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Coakley driven to distraction with little help from his friend; Ged Scott finds one of Walsall FC's finest in his element.

It's ten years this month since Tommy Coakley pulled off the proudest achievement of his career.

And it's hard for the popular former Saddlers manager to forget, given the amount of daily reminders he gets from the chief on-field architect of that dramatic 1988 Walsall play-off success, and now his business partner, David Kelly.

Coakley and Kelly have been together for four years as joint owners of flourishing, innovative Midland golf centre Swingers, just outside Lichfield.

But, at a time when the identity of the next Saddlers manager has fuelled the imagination of the local Press, a decade on, Coakley and Kelly still keep an ear to the ground where Walsall are concerned.

Coakley was first to offer a shoulder for big Jan Sorensen to cry on when he too was shown the door a fortnight ago.

"He lasted longer than I thought,'' laughs Tommy. "He's a strong individual. I said when Jan was appointed that either he'd be gone inside six months or the chairman would.

"I was fortunate when I got the chance. Everybody had gone, so I had a clear run at it. I was able to bring in my own staff. It was only in my second season they started to interfere.''

Yet he genuinely wishes Ray Graydon all the best. "It's a bit of a surprise,'' he admits. "But people need to be given the chance.''

Now 51, just 12 months older than the latest incumbent of one of football's hotter hot seats, England were World Cup winners when Coakley first took the high road south.

A Scottish winger, from the same Lanarkshire streets that also spawned Jimmy Johnstone, the peak of Coakley's playing career came at Arsenal just before their Double side evolved in the mid-Sixties.

After helping fly the flag in US soccer in Detroit before heading back north of the border with Morton, he was part of the Chelmsford side that won the Southern League under the great John Charles, the year Hereford were voted in.

A move on to Bishops Stortford attracting old Gunners pal John Radford in the process it was as boss of Essex outfit Maldon where Coakley was to catch Terry Ramsden's attention.

But it was still a shock appointment the day Ramsden's chopper landed at Fellows Park, Alan Buckley got the bullet, and Coakley was handed his first league managerial role.

A run to the fifth round of the Cup and a late season play-off push marked his first season at the helm.

In the next, it got better still as Coakley became only the second manager in the club's history to get promoted.

Having missed out on an automatic place after failing to win their last two games, Walsall were in the play-offs, and two goals from Kelly at Meadow Lane proved the difference between them and Notts County.

When Kelly popped in another brace in the first leg of the final against Bristol City at Ashton Gate, the Saddlers looked home and hosed. But premature celebrations helped take the foot off the gas and Bristol hit back to win 2-0 at Fellows Park three da ys later.

Walsall won the penalty shoot-out to decide choice of venue for the decider though.

And, 48 hours later, in front of 13,000 delirious fans, Kelly machine-gunned the hat-trick that took his side to the promised land of Division Two (in the days when it genuinely was the Second Division).

Having hit 80 goals in 152 starts in five years at Fellows Park, off went Kelly to West Ham for pounds 650,000 to instantly ease the club's financial worries by way of a large brown envelope handed over at motorway services on the M6.

Yet all Coakley was allocated of that Kelly cash was the pounds 100,000 it cost to sign injury-plagued Alex Taylor from Hamilton.

Of course, the Saddlers could have found a replacement from within their own ranks, a talented but infuriating YTS striker by the name of Stanley Victor Collymore, whose antics have baffled all his league bosses every bit as much as they frustrated his f irst.

"So laid back he was virtually falling over,'' is Coakley's one printable recollection of a player he once predicted was as likely to end up in a pub side as the Premiership.

The day Stan decked a team-mate who accused him of being lazy, Coakley was delighted. At least, he pointed out, it showed he cared.

But the dubious honour of showing young Stan the door fell to Coakley's successor, John Barnwell.

Despite a solid start, including an incredible 5-0 thumping of neighbours Blues, it was a nightmare slide of 15 straight league defeats that spelt the end.

Coakley went after the tenth of those setbacks a 5-1 Boxing Day drubbing at home to Oxford.

Yet, he reveals: "I'm not bitter. I still believe I was good for Walsall.

"I've always thought certain managers are made for clubs. And that's what I felt about Walsall. I always felt comfortable there.''

The blow of the sack was eased by the cushion of a pay-off. And Coakley put everything he had into running three betting shops.

Inside three years, the punters had taken the lot.

For a while, the man whose name had once appeared on newspaper sandwich boards all over the Black Country was reduced to selling sandwiches from a basket to the hungry of Lichfield.

However, then came his involvement with Swingers. And, after two years as manager, the no-nonsense Scot believed in the place enough to put in his own money.

When the previous owner sold up, Coakley offered the chance to Kelly, star of his successful old Saddlers side of the late Eighties, to help build the golf centre of the future.

And Kelly, having proved he knows a thing or two about scoring goals, looks like he's hit the target again.

Swingers may be the brainchild of a footballing duo but it's more than an average shooting range.

Realising the drudgery, and poor results, boring training routines bring, Coakley and Kelly, keen golfers themselves, had one ambition to make practising more fun. And that's just what they've done.

Now at Tranmere, Kelly was up at Newcastle when Coakley first put the idea to him. "He was happy to put everything he'd got in,'' reveals Coakley. "But I said 'No. Let's keep it 50/50'.''

Kelly had long since discussed the idea of going into business with Coakley, based on the rapport built up between them at Fellows Park, and was only too happy to invest.

Kelly's had a few managers in his seven-club career (Buckley, Lyall, Macari, Bonds, Pleat, Lee, Little, Ardiles, Keegan, Turner, Taylor, Reid and Aldridge reads like a Who's Who of Football).

But none have earned the trust he has in Coakley.

"We've so much trust in each other it's not true,'' admits Kelly.

Yet it wasn't like that the first time they clashed. "First game of the season,'' recalls Coakley, "I fined him pounds 200. I can't tell you what for though.''

"Neither can I,'' chips in Kelly, with a wicked smile. "But I do know pounds 200 was a lot of money then. I learnt my lesson."

When Kelly does eventually hang up his boots, judging by their knowing smiles, if management ever does beckon, don't bet against him having Coakley alongside.

Now starting to near the end of a career that began at Walsall, Kelly has continued to score goals at West Ham, Leicester, Newcastle, and Wolves, even the odd one while played out of position at Sunderland, before pitching up at Prenton Park.

But he admits: "I'd like a go on the managerial side.

"After all, if I've picked up a few good habits from every gaffer I've worked for, I would be all right.''

And Coakley reckons there's a chance of that. "Ned's greatest strength,'' he points out, "is that he's a good listener.''

But, for now, the pair are just happy to concentrate on their golfing dream at Swingers.

An exciting pounds 40,000 golf course simulator is already installed and a nine-hole course mapped out, not to mention the wonderful idea of a fulcale putting course.

"Actually, it was Bob McNab's suggestion,'' reveals Coakley, mention of the former Arsenal left-back a further reminder that, for all his past, he's still a man with a future.
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Author:Scott, Ged
Publication:The Birmingham Post (England)
Date:May 16, 1998
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