Shrewsbury Town, 2016-18
“All these Ipswich fans who want Mick McCarthy to leave will be sad in the end... it wouldn’t surprise me if, whoever takes over next year, the club ends up getting relegated.”
The person talking was the host of the radio show I was listening to as I clocked up the miles on the motorway. She was also an Ipswich Town fan.
At the time, the conversation didn’t really mean anything to me.
I was focused on pushing for promotion with Shrewsbury Town. I had no idea that I’d end up being the “whoever” to take over from Mick.
When I was offered the job a few months later, I remembered her words. But they weren’t enough to stop me from taking it.
Who knew when I might get that kind of opportunity again?
I’d never been the kind of player (below, right) people thought would go into management. My former manager at Rotherham, Ronnie Moore, even said he didn’t really see me doing it.
I wasn’t offended by that.
As a youth team player and in my early years as a professional, I was really interested in the tactical side of the game. But, over time, I moved away from that. I didn’t feel like I was seeing enough to make me question what we were doing or how football was developing.
In the end, management found me rather than the other way around.
"Leaving Grimsby to take the Shrewsbury job was a move that might not have made much sense to people at the time"
I was 35 when I left Rotherham to play for Ilkeston Town. It seemed like the right place to wind down my career; I could go part-time and start to figure out what I was going to do with my life after football.
I worked as a teaching assistant with kids who had learning difficulties and behaviour problems. Did a bit for Rotherham on the community side: overseeing young coaches who went out to schools, taking assemblies and organising soccer camps.
I enjoyed it. Working outside football – going out to meet different people and speak in front of them – helped me to grow and build confidence.
But after half a season, Ilkeston’s manager David Holdsworth left. You can probably guess what happened next.
As senior players, the club asked myself and Rob Scott – who I’d been teammates with at Rotherham – to take charge on a caretaker basis. And it worked well.
We were seventh when we took over, and a few months later we won promotion through the playoffs.
But the club wasn’t in the best position financially. Come the end of the season, there had been no contact with the club about us carrying on. In the meantime, Rob sorted us out with a move to Boston as joint-managers.
I still didn’t really see myself as a football manager, though.
I don’t think that feeling really set in until I left Grimsby Town seven years later. By then, I’d gone from being part of a managerial duo to working alone, been through three playoff heartbreaks and experienced recruitment at the sharp end – where budgets are tight, the team regularly needs rebuilding and you only have one scout for company.
I’d also taken Grimsby back into the Football League.
We were doing well in our first season back in the league when I left to take the Shrewsbury Town job.
It was a move that might not have made much sense to people at the time.
While Grimsby were up around the playoff places in League Two, Shrewsbury were bottom of League One. They’d only won two league games all season.
So, why go?
"Two days into the job, I thought: what have I done?"
I was frustrated at Grimsby. I had thought that getting back into the Football League would change things. Thought I might be able to bring in a fitness coach and maybe even an extra scout.
But nothing had changed. Okay, we had an extra little portacabin, but that was it.
Before games, I’d look at the team sheet for the opposition and see the long list of their staff members. Some teams would even need an extra bit of paper to fit theirs in.
Most of the time there were three of us. Sometimes four.
I genuinely wanted to try and improve the club, but it didn't feel like they were open to doing that.
At Shrewsbury, I’d have access to an analyst and a team of scouts. They also had a fitness coach. It was my chance to find out how I’d get on working with a bigger team and more resources.
But two days into the job, I thought: what have I done?
We’d just finished our second day of training and I was sitting in the office at the training ground with my assistant Chris Doig. Neither of us said a word. We didn’t need to. We just looked at each other and knew exactly what the other one was thinking.
We’ve messed up here. We should have stayed where we were.
"I think the group appreciated that I wasn't going to put up with people who didn't want to be part of it"
It was the strangest atmosphere I’ve been in. There were quite a lot of big characters at Shrewsbury, and I was told that three or four of them had asked to be put in temporary charge when the previous manager left.
I hadn’t expected to walk in and find everyone skipping around and on top of the world, but it almost felt like a fight was going to break out at any moment.
I’m no shrinking violet. I love being competitive and don’t mind if there’s a bit of fallout. But the dynamic within the group just didn’t feel right.
We managed to get a draw and a win from our first two league games, but the next two ended in defeat. The second of those was a bad one: 3-0 away at Fleetwood. It wasn’t the fact we’d lost that bothered me. It was how we lost.
I swear, I could have put more effort in and run around more than one player in particular did that day.
After the game, I addressed the group: “Not good enough.”
Then I asked that player: “Do you want to be here?”
There was a pause. It felt like it went on for ages. So I asked again: “Do you want to be here?”
He wasn’t at the club for much longer.
I think the group appreciated that I wasn't going to put up with people who didn’t want to be part of it.
The chairman won’t admit it, but I got the impression I was being brought in to bring the team back from League Two – that, in his mind, we were already down.
