— By Adie Bell and Melissa Rudd
The manager’s office at a League Two training ground may seem an unlikely workplace for two former Premiership footballers.
It’s far from glamorous and hardly big enough to house more than a handful of people, let alone those who may have an ego in tow.
Good job then that the new Lincoln City manager Chris Sutton and his assistant Ian Pearce carry no such grandeur as they begin their management career at modest Lincoln City.
The club has found itself in the Football League’s basement division for the past decade, so you may expect a certain amount of arrogance from a man taking charge who has been there and done that at the highest level.
However, that is as far from the truth as you can get. Sutton, with mud on his knees, has just finished a training session with his players and is a calm and calculated man who does not suffer fools gladly. He carries a certain amount of intellectual weight as he ponders his response to every question.
It’s hard to believe that Sutton’s dreams of becoming a professional footballer seemed dead and buried after he was released by his first club Norwich City at the age of 12. The annals of football history would certainly look different — Sutton was the first British player to command a £5 million transfer fee when he moved to Blackburn Rovers in 1994.
“I’m not saying that being released put me off football, but afterwards I just played for my school team and local Sunday football,” says the father-of-five, who was initially deployed at centre-half before excelling as a target man.
“It was actually through my school team that I got scouted again. I went down for a trial in my last year and got offered an apprenticeship right at the end of the season. I signed professional at the end of my two years doing that.”
When Sutton emerged as a top-flight player almost twenty years ago, the football landscape was entirely different. “There was not the big influx of foreign players then. You literally went from the youth team into the reserves. Basically because there were injuries in the first team you were next in the pecking order. Norwich was a good club to start at because you got the opportunities, I got in and fortunately I stayed there.”
It’s no accident that Sutton’s time at Norwich coincided with the club’s most successful period — finishing third in the Premiership and enjoying an incredible European adventure that included a 2-1 win over Bayern Munich at the Olympic Stadium.
“I couldn’t do any wrong at Norwich even when I was useless, but that’s what happens because people build you up and build you up.
“There were a lot of clubs after me at the time. I signed for Blackburn because they’d finished 2nd in the previous season and were a club on the up. They paid us a decent wage as well — I wouldn’t lie and say that didn’t come into the equation because it did.”
Sutton partnered with Alan Shearer in a strike pairing nicknamed “SAS” as the two netted 49 goals between them in the 1994-95 season that earned Rovers the Premiership title. Although his scoring record might not reflect it, Sutton admits he found the transition from being golden boy at Norwich to British football’s most expensive player at Blackburn tough.
“Even before I kicked a ball at Blackburn people were asking the question ‘does he justify that sort of money?’
“I felt that I was under a lot of pressure to perform. At first it was a whole different ball game to what I’d had at Norwich and it was difficult.
“But I was lucky there that we had a good team and I came through it. If you’re a striker you’re judged on goals and fortunately I scored a few early on and that took the pressure off.”
Whilst at Ewood Park, as a 23-year-old Sutton was joint top-scorer in the Premier League and had gained his first full international cap by coming on as a substitute against Cameroon.
But after being demoted to the “B” team for England’s next fixture, a very public bust-up between Sutton and then-England boss Glenn Hoddle essentially ended his international career that had lasted only 11 minutes, after he refused to play for the second-string.
“Looking back I probably did the wrong thing. You make decisions and you have to live by them. I do regret it but being honest I think there were people ahead of me in the pecking order.
“I think I probably would have got more caps, but in the major tournaments there would have been people that would have played in front of me.”
Although the falling out meant Sutton had effectively ruled himself out of any further England call-ups, domestically the striker was in high demand. Tottenham, Leeds, and Manchester United were all linked with him before he put pen-to-paper on a six-year deal at Chelsea for £10m.
But his time in the capital was a miserable one and he managed only three goals at Stamford Bridge before making the journey across the border to Celtic after just a single season.
“When you go for big money people want you to hit the ground running and I didn’t do that.
“Some of my actual performances weren’t bad at all, but people are always judging you on the goals, on the goals, on the goals. In the end I was glad to get out of there.”
Undoubtedly one of Sutton’s biggest influences is Martin O’Neill, and he regards those five years at Parkhead under the Northern Irishman as the best of his career.
At Celtic, Sutton regained his scoring touch, silencing his critics who had branded him a flop in West London. His 86 goals contributed to a host of Scottish league titles and cups, as well as a UEFA Cup Final that ended in heartbreak against Jose Mourinho’s Porto.
Add to the mix a knack of scoring goals against the old enemy Rangers and its little wonder Sutton gained legendary status in Scotland.
“As you grow older you learn how to deal with things better. There was a lot of pressure at Celtic; a draw is a defeat. You’re expected to compete in Europe but don’t have the budget to do that as such.
“The fans’ expectations are very high, but in our day I think we could beat anyone in Europe and often we did.”
After a brief return to England’s top-flight with Birmingham and finally Aston Villa, Sutton’s retirement came somewhat prematurely in 2007 after he suffered a bruised retina in a defeat against Manchester United.
But his appointment as Lincoln City’s manager came as a shock to fans and the media alike, and straight-talking Sutton knows that his every move in his first managerial spell will be under a harsh spotlight.
“Did I think I would ever become a manager? Not at all really. When I was playing, all I thought about was playing. You think it will never end and all of a sudden it does.
“I took my time over it and myself and Ian (Pearce) did a lot of preparation.
“I’d be silly not to look at other people I’ve played under. Martin O’Neill, Roy Hodgson, Kenny Dalglish, and Steve Bruce, they’re successful for a reason. But I don’t want to be a clone. I’m my own person and I want that success.
“We can come in and do things which are unrealistic, and say things which are unrealistic, but ultimately we want to get Lincoln out of League Two. You don’t often get a job when the team are top of the league or in a good position.
“We’re new to this, we understand that people are going to be sceptical about us, which is fine. We do have something to prove, just because you play at a certain level it doesn’t mean you’re going to be successful as a manager, but neither does it mean that you’re not going to be. We’re here and it’s a good opportunity for us.
“OK, so we haven’t managed before, but do we have good experience of the game? Yes we do. Do we have good contacts? Yes we do. Do we have good knowledge? Yes we do.
“The thing which always amazes me about football clubs is that they let a manager go and pick another who has gone and messed four other clubs up. They think ‘it must be the law of averages, surely they won’t do the same to ours.’
“There are no short cuts. It’s about hard work. Players play at this level for a reason, if they were good enough to play in the Premiership they would be in the Premiership. It’s obvious we need to improve.
“We can’t go out and spend £15m on a player. We don’t have any money to spend. It’s going to be difficult. We’re fortunate that we know people who have been kind enough to give us some good loan players but the rest is going to be down to hard work. We’re going to have to at times take steps backward to try and move forward.
“Football is a simple game. The previous four games before we came here we’d conceded 10 goals. You don’t have to be a rocket scientist to work out there’s a problem, so we try and sort out what’s going on at the back.
“We haven’t scored many goals; we’re one of the poorest in the league for goals scored. There are reasons for that and it’s easy for fans to say we haven’t got any strikers. We could put Gary Lineker in our team but it’d be no good if we’re not creating the chances.”
Sutton has already come under criticism from some Lincoln City fans who still see the side flirting with the League Two relegation zone. The Imps’ boss is well aware of the pressure that fans put on teams, but has insisted the transformation of this modest club will not be quick, but under him it will succeed.
“People are quick to judge and say ‘well lets change it and spend more money’. You have to set a foundation and be realistic. I think over a period of time we’ll improve but that’s not going to happen overnight. If people aren’t willing and don’t understand then that’s not my problem.”Tweet