there was a game anywhere in the country, I’d be there. If there was a player to watch, I’d be there.

It could be any night of the week and even if I did catch a bit of TV on a Thursday night, I’d be looking at the screen but taking nothing in. It wasn’t until I sat down with my family to watch EastEnders the other week that I realised Dirty Den was dead!

During this hiatus I’ve been able to relax, unwind. But I’d be a foolish to walk around and say my relative success so far is enough. When I walk into another managerial role, I know I’ll be better equipped.

Where and when that will be, only time will tell. I know I have it in me to take a low-budget Championship club into the play-offs, up into the Premier League and then maintain our status. I definitely believe that.

But if it doesn’t happen, then I’m not scared to drop down the divisions. Who would have thought that Peter Taylor, who gave David Beckham the captain’s armband for England, would now be managing Stevenage Borough? The important thing is being happy but I’m sure my time will come again. And if it doesn’t, I still have the gardening to fall back on!

Interview: Luke Nicoli. Portrait: David Cannon. From the May 2008 issue of FourFourTwo.