Uncomfortably close to the bottom of the football league and looking for a new manager? Who are you going to call but Ian Atkins. It is a course of action that has become the football equivalent of dialling 999 and asking for the fire brigade. Chester City are one of many clubs to summon football's one man emergency service. He has seldom failed to put out the fire - and then only when up against virtually impossible odds. Struggling Manager and Chairman Terry Smith threw in the towel on his short and unsuccessful management career at the turn of the century and assigned Sheldon born Atkins, the master of crisis management to the almost impossible task of recovering Chester's ailing fortunes and retaining the clubs' coveted Football League status.
The former Shrewsbury Town, Sunderland, Ipswich Town, Everton and Birmingham City defender has been a lower division Red Adair since he was 32. How has he kept his hair, let alone his sense of humour? "It's enthusiasm for the game of football." He said. "People say, 'look at the clubs you've been at', and a lot wouldn't have entertained the idea of taking them on. I did, because I love football, and also for the experience of doing it."
Ian's first managerial job was at Colchester United, just relegated from the Football League but, in what was to become a career blueprint, he arrested the fall, improving the team and developing players. "With six weeks to go we had no balls, no shirts, nothing. It took up four months to get going because we didn't have any players. But what we achieved there is the grounding for where they are now."
Jobs as assistant manager with big clubs have not worked out. "At Birmingham City we won promotion to the first division and were top when they went bust, and Terry Butcher took me to Sunderland, but got the sack within three months," Atkins described.
Four and a half years at Northampton Town is, so far, his longest tenure. "They were second from bottom of the league and four years later, we'd got to Wembley twice, won promotion and been six minutes from the first division," he said. "They were in voluntary receivership when I took over and I don't think people realised what an achievement that was, spending nothing, beating the likes of Kevin Keegan at Fulham, who spent fortunes. It was a grafting, grinding side, but we had great spirit."
Atkins quickly became popular with Chester supporters
Then Ian's phone rang with an SOS call from the Deva Stadium. Terry Smith was quickly discovering there was more to team management than meets the eye and following a new years defeat at the hands of Carlisle United the reigns were handed over to Atkins in the hope Chester's route away from oblivion could be averted. By Ian's own admission, the club had failed in what could have been deemed to be one of the greatest escape acts of all time. Ian Atkins was brought in on a life support mission to revive the clubs fortunes and his leadership skills swept through the club like a massive breath of fresh air. Ian really did give us a fighting chance after a first half that had it continued might have delivered the earliest relegation in footballing history. "There is a lot of feeling about what went on in the first part of the season," he said in the quiet sanctuary of his office an hour after the final whistle had confirmed the darkest hour in his managerial career.
"It was a different game and Peterborough did well on the day," he added. "I can't knock the players and I feel for the supporters. We've done brilliantly to give ourselves a chance." He set the club's pulse racing from rapid to weak by masterminding an incredibly entertaining demolition job over Mansfield Town. But then Chester were to struggle to find any competitiveness against Brighton and Hove Albion, who's hefty victory over the blues could have been responsible for placing one of the final nails in the Chester coffin as the club dropped through the trapdoor and into oblivion. That ended Chester's seventy years of life in the Football League.
Despite being unable to create a great escape, Atkins is proud of his reputation. However, he fears that he has become known as a lower division specialist and will never have the opportunity to go on to achieve his dream and manage at the highest level of English football. "I've learnt my trade, I've got contacts and not that many people have my track record, but I don't think that means anything now. Supporters want a big name and it frustrates you. I always thought that the art of management was trying to build something, especially in the lower divisions when you lack money. Rather than spit your dummy out, you've got to get on with it. It can be difficult if you're a perfectionist, and my standards are no different from Alex Ferguson's. I know I've got the ability, it's just having the opportunity."