FOR Alan Knill, toiling at the foot of League Two with Plaimoor on his back, the idea of marking Marco Van Basten must seem like a distant dream.
Of course, it felt like that at the time too. Back in 1988, Knill was a lanky defender plugging away in the Fourth Division with Swansea City.
His life consisted of bruising trips to Southend and Rochdale, not sojourns to rub shoulders with the international elite.
But when an injury crisis decimated the Welsh back four ahead of a World Cup qualifier against Holland, Knill received the call he least expected.
“The then Wales manager Terry Yorath was also my boss at Swansea and he sent out an SOS to me,” said Knill.
“And he chose me to man-mark the great van Basten. Only three months previously he’d destroyed England with a hat-trick and scored that volley in their Euro final win against USSR. He’d also inspired AC Milan to the Serie A title. And there was this gangly Fourth Division defender trying to stop him. But I did, somehow!”
German legend Franz Beckenbauer, watching from the stands, said that the 24-year-old Welshman had “shown so much intelligence and composure”.
Ruud Gullitt offered to swap shirts and bought him a drink. Mark Hughes called it the best international debut he’d ever seen.
Yet it would be the only cap Knill ever won. The missing defenders returned to fitness and life in the fourth tier resumed with a match against Brentford.
By the time he retired in 2001, the former Southampton trainee had played more than 600 matches for Halifax, Swansea, Bury, Scunthorpe and Rotherham, but never again come close to eclipsing that night in the Amsterdam Arena.
It was, though, the perfect grounding for a management career spent in equally unglamorous surroundings. First came Rotherham in 2005. A month after succeeding Mick Harford, Knill was informed that spiralling debts meant the club would be shut down.
Against the odds, he kept them in League One, but the following year brought administration, a ten-point penalty, a financial black hole and – after he was sacked – relegation from League One.
Then came a spell as assistant at Chesterfield before the move that made his name, a three-year stay at Bury that saw the Shakers win automatic promotion to League One in 2011.
Knill left to join Championship strugglers Scunthorpe before the season’s end, but it was his side and his attractive passing style that sealed the deal.
Though the move to Scunthorpe didn’t work out (Knill was sacked in October 2012 having won just 16 of his 78 games to leave Scunny in the League One relegation zone), he was well liked by the players at Glanford Park, just as he was by those at Bury.
Talking of his influences, Knill recalled how Yorath was “horrible”, but also accessible. “There was always a fair amount of fear when Terry was around, but he would always pull you to one side and have a talk,” said Knill.
“He’d be able to chat about anything – family, how things are, what life is about. I built a bond with him that way.”
And Efe Sodje, Knill’s skipper at Bury, feels his old boss has inherited those values.
“It’s not just about coaching, but about how to handle players,” he said. “The gaffer always has time for people, wants to know about you. That gets respect. He was my tenth manager, and he is in the top three I have worked for.”
Ryan Cresswell, meanwhile, credits Knill with helping him mature. “It was the first move of my career and a big learning curve,” said the defender, who worked with Knill at Rotherham and now plays for Fleetwood.
“Alan, was fantastic and remains one of the best I’ve ever worked with. He took time out with you and tried to make you a better player. I consider it to be when I grew up into a man, and that’s partly down to him.”
Now, with Torquay in the mire, he will need more than support. But if anyone knows about battling for survival in the lower leagues, it is Knill.
ALAN KNILL FACT FILE
Born: Slough, 1964 (Age 49)
Playing career: A rangy centre-half, Knill started his career as a trainee at Southampton in 1978, but left six years later without making an appearance in the first team.
Three seasons with Halifax Town were then followed by a switch to Swansea City in 1987, which yielded a solitary Welsh cap against Holland and promotion to Division Three thanks to a play-off victory over Torquay.
After 89 games for Swansea, Knill joined Bury in 1989, making 144 appearances and twice reaching the Division Three play-offs before suffering relegation to the basement in 1993.
After a brief loan spell at Cardiff, Knill played 130 games for Scunthorpe, then spent four years at Rotherham before retiring in 2001, aged 36.
Managerial career: After a spell in caretaker charge, Knill was appointed manager of Rotherham in December 2005, helping the club survive in League One.
Sacked in his second season with the Millers heading for relegation, he spent a spell coaching at Chesterfield before becoming Bury manager in 2008, leading them to the play-offs semi-final in his first season.
Knill then led Bury to the brink of promotion to League One before leaving to join Championship strugglers Scunthorpe in March 2011.
Sacked after relegation and 16 wins from 78 games, Knill joined Torquay as Martin Ling’s replacement in February 2013, helping the Gulls beat the League Two drop last term.