At the time of writing, England are about to kick off against Egypt in their first friendly match of 2010. This is football as a peculiar mix of Hollywood and pantomime, a story that often seems to have very little to do with what goes on during the matches themselves. It’s a world that frequently feels alien. Away from this, however, there is a whole other world of football going on, a world in which people give up their youth, their other aspirations, relationships and families because they believe in the game. Often away from the spotlight and the wilder excesses of the game, the people that inhabit this world are often easily dismissed as “journeymen”, but they are crucial to our narrative of football. We lost one of them last night.
Neither Keith Alexander’s playing career nor his managerial career scaled, as some might put it, the heights. As a player, he spent fourteen years in non-league football before going on to enjoy something of an Indian summer in the Football League with Grimsby Town and Mansfield Town, whilst winning a handful of caps at international level for St Lucia. It was not, however, his playing career that marks out his significance in the game, rather the managerial career that followed it, a managerial career that lasted from 1993 until right up until his death at the tragically early age of fifty-three.
When appointed the managerof Lincoln City in 1993, Alexander became Britain’s first professional black manager. Considering the apparent glass ceiling that seems to apply to managers from ethnic minorities even now, this was no mean feat. After losing his job there a year later, he made a brief return to playing and also managed in the non-league game at Ilkeston Town and Northwich Victoria before returning to Sincil Bank, where he took a club that had been taken to the financial brink, stamped his authority on the team and took them to the play-offs, where they lost to AFC Bournemouth.
Alexander’s first brush with serious illness came in November in 2003, when he was rushed to hospital after suffering a cerebral aneurysm. He recovered from the potentially life-threatening condition to return to his job four months later, and further disappointments were to follow in the play-offs – they qualified for the League Two play-offs in all four of his seasons in charge of the club – before he left the club in the summer of 2006. He was picked up almost immediately by Peterborough United (he had played for Peterborough’s Barry Fry at Barnet during the late 1980s), but left the club a little over six months later, and this was followed by a similarly unfruitful period as the Director of Football at Bury.
It was at Macclesfield Town, where ambitions are modest, that he spent his final two seasons in charge, lifting the club away from the relegation zone in League Two in 2008. They finished just above the relegation places last season and seem likely to do so again this season. Alexander hadn’t always been completely popular at Moss Rose – perpetual struggle against relegation may be the realpolitik of life at Macclesfield Town, but that doesn’t mean that it is popular – but the shock of his premature death has silenced his critics and made many re-evaluate their viewpoint of someone that had been part of the furniture in lower division football for many years.
The tributes today have been fulsome and heartfelt, including England players wearing black armbands for their match this evening, and we should in some ways be grateful that Keith Alexander’s passing is all the more shocking because it is the death of a manager in service. Only Jock Stein, Cyril Knowles of Hartlepool United and, deep in the mists of time, Herbert Chapman of Huddersfield Town and Arsenal spring readily to mind as other managers that have been managing clubs when they have died. Possibly the most succinct tribute of the day came from Garth Crooks, on behalf of the Kick It Out campaign:
In one way or another we all live to serve, but we have lost one of our great trailblazers. He served the game, and our community, with distinction and without fuss. We’ll miss him.
Indeed we have lost one of our great trailblazers but, just as importantly, we have lost somebody that was universally admired within the game and will be remembered as an expert in working in the uniquely financially restrained world of League Two football. And if or when English football finally overcomes the absurd colour-blindness that sees just two black managers employed amongst the ninety-two clubs of the Premier League and the Football League, the next generation of black managers will have plenty of cause to be grateful for Keith Alexander’s contribution to their cause. Meanwhile, the rest of us should probably take a moment to offer a quiet thanks to the journeymen. They’re more important to the fabric of our game than we give them credit for.