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Cheeky Chappy

Ask any Manchester City fan the highlight of the past 20 years and virtually 99% would say the Aguerooooooooo moment, when Sergio so memorably made City the Champions of England after 44 barren years.

But, if you ask Les Chapman, City’s Kit Manager you’ll get a heartfelt response from a man more readily renowned for being the club’s joker in the pack, with his trademark perennial smile.

“It has to be Gillingham at Wembley in 1999, the play-off Final that took us out of the old Second Division, out of the third tier of English football - if we’d have lost that one we might never have recovered,” so says the man who’s witnessed, first hand, City’s remarkable renaissance from nigh on zero to top of the pile heroes.

‘Chappy’ or just straightforward Les, is celebrating a double testimonial year in 2013, having spent the past two decades fulfilling a vital role in City’s team – no, not the glamorous multi-millionaire First XI – but the unsung backroom team at Carrington and the Etihad.

“I know the Aguero goal against QPR is the one for most people, but that might never have happened if Kevin Horlock and Paul Dickov hadn’t hauled us back from being 2-0 down against Gillingham.

“It was totally – totally – different back in those days. The club didn’t have any money, but by God we had such a spirit coursing through our veins – a great dressing room, a wonderful bunch of lads and an unbelievable sense of camaraderie.

“Everybody – and I mean everybody – enjoyed coming in to work and when we won on penalties we all went bloody meant so much to the club, the players, the fans...everyone,” the passion now noticeable in Les’ voice as it quivers with emotion.

To look at Les all suited and booted - at a special Tribute Dinner in his honour – it’s incomprehensible that he’s 65 years young – never has a man been in less need of a bus pass!

His natural exuberance and lust for life, aligned to his undoubted skills both on and off the field of play, have won him countless thousands of admirers in a career spanning nearly five decades in football.

A seasoned professional – nothing to do with rosemary, garlic or thyme – Les made 749 first team league and cup appearances, after escaping the rigours and ‘excitement’ of trainee accountancy in 1966.

His playing career hardly ever saw him far away from the North West – apart from a five year stint across the Pennines at Huddersfield Town (including two years in the old First Division, the equivalent of the Premier League) – four seasons at Bradford and, oh yes, 20 games for the dramatically titled San Jose Earthquakes, when the USA was flirting with ‘soccer’.

Two stays and seven seasons at Oldham, two stints at Stockport, a couple of years at Rochdale and the conclusion of on the field activities at the aptly named Preston North End, saw Les hang up his boots in 1987.

He had the almost mandatory go at football management with Rochdale, Stockport and Preston, before coming to Maine Road as reserve team coach in 1993 to begin his association with City.

Peter Reid, the City manager at the time, hired him, Reidy’s successor Brian Horton retained him, but when Alan Ball became manager he fired Les.

It was ‘Big Joe’ Royle who brought him back to City after another stint of coaching at Huddersfield and Chappy has stayed at City ever since. Les has a tremendous regard for Joe and Joe for Les, as was illustrated when the former City manager took charge of one of the teams at Les’ testimonial match this summer.

A galaxy of ex-City stars including Asa Hartford, Uwe Rosler, Shaun Goater, Andy Morrison, Peter Barnes, Steve McManaman, Robbie Fowler and the goalscorers from the ’99 play-off Dickov and Horlock took part in the match at Stockport’s Edgeley Park.

A 2,000+ crowd turned out for the fixture and Les says he was genuinely staggered and humbled, that so many should want to pay ‘homage’ to him.

“It is humbling that so many people should turnout at events during my testimonial year - I really do want to say a massive ‘thankyou’ to everybody – it means a hell of a lot.”

Speaking to Read But Never Red at the conclusion of the Tribute Dinner at the Premier Suite in Audenshaw, Les pinpoints, City’s relegation to the Second Division - despite a 5-2 final match day win over Stoke City - as the lowest ebb in his time at the club.

It’s a glowing testimony to the man that the event is a sell-out with 200 people present including City first team regulars Joe Hart, James Milner, Joleon Lescott and the Everton-bound Gareth Barry, along with Costel Pantilimon and Patrick Vieira, City’s Elite Development Squad Manager.

Having played and managed in the game, Les is well placed to offer his opinions on all facets of football, including a procession of managers who occupied and then vacated the manager’s office.

He hasn’t always liked what he has seen from some of those who have been on the City managerial merry-go-round over the years, but he is suitably diplomatic.

The new man in the hot seat – Manuel Pellegrini – gets the thumbs up from Les who said: “He’s a very pleasant, well mannered man and the training is much better.

“Last season we had the players who could’ve gone a lot further in the Premier League, but especially the Champions League. Something was amiss, but hopefully it’ll be better this season.”

Les is tasked with ensuring all the training kit and strips are spot on for Carrington training sessions, away trips and especially match days.

He knows the players, their idiosyncrasies, rituals and needs. He also has a supreme talent for tapping into their sense of humour, enriching the dressing room and practice ground with his zany antics and pranks.

Forever lightening the mood, Les has been ‘honoured’ with City running their own derivation of the Oscars – the ‘Chappys’ – where the club’s in-house film crew capture hilarious, Chapman-initiated buffoonery, including his ‘talent’ for contorting his face into a ‘gurn’.

He smiles as he recalls Joe Hart being interviewed, live on TV after a City victory in Europe, and the likeable England keeper gurning to camera as he was being questioned.

“I taught him well” he says, laughing.

So what does the future hold for one of the games most colourful characters?

“Contrary to what folk might think, the kit manager’s job is physically tough going and getting more and more physical with each passing season.

“Our pre-season to Africa, Hong Kong, Germany and Finland nearly bloody killed me. Three training sessions per day meant the laundry turnaround times were very demanding – we got the job done – but it is getting harder and harder as I get older.”

Ideally, Les would like to diversify within the club next season by moving away from full-on kit duties, and becoming a match day host and undertaking more ambassadorial duties.

But before he can even begin to contemplate next season he’s a big match of his own to contend with – marriage to the woman he calls ‘The Beautiful Billington’ - former Head of Operations at City, Sara Billington.

Having had the pleasure of his company for an evening and the friendship of his fiancée for several years, you couldn’t find a nicer couple.

When they do the deed and say ‘I do’, no one would begrudge Chappy and his bride being over the Blue Moon.

David Walker @djwskyblu

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