Five weeks into life at Blackburn Rovers and Michael Appleton can only chuckle at what he has become. A fledgling managerial career had cast him as everything from caretaker to firefighter, a motivator of men also charged with scraping together enough small change to pay for the squad's tea. Now a move up in the world has nominated him as the answer to one of the geekier pub quiz questions doing the rounds. "What was it again?" he says, focusing to ensure what feels like a punchline is delivered accurately. "That's it: I'm the only manager to have been in charge of three different teams in the FA Cup in the same season."
The quirkiness of the scenario prompts a wry smile. There is novelty value to having overseen Portsmouth in the first round against Notts County, Blackpool at Fulham in the third and Rovers at Derby in the fourth. After all, any player would have been cup-tied from his first involvement and reduced to a watching brief with new employers thereafter. Appleton's travels have already taken in one elimination and a draw at a Premier League club, and yet he has had enough of such wanderlust. The 37-year-old will take Blackburn to Arsenal on Saturday hoping he has found stability, as well as ambition to match his own, and an opportunity to forge himself a proper reputation.
He had initially believed he was being offered those assurances at Pompey, and quickly concluded they would elude him at Bloomfield Road, but there is still an irony that it is Rovers, the Venky's plaything, who are offering him a platform. The hope is that this is a more stable Blackburn, run on a daily basis by the managing director in situ, Derek Shaw, rather than on the whim of absentee owners in distant Pune. Shebby Singh's name still adorns the car park space nearest the main reception at the club's Brockhall training complex, complete with the grand title "global adviser", though the bay is occupied by a white painter and decorator's van from Clitheroe. "We've not had any contact from Shebby since I've been here," Appleton says. "He knows my number. He knows where I am. I'm not sure what he's doing at the moment but, if he's global advising, he's certainly not advising me."
Some sort of sense appears to have prevailed, with the team's results under the new man, no defeats in the past five games, distinctly encouraging. The six-point gap to the play-off places feels bridgeable, the squad transformed into contenders by the club's fifth manager of the season. Certainly, the fans' early fears that the administration had appointed another rookie too wet behind the ears to prosper are being allayed. Appleton may be young but he has coached for a decade since his playing career was cruelly cut short by injury, with his education in the dugout unique. It is hard to envisage anything fazing him after all he has been through.
"It's dead easy just to ask: 'How old is he?'," he says. "I still do it when I'm scouting players and people have to remind me I used to get really cheesed off when others asked the same about me. Look at the Premier League now. How old is Villas-Boas? 35? And he's at Spurs doing what he does. Then there's Mauricio Pochettino at Southampton, at 40, so there are managers of that age working in the top division. I'd hope people's opinions are based less on age and what they've actually experienced, and I've been through plenty. I probably learned more in a year at Portsmouth than I would in 10 years as a manager elsewhere.
"To deal with two administrations, losing 10 points twice and your best players, not getting paid, having to lay off staff and to chip in and pay for your dinners … I'd gone there to work with owners who wanted to improve the infrastructure of the club, and then after two weeks the earth collapsed beneath us. The last month I was there I must have been called over to the stadium three or four times a week to meet potential new owners, or to have serious conversations with the administrators over the possibility the club would fold. In the end it became smothering. You felt you were constantly picking people up: the fans, the players, the staff, even the administrators sometimes. Being offered the Blackpool job was almost a relief. It was certainly a release." Reality was already catching up with Pompey on the pitch when Appleton left but none of the 16 games since has been won.
Blackpool, post-Ian Holloway, seemed an attractive prospect: close to the Championship play-offs, spurred on by the brilliant Tom Ince, and with a deep squad that still boasted the flavour of a dalliance with the Premier League. A seven-match unbeaten start, albeit laden with draws, hinted at promise. But buying into the chairman Karl Oyston's financially cautious approach prompted its own issues.
"Karl openly admits the club is run in a certain way and that has got them success in recent times," Appleton says. "Whether it continues to do so, only time will tell. It felt like a slightly more attractive opportunity than the one I was in at Pompey but I wouldn't have left Blackpool to come to Blackburn if I was completely happy, or felt I could take the club to the next level and keep it there. The club is certainly day-to-day. You can't argue with it in a way, because Karl can say it's been successful like that."
But did he argue? "Oh yeah, constantly, and I think Karl quite liked that. There was a mutual respect there [with Oyston]. We told each other what we thought, even if it was about each other, but it became a frustration. Even after two months. I can see the talent they've got in the squad, the potential at the club and the first XI is as good as anything in the division. But with that you need the right infrastructure, training ground and facilities, and for things to be done in the right way so the players feel loved."
He admits the experience on the Fylde coast, even after Pompey, was an "eye-opener" and yet he had developed a strong enough relationship with Oyston that, when Blackburn came calling after sacking Henning Berg after 57 days in charge, the chairman allowed his own manager of 65 days to discuss the move to east Lancashire. He arrived at a club scarred by relegation, with an embittered support's distrust of the Venky's anchoring the mood. That relationship was fractured, with the team's results aimless in mid-table and the squad horribly imbalanced. Appleton has now worked with close to 100 first-team players this season.
"I walked into the building and we had 12 No10s, with everyone wanting to play off the striker. I had to build bridges between the management and above, and the fans and the owners. There wasn't a lot of stability here, so it was always going to be a slow process. It's one that, touch wood, we appear to be winning. I brought three coaches who had worked with me at Portsmouth because they know what it's like to work in an environment that isn't ideal or perfect.
"It'll be a difficult job but you don't know if an opportunity like this, to take over a club as good as Blackburn, will come up again. Look at the facilities. They're first-class, it's a nice place to work, and what you'd expect of a club who have competed for so long in the Premier League. And we're having an impact on the team. We've steadied the ship, tried to be a lot more solid, and we know we have a goalscoring machine up front in Jordan Rhodes, who can nick a win for us at any time."
Shaw's increased influence should allow Appleton to concentrate on matters on the pitch, rather than those regular trips to India Steve Kean would so often endure, and an immediate return to the top flight no longer feels quite so outlandish. The Arsenal FA Cup tie offers an enticing sideshow before a run of games – Hull, Leeds and Leicester – that will potentially determine their season though, after all the off-field distractions of the last 16 months, a trip to the sparkling Emirates is to be cherished. Appleton's last game as Roy Hodgson's assistant at West Bromwich Albion had been a 3-0 defeat in north London but that feels an age ago.
"All I want now is some stability," he says. "I'd love to put my stamp on the club. The frustration at Portsmouth was no one really saw what we were trying to do behind the scenes. I found it difficult to do at Blackpool, which is why I'm here now. I'd love to be at Blackburn long enough for people to see the work we're putting in."
Rovers only recently felt like a pantomime. Now, for Appleton, it is a stage on which he can flourish.