John Barnwell was 16 when he made his debut for Bishop Auckland, eight months older when he came within 45 bitter minutes of playing in the Amateur Cup final.

Now he is chief executive of the League Managers Association, an employees' organisation that - unlike many of its members - will always have work to do.

Four years ago in mid-November, seasonal sackings totalled four. This season 22 have parted company - since the column's being written on Wednesday, it's probably 30 by now - bringing the blood letting to 230 in the past five years.

Only 28 are still managers, another 61 have posts in another football capacity. The position, says Barnwell, is absolutely crazy.

Some were badly appointed, others - he concedes - badly prepared. Football, he says, needs to get rid of "personality appointments", too. "It's barmy that Gullitt and Vialli can manage in this country but not in their own because over there they haven't the qualifications."

He was born in High Heaton, Newcastle, lived during the war with his grandparents in Whitley Bay, played for Whitley Bay as a 15-year-old and was coveted, even then, by most of the first division.

"Newcastle's chief scout spent so much time in our house I thought he must be courting my mother," he says, cheerfully.

He signed for Arsenal in 1956, played 200 games for Nottingham Forest between 1963-69 ("what a wonderful side we had at Forest"), managed six English clubs and AK Athens, survived an horrendous car crash in 1980 that left a rear view mirror embedded in his skull and has been LMA chief executive since 1996.

Ironically the Association, which also represents Premiership managers, had had four previous chief executives since its formation in 1992.

He was persuaded to take the job by Alex Ferguson and fellow Geordie Frank Clark, after claiming that they couldn't afford him. "I think they wanted someone who would stay with it for a while," says Barnwell, 63 on Christmas Eve.

"Football managers have three things in common. They're aggressive because they have to be, they're opinionated and they're very bad listeners."

His home's in Nottinghamshire, the LMA's office - where a team of top legal, financial and medical advisers is on call - in Leamington Spa. "John's a 62-year-old with a 40-year-old's agenda," says Olaf Dixon, his assistant, and he took two hours from it to sit in a hotel near Doncaster, chatting with the Backtrack column.

He arrives in T-shirt and track suit bottoms, ankle zips unfastened, Tyneside accent jettisoned somewhere on the round Britain tour, mobile phone on the table next to the tea pot.

On the music machine, the late Michael Holliday sings The Story of My Life. John Barnwell begins on cue.

His agenda embraces better health care for managers - "long before poor Gerard" - structured professional qualifications, fairer compensation procedures and adjustments to the system by which the workers not only earn more than the boss but can afford to wave two bejewelled fingers at him.

It's interrupted by a call from Sir Alex, an active member of the LMA committee, and another from one of the displaced 22. He switches the phone off in order to explain without interruption the first lesson of football, learned forcibly as a bit bairn at Bishop Auckland.

Basically it's the people are secondary to success. He has neither forgotten, nor forgiven - "an early introduction to the crueller side of the game."

There are exceptions, of course. "Alex is like Bobby Robson and Gerard Houllier, everything that football people should be, absolutely genuine and entirely caring.

"They've no self-interest, just the game at heart. People like Alex and Robbo would still be managing football clubs if there wasn't a penny piece to be had. They have a background in the better things of the game, but while you will never replace the technical and motivational skills there are different pressures now.

"The players have far greater power, the media is relentless, the game is analysed and dissected 365 days and the plc boards put profit before all else."

He was manager of Wolverhampton Wanderers at the time of the car crash and wasn't expected to survive it. When finally he left hospital, his parents took him back to Tyneside for three months recuperation.

"I can hardly remember a thing about it, except that my dad took me for long walks every morning along that lovely beach at Tynemouth.

"I probably went back to Wolves too early, but when I did I decided to buy them something special and got a nice colour television because I thought they only had a black and white one."

The existing colour set was already on when he arrived. "You've watched it every day for the past three months," said his mum.

"It scared the hell out of me," says John, then remembers his oft quoted joke about a rear view mirror being a pretty useful thing for a manager to have in his head.

"Flashback to Bishop Auckland," he says.

His limp is a legacy not of the crash but of several operations for athletes' arthritis. "The last one," he says diplomatically, "was rather disappointing."

Joe Kinnear's heart attack in the tunnel at Sheffield Wednesday also prompted what might be termed a health scare, a concern fuelled by Gerard Houllier's illness although remedial measures were already in hand.

A comprehensive "Fit to manage" scheme is about to be launched and will involve some of the country's top doctors.

"Ninety nine per cent of managers are former players.

"They have been extremely fit and have looked after themselves but suddenly their fitness and drinking habits change and they are responsible for a number of other players, looking after everyone except themselves. We have to be pro-active on lifestyle issues."

He also wants managers not just to have formal qualifications - a part-time, two and a half year course - but to have licences. A licensed manager wouldn't be allowed to fill a sacked man's shoes until proper compensation had been agreed.

"We have to get them better prepared but no programme or advanced coaching course can fully prepare you for the reality of football management. It's a chaotic business; you can't have a structured programme to teach chaos, you have to experience it.

"I don't like the word 'pressure' to be linked to football management because for some people pressure is getting out of bed in the morning but the exposure is now enormous, the money in the game is enormous and the intensity of the manager's job is enormous and constant.

"There's also the problem of discipline.

"Maybe the leader of the Halle orchestra gets more than the conductor, maybe there are blue chip companies where the top salesman gets more than his gaffer, but you'd be amazed at the difference down the leagues.

"Being a football manager is a job with unique responsibility, and we have to close the gap."

He pauses, stretches himself at a 45 degree angle in the chair, orders another pot of tea on the LMA's well thumbed tab.

"Oh aye there are lots of problems," says John Barnwell, "but I still think that being a football manager is the best job in the world.