Michael Appleton had his playing career ended at 27 by an operation that went wrong, found himself locked out of the training ground as Portsmouth manager and suffered the hairdryer treatment from Sir Alex Ferguson for taking the Blackburn job.
Now 44, the engaging Lincoln City manager has clocked up nearly 300 games in management and experienced more than many of his peers ever will, yet little could prepare him for the phone calls he had to make this summer to tell players their deals would not be renewed. Such conversations are part of a manager’s lot but these were different.
Social distancing regulations meant Appleton did not speak face to face to the 11 players released. And the world had changed immeasurably: pre-Covid-19, many would have been able to find other clubs. With belts tightening across the EFL, a far scarier future awaits unattached players, who worry about mortgages and bills.
Lincoln City boss Michael Appleton has clocked up nearly 300 games in management
Welcome the new reality in Leagues One and Two, where the pandemic has laid waste to clubs’ income and threatens the existence of many. Apart from the play-offs, there have been no competitive fixtures since March and there is no immediate prospect of crowds returning when matches resume this weekend, with Lincoln facing Oxford – one of Appleton’s former clubs – on Saturday. Job cuts to every department have been the inevitable consequence.
It is a time for strong minds and empathy – and luckily for Lincoln, Appleton ticks both boxes.
‘When you find yourself having to release players through technology, that’s difficult,’ Appleton told Sportsmail. ‘I’m the type who wants to look someone in the whites of the eyes and have that human connection.
‘You know they will be disappointed and angry. It's even harder to tell players they haven’t got a future at the club when you’re not in the same room.
The Manchester United graduate had his career ended at 27 by an operation that went wrong
‘I gave them the option of either speaking over Zoom or over the phone, and most chose the phone as they probably saw [the decision] coming. Everyone was aware that staff were being furloughed and redundancies were happening at the club.
‘Before Covid, I had an idea of how our summer might look and I went from that to having to release 11 players and then trying to rebuild the team. We had to let some players go that in other circumstances we might have kept.
‘We tried to be really transparent with the players throughout lockdown. Our wage bill this year has been cut dramatically and in League One there is a £2.5million salary cap coming in.
‘During lockdown, I tried to make sure I was always at the end of the phone. The biggest thing was to explain it’s good to talk. It could be five or 10 minutes a week or even every day. I make sure all the players have my phone number and if they need to speak to me every day, then fine.
‘In the last two or three weeks of lockdown, the situation was starting to get to me. I was agitated. I just wanted to get back to work, get back on the grass.’
Appleton’s own life was far from easy at that time. His wife, Jess, is due to give birth later this month, and the couple were fearful of her leaving their home at the height of the infection rate. Appleton also attended the funeral of his stepfather during that time.
Appleton suffered the hairdryer treatment from Sir Alex Ferguson