x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 21 July 2017

Graham Westley’s bid to be FA Cup ‘Medal Winner’ again

Manager of English football club Stevenage aims to look past forgettable 2013 and regain his reputation when his side host Everton in the FA Cup on Saturday, writes Richard Jolly.

Graham Westley, the Stevenage manager, is known to have made cringeworthy statements several times in his career. Dean Mouhtaropoulos / Getty Images
Graham Westley, the Stevenage manager, is known to have made cringeworthy statements several times in his career. Dean Mouhtaropoulos / Getty Images

It is the sort of anecdote that forever defines someone.

The newly appointed Preston North End manager Graham Westley decided on an attempt to impress his new charges, many of whom had a far greater grounding in the higher levels of football than he did. Nonetheless, he decided, he would show them what a success he was.

“My kids don’t call me dad,” he said. “They call me Medal Winner.”

It is a strange nickname, albeit one that suggests the younger generation of Westleys are particularly impressed by the silverware on offer in non-league football.

The tale, recounted in the autobiography of the former Preston defender Clarke Carlisle, got Westley’s time at Deepdale off to a bad start.

So, too, did dropping four players in a 2am group text to his side – he said it arrived so late only because he had to spend the evening storing their numbers in his phone – or claiming that some of his squad had leaked their line-up to the opposition before a 2-0 defeat to Sheffield Wednesday.

Two chastening years on, perhaps the Westley children do not address their father as Medal Winner any longer. They could call him “relegation struggler” or, if his Stevenage side, from the third tier, spring a shock and eliminate Everton from the FA Cup on Saturday, brand him “giant killer”.

The visit of Roberto Martinez’s Premier League side is a chance to rebuild a reputation. Westley branded 2013 his “annus horribilis”, though 2012 was not much better and, with Stevenage propping up League One, 2014 may not be particularly enjoyable, either.

Yet the FA Cup has long brought him fame and infamy in equal measures.

In 2003, Westley was owner, chairman and manager of non-league Farnborough Town.

When he guided them to the last 32 of the competition, they drew Arsenal and he took the controversial decision to switch the tie to Highbury to make more money.

Two days after the 5-1 defeat, he quit Farnborough, selling his interest in the club, for the first of three spells at Stevenage.

It was around then, long before his depiction of himself as a medal winner, that it became clear he was not a conventional football manager.

A penchant for cringeworthy sound bites means comparisons to The Office’s David Brent, Ricky Gervais’s famously deluded fictional character, date back more than a decade. They continued at Preston with more clumsy attempts at motivation.

“I look at every player like a bank account,” he said during his Deepdale days. “There is credit and debit, and they are putting in and taking out. I have never seen so many overdrafts in my life.”

Yet if Westley was a brash figure with industrial quantities of self-confidence, it was undeniable that, until he arrived at Preston, his methods were consistently effective.

His playing career peaked at Gillingham, Barnet and Wycombe Wanderers, but was curtailed by a broken leg. Yet a driven figure made his mark at the family firm, the J&D Organisation, suppliers of services to building contractors, which he expanded. Westley created a facilities management company, the Aimita Corporation, with the first word the acronym of “Attitude Is More Important Than Ability”.

It was a philosophy that underpinned his rise. Westley rescued Stevenage when they seemed certain to be demoted from the non-league Conference, before reaching the division’s play-offs the following year. After brief spells at Rushden & Diamonds and Kettering Town, he returned to Stevenage in 2008.

He won the FA Trophy the following year and, in 2010, took the Hertfordshire club into the Football League for the first time in their history.

Underdogs in League Two, Stevenage went on win the play-offs in a glorious campaign that also included knocking Newcastle United out of the FA Cup.

Remarkably, midway through the next season, Stevenage were in League One’s top six when Westley’s exploits drew the inevitable interest from a bigger club: Preston, who had been pushing for a place in the Premier League a few years earlier.

It proved a terrible move for both. Westley took a bunch of League Two players to North End, who duly flirted with relegation to the fourth tier. He was sacked in February 2013, having won only 16 of his 62 games in charge, and was swiftly reappointed by Stevenage.

Thus far, it has been third time unlucky for him and them. The medal winner has been a loser all too often.

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