football

Wally meets Michael Appleton: Lincoln boss learning from harsh lessons in the dugout


Michael Appleton deserves to land on his feet as a manager after his ­playing days ended in an untidy heap getting out of the car when his knee gave up the ghost.

By his own admission, ­Appleton’s managerial career has been a mixture of bad luck and poor decisions. But it is good to see him ­calling the shots again at ­Lincoln, walking in the footsteps of legends from ­Graham Taylor to the Cowley brotherhood, after some harsh lessons in the dugout.

Appleton’s first game as a manager was as caretaker at West Brom eight years ago. He was cock of the walk when the Baggies were 3-0 up at half-time against West Ham, a feather duster when it finished 3-3.

Michael Appleton posing with a Lincoln City shirt

Roy Hodgson moved in at the Hawthorns and did such a good job that, within 15 months, ­England came calling for him.

Less well-known is that, barely a week into his reign, the avuncular Hodgson had a ­volcanic argument with ­Appleton, who had stayed on at Albion as his assistant. “It would be an exaggeration to call it a blazing row,” said the former Manchester United midfielder, whose abundant promise was limited to just two first-team ­appearances at Old Trafford.

“But one of my strengths, or weaknesses, has always been my willingness to express an ­opinion in a forthright way, and not just for the sake of it.

“So when Roy and I had a ­difference of opinion about ­something in ­training, I made my point in an educated way and we went toe-to-toe ­exchanging a few strong words.

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“But I think it made him trust me because he could rely on me for an honest opinion. We keep in regular touch, and I regard Roy as one of the biggest influences on my coaching career.

Appleton worked with Roy Hodgson during his time at West Bromwich Albion

“One of the most important aspects of management is ­getting your point of view across but remaining true to yourself – because players and staff will soon see through you if you are faking it.” Appleton, 43, spent a decade at West Brom, mainly on the coaching staff after his ­playing career was cut short by a horrendous knee injury.

His last game, for the reserves at Newcastle Falcons’ rugby ground, was so dispiriting he walked off the pitch in despair, straight to his car in his kit, and drove home to Preston. “By the time I got there, my knee had seized up and I literally fell out of the car,” he said.

“The only saving grace was it was quite late and none of the neighbours saw me.”

Co-opted on to the Baggies’ coaching staff, Appleton was keen to make a lasting ­impression on his first scouting mission. He succeeded ­memorably. “Nottingham Forest against Wimbledon,” he recalled. “The assistant manager, Frank ­Burrows, called me over at ­training and told me it was one of the most thorough reports he had ever read from a scout.

“I was about to feel chuffed with myself until he told me, ‘There’s only one problem – it’s on the wrong team.’ I had ­submitted a detailed breakdown on ­Wimbledon’s strengths and weaknesses but the club wanted a ­report on Forest. I felt my jaw drop so far it nearly hit my feet.”

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When Appleton took the plunge as a manager, he found himself fighting more fires than Red Adair at ­Portsmouth.

Appleton looks on during his time in charge of Blackburn

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Two ­administrations in as many years, and slashing the wage bill from £14million to £3m in a month, eventually took their toll. He took one training ­session without a ball after the ­container where all of them were kept had been padlocked by the leasing company over an unpaid bill. At Blackburn, he turned up for training after 67 days in the job to find a letter on his desk from sporting director Shebby Singh, informing him he had been fired.

“Sacked by a man I had never met,” said Appleton. “Six years on, I still haven’t met him.”

It was scant consolation he had lasted 10 days longer than his predecessor Henning Berg.

After taking 16 months out to lick his wounds, his three years at Oxford proved a conspicuous success – the locals were ­impressed with a promotion, two Wembley finals and a ­progressive style of football.

Now Lincoln, levelling off in League One after a meteoric rise under Danny and Nicky Cowley, need fresh impetus.

Today’s sell-out home game with Sunderland would be a good place to start.

“In terms of timing, I worked at some clubs who were in crisis and, in hindsight, it was ­probably the wrong time for me to manage them,” admitted ­Appleton. “I’m older and wiser for the experience. Yes, I’ve had some bad luck but I’ve made some bad decisions, too.”

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