Bristol Rovers, 2014-2018
I kept the posters in a draw.
They had a picture of my head on them, with the words “Clarke Out” written in thick black ink. Someone had put a load of them up all around the training ground.
It was early days in my first full season as Bristol Rovers manager – our first one in the Conference after being relegated from League Two on the final day of the previous season. Three games in, we were still waiting for our first win.
At times like that, you question every decision that you make.
So do the fans.
One by one, I took the posters down, chucking most of them in the bin. But I kept a few for myself.
Why? For determination. To help me remember that feeling. The one of: right, I’ll show you.
That’s not to say finding those posters didn’t hurt. Of course it did. It cut like a knife.
Imagine anyone going to a normal job and discovering someone hates them so much that they put up posters saying they want them fired. It hurts your pride. But you have to pick yourself up off the floor. You have to be strong.
Life is full of ups and downs. You just have to adapt and get through it.
That’s something I learned right at the start of my coaching career. I’d just finished my third season as a player at Salisbury when everything got turned upside down. After finishing mid-table in the Conference, the club was demoted two divisions for financial irregularities.
Everyone left, including the manager Tommy Widdrington. I think myself and Matt Tubbs were the only contracted players left – and the club was planning on selling him.
I told the chairman William Harrison-Allan that I would stay, but on one condition: I wanted the manager’s job.
There were some high-profile people in for the job at the time, but I didn’t care. I told the chairman to get any idea of me being an assistant out of his head. I wanted to be a manager.
Fair play to him, he gave me a crack at it.
"The chairman made it clear we could only have one year at it. If we didn’t get promoted, people were going to lose their jobs"
If you spoke to a lot of the guys I played with, they probably wouldn’t have seen me as a future manager. I was a bit of a joker in the changing room – didn’t take life too seriously. It wasn’t until my late 20s that I really took an interest in coaching; started doing my qualifications and, alongside playing for Salisbury, did some kids’ coaching to make a bit of extra money.
I went from coaching Portsmouth’s Under-8s to managing a full-time team. I laugh about it now, but you’ve got to take these challenges.
I’d captained the team and had always been a vocal presence in the changing room, so that side of things didn’t worry me. All the other bits – managing above, dealing with budgets and making sure you’re scouting the right players – I’d have to pick up early doors.
The pressure was massively on.
We’d been a full-time team and I wanted it to stay that way – not least so that we could use it as a selling point to bring players in. But the chairman made it very clear we could only have one year at it in the Southern League Premier. If we didn’t get promoted, people were going to lose their jobs.
That summer, I had to rebuild the squad. I targeted young pros who’d been released at 18 from league clubs – we could give them the opportunity to stay professional and help kick on their careers. In return, I knew we’d get young lads who were hungry for success and who came for the right reasons – not just to pick up their paycheque.
I played for most of that first season, too. But towards the back end of it I broke my toe and ended up in a cast. It happened around the same time we were building towards the playoff final – a game we could not afford to lose.
The night before the final against Hednesford Town, I got a phone call from the mum of one of our players – a lad called Angus MacDonald, who we’d brought in on loan from Reading. He had a blood clot and wouldn’t be able to play.
Lying in bed with my foot encased in plaster, I must have written down about 200 different line-ups for that game – and I was in about 10 of them. I was ready to do whatever was necessary to win that game.
Luckily for my health, I thought better of it – and, the next day, the lads did the business. We won on penalties to earn promotion to the Conference South.
"Giving everything for the club isn't about running around for 90 minutes on a Saturday. It’s about living your life right"
Two years later, we were celebrating again. A second promotion meant we were back in the Conference Premier.
I was ready to keep pushing on, but that summer there were issues: a cash-flow crisis at the club, wages were late. These things happen, but they’d happened repeatedly during my three years there as manager.
All of a sudden, I felt like I was on a downer when I should have been the happiest man, considering what we’d achieved. We were going into a division where expenses were going to be bigger than ever. I kept thinking: “Am I going to be dealing with what I’ve had to deal with on and off for the last three years?”
I had to try and get back in the league.
When I rang John Ward, the Bristol Rovers manager at the time, to try and arrange a pre-season game, I saw it as an opportunity. I’d read that he was looking for a new assistant, so I just dropped it into the conversation.
“John, I hope you don’t mind me asking, but are you still looking for an assistant?”
I sent him my CV and, a week later, we met up for a chat. The first thing I wanted to make clear was that I wasn’t after his job. Obviously, it was my ambition to manage in the league eventually, but it wasn’t my ambition to go there as an assistant and take his job.
My ambition was simply to get back into the league as a coach.
That’s not to say it wasn’t a difficult transition. Going from being in charge of everything at Salisbury – budgets, scouting, you name it – to assisting somebody who’s making the big calls. Well, it’s different.
