Scunthorpe United, 2006-2010
“Would you come for an interview at Everton?”
It wasn't a call I was expecting.
I was the physiotherapist at Scunthorpe United, but the call was asking me to interview for the job of first team physio at Everton.
I went over to Liverpool, to the surgery where the club doctor was doing the interviews. “I’d like to give you the job,” he said. “But tell me, are you red or blue?”
Living on Merseyside, you supported either Liverpool or Everton – but there was also a third team. I thought quickly from past experiences.
“I played for Tranmere,” I replied. “First and foremost, I’m a white.”
I was a Birkenhead Boy and had signed for Liverpool as an associate schoolboy in 1979, but I’d also gone for a day’s training at Everton – at their old training ground, Bellefield. I remember walking into the canteen there with my Liverpool bag. Underlining the rivalry between the two clubs, one of the coaches took it off me, opened the door and threw it out on the pitch.
I had signed as an apprentice with Tranmere Rovers in 1981 and made my debut at 17 the following year. I’m still the youngest goalkeeper ever to play for the club, and I absolutely loved it.
As an apprentice, along with training with the first team on a daily basis, I had to do all the jobs – clean the boots, clean the changing rooms, help the groundsman with the pitch, even climb on the roof and retrieve the balls on match days. I look back with appreciation of those good days, and the fantastic foundation they provided.
When you play in goal, you need thick skin – especially as a 17 year old in the Football League. You’re staring at all these big centre-forwards, and the opposition’s approach was physical – stick it under the crossbar, smack him, and see what he’s made of. You get knocked down and pick yourself up. Even then, you've got the crowd right next to you, giving you dog’s abuse.
I remember a game away at Southend United. We were winning 2-1 with a couple of minutes to go. Cross comes in, I go out to punch it – but as I've done so I’ve left my other arm down, so I'm totally exposed. The centre-forward has come through and basically headbutted me, smashing my cheekbone all over the place. I’m staggering around, the referee gives a drop-ball; it ends up getting squared to the edge of our box and the lad just toe-pokes it in. I literally stood and watched it go in, absolutely all over the place.
I spent the night in hospital, and discovered the next day that my cheekbone was fractured and required surgery. I also learned a valuable lesson about playing in goal.
“We generated our own funds, bought our own kit, and had our own clubhouse. It was about us building that togetherness”
While I was at Tranmere, most of my friends were playing in the youth division of the Birkenhead Sunday League, for a team called Renbad Rovers. The manager was Alan Dabner – his name spelt backwards is Renbad – but he didn’t want to take the team from youth into men’s football. As I couldn’t play for them, I said that I’d become their manager.
I spent the best part of 10 years doing that role alongside playing for Tranmere Rovers and later Wigan Athletic. Coaching a team; trying out different formations and tactics; making substitutions and explaining to players why they had been left out of the team selection.
Understanding and communicating – social interaction – was so important. We went from the Fourth Division to the Premier Division, winning league and cups along the way.
None of the lads were being paid for playing, but we generated our own funds, we bought our own kit, and we had our own clubhouse. It was all about building that togetherness – that bond. The impact was phenomenal, really. But football has that power, doesn't it?
I’m an ambassador for the Football Foundation, and I see the work they do to develop pitches and facilities across the country. If you can give people a place to go and play football, then you're also providing a hub for the community – somewhere to play football, yes, but also somewhere to go and feel part of. It’s something I truly believe in.
I feel the same about education, which is why I studied for an Honours Degree in Physiotherapy while playing for Wigan Athletic. I’d had my fair share of injuries after joining from Tranmere Rovers, and had already done the FA Treatment of Injuries course, but now I had a decision to make. I was halfway through my four-year degree, my contract was coming up, and my wife and I had just had our second son. I thought that if I could get my degree that would provide me with the opportunity to look after my family after my playing career finished.
So I made the decision to go to non-league football while finishing my degree. That’s how I ended up at Bangor City in the League of Wales, and that’s where I found myself a player-manager in European football at the age of 28.
I had joined Bangor City as a player in the summer of 1993, but soon afterwards the manager Paul Rowlands left to go to Altrincham and took a couple of the best players with him. As well as studying for my degree, I had also set up my own soccer school for goalkeepers, Shot Stopper Soccer School. So I took over as manager, and in that first season we managed to win the league.
We were drawn against the Icelandic champions, Akranes, in the preliminary round of what was then the UEFA Cup. Our pitch was council-owned, so we couldn’t arrange any friendlies before the game, but when they arrived it was a big eye-opener for me.
