The frequency with which old hands get another chance in management has been a major talking point in this Premier League season. Alan Pardew, Mark Hughes, Sam Allardyce, David Moyes and Roy Hodgson are among those bosses routinely recycled by the same few clubs, who seem to crave the apparent safety and stability provided by such experienced names.
One figure who hasn’t become part of that process is Alan Curbishley. Regularly linked with the England job while delivering a period of sustained success at Charlton, the 60-year-old has now been away from frontline management for a decade. That’s a surprise given his track record, but his absence isn’t for the want of trying.
“It took me a year to sort out my differences with West Ham, which was far too long. Then the opportunities I was being offered didn’t really appeal to me,” says Curbishley. “It was mostly Championship stuff. Suddenly you find that it’s been two or three years and you’re out of favour. You’re forgotten.
“I think the game moves on so quickly. There are owners of football clubs who are new to the game and don’t really know about you. Then I possibly lost a bit of enthusiasm for it, to be honest. I started doing other things and getting involved in TV work and I was enjoying that. Then you’re out too long. That’s the problem.”
Rumours of Curbishley’s comeback have persisted, and it’s almost become a running joke quite how often he’s installed as one of the favourites for any vacancy outside the Premier League’s top six. An easy and often fatuous link for reporters to make, Curbishley admits he twice came close to making his managerial return. In one instance the club chose another candidate; in the other he decided not to take up the offer.
Timing has often been an issue too. “I think we’ve had quite a unique year in terms of Premier League dismissals. There have been eight, and mostly at teams down the bottom. It wasn’t so frequent then, and also I may have been a little bit picky in terms of what I thought would be right for me,” says Curbishley.
“You often see managers jump straight back in, but I wanted to wait and make sure it was the right opportunity. I probably ended up waiting too long. I did have opportunities to go back in – quite a few in actual fact – but I didn’t think they were right. With the record I had, I wanted to go back into the Premier League.”
“This season you’ve seen a lot of clubs go down a certain route to try to stay in the league. Perhaps if that had happened when I was just out of a job then it would have been quite exciting. It would have been something that I’d have looked at, but those sorts of jobs weren’t there. Experienced managers did say to me, ‘Look, you can’t be out of the game too long.’ And perhaps that’s what my downfall was in some respects.”
Curbishley started his managerial career at Charlton and it’s difficult to overstate his achievements with the London club. Forced to leave The Valley in 1985 due to safety issues, the Addicks spent several years groundsharing with Crystal Palace and then West Ham. They were in a mess.
After Lennie Lawrence’s departure, Curbishley and Steve Gritt were appointed as joint player-managers in the summer of 1991. Players were sold to fund the club’s return to The Valley, but remaining competitive in the second tier was still a must. Curbishley took sole charge from 1995, going on to win promotion and establish Charlton in the Premier League.
The south London side became a model of stability who all newly-promoted clubs aspired to emulate. They finished as high as seventh in 2003/04, but as time went on there was a growing sense that Curbishley had taken Charlton as far as he could. He stepped down towards the end of the 2005/06 season, having been in charge for 729 games. They’ve fallen a long way in his absence.
“I find it a little bit difficult to take because the reason I left when I did was to give the new manager a chance to bed in and get his feet under the table,” he says. “I left with two games of the season to go and they had a transfer budget to be spent. Instead of the new manager coming in part way through pre-season or a few games into the season, it was decided that it would be better for them to be in place before the start. For once perhaps the planning didn’t work out how we thought it would.”
Charlton went through three different managers and were relegated from the Premier League in 2006/07 after seven consecutive campaigns at that level. They haven’t been back since, and if they fail to win promotion this year the club will have spent as much time in League One as the Championship since Curbishley left. His legacy has only been enhanced by the nature and extent of Charlton’s subsequent struggles, but the former Addicks boss has nonetheless found it painful to watch.
“I go over there when I can. I was there recently when Lee Bowyer took over because he’s one of my ex-players. It’s nice to go back to the club but it’s not nice to go back and see the stadium a third full, or not even that. That’s a bit demoralising but hopefully they can get themselves back on track. They’ve got a Premier League stadium and a lovely training ground and a good fan base, so hopefully things can pick up again.”
In his final season at The Valley, Curbishley was one of five men interviewed for the England job in anticipation of Sven-Goran Eriksson’s departure after the 2006 World Cup. The FA appointed Steve McClaren instead and Curbishley was soon called upon to save West Ham from relegation. Seven wins from the Hammers’ last nine games secured survival and a 10th-place finish followed.
His spell in charge ended abruptly three games into the 2008/09 season. Curbishley felt he didn’t get the right support and, crucially, the input he’d been promised when he agreed to take on the job. The final say on transfers was meant to be his, but George McCartney and Anton Ferdinand were sold against the manager’s wishes and he duly resigned.
“I was in charge of recruitment and I was no longer running that side of it. I was no longer making those decisions that would affect me on the football side of things. My position was untenable so things came to a head. It was disappointing because we had a decent side then, and one that could compete. It was a big decision.”
What happened at West Ham remains the biggest frustration of his managerial career. This was the club Curbishley had supported growing up and he believed he could take them into the top six. He later took the owners to court for constructive dismissal, arguing that promises were broken and his position was undermined; Curbishley won his case, and a £2.2m settlement, but he hasn’t been seen in a dugout since.
A decade is a long time in any walk of life, let alone in the fast-paced and volatile world of football. Much has changed.
“I think the days have perhaps gone now where managers run everything, especially in the Premier League, and even in the Championship. The clubs have become so big that managers can’t be responsible for everything and will have to delegate,” says Curbishley.
“In my mind it was always about trying to build something. I don’t think managers have got that long-term view now. When I was at Charlton, we were always trying to improve – pushing a little bit further and doing a little bit better. It was about building the stadium and increasing the gate.
“But I think that perhaps the emphasis now is short term, and if you’re not successful in the short term then you might not be around that long. That’s a big problem for football clubs. Managers aren’t around long enough to think long term in terms of bringing young players through, which is obviously a lot better than having to go out and buy them.”
Aside from his media work with Sky Sports and foreign broadcasters showing English football, Curbishley has had a couple of stints at Fulham: first as a technical director in the Cottagers’ last Premier League season, and then providing support to Kit Symons in his first managerial job. It’s a role that interests Curbishley and one a few different clubs are experimenting with – a young manager working with the assistance of a more senior figure.
“I’m on the League Managers’ committee and we’ve been talking about that as a potential role for those who don’t necessarily want to be managers anymore, but would like to offer their experience to up-and-coming young managers. They probably only get one shot at it, and if they’re not successful it’s very difficult to get another job,” he says.
“There are quite a lot of ex-managers out there that have got vast experience and don’t perhaps want the cut and thrust of being a manager anymore, but would like to be a bit of a sounding board. Even Tony Pulis had Gerry Francis with him for years. It’s an idea that a lot of young managers who get their first job should perhaps be thinking about. I think most of them probably see it as a sign of weakness if they ask for a little bit of help, but I don’t see it that way.”
The arrangement is working for Nathan Jones and Paul Hart at Luton, and Mike Flynn and Lennie Lawrence at Newport among others. Curbishley is happy with his current lifestyle and at 60 time might be running out on him as a manager, but he has a proud record and wants to show he still has something to offer.
“I have been forgotten, I think. Things move on, don’t they? Football doesn’t stand still. You’ve got to be in it and around it. But I haven’t been on Mars. I see football every weekend and in midweek. I know what’s going on. It’s not as if I’m completely out of touch. I’ve had over 800 games, and I think I’m still in the top 10 for games managed in the Premier League.”