When you’re an assistant, the manager is right and you back him up. You might offer him your opinion, but that’s it. There were times when I found that difficult.
After one game, I couldn’t hold back any more. We’d lost 3-1 at Chesterfield and were awful. I was so frustrated with the lads’ performance that I started slaughtering a few of the big-name players in the changing room. They got a piece of me that day that they’d not seen before.
The way I saw it, the players were letting the club down with how they were living their lives outside of football.
When we talk about players giving everything for the club, that’s not about running around for 90 minutes on a Saturday. It’s about living your life right. Doing all the right things at the training ground. Training to your maximum every day.
Players are frauds if they’re not doing that.
"On holiday with my family that summer, I was like a zombie"
A couple of months after that defeat, the club made a change. John became director of football, and I took charge of the team.
There were eight games of the season to go and we were 20th in League Two – in danger of slipping out of the league.
Straight away, I gave the players a clear message. I wanted them to understand that John was a different manager to me. I told them: “This is how we’re going to do things. Every minute of every day is going to be concentrated on making sure we get out of this mess and we build the spirit up together.”
We had some good lads in that dressing room, but we also had a few who I didn’t have that much faith in. It wasn’t the right time to rattle heads, though – that could be done in the summer.
We tried to implement some new things on the training pitch, tried to get a system flowing that would help us get enough points to stay up. But you need time to do that. And we didn’t have much of it.
We got relegated on the last day of the season, on goal difference (below).
Our last game was against my hometown team Mansfield – the club whose results are always the first ones I look for. To compound matters, they were playing in our kit because they’d forgotten theirs.
Getting relegated by your hometown team who are playing in your own kit... well, I’ve had better days.
I felt massively responsible for the relegation. Like I’d let the fans down. It took me about two months to get over it. On holiday with my family that summer, I was like a zombie. Because I love winning. Wanting to achieve. You take the setbacks to heart.
Gradually, I started to get the bite and determination back. I promised the fans I’d give them a team they could be proud of. A squad of players who cared for the club and would give their all for the shirt.
After the relegation, I had individual meetings with every player. With some, it gave me the chance to tell some home truths – things that had been eating away at me for a long time.
But there were other lads who were in tears. Young lads. Some of them had been our best players.
I released 16 players that summer, but they were the ones who remained as the spine of the team. The ones who really wanted to stay and help the club bounce back up.
Then I brought in a mix of young, hungry lads and a few experienced players. Some from non-league, some from league football, and some loans.
“Read that, boys – I’m shit. You’re shit. What are we gonna do about it?”
Any time I recruit, I do it knowing the identity that I want my teams to possess. To be resilient. To never know when they’re beaten. To be strong-minded. Well organised. To run through a brick wall for me.
That was even more important at Bristol Rovers – a club that had suffered a lot of hurt in the past, but where the support base was very big, very vocal and very passionate. We had to make sure we echoed that passion on the pitch.
With that fanbase, the pressure was immense. And, like I said, our first season after relegation got off to a slow start.
It was a big period of adjustment for everyone: for the fans, who were now supporting a non-league team; for the players – both those who were new to the club and those who were new to non-league football; and for me too, of course. Peeling “Clarke Out” posters off every surface around the training ground wasn’t exactly something I was prepared for.
The posters I kept came in useful later in the season, when I used them in a team talk with the lads. I’d sometimes do the same with emails from fans that criticised myself and the team: “Read that, boys – I’m shit. You’re shit. What are we gonna do about it?”
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.
That first year in League One, we finished 10th – seven points off the playoffs. It was the highest finish the club had achieved in almost 20 years.
But I never wanted to be a manager who stayed where I was. I always wanted to push for success. And over the next few years I started to realise that might prove difficult at Rovers.
It wasn’t necessarily about budgets. Yes, you want to be competitive and bring in players at the right time – but most of my successful players have been free transfers, so it’s never been about the money. It’s about the club wanting to continue to move forward.
And, unfortunately, for the club’s owners there were hurdles there that they never quite got over. That meant things were promised that were never delivered.
It was frustrating, because as well as being the manager, I was a supporter of the club. I wanted it for the fans too, because they’d been promised for years that there would be new stadiums, new this and new that.
I built great relationships with the people there, and they remain intact. But it reached the point where I felt it was best for the club if they made a change. The lads were giving me everything on the pitch but we were slightly underachieving – and my own frustrations were starting to come out.
The first few weeks after I left were tough. At first, you feel like a bit of a failure. You’re disappointed in yourself. You’re down.
Eventually, you pick yourself up off the floor and start analysing things. Looking at things. Working on things. I started watching a lot of games, looking at scouting reports, building towards my next job. Looking forward to another challenge.
I realised that six difficult months in eight years of management isn’t so bad.
Like I said, life is full of ups and downs. You just have to adapt and get through it. And never forget how those posters in the draw made you feel.
Right, I’ll show you.