Solihull Moors, 2018-2020
My first job as a manager lasted just under three months.
Eleven games in charge of Stafford Rangers. One win.
The day I left, I thought maybe this isn’t for me. Maybe being a manager just isn’t my bag.
When I first started coaching, I only had one focus: the goalkeepers. I wasn’t interested one iota in outfield. Then I found out you had to take your outfield coaching badge to get your goalkeeping one.
“What good’s that to me? I don’t give a monkey’s about them.”
Ironically, I’d actually wanted to be a centre-forward when I was growing up. But the crapper I realised I was, the further back down the pitch I moved.
Eventually I ended up at centre-half, but I had no pace. That's when I decided going in goal might be my best option.
The assistant manager at my first club, Wolves, was a former goalkeeper called Jim Barron. In the mornings he’d take the goalkeepers for a session on what was basically a field of mud. It was really intense, physical work: up, down, up, down, up, down.
It wasn’t until later in my career that I met a coach who basically changed my whole game. Someone who turned me from being an average goalie – one who’d have a couple of good games and a couple of bad ones – into a decent one.
Mike Kelly was the England goalkeeping coach under Bobby Robson and Terry Venables. He also worked for the Swiss national team and spent many years alongside Roy Hodgson.
I first met him after I moved to Southampton in 1986, when I was 19 years old. At that time, the approach to goalkeeper training was still pretty old school: “Go over there, do a bit of whatever you want and we’ll give you a whistle when we’re doing some shooting.”
But there were a few keepers around the league who had got themselves proper coaches, so I went to see the manager and told him I could do with some help.
We had a couple of coaches come in who weren’t that great, but then Mike arrived. He blew me away with his knowledge.
"Kenny Dalglish was the Messi or Ronaldo of his time. He could play in that number 10 role and always had the killer pass or finish"
Suddenly I was learning the nitty gritty of goalkeeping. The science behind it. The shot-stopping lines. The distribution. Mike could serve a ball like it was coming out of a machine.
In the space of five or six months, he completely turned me around. I went from being in and out of a Premier League side to being in every week, and in the England squad, in a very short period of time. It was down to him, without a doubt.
It was hard not to learn at Southampton. Peter Shilton was their number one when I signed – he was one of the greatest goalkeepers in the world at that time, but what blew me away in my first week at the club was his work ethic. And the intensity of training.
By the end of the week, I could hardly walk.
I took loads of notes during sessions. All the little things that Jim had done at Wolves. Then Shilts. I needed to upgrade to A4 for Mike, though. He always had new ideas or props to keep the sessions fresh. When you’re only working with two lads, that’s important – you have to try and keep the session alive.
Liverpool and Nottingham Forest were the two leading teams when I was growing up in the 1970s. And they had the two England keepers: Ray Clemence and Peter Shilton. So they were the ones you aspired to be like. I’d see them on Sportsnight, picking up little things or sometimes simply just watching them.
That was Kenny Dalglish’s era too, of course. He was the Lionel Messi or Cristiano Ronaldo of his time – could play in that number 10 role and always had the killer pass or finish.
He was the fella who put jam on your bread, basically.
"I had no plan. I had none of my coaching badges, either"
Everyone was in awe of Kenny.
There was nothing big-time about him, though. I realised that the very first time I met him.
He was Blackburn Rovers manager at the time, and wanted to meet to talk about signing me from Southampton.
The deal was moving really quickly, so I flew up to Manchester where someone from the club picked me up and drove me to a pub just outside Blackburn.
It was completely empty, apart from one man: Kenny.
I was half-thinking: “Oh my god, it’s Kenny Dalglish.” But he was just a regular bloke. Like I said, there was nothing big-time about him at all.
We had a chat, I signed the papers and then he took me to his house in Southport, where I stayed that night because we were travelling down to QPR the next day.
I hadn’t expected things to get done quite that fast. I’d not even taken my kit with me. I had to get my gloves sent up from Southampton, so I had them in time for the game.
Kenny didn’t have to motivate you. He was a World XI player. You wanted to play for him.
He was pretty quiet, really. He loved joining in with games in training (he was still our best player) and come Saturday he wouldn’t talk about the opposition too much. We had a certain shape, a certain style that we understood. We all knew what we were doing.
Some things did take me a while to get used to, though. Southampton had been in the top flight for quite a while, but most of that was spent fighting to stay in it. That brings a tremendous spirit and siege mentality – a knowledge of how to get over the line when you need to.
But it meant I wasn’t used to winning every week. Or being expected to win, which is what happened at Blackburn. The club signed some great players and that came with the perception: you should be winning.
Which in my second season – 1994/95 – we managed to do, beating Manchester United to the Premier League title by a single point.
"When I look back, I can see that I wasn’t ready to work at that level. I didn’t know non-league well enough"
By the time I played my last game at the age of 36, my hip was so bad I couldn’t even tie my shoelaces.
