Giant among Imps: why Chris Sutton is loving life at Lincoln City

Posted Saturday, January 02, 2010 by

Giant among Imps: why Chris Sutton is loving life at Lincoln City
Chris Sutton won league titles in England and Scotland but has started at the bottom in his managerial career with perennial strugglers Lincoln City.

It can be strange sometimes watching an ex-pro trying to make the transition into becoming the gaffer and, initially, it takes some getting used to seeing Chris Sutton, this tall, familiar figure synonymous with big-money transfers and the inaugural Premier League years, patrolling the edge of a muddy pitch, stopwatch in hand, barking out orders and occasionally stopping play to pass on instructions.

This is Lincoln City's training ground, Sutton's place of work since the end of September when one of English football's traditionally least successful clubs announced they were taking a "calculated gamble" by making him their new manager. It has been described as the most unlikely appointment of the season, which is saying something in the same year that Notts County brought in Sven-Goran Eriksson, and it is here, on the outskirts of the old cathedral city, that the one-time England international could be found this week plotting for an FA Cup tie at Bolton Wanderers and daring to wonder whether a club with absolutely no history of giant-killing can do something remarkable.

"The club, historically, have got a particularly bad cup record," Sutton says with a wistful smile from behind his desk, the office window looking directly on to the training pitches. "This is the first time they have been through to the third round for ..." He is struggling to remember the year and eventually gives up. "Well, God knows how many years but it's been a long time anyway." Only twice since 1977, in fact, have the club made it this far. The furthest they have ever got in the League Cup is the fourth round in 1967 and they were on the brink of extinction until being rescued by the Save The Imps campaign eight years ago.

"There were major problems," says Sutton, who made a point of reading up about the club's history (insert joke here about it not taking long). "They were close to a really bad position but the club are on a sound footing now. It might surprise a few people when they actually come to have a look around. It's a good set-up, a nice stadium, a decent training ground. The only thing that's wrong is the results and performances on the pitch and that's why I am here."

It is a strange alliance, the first £5m footballer in England in charge of a club whose highest ever finish was fifth in the old Second Division in 1902. As a player Sutton scored for five Premier League clubs, broke transfer records and won the championship with Blackburn Rovers as well as three Scottish Premier League titles and three Scottish Cups with Celtic. Lincoln's only notable record, other than being the 34-time winners of the Lincolnshire Senior Cup, is for being the only club to reach the play-offs in five consecutive seasons and lose every time. The most they have ever spent on a player is £75,000 and they lie 90th on the English football ladder.

"It has been difficult," he says. "The job came up because the team wasn't doing particularly well. They had lost a lot of games, the club didn't have a lot of money to spend and the team were struggling near the bottom of League Two. We're not poverty-stricken but, with all due respect, who's going to want to play for Lincoln City in this position? So it was a case of, 'So what are you going to do about it?' I've just been trying to get the players more organised, get them fitter and work harder on the training ground. Really that's the only way we can improve because, let's face it, we don't have a pot of gold at Lincoln City."

There are financial constraints, rules that must be adhered to. This might be Lincoln's biggest cup tie for years but, unless the weather worsens drastically, the club were still planning to travel by bus this morning rather than booking a hotel. "We don't have many overnight stops because we have to go by a budget and the hotels can be expensive," he says. "That's just the way it is at this level and you get on with it. It's fine."

He has teamed up with Ian Pearce, his former Blackburn team-mate – "a smart guy, someone I trust implicitly" – and enrolled him as a player, too. Pearce, 35, is the kind of old-fashioned centre-half whose career always seemed destined to involve moving "upstairs" whereas, for some reason, the same was not often said of Sutton. By his own admission the 36-year-old scarcely gave a thought to trying his hand at management during his playing career. He left the game two years ago because of a problem in his right eye – "the vision isn't good and it isn't going to get better so it was a straightforward decision" – and has a beautiful estate on the Norfolk coast where his wife, Sam, runs her own horse sanctuary.

"I guess I just missed football," he says. "I had never really thought about it when I was playing but, after a while, you start wanting to get back in. I started taking my coaching badges, liking the idea more and more."

Inverness Caledonian Thistle asked him if he would be interested in the job that Terry Butcher eventually took last January. There were, Sutton says, "other whispers". Then he asked Pearce what he thought of applying for the vacant Lincoln job. "This was the first interview we got. The club described it as a calculated gamble, which is fair, I suppose, because I haven't got any experience as a manager. But then again, how do you get managerial experience if nobody is willing to give you a chance? I don't think I could have done any more in terms of who I have spoken to and prepared for this.

"I have been fortunate to work under some great managers and I knew I could benefit from that education. I went round to their clubs, talked to them, watched them at work and learned." Martin O'Neill, at Aston Villa, was particularly hospitable, along with Roy Hodgson at Fulham. "Football is not really a complicated game," Sutton says sagely. "It's important to have an understanding of the game but the beauty of people like Martin O'Neill, Roy Hodgson and Kenny Dalglish is that they know how to treat players. Martin O'Neill, for example – I probably enjoyed my football under him more than anywhere else. I would actually wake up excited about going into training and that's probably the most important thing – getting the players to want to play for the manager. On the flipside, I've played for managers who would say things or make decisions that I couldn't understand."

On England duty Sutton would pass over Kevin Keegan's team-bonding race nights and card schools to read a book, and, when he thought he was not getting a fair crack of the whip from Glenn Hoddle he announced that he was giving up international football. He now regards that as one of the biggest regrets of his career. "It wasn't wise," he says. "I just thought there were other players ahead of me but, even so, I shouldn't have done it."

Back to today's game, the trip to the Reebok has caught the imagination of the Lincoln people, with 2,000 fans travelling to Lancashire. "When you consider that our average gate is 3,000 to 3,500 it shows the interest in the match," Sutton says. "It's a good draw for us, a Premier League club, and it's something we should enjoy."




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