Salford City, 2018-2020
We realised there was a target on our back after three games.
My first game as manager of Salford City was against Leyton Orient. They were probably the biggest club in the National League at the time, and favourites for promotion. So the game was billed as a title-decider straight away, and it was live on TV.
We took the lead, but they got a late equaliser. That was a killer, but we played well and showed everyone what we were about. It was a good introduction.
Our second and third games were both away, at Gateshead and Sutton. In my previous job at Scunthorpe, we had had a certain way of playing. It was a 4-4-2 on paper, but the two outside midfielders tucked in and basically played as two number 10s.
It was quite narrow, but it allowed our full-backs to fly forward, and it had worked really well. We had finished third in League One, with 82 points, in the 2016/17 season, and the team was fifth when we left in March of the following campaign.
When we went in at Salford, we said we were going to play the same way. We knew the system inside out and we felt we had good players there who could make it work.
In those second and third games, though, we didn’t play well. At Gateshead, our two number 10s just couldn’t get on the ball and we got beat 2-1. The response from the Gateshead players and fans felt unusual – like it was about more than just winning a game.
Then, at Sutton, I changed the formation. We went to a diamond in midfield, because that’s how we’d ended the game at Gateshead – but we got down to the game and, I’ll be honest, it was horrible. They had a rickety old ground, which is fine, but they also had a plastic pitch that was really dry. They went down to 10 men but still beat us, and it was like the carnival had come to town.
"suddenly it hit me – we were the big bad wolf in the national league, everyone's cup final"
Suddenly, it hit me. We were the big bad wolf in the National League, and everyone’s cup final. We had to recognise that, and correct our mindset. Those two games really defined what that league was going to be about for us that season. We needed to come to terms with that quickly, or be ready to fail.
On the Monday morning, I pulled my assistant, Chris Lucketti, and goalkeeping coach Carlo Nash, into my office.
“We’ve got to get around the fact that this is the division we’re in,” I told them. “We can’t be thinking of where we’ve coached and where we’ve played. If we don’t think right, then the players won’t – and then we’re screwed. Every game we play is going to be our opponents’ cup final, and we have to be prepared for that.”
I decided we were going to play the way we had set to out to play, and commit to it. We went back to the 4-4-2, with the two wide players becoming 10s, and we went on a 20-game undefeated streak in the league. We were motoring, and playing great football. It was fantastic.
Off the pitch, the club was very similar to how it had been at Fleetwood, where I had started my career in management in 2012. The facilities weren’t great, but the finances and the level of motivation were both good – and so was the squad. The team was flying higher and faster on the pitch than the structure of the club could keep up with off it.
I had left Scunthorpe at the end of March 2018, with the club still in the League One playoff positions, but that summer I took a call asking about my interest in the Salford job. I thought it was strange that they were looking at changing managers, because they had just won promotion, but the club gave me their reasons and I could understand their position.
"i felt gary's experiences at valencia would help when difficult periods inevitably came along at salford"
Still, it was a massive thing for me to drop down to the National League. I’d always played at a higher level, and my record as a manager in League One – both with Fleetwood and Scunthorpe – was good. I did a lot of soul-searching and spoke to a couple of people close to me: what did it look like, professionally, to go from roles where I had been fighting for promotion to the Championship to a club that had never been in the league – and only just been promoted from the National League North?
It represented a big leap of faith, but everyone told me the same thing: the owners are serious football guys, everyone knows who they are and the trajectory the club had already been on. They weren’t planning to slow up or take a step back. There was an excitement around both the club and the project. And, for me, there was an intrigue there too.
I still wanted to manage in the Championship, but I knew I’d probably have to win my way through to doing that – and here was a club that wanted to do the same. I also felt at the time, having listened to Gary Neville talking about his experiences of management at Valencia on Sky Sports, that his understanding of the difficult periods you can go through would help when they inevitably came along at Salford. So I took the job.
That difficult period came in the new year. We were getting bullied in games, physically. After a game at home to Eastleigh – a really good but very tough team, who came and beat us 2-0, deservedly – we recognised that something had to change. We needed to put a marker down. Instead of beating our next opponents, it felt like we had to beat the division.
I sat down with Gary and said: “Look, we’re going through this difficult period. Look at the state of the pitches, look at our training ground. There’s no football being played at the moment. For us to get out of it, we might have to leave out a couple of our bigger hitters, and earners.”
He said: “Do whatever it takes to win.”
"i could never walk away from a challenge, or anything that carried a risk of failure"
We did just that. We went three at the back in a 3-5-2, and became a bigger, more physical team – and we won nine of our next 10 games. I remember Tim Flowers brought his Solihull Moors side to our place a couple of games into that run. I think they thought they could come and bully us, but we won 2-0. After the game, Tim came up to me: “You’ve changed!”