At that time, I had no plan. I had none of my coaching badges, either. In hindsight, I should have done them while I was playing. It gives you more kudos, more credence. And you’re fit.
I’ve got Micky Adams to thank for giving me the plan I didn’t have. He was the Leicester City manager when I finished my career there. He told me to get my hip sorted, then come back and coach the goalkeepers.
It was wonderful. I felt like I could give something back. But, like I said, I had no interest in widening that scope beyond the goalkeepers.
At least, not until Iain Dowie got the Coventry job. He’s a friend of mine and when he asked if I would go in as his assistant, I couldn’t say no. Coventry is my club – the one my dad had first taken me to when I was about six years old – so it was a huge thing for me.
It was also a real eye-opener.
For the first time, I stepped out of that pigeon hole. I was still doing the goalkeepers, but my brief went beyond that as well: looking at what we were doing tactically, set-plays, dealing with the media, scouting, match reports. It was a whole new world.
Iain has a huge appetite for the game, and a work ethic to match. He demands high standards, but he gives them too – so, when you work for him, you work hard.
The off-field stuff was the most challenging aspect. By that, I mean the finances. We were led to believe there was some money there; in reality, there wasn’t.
It was a big learning experience.
"Training was on half an Astroturf at a local school – dead on 9pm, there were people itching to get on to play hockey"
Three years later, I went for the managers’ job at Stafford Rangers. By then, I’d assisted Iain at both QPR and Hull City. Naively, I looked at it and thought: “I can do that.”
When I look back, I can see that I wasn’t ready for it. I was plenty old enough, but Stafford were down the bottom of what was then the Blue Square North. I wasn’t ready to work at that level. I didn’t know non-league well enough.
Now I’ve studied it. Been to hundreds of games at that level and below. So I’ve got more of an idea of what it takes to try and be even half-successful at it.
I’ve also learned a lot more from other people. After Stafford I spent some time with Aidy Boothroyd at Northampton Town. His attention to detail on the style of football we’re playing at Solihull Moors now was forensic.
On average, there’s about 140 restarts in every National League game, so the ball is out of play a lot – whether that’s for a throw-in, goal-kick or anything else. So, if you’re defending, you have to know what’s coming back. And, if it’s your ball, then you need to know how you’re going to apply your version.
That’s something I definitely took from my time working with Aidy, and it has won us so many points this season it’s ridiculous. Everyone knows what’s coming, but they still don’t deal with it.
If I’d had that knowledge when I went into Stafford, I’d have done things very differently. Employed styles and formations that fit that team. But you learn... and I’m still learning now, from every game we play.
It was about six years after Stafford that I applied for the job at Solihull. I was late throwing my hat into the ring though, so they’d already started the process.
But the day after the interview, I got a phone call.
“You’ve put a real spanner in the works. Can you work with Mark Yates?”
I had no problem with that. But one of us had to be the manager – someone’s got to pick the team. I’ve got no ego, so I left it with Mark and we rolled with that.
It was November when we went in, and the team had picked up just 11 points from 19 games. They’d also had six different managers in just over a year.
Things had to change, quickly.
"The way I see it, this isn’t non-league any more; this is League Five"
Training had been on half an Astroturf at a local school on Tuesday and Thursday nights. It was the kind of place where, dead on 9pm, there’s people on the sidelines itching to get on to play hockey.
Before our first session on a Thursday night, ahead of a big game against Maidstone, we decided to train at our ground instead. We thought getting the lads under the lights in that environment might help.
After the session, me and Mark sat in the bar. He looked at me: “What do you reckon?”
“We’re down, mate.”
It was the worst standard I’ve ever seen.
Somehow, we managed to get a draw at Maidstone, but straight after the game we told the players things were going to change. From then on, we’d be training on Monday, Tuesday and Thursday mornings. Some of them had jobs, but we were clear.
“No ifs, no buts. Fit in or you’ll have to go. Simple as that.”
Boom, hey presto. All of a sudden there was only one player who couldn’t make it work.
It sounds like a small thing, but changing the time really made a difference. Who wants to train at 8pm on a regular basis? You’ve been up all day so, naturally, you’re going to be tired – mentally, just as much as physically.
And the extra day of training was huge. It got us fitter. More organised.
The way I see it, this isn’t non-league any more. This is League Five. I’d say 95 per cent of this league are fully professional, with everything that goes with it: analysis, recruitment, medical. That’s why clubs that get promoted from this level do so well in the next one.
If you’re messing around two nights a week, you’ve got to have some right good players to get away with it.
If we hadn’t changed it, we’d have been history long before the end of the season.
"That was the brief for this season. If we could finish around the middle of the bottom half, brilliant"
As it was, we started to pick up a few results. The board kindly let us bring in a couple of better-quality players, too – because we had to.
But no one really believed we were going to do it. If I’m honest, I don’t think we did either.
We were scrapping away and scrapping away, but every time we got a result, we’d come in and look at the table and we hadn’t moved. No matter what we did, we just couldn’t get out of the bottom four.
Until April