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America eye playoffs in Clasico Nacional

Five Aside

The search begins...

Three weeks ago, a reader who calls himself VolkerFinke left this comment: "I knew I should have changed my career a long while ago. People get paid to sit and watch football? You lucky son of a man!"

Let me, belatedly, answer the question. No, as far as I know people do not get paid to sit and watch football. At least not primarily for this activity. To argue otherwise would be a bit like claiming that Quentin Tarantino gets paid for watching trashy 1970s films.

Just so that you know what I'm really getting paid for, the other day I received an e-mail which said: "Dinamo Minsk coach Kirill Alshevski is only 27 years old and the youngest boss in Belarusian top-flight history. We reckon he's the youngest boss in European top-flight history. Or do you know anyone younger?"

Before you ask: yes, the person who sent the mail was not making a joke and was not challenging me to a trivia contest, but was really just fact-checking. Such proper journalistic practice has become rare, but it still exists.

Sergei Gurenko has since replaced the 27-year-old at the club, but quite apart from the one about young coaches, this mail also raised a few other questions. Such as: how am I to know whether or not there has been a 26-year-old coach in, say, Portugal's Primeira Divisão in the 1950s? And why do people expect me to know this, or at least to have it in the back of my mind that there's been a very young coach somewhere at some time?

I guess it's because I have been counting beans on occasion. Four years ago, a friend of mine published a book full of fascinating but arcane football stuff - think "Schott's Miscellany". On page 186, it said that the largest distance players and fans ever had to cover in the history of the European Cup competitions were the 5,269 kilometres separating Iceland's Keflavik IBK from Israel's Maccabi Tel Aviv when those teams were drawn against each other in the Cup Winners' Cup in 1994.

I sent my friend a note, saying this was wrong. It broke my heart to correct him, because I knew he had been very thorough and had actually taken the awe-inspiring trouble to check every tie ever played since 1955. And now I was telling him he could have saved himself all that grind - because the teams involved don't mean a thing. What counts is where you play.

In March 1968, Cardiff City met Torpedo Moscow in the quarter-finals of the same competition. Now, the distance between Moscow and Cardiff is 2,686 kilometres. Long, but surely not record-breaking, right? Well, this is where it gets tricky. True, Torpedo's players and fans covered only 2,686 kilometres. But for climatic reasons the second leg was moved from a snow-covered Moscow to Tashkent - near the Chinese border and 5,439 kilometres away from Cardiff.

I figured my friend would be amazed or devastated (or both) upon receiving this piece of information, so I hastened to add that I had not checked every tie ever played since 1955 for both the teams involved and the sites of the matches. It was simply that I had just published a book on the history of the European Cup competitions, and in the course of my research I had come across the story of Cardiff City's long, long trip.

In other words: it was entirely accidental that I was in a position to count beans and correct my friend. It's not as if I'm a mad statto who's actually memorised all this strange stuff or someone who is likely to waste hours on finding the answer to a silly football question.

Okay. So I was staring at this e-mail about Kirill Alshevski. You won't object when I say that 27 is pretty damn young for a top-flight coach, no matter the league. Did I - entirely by accident, of course - happen to know about a younger gaffer? The answer was: no. And so I could have, and maybe should have, replied in the negative and told the sender to take a risk and just claim there's never been a younger coach than Alshevski anywhere in Europe.

But then it occurred to me that I had no idea who the youngest coach in Bundesliga history was. I knew that Matthias Sammer became the youngest-ever coach to win the league when he led Dortmund to the 2002 title at 34 years of age. But who was the youngest man to merely coach a Bundesliga team?

The answer came as a surprise, because for some reason I must have forgotten or ruled out the possibility that Erich Ribbeck had once been a young man. But he was only 31 when he took over Eintracht Frankfurt in 1968.

Don't ask me why, but as I was contemplating the shocking revelation that Ribbeck had once set a record for youth that still stood, I suddenly thought of Sven-Göran Eriksson. I knew he had taken over a team at a pretty young age, so I did some research.

It turned out Eriksson had gone into coaching at 28, when he became an assistant at Degerfors IF under Tord Grip. (I just mention him because I think that's a great name.) Now, that wasn't the top flight, Eriksson was not the boss and he was also a tad too old. But I had the feeling I was on the right track and it was only a matter of time now until I'd catch Alshevski.

I decided to stay in Sweden, because none of the pieces I had read on Eriksson mentioned he was the youngest this or that, so I suspected the country must have a younger coach on offer. And indeed it has.

I'll admit I was very lucky to find him. For reasons unknown to me, Stefan Lundin's Swedish Wikipedia entry is only five sentences long (the English entry has only two), but the German one goes on forever.

Strange. Well, be that as it may, Lundin took over Gefle IF in 1982, when the club was in the second division. Since Lundin was born in May 1955 and, since the Swedish season follows the calendar year and typically starts in April, he must have been 26. Under Lundin, Gefle then won promotion to the top flight. When the 1983 "Fotbollsallsvenskan" season began, on April 16, Lundin was 27.

True, he was not younger than Alshevski, but at this point a look at the clock told me I had just wasted more time on finding the answer to a silly football question than non-stattos should spend. So I shared my findings with the sender of the e-mail, suggested no claims should be made that award a continental crown to Alshevski and decided to let Soccernet do the rest.

Let's see, I told myself, as we're going on holiday on September 8, if I submit a column for that day which deals with the search for the youngest coach to ever run a top-flight team, there should be more than enough comments from all over the world waiting for me when I return two weeks later.


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