Shying away from a challenge has never really been Gabriel Zakuani’s thing.
A look at any number of his 500-plus professional appearances will show the former centre-back throwing a leg, his body, or even his head in front of any shot, no matter the level of ferocity.
Having announced his retirement earlier this year, former DR Congo captain Zakuani moved straight into management, taking over the reins at eighth-tier Spalding United.
What initially started out as a favour to a former sponsor of Peterborough United – a club with whom Zakuani enjoyed two promotions and made over 250 appearances – has now turned into his latest obsession. It would be a daunting challenge for many, but it is no surprise that it is one he is relishing.
Announced as the club’s new boss in October, Zakuani wasted no time making his presence felt in the transfer market. Three new faces were brought in within a day for the Tulips as Zakuani shook things up.
“I’ve been in touch with probably every single player who is out of contract from League One and Two,” he says with a laugh.
“At non-league I think you’re a lot more hands-on than you would be in the Football League. Here, it is me calling, me getting the deal over the line, me creating the contract, then calling the chairman for a yes or no. It’s me doing three or four jobs.”
Familiar names entered, including Chris Assombalonga and Glenn Yala Bolasie, the brothers of Britt Assombalonga and Yannick Bolasie respectively, who are both former international team-mates of Zakuani’s.
But it is a question on his former managers that steers our conversation onto his most notable acquisition: “I’m trying to think who would be the best at dealing with players like Nile Ranger.”
The former Newcastle United starlet has seen his career take an emphatic nose-dive since Chris Hughton offered him a five-and-a-half-year deal at St. James’ Park back in 2010.
Disciplinary issues, both football-related and not, saw his time with Blackpool, Swindon and Southend significantly stunted. A metaphorical ‘Do Not Touch’ sign was nailed to him, and in the near three years since, no manager has dared to bring in the frontman.
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However, Zakuani, who has known Ranger from his own time growing up in London, opted to go against the grain, determined to be the man who resuscitates what had looked like a doomed career.
“If anyone signs Nile Ranger, there will always be people against it. For me, I wanted to give him a chance,” he says.
“I know he’s had plenty of opportunities, but I wanted to see how I can manage him and I’m pretty sure I can manage him better than most people. I understand him. I’m from exactly where he’s from. I know exactly how hard it is to keep your head on track.
“I can help him and I trust him not to let me down. That’s the main thing. We’ve got a different relationship than he probably had with other managers because he can relate to me.
“I looked at him and we had a deep conversation. I said to him, ‘Get your head down for a few months. Stay on track. Give me goals. And I will look after you and be that reference for when you do finally get that move.’”
It was anything but the smoothest of starts for the latest phase of Ranger’s career, however.
At 10:30pm, the night before Zakuani’s first match as manager of Spalding, he received a call from his new star striker, informing him that he had lost his boots.
The next morning a minibus, arranged to take the club’s London-based players to Belper Town, near Derby, left for the clash with an empty seat after Ranger overslept.
Only a panicked three-hour drive up the M6 in his girlfriend’s car and a loan of his manager’s boots saw him ready in time for kick-off — albeit with just 30 minutes to spare.
While the incident may well have had former managers frothing at the mouth, Zakuani chose to see the lighter side.
“That’s quite funny,” he says with a beaming smile as he recounted the memory. “If Paul Gascoigne or Jimmy Bullard did that, it would be hilarious.
“The old Nile Ranger probably would have used that as an excuse to not come. But he actually got himself in the car and drove three hours to Derby himself and scored a goal. So I’ve got to give him some credit. Even though it is a heart attack just trying to get him on the pitch.
“People are waiting to dismiss him and for me to say he’s left by mutual consent. That’s the headline everyone is waiting for.”
On the pitch, Ranger’s impact was immediately felt, repaying Zakuani’s familial approach with a 60th-minute equaliser as Spalding came from behind three times to draw 3-3 with Belper.
It was a good result against a side who will be hoping to win promotion come the end of the season, but the new man on the sidelines wants much more.
“My character has always been win or die,” Zakuani says. “A lot of players looked at me shocked when the first thing I said to them was, ‘We’re going into every game to win.’”
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It is a reflection of the ambition that has underlined the 34-year-old’s entire career, one that boasts four Football League promotions, 30 international caps and even a spell in Greece’s top flight. But it is now the turn of the Spalding owners to feel the brunt of his fresh ambitions.
“I’ve got an opportunity and it’s just the start,” Zakuani says. “The owners will say that I’ve been a headache to them. I’ve been trying to get everything so professional.”
Nutritionists, kit-men and fitness coaches have all been demanded by the former Peterborough captain, amenities he is well accustomed to, but ones that he admits are perhaps not commonplace in the eighth tier of English football.
Help in the dugout
A familiar face has also appeared in the coaching ranks in the form of ex-Portsmouth and Newcastle United attacker Lomana LuaLua.
“Before I even got the manager’s job I sent him out there to do reports for me,” Zakuani said of his compatriot’s role.
“He showed me he has that eye for players so I gave him the role of attacking coach as well. If you have someone like that who has been there and done that in the best league in the world, he is going to inspire players.”
However, the former Pompey man is yet to show off his famous acrobatic abilities in his new role, let alone teach the Spalding players, although Zakuani hopes he is saving it for a special occasion.
“He swears to me that he can still do it. I hope that if we can get in the play-offs he will start doing it on the sidelines.”
While we may never see Nile Ranger back-flipping his way down Spalding high street, you can’t rule out the prospect of one day seeing Zakuani achieve his own goal of managing in the Football League.
Moving from a defensive colossus to a manager intent on playing attractive, passing football is never going to be easy. But it is difficult to doubt the words of a man who has oozed determination throughout his entire career.
And just as most of us have a schoolteacher we will always be fond of, the same can be said for Zakuani and his managers; in particular, the man who gave him his big break with Stoke City, Tony Pulis.
“A few years back I played against him in an FA Cup game for Northampton and he did say to me, when I do retire, that he would always be available if I ever needed anything.
“If I’m going through anything, he’d be the first person I’d get in touch with because I know he’d be ready to help me.”
With one final jovial laugh, Zakuani adds: “I’m not sure about his style of play though!”