x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

FA Cup: Blackburn's Michael Appleton hopes to put down roots

Michael Appleton has had a brief but eventful managerial career as the promising young coach is preparing to take his Blackburn side to Arsenal, writes Richard Jolly.

Blackburn manager Michael Appleton has managed three clubs in the FA Cup this season. Paul Thomas / Getty Images
Blackburn manager Michael Appleton has managed three clubs in the FA Cup this season. Paul Thomas / Getty Images

In the red corner, a manager in his 17th year at Arsenal. In the blue, the fifth man to lead Blackburn Rovers, already in a traumatic year and a coach on his third job in five months.

Thanks to the FA Cup, Arsene Wenger and Michael Appleton meet as equals on Friday at Emirates Stadium. They are also opposites, a 63-year-old Frenchman and a 37-year-old Englishman, one of the most decorated in the business and one out to make his name.

Wenger has one of football's most secure jobs. Appleton's predecessor, Henning Berg, lasted a mere 57 days, so his position may be deemed among the most insecure.

"I'm putting my neck on the line to take this job," Appleton said, after deciding to end his 65-day spell in charge of Blackpool to take over at Blackburn. "But there's a risk in everything you do."

More than most, Appleton is aware of that. An accidental training-ground collision with a teammate, West Bromwich Albion's Des Lyttle, ended a promising playing career and set him on a course that made him one of the most precocious British managers.

But his playing days, like his formative experiences as a coach, enabled him to learn from men who have reached the top of their trade. The first was Sir Alex Ferguson. Though he never made a first-team appearance for Manchester United, he came through their youth system and, after loan spells at Lincoln City and Grimsby Town, in the lower levels of English football, he signed for the historic club Preston North End.

There, the Salford-born midfielder helped David Moyes's Preston win promotion to what is now the second-tier Championship before moving on to West Brom. He was a fixture in their team until, in 2001, he tore cruciate ligaments.

"Having to finish my career the way I did was disappointing," he said. "You find yourself at 25 not able to kick a ball again." Appleton did not officially retire for another two years, while the repercussions continued until 2009, when he received £1.5 million (Dh8.6m) in compensation from the surgeon who had operated wrongly on his knee; Ferguson, Ryan Giggs and Gary Neville had all testified to his potential.

By then, he had started to make an impression at West Brom as they gained an enviable reputation.

"People look at West Brom now and they say how well-run the football club is," said Appleton, a key part of their rise.

"I joined West Brom in 2001. They never had an academy. I remember my first night working at the school of excellence. We were having fireworks thrown on to the pitch by local kids while we were taking the sessions. We'd turn up at The Hawthorns every day, get in our cars and drive around for a suitable surface to train on. And they never had a recruitment structure. Now they've got a fully equipped recruitment structure which is second to none in the country."

In particular, they excelled at recruiting managers. Appleton served as second-in-command to Roberto Di Matteo and Roy Hodgson, who is still a confidant.

"I have been an assistant manager to the England manager and to a Champions League winner," he said.

But, after gaining his coaching badges, his aim was to become the main man. His growing standing meant he was a contender for several jobs until, fatefully, he took one: Portsmouth.

"For two weeks, it was brilliant," he said.

Then the dream turned into a nightmare. Portsmouth's owner was arrested. They went into administration. Appleton's job description changed.

"Within the space of 12 months I had to deal with redundancies, deferrals on wages, losing your best players, points deductions, budgets that were given and within two or three weeks reduced by 20 per cent," he said. "I had to deal with players who could not repay their mortgages and had cars repossessed.

"We were not able to get into our own training ground because the company who owned it locked the gates. We were away on a pre-season tour, on our way to a game and were told we are going to be liquidated in the morning."

They were not, but they were demoted and the squad departed. Appleton had to field 11 debutants, all youngsters, loans or free transfers, in one game. He earned plaudits for his loyalty but, after a year, he could take no more. He left for Blackpool to replace Ian Holloway only to move to Blackburn two months later, appointed by the former Preston deputy chairman Derek Shaw, and targeting promotion.

"The remit is Premier League football," he said. "I'd be amazed, take away the top six managers in the country, if there was another who would have made a different decision."

But the Rovers are marooned in the wrong half of the Championship and visit a ground where they lost 7-1 two years ago. He arrives, however, confident his diverse apprenticeship has prepared him for anything.

Arsenal hoping to break back into top four

Manager Arsene Wenger accepts Arsenal are entering the defining period of their season, starting with their game against Blackburn Rovers on Friday.

The Gunners host Blackburn in the fifth round of the FA Cup in the first of a run of games which will see them tackle Bayern Munich in the Uefa Champions League while also facing Premier League rivals Tottenham Hotspur and Everton in what could prove to be crucial for their hopes of breaking back into the top four.

"You go into the period at the end of February and March when every game will define your season," said Wenger.

"The FA Cup is an important target for us. We always take it very seriously. It looks at the start that the FA Cup [trophy] is more reachable than any other competition. If you compare it to the Premier League certainly, we have more chances to do it because we are too far away in the Premier League."

sports@thenational.ae

twitter Follow us @SprtNationalUAE