Thursday, March 04, 2010
If the remit of this website is to champion the lower divisions of English football, few men epitomised them more than Keith Alexander.
The sad news of the passing of the Macclesfield boss on Tuesday evening, aged just 53, has sent shockwaves through the grassroots of the game
Tributes have come flooding in from figures across the footballing world. Almost all have talked about Alexander the manager - a committed, hard-working man; but also the person - warm, larger than life, and "a great guy."
His playing career was unremarkable. A typical lower league journeyman, as a striker he enjoyed spells at Non League clubs in his home county of Nottinghamshire and eventually played for the likes of Barnet, Grimsby, and Mansfield.
As a manager he walked new ground though. In 1993, Lincoln City made him the first black manager in the history of the Football League paving the way for the likes of Paul Ince and Leroy Rosenior.
It was at Sincil Bank where he was to have his greatest success as a manager. His first spell ended in the sack when his young, footballing side struggled in the basement division.
He said the experience had taught him of the dangers of 'too much football' in the lower leagues.
It was a team that included and nurtured the likes of Matt Carbon and Darren Huckerby - players who made the Imps good money when they went on to feature at a higher level.
Spells in Non League with Ilkeston and Northwich followed - here was a man who was just happy to be involved in football, whatever the level.
However, his return to Lincoln in 2001, first as assistant to Alan Buckley before being elevated to the manager's job due to financial reasons, was the beginning of a glorious reign.
City entered administration in 2002 and, having lost some of their most talented and best paid players, were favourites for the drop the following season.
Faced with one of the smallest budgets in the league, Alexander set about dipping into the Non League market he knew so well.
His decision to recruit hungry players with a point to prove in the professional game - men like Ben Futcher, Simon Weaver, and Simon Yeo - was inspired. All three were integral members of the Lincoln team who shocked the division.
The favourites for relegation ended up in the play-off final. A 5-2 defeat to Sean O'Driscoll's classy Bournemouth side couldn't disguise what had been a miraculous achievement though.
It was a sad oversight that he wasn't awarded the manager of the season award in League Two.
His side's uncompromising style and defensive solidity may have upset opposition managers, but it was the classic tale of a manager making the most of scant resources.
Lincoln turned in a profit the following year - a complete turnaround after coming close to going out of business - and their success on the field of play continued too.
However, in November 2003, Alexander suffered a cerebral aneurysm and had life-saving surgery.
It was testament to the spirit he had engendered at 'Team Lincoln' that the Imps once again made the end of season play-offs despite their manager being absent for four months as he recuperated.
Once again they fell short, as was also the case in the following two seasons. His record of taking Lincoln to two national finals is unlikely to ever be matched though.
His time at Sincil Bank also saw him bring in and develop talent like Jamie McCombe, Gary Taylor-Fletcher, Paul Mayo, and Gareth McAuley - all whom went on to play in the Championship.
At his next port of call, Peterborough, he was responsible for the signings of Craig Mackail Smith and Aaron McLean - who helped fire the Cambridgeshire outfit into the second tier.
And in his latest job at Macclesfield, he once again showed his ability to succeed on a tight budget.
It was that kind of achievement which earned him respect throughout the game.
The Sunderland boss Steve Bruce once told a tale of how he had been impressed by Alexander's thoughts on the game.
During a manager's conference, he had taken Alexander's advice over that of future England boss Steve McClaren when his then Birmingham side had been reduced to 10 men during a game.
McClaren had suggested a 4-4-1 formation was the best way to protect a lead, Alexander opted for a 3-3-3. Bruce chose the latter and saw his side win.
His work with the Prince's Trust and in helping children in his native St Lucia to have sporting opportunities was typical of a man with a heart as giant as his stature.
From personal experience, a couple of years ago during work experience at the BBC in Lincoln, I came across 'Big Keef' sitting in the reception.
I weighed up whether I should go over a have a word - congratulate him on his success at Lincoln and thank him for his services as a player at my club, Boston.
It is to my regret that I never found the courage to. Judging by how approachable he was whenever he was at York Street to watch a game, I know he would have welcomed me and appreciated it.
I'll have to make my tribute here, and it was heart-warming to see the England players wearing black armbands in memory of him during their game with Egypt.
It was a mark on the glitzy international stage for a man who spent his career working in the lower, less flashy, reaches of football. Work, and a man, well worth remembering.
R.I.P. Keith Alexander