After that first month of the season though, things started to click. The mentality around the club changed. The players knew the standards they needed to be hitting and there was no let-up in that.
From November to the end of the season we lost only one league game and were in line for direct promotion. Despite a 7-0 win against Alfreton in our last game of the season, we missed out on the title by a point. We had 91, but Barnet finished on 92.
It was gutting, but I had to bounce the boys straight back up for the playoffs.
Some say playoffs are a lottery, but not for me. Three times I’ve managed teams who’ve won promotion via the playoffs – two of those after penalty shootouts. It’s not luck. It’s doing your work.
We worked on penalties. We worked on the mindsets of the players.
It’s also about knowing how to manage the situation. Judging the feel of the changing room – realising whether it’s a bit tense or whether it needs a volley early doors, before we even kick off. And making sure the game plan is as simple as possible, that you’ve worked on it and that everybody knows their jobs.
For me, managing the big games is about taking the load off the players; letting them go and express themselves.
“We’ve worked a whole season for this. Shall we now go and play in fear and end up wasting a whole year because you’ve shit yourselves in the final? Or shall we just go and play our game, not the occasion?”
It’s about taking away all of the bullshit that goes off in players’ minds, and focusing on the game.
“Bristol Rovers deserved my loyalty. After we’d been relegated, the fans gave me the opportunity to continue the job”
We beat Grimsby Town on penalties in the playoff final, to earn promotion back into the Football League at the first time of asking.
We went up again the next season – the first time in the club’s history they had achieved back-to-back promotions. This time we avoided the playoffs, but only just. It took a 92nd-minute winner in the last game of the season from the right foot of my left-back Lee Brown to get us there. Browny’s a great lad, but he’d never scored with his right foot in his life before then.
By the end of that season, I was exhausted. People who know me will tell you what I’m like: I’m full on, 24/7. I try to switch off with the family, but it’s difficult. Your thought process is always taken up by the game. You’re with them but you’re never really with them – your head is in the game, making decisions, thinking about how you’re going to deal with this or that.
After two really intense years, I took a few weeks off to really try and switch off.
But it wasn’t easy. I was getting calls from agents about players. And being linked with other clubs myself – one of which was Leeds United.
At the time, it was a pretty easy decision to turn it down. I felt Bristol Rovers deserved my loyalty. After we’d been relegated, the fans could have lynched me – but they gave me the opportunity to continue the job. They gave me their support.