Keith Alexander honoured by the Black List
Keith Alexander's son Matt fondly recalls many tales about his late father but he rates one above all others.
The Alexander family were visiting Keith in hospital as he recuperated following the first of two life-threatening brain aneurysms he suffered in 2003. Keith, then manager of Lincoln, was still very ill and the family were aghast when they realised that he had tried to unplug his heart monitor.
The Imps boss had attempted to free up the socket so that he could plug in a television and follow Lincoln's progress on Ceefax.
I think it is a story that perfectly illustrates Alexander's love of the game and the dedication that he brought to all of his managerial roles.
Alexander was a respected figure with a strong work ethic. Photo: Getty Images
Alexander was in charge of Macclesfield when he collapsed at home and died on 3 March 2010 shortly after returning from his team's match at Notts County.
Alexander, who was 53, will be honoured with a lifetime achievement award at the third Black List celebratory evening at Wembley on Thursday.
The Black List highlights the influence of African Caribbean figures in British football. It was 30 strong in 2008 and 2009 but has been extended to 50 this year and comprises people who work in football from the media, commercial, community and administrative side of the game.
"It serves to recognise the black people who are making a significant contribution in football and show young black people positive role models," said Professional Footballers' Association deputy chief executive Bobby Barnes.
Alexander was on the list in both 2008 and 2009. Given that it highlights the influence of African Caribbean figures in British football, it was not a great surprise that he was included.
He was not the first black manager in the Football League - that was Tony Collins at Rochdale in the early 1960s - but he was the first of his generation when he took charge of Lincoln in 1993.
"He was a pioneer," said Barnes. "Not only was he one of the first black managers but he was a real gentleman."
Son Matt Alexander added: "He was a trailblazer and many in the black community held him in very high regard. Most people don't know half the stuff my dad had to put up with."
Alexander was the son of parents who had moved to England from the Caribbean island of St Lucia. He played for numerous non-League clubs as a powerful centre forward before joining Grimsby in 1998 at the age of 31.
He also played for Lincoln, Stockport and Mansfield before moving into management.
In a 17-year career he was the boss of the Imps, Peterborough and Macclesfield, and had spells in charge of non-League sides Ilkeston Town and Northwich Victoria.
But the increasing prominence of black players during his time as a coach was not matched by a significant increase in the number of black managers. At the time of Alexander's death he was one of just three, along with Newcastle's Chris Hughton and Paul Ince, who was still in charge of MK Dons but left his role towards the end of the season. Hughton is currently the only black manager in England's top four divisions.
"One thing Dad did want to see was more black managers and coaches in the game," added Matt.
Alexander was active in the PFA's black coaches forum, while League Managers Association chief executive Richard Bevan described him as "a champion of civil rights and equality issues".
"Black managers and coaches remain at a premium," added Barnes, who is on the 2010 Black List, which has backing from the Football Association, the PFA and the Kick it Out campaign. "Keith was always trying to pass on the benefit of his experience. For example, Brian Deane worked with him while he was doing his coaching badges and Paul Ince was often on the phone."
Alexander often spoke of his experiences as the only black figure in a boardroom. It only steeled his determination to succeed and prove his worth. He was a qualified referee and had a Uefa Pro Licence.
Alexander was widely respected by senior football figures. Photo: Getty Images
It is clear that he was an inspiration to aspiring black coaches, but in researching this article it became obvious how much more there was to him than his worth as a role model. More than that, he was widely respected as a hard worker and as a human being.
"Keith was held in very high regard by the top names in football," said Barnes. "He did not say all that much at meetings but when he did it made sense and people listened."
He put people at ease in his company and always tried to look after his team-mates and players. Matt Alexander recalls a homesick Matt Carbon being virtually adopted by the Alexander family as he tried to adjust to life at Lincoln.
The Imps reached the play-offs in four successive seasons under Alexander despite tight financial constraints. He and long-standing assistant Gary Simpson, now the manager of Macclesfield, would travel the length of the country trying to unearth new players.
"He was never really given much money to spend, his jobs always seemed to be as a fire-fighter," added Barnes.
The one job Alexander had that gave him the opportunity to flex his muscles a little in the transfer market came at Peterborough in 2006. Alexander signed George Boyd, Aaron McLean and Craig Mackail-Smith, all crucial players as Posh won back-to-back promotions. However, that success came under Darren Ferguson. Alexander had been sacked in January 2007 with the team eighth in League Two after a run of six straight defeats.
"When he took Lincoln to the play-off final for the first time I was earning more money as a car salesman," added Matt Alexander. "He never whinged about money but what hurts me the most is that he never got the opportunity to manage above League Two."
Alexander always wanted to test himself at a higher level but had gained something of a reputation as a long-ball manager who was a value-for-money option at League Two clubs operating on tight budgets. The long-ball tag always grated with Keith, who argued that some of his teams were not suited to playing the ball out of defence. Ultimately, he never fulfilled his ambition of managing in the top flight.
Matt paints a picture of a man who could not sit still. Keith would often visit his son for a cup of his favourite hot chocolate and ginger snap biscuits but he would be on the move before he had finished his drink.
It is obvious that Matt has the greatest of respect for his father. I enjoyed a story he told about a game of football in the back garden. As an eight or nine-year-old Matt would always end up in a goal made from two conifer trees while his dad shot with all the force he could muster. One day a poor cross from Keith, a professional footballer, went through the conservatory window. Matt and brother Paul were blamed by a slightly embarrassed father.
Matt would travel to reserve games with Keith a couple of times a week, while his old man would often look after his daughter on a Sunday. There is a rawness when Matt talks about the hole in his routine. It was even more touching when he discussed Keith's children from his second marriage, Jack and Jenny, who are nine and 13.
"That is no age to lose your dad," he said.
It reminded me that more than anything the passing of Alexander is not so much about football losing an important and respected figure, it is a family loss.
But there is no doubt that the generous tributes that followed Alexander's death, the benefit game played in his memory in May and the Black List award have given great comfort to those closest to him.
"If he was looking down and saw the reaction that followed his death and how valuable people thought he was, he would be smiling," added Matt. "He would realise that all his hard work had paid off."