Over the next few months, we managed to stay in touch with the pack. And in January I made a few changes to the squad, which gave us a boost at the start of the year. It wasn’t until the second last game of the season that we felt we were safe, though.
If you ask my assistant, keeping Shrewsbury up that season is our biggest ever achievement.
I’m not so sure.
At the start of the next season, we were second favourites to be relegated. I made sure the players knew about that.
I got a league table printed up with Shrewsbury down the bottom, and stuck it on the whiteboard outside the dressing room.
“This is where people think you’re going to be. I honestly don’t know what we can be, but I think we’re more than good enough to not be in that position. Let’s give everything and see where it takes us.”
"I’d questioned whether I’d ever get the opportunity to manage in the Championship, and now I had it"
As it turned out, we were good enough to finish third in the league and make it all the way to the playoff final at Wembley.
I knew it would be a difficult game against Rotherham.
The main thing I wanted was for us to perform in that game. In the end, I don’t think we did. We didn’t look like we had the energy for it.
We’d underperformed in the Checkatrade Trophy final at Wembley the previous month. So this time we changed our preparation, went down to London one day before the game instead of two. Stayed in a different hotel. Had a practice game the week before, to keep the players sharp.
Even though I know there are no right or wrong answers, I still question those decisions.
If you win, it’s the right thing. If you lose, it’s not.
When Ipswich came calling, I felt proud. I’d questioned whether I’d ever get the opportunity to manage in the Championship – and now I had it, at a club steeped in history.
I knew it was going to be a challenge, but I was looking forward to it. I felt we could replicate a lot of the things we were doing at Shrewsbury at Ipswich.
But that didn’t happen. Having had time to reflect and analyse what went wrong, I still don’t think that what we were doing was wrong. The difference was that we didn’t get the buy-in.
I’ve always prided myself on having good relationships with players. I’m naturally an open, honest person. They know that, if they want to speak to me, I’m always there to listen and not judge.
At Ipswich, those relationships never developed. It’s the first time that I felt I didn’t have a group of players who were truly behind me.
"People talk about craving honesty but I found that, sometimes, people don’t like it when you are"
Perhaps it was down to the fact that we didn’t have that early success to really back up what I was asking of them.
I class myself as a good man-manager, but I know I can also be quite blunt. If someone’s not performed very well, I’ll tell them. And I think that’s something some characters struggled with.
I was told that one post-match interview in particular didn’t go down very well. It was after we lost to Exeter City on penalties in the first round of the League Cup. I gave my honest opinion: we weren’t good enough and it wasn’t acceptable.
People always talk about craving honesty but I found that, sometimes, people don’t like it when you are honest. Football’s a game of opinions, I get that. But I don’t ever put a front on or try to kid people. I’m not going to say I thought we were brilliant if we weren’t.
Maybe that’s a weakness when it comes to protecting yourself because, ultimately, I’m talking about my team.
It’s something I’ve given a lot of thought to since leaving Ipswich.
A lot of things in football are better now than they were in my playing days: better resources, more education. But, in terms of the way we’re preparing players mentally, I’m not sure things have improved.
In academies now, it’s almost like you’re not allowed to criticise players. So when it comes to a game, and you’ve got people shouting at you – whether it's 800 or 50,000, people – how do you deal with criticism if all you’ve had is praise all the time?
That’s something I’m questioning myself about moving forward: what’s the best way to deal with those players? What do they need to perform at their best?
"I was out to prove people wrong all the time. Saw criticism as something that made me stronger"
Being a manager can sometimes be like being a counsellor. To a degree, that’s what you are.
In football, I still think that’s something that we are behind on, in terms of understanding that a happy player is more likely to go out and perform well.
At Ipswich, we were just starting to talk about bringing in a psychologist. I’d brought one in a couple of times at Shrewsbury, and straight away you could see some lads were keen to speak to him. Others would take more time to get used to the idea, and some might not ever need him.
As a player, I was out to prove people wrong all the time. Saw criticism as something that made me stronger.
If we had someone come in to talk about psychology, I’d be like: “It’s a load of rubbish.”
And some of it probably was. But what I’m learning is that everyone’s different. It’s about finding out what it takes to get the best out of that individual.
It’s very easy to be down on things, and get a bit cynical after an experience like I had at Ipswich.
It has certainly made me question the way I do some things. But I’m a big believer in being true to myself as well. That’s not to say it’s my way or the highway, but I would rather be sacked the way I was than try to do things I’m not comfortable with or be someone I’m not.
By no means do I think I know everything. I’m always trying to improve and take the experience for what it is.
I’m disappointed that we couldn’t do better than we did. Not only for the club, but also for those coaches who, like me, maybe can’t see a way up the ladder. I wanted to do well for them, too.
Naturally, your pride is dented, but for most of my managerial career I’ve been fortunate enough to leave clubs in a better place than I found them. That’s what I want to get back to.
That’s what being a football manager is all about.
It might have taken me a while to accept it, but that’s definitely what I am now.