The standard of football was so different – a totally different way of playing. Their rotations and their ball retention were really, really good, and the referee would blow for a foul for any contact. I learned a lot from that experience.
“We’re Bangor City. They should have taken us to the cleaners”
The following season, we walked the League of Wales. We played out from the back and played some really good football; I remember us being a joy to watch. It got us back into Europe, and this time against Widzew Lodz from Poland. We were unfortunate to lose the first leg 4-0 at our place, but I still found myself wondering how we were going to deal with them in the second leg. I decided to totally change the formation.
It took me back to my Sunday League team. Before a game, I’d always get the Subbuteo pitch out. I painted the players to match our kit, and I even painted them according to what each individual looked like – a couple of the lads were bald, for example, and one had ginger hair. We’re all visual learners, so this is what I did – and it had worked well at Renbad Rovers, so why wouldn’t it work at Bangor City? We did it religiously before every game; the Subbuteo came out and we went through everyone’s roles on the pitch.
For that second leg, we went from a 1-4-4-2 formation – two midfielders, two out-and-out wingers and one just playing off the centre-forward – to a 1-3-5-2. Three at the back; two wing-backs; three in midfield, and two up top.
We got beat in the 95th minute. A travesty. I remember going in to do media after the game. For the first time in my career I saw them banked up; must have been 100 of them. I did my bit in English, and then they absolutely battered their own coach – we were little Bangor City, and they were Widzew Lodz, and they should have taken us to the cleaners.
For me, though, that was a great experience. Not just working on formations, tactics, substitutions and collaborating as a team, but also dealing with media, sponsors and European football. It definitely benefited me as a manager.
By now, I had completed my UEFA A Licence and physiotherapy degree, and spent six months working part-time in a hospital. All I wanted to do was work in professional football, though, and sure enough a phone call came from Mick Buxton, then the Scunthorpe United manager.
“You’ve been recommended to me, son. Fancy coming up for a chat?”
It was the right time. So we moved to a sleepy little village outside Scunthorpe, which was great for the kids to grow up in, and I became the club physiotherapist.
When I joined, Mick was the manager and Paul Wilson was the youth team coach with only one player. I even got to play in the Lincolnshire Senior Cup final, making a penalty save in the shootout to defeat local rivals Grimsby Town. Within 12 months, Brian Laws had come in as manager.
Over a period of time, as well as being the physiotherapist, I had a lot of other roles, including that of goalkeeping coach. I remember one away game at Carlisle United; I got the kit together and laid it out in the dressing room, I did the massages for the players, I did the strappings for those who needed them, then I took the team warm-up and was actually substitute goalkeeper for the game itself.
I was also very interested in sports science, so I went on all the courses I could and got to do loads of different things during that time. It was during that period that I got offered the physio’s job at Everton, and also at Nottingham Forest. Our sons were growing up, though, and our eldest had started secondary school, so we were happy. Life was good.
“I didn’t want yes men around. I wanted them to challenge me”
Then, in November 2006, Sheffield Wednesday came calling for Brian. The word was that we were all going to go, but the chairman Steve Wharton had other ideas.
“No, you’re staying,” he told me. “And you’re going to be the manager.”
Lose a couple of games as the manager, and you could be out as soon as you were in. I had a family to support, but I was well-read and had done a lot of different things. If I was going to do it, I decided, I had to do it my way.
As the physio, I already had a good relationship with the players, but I needed to choose my coaches. I looked to the squad; Andy Crosby was the captain, a great leader, and lived in the same village, while Ian Baraclough had been a youngster on loan at Tranmere Rovers when I was there as a player. Andy would be my assistant, Ian my first-team coach. I pulled them both in.
“You are both still instrumental to the team, so you need to focus your energy on playing. In the background, we will get you both qualified. In the meantime, we’ll win as many games as we can and see where it takes us.”
I didn’t want yes men around me. I wanted them to challenge me; to challenge and be challenged; to sit in a room with me and be honest. We would discuss things, but I had the final decision – and in front of the rest of the squad we would be absolutely united.
I remember our first game in charge. It was a Friday night, away at Cheltenham in the FA Cup. It poured down with rain and we drew 0-0.
With Brian gone, there was also mass speculation that strikers Andy Keogh and Billy Sharp would go in the January transfer window, and that the whole team would fall apart. People were expecting the wheels to fall off.
Instead, we just kept on going, setting new club records along the way.