That run came to an end with a defeat by Fylde in the penultimate game of the season, but we still went into the last game with a chance of the one automatic promotion spot. We were at Hartlepool and had to win by five goals, I think it was, while still relying on results elsewhere.
We went 1-0 up early, but Matt Green got sent off at the end of the first half. They equalised early in the second half, and there came a point when Carl Piergianni got booked. The crowd were going mad around it, and I turned to Chris. “I’ve got to take him off,” I said. “If he gets sent off and we don’t have him for the playoffs, that’s a bad one.”
Carl had been our rock all season: he’d scored 11 goals from centre-half (above) and not missed a minute. He was devastated, and I was gutted for him – I’d played every minute of a promotion-winning season as a player and it’s a real badge of honour – but we weren’t going to win the game by five goals and I had to start preparing for the playoffs there and then. Losing Carl would have been a disaster.
The playoff semi final was at home to Eastleigh. We went 1-0 up in that one too, but they equalised and it went to penalties.
I’d been in that position as a player. I built a reputation for scoring a lot of penalties, but that came from me missing one in my first ever playoff final for Scunthorpe when I was 20. I’d failed, so I had to prove from then on that I could take penalties. I could never turn away from the challenge, or walk away from anything that carried a risk of failure. It’s the only way you succeed.
"i reminded the players that wembley was not our target. that was to win the next game"
I needed to give my players the confidence they needed to succeed in that situation, so we’d practised penalties in the build-up. I told them not to go up and take five different penalties in training: practise one, and keep practising the same one until you’ve got it perfect. That becomes your penalty, I told them. If we go into a shootout, do that one. Trust your training.
I’ve always had this thing that your best penalty-taker goes up first, to give everyone following them confidence. That was Adam Rooney, our top scorer and best player.
The pressure went from big to massive. Watching the footage back, I looked calm and collected on the touchline – but my insides were all over the place. The rest of our penalties were great, though, and Chris Neal made a brilliant save on the decisive penalty to send us through.
The emotion when we won was huge, with everyone on the pitch. I remember Gary flying across the pitch and jumping on me in the tunnel – but that feeling had to go as soon as we got back to the changing room.
“Wembley is not our target,” I reminded the players. “Our target, our ambition, is to win our next game. You can go out and celebrate tonight if you want, if you think we’ve achieved something here. Or you can go home and start to get ready for the next one.”
We all needed to be in control of our own ambitions, and I’d learned that through bad experiences in previous playoffs. You hype it up and almost start thinking about what next season looks like in a higher division. That can be disastrous. You have to make sure you win the game first.
And we’d lost Adam Rooney (above) for the playoff final. He had pulled his thigh when missing the first penalty in the shootout against Eastleigh.
"the pressure was on because of the profile of the club – a lot of people were watching"
Our opponents in the final were Fylde, who had pretty much cost us automatic promotion when beating us in the second-last game of the season. We had been 3-5-2 all the way since changing things, and with Rooney out we had a couple of good strikers we could put in. Or we could do something different, tactically.
We decided to do something different, which I thought they wouldn’t expect. We played one striker and went with two number 10s behind him. That gave us a box in midfield, with the wing-backs outside them.
Fylde were a good team, but they couldn’t handle what we were doing and we scored the opener after 15 minutes. I felt like that was so important, because the first goal can change the complexion of a game like that.
In the second half, we scored a second through Carl Piergianni, who had scored in the semi final too – at the end of the season I gave myself a little pat on the back for that! Then we made another tactical decision. We knew they would have to come out and go for it – this was a final, you can’t come back again next week – so we put on another striker to take advantage of them being more open.
We went back to the 3-5-2, and within a few minutes we scored again. I’d never been in that situation before in a playoff final, where you’re 3-0 up and comfortable. In my head, though, I was still willing the referee to blow his whistle. This is football, and anything can happen. I just wanted the game to be over, and I really wanted the clean sheet – so when the whistle finally went it was amazing.
The pressure had been on, of course. Not just from within the club, but also from outside because of its profile. A lot of people were watching.
"to be the guy who led salford into the football league for the first time was very special"
It wasn’t the first time in my managerial career I’d taken a club to a level they’d never played at before, having led Fleetwood to promotion into League One, again through the playoffs, in 2014. But taking a club into the football league for the first time was an amazing feeling.
You know, there’s only one guy who gets to be the first to step on the moon. To be the guy who led Salford into the football league for the first time – something that can never be repeated – was very special. It’s probably the most rewarding moment of my career.
I think, every year as a player, and now as a coach, you come to understand the game better – not just the game of football itself, but the game of everything that goes on around it too. Football is never boring, is it? Every season, something will come along that you’ve not experienced before, that you have to deal with or overcome.
That first season at Salford, with the documentary makers in and around the club as well, was certainly unique – and a huge learning curve for me as a coach. More than once, I found myself thinking: “I’ve never experienced this challenge before. How do we win?”
But that’s the exciting part, isn’t it?
Author: Tony Hodson