Photography by Tom Watkins

Shaun Derry

Notts County, 2013-2015

“Chris Kiwomya’s been sacked.”

That was all the text message said.

I was on a coaching course when the message arrived, but as soon as I read it I knew what I had to do. I left the room and searched through the contacts list on my phone, looking for Jim Rodwell, then the chief executive of Notts County.

“Listen, Jim, I know this is a random phone call. But I heard you’ve sacked your manager and I would like the opportunity for an interview.”

All of this was happening the day after my wife and children had set off for a week’s holiday in Portugal. By the time they came home, everything had changed; I was no longer a professional footballer, living in London and playing for Millwall.

I was the manager of Notts County.

Chris Brunskill/Getty Images

I was in my early twenties when I first dipped my toes into coaching, taking some junior teams whenever the opportunity arose. But I never really felt comfortable doing it. Never felt that I was ready to do anything other than be a professional footballer.

Over time, that changed.

It started when I was 29 and playing for Leeds United. After getting a kick on the heel during an away game at Stoke, it ballooned. There was bad bruising. Blood.

It calcified and turned into bone. What I thought was going to be a two-week injury turned into an 11-month injury that required three operations.

During those 11 months, there were times I couldn’t even face the dressing room. I spent a lot of time at home thinking: “This is it. This is retirement.”

That was when the penny dropped; I really did love football.

“We found a dressing room that was in large parts dysfunctional”

The game had been fantastic to me and I needed to give something back. So I started taking my coaching badges.

And I really enjoyed those courses. Not just because of what went on in the classroom or on the training field, but because it was an opportunity to mix with like-minded people.

I loved spending the evenings having a quiet beer with knowledgeable people – getting to pick their brains, asking for advice and absorbing so much valuable information.

After leaving Leeds, I squeezed six more years out of my playing career. At the age of 35 I ended up at Millwall in the Championship, but things didn’t really go to plan for me there. I’d been playing for QPR in the Premier League for the previous two years, and in the time I’d been away the Championship had livened up. It was quicker. If I’m honest, I struggled to produce my best football.

So when my phone vibrated that Sunday morning with the message that there was an opportunity at a club I knew so well – where I’d started my career as a player – I didn’t think twice.

Tom Watkins

A few days later, I was in Nottingham spending five hours with the Notts County owners Mr and Mrs Trew and the chief executive. A few days later we met up again to finalise everything.

In the space of one week, my life had changed.

I was back in my home city and at the first football club I’d played for, who were sitting bottom of the League One table. That was a lot of responsibility to take on. I wasn’t fazed by the challenge ahead, but I very quickly realised that I couldn’t do it all on my own.

I’d been out of League One for a number of years, so I needed a coach who had the knowledge and experience of it that I didn’t. Greg Abbott was the first person I called. We’d first worked together at Leeds United; me as a player, Greg as the Under-18 manager. Over the course of a number of years, we’d developed a real bond. When I took the Notts County job, I knew I wanted him in as my assistant.

For the first six weeks, I was very much leaning on him. Even for small things, like filling in the team sheets for match day – that was something that I’d never done. I’d never even seen management do that while being a player. So the structure of the week was largely formulated by Greg, until I found my own way in terms of the way that I wanted to work.

“I love being written off. I loved it as a player. I love it as a manager. I love that people question me. It gives me strength”

At Notts County we found a dressing room that was in large parts dysfunctional. We had close to 40 players at the time, many of them underperforming and slightly overpaid. As a manager, you can’t focus on 40 players – so straight away I had to make some pretty stern decisions.

I had to grab the ones who we knew could help a club that was rooted in a relegation fight, and leave the others to one side.

It might sound harsh, and there were a lot of lads who were left very frustrated, but it was what I had to do. It gave us the best chance of staying in League One. And I knew I needed to ruffle a few feathers early on. I was a young manager – I wanted to show the lads that didn’t mean they’d find weakness in me.

My first two games as a manager ended in defeat.

The first, to League Two side Hartlepool in the first round of the FA Cup. With that defeat went all the money that comes to a lower-level team if you can reach the third round. The second one came three days later in the Football League Trophy, and it was a heavy one – 5-1 away at Oldham.

At the time it was disappointing, but looking back they were actually great results for me. They allowed me to be absolutely brutal with my team going into the next passage of games.

When we lost the next game 1-0 to a Wolves team that went on to win the division that year, things started to shift. We played really well, and that gave me a lot of strength and authority in the dressing room because the players could see that my decisions were starting to pay off.

And, outside of the dressing room, the fans were getting behind us. The club had been through a number of managers before I came in – a lot of them only lasting about six months – and I think they appreciated that one of their own was in charge. As performance levels improved, there was a feel-good factor that started to encapsulate the ground. Even though we lost more games before the end of the season, there was this galvanising effect that was created inside Meadow Lane.

Attendances started to climb. There was a good feeling around the streets of Nottingham. I was enjoying it – and so were the players.

With 10 games of the season to go, though, we were still seven points adrift of safety. And the morning after a defeat away at Tranmere, I got a phone call from the chairman, Mr Trew. He wanted to give me a budget for League Two.

I was really offended.

“It’s not over yet,” I told him.

I love being written off. I loved it as a player. I love it as a manager. I love the fact that people question me, because it gives me added strength.

“You’re always going to be passing through football clubs – whether you last 25 years, like Arsène Wenger, or 25 minutes”

Greg and I both felt there was still something to achieve. From then on, between losing at Tranmere and getting a vital draw away at Boundary Park on the final day of the season, we ended up winning six games. It was an incredible run that culminated in 3,000 fans travelling to Oldham for that last game, and helping us achieve our aim of staying in the division.

That night the lads went out partying, but I was exhausted. I also felt a sense of frustration because the achievement they were celebrating wasn’t one that I really enjoyed. Of course, it was a major thing to keep Notts County in League One, but to celebrate staying in the league just didn’t sit well with me.

The next day, myself and Greg went for a walk along the River Trent. We were already reconstructing the squad, getting ready for what we hoped was going to be a promotion season.

I felt we had the perfect platform now to push on.

But those hopes and plans didn’t last long. We soon had some damning news that the budget was being dramatically cut from the one we’d had the previous season. That hit me hard. I knew then that the next year was going to be very difficult.

As it happened, though, we started off really well. Up until Christmas, we had one of the longest unbeaten away records in all four divisions. At one point we were sat as high as fourth in the league. But what had got us there were four fantastic loans – four lads who were really contributing.

In January, the chairman pulled the finances again and we lost all four of them.

It was a tough pill to swallow.

Matthew Lewis/Getty Images

After that, we fell off the edge of a cliff. It hurt everybody. We dropped dramatically from fourth to the middle of the table and lower still.

But with 10 games of the season to go, we still felt we were very much in the fight to avoid relegation. We wanted the opportunity to create what we had the previous season.

Myself, Greg and the players spoke about it. We said: “Listen, we’re in a relegation battle, but we can do it. We’ve done it before.”

But we never got the chance to prove it.

I remember the phonecall coming on a Sunday night, the day after we’d lost 4-1 to an MK Dons side that went on to get promoted that season.

When I saw that it was the chairman’s wife calling, I knew it was curtains.

She invited me to go and see her on the Monday morning, and I said yes. I wanted her to say what she needed to say to my face. And I wanted to go and shake hands properly. I think you can judge people a lot more astutely by looking them in the eye, to see how they’re reacting to a situation.

So Greg and I went in on the Monday morning. We weren’t the slightest bit surprised to hear her say: “Listen, we’re going to make a change”.

“If you’re not communicating with people and not engaging in different experiences, how are you going to learn?”

All I wanted to do then was to go and see the players and rest of the staff. To thank them for their efforts, wish them well and give them a few words of encouragement, because I didn’t want Notts County to get relegated. It was my club – the club I supported as a fan, the club I had played for.

So we drove up to the training ground and sat down with everyone. There were some tears shed by the close coaching staff that I had – we’d formed a fantastic team. Together with the senior players – Alan Smith, Gary Thompson, Gary Jones, Roy Carroll – there was a lot of experience in that room. They all felt aggrieved. And I shared that with them.

But that’s the game. You’re always going to be passing through football clubs, whether you last 25 years like Arsène Wenger, or 25 minutes like those who’ve only dipped their toes into a job when they find themselves out of work again.

Though that doesn’t change the fact that I felt the wrong decision was made.

To be sacked from your hometown club, where you’d actually achieved some good things, was a real learning curve for me. A brutal one.

But it taught me a lot of valuable lessons. As did the period I spent out of the game after leaving the club.

Tom Watkins

It was the first time I’d really been out of football. Obviously, managers want to stay in the game, but at that moment I didn’t want to be in it. I needed to be out of it. I needed to be away.

I took my family away to America for a month. It just gave me time to breathe and gather my thoughts. To create a pathway to seeing what the next opportunity was.

I enjoyed the media side of things, and that gave me food for thought. Did I really want another crack at management, or did I want to find a different way of working within football?

The answer came to me one early morning in Florida while I was watching one of the early games with my son, who was eight at the time. He turned around to me and said: “Dad, do you miss it?”

I looked at him and said: “I do.”

It was the first time I realised. At that point, I knew what I wanted to come home to.

I spent the best part of the next seven months speaking to people in the game and going to view different managers working. I place so much value in those experiences. If you’re not communicating with people and not engaging in different experiences, how are you going to learn?

That’s not just true in football, but in every walk of life.

On coaching courses you get the opportunity to watch other coaches perform their sessions, but that kind of observation shouldn’t stop once you actually become a manager. I like watching. I like listening.

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I gained such valuable knowledge and experience just from sitting in my office at Notts County with a coaching team that had perhaps 1,000 games between them. I spent a lot of my afternoons sitting with them and actually saying nothing. Just listening.

And that’s what I enjoyed in those moments out of work – observing and making my notes. Even if I gained just 10 minutes’ value from what I witnessed that day, it would be worth it.

It meant that when my next opportunity came up, I was re-energised and revitalised. I walked into the job at Cambridge United with my head held high, my shoulders out and my chest pumping, ready for that challenge.

The experiences I had there – going from being the manager to working slightly differently as a head coach – and since then as a first-team coach at Oxford United, have only added to my understanding of the job. The game is developing and changing; you need to change with it if you want to stay in it.

And I certainly do. I’ve been retired from playing for almost six years now, and I still dream about football. The game is what I miss the most. It’s not the dressing room, it’s not the banter, it’s not the warm-ups. It’s the actual competitiveness – me against my opponent.

It’s still there. It’s the blood that runs through my veins.

The penny might have dropped a long time ago now, but it’s still true. I really do love football.

Shaun Derry

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