Keogh did leave in January, for Wolves. We played Doncaster in what was probably going to be his last game for us, and I took him aside before the game. I was big on discipline – hated my players getting needless bookings – but this was different.
“This is your last game, so go and get a goal. When you do, get your shirt off and run the length of the pitch. I don’t care, I just want you to feel good.”
He scored within the first 15 minutes.
Sharpy stayed though, and he got us 30 goals that season. We had a great spirit, a way we wanted to play, and a real goalscorer.
We became League One champions.
Sharp left for Sheffield United in the summer, and we managed to get hold of Martin Paterson from Stoke City. Paterson never stopped running – and in the season we had him I actually changed the dugouts round because of him. The linesman on our side of the pitch used to stand in front of the opposition dugout, and Paterson would get called for a lot of offsides when he actually wasn’t. So I switched them so the linesman was now stood in front of us – making it harder for the opposition dugout to have an influence.
We had some good results that season – we beat Sheffield Wednesday and Sheffield United – but we were operating on a League Two budget in the Championship and in the end we were relegated on 46 points. That would have kept us up in a number of Championship seasons, but that year it didn’t. With any relegated side, questions would be asked of the manager. I’d been at Scunny for 10 years, though, and the chairman told me I wasn’t going anywhere.
It was my club, if you like. I had a key to every room in the building, used to open the gates in the morning, and lock them again at night.
For the first week of pre-season training, I took the lads to Champneys Springs in Leicestershire and mapped out what we were going to do back in League One. We had sold Martin Paterson and brought in goalscoring machine Gary Hooper.
“The aim for the season is to get to Wembley and get promoted back to the Championship.”
We reached Wembley, but there we lost to Luton Town, after extra time, in the final of the Johnstone’s Paint Trophy. We had a young team and the players were deflated, flat out on the Wembley turf, having given everything they had and lost. I picked the lads off the floor, gathered the team together and we had a huddle on the pitch.
“Feel the pain, feel the hurt of losing a final at Wembley. It’s an emotion we don’t want to feel again.” I made the huddle of young players and staff squeeze each other tight. “We are coming back here in six weeks’ time for the playoff final. Remember this moment – remember the tears – and we make sure we don’t feel this way again.”
“We were structured, we were organised, and we had great attention to detail. But most importantly, we were a team”
We had a planned evening in the team hotel in London that night – players, wives, girlfriends, families all together to celebrate the occasion of us getting to a Wembley cup final. We had an unbelievable team spirit that had taken us a long way, and we were determined to come back again and win.
Last game of the league season, we play Tranmere Rovers at home. If they win, they knock us out of the playoff places. At 1-0 down with two minutes to go, we get a free-kick. Cliff Byrne rises at the far post to head home. We’re in the playoffs.
In the semi finals, we play MK Dons. Roberto Di Matteo is in charge of a good side playing fluent football. Two close games. Having drawn 1-1 at Glanford Park, we change the formation round in the second leg at their place. It goes to penalties, and we win 7-6.
When we came in at half-time 2-1 down to Millwall in the playoff final, having conceded one to a wonder goal, the players looked crestfallen. Before we went out for the second half, I cleared a space in the dressing room and got the players to form another huddle.
“Remember the pain of six weeks ago. We ain’t feeling that again, fellas. Squeeze tight, feel the squeeze, feel your teammate right with you, going to give everything for the team. You’re good players, you’re a good team. Now let’s go and win.”
We went on to win the game (below), and this time the feeling was different. This time, the feeling was phenomenal.
Our goal had been to get back up to the Championship, and we had done it. The players knew exactly what they were doing; we were structured; we were organised; we had great attention to detail, but most of all we were a team. Together Everybody Achieves More.
That’s what I’ve always tried to do with my teams, I suppose. I had a bit of confidence about myself, but then it’s about giving others belief – letting everyone in the team, and all the people supporting the players, know how valued they are.
We played really good football, too, and that helped us connect with the fans. Then it becomes a collaboration of everybody – the players, the fans, everyone behind the scenes. I think back to what I said earlier about my involvement with the Football Foundation. Once you start to build a community, everyone in that community starts to believe.
Second time round, we stayed up in the Championship – a very proud achievement for everyone at Scunthorpe United. Cut forward to the start of the following season, and after a good start the owner called me in.
“Nigel, you’ve done everything for the good of the club. For your own good, you need to move on. We won’t stand in your way.”
That’s when another unexpected call came, this time from Southampton. But that’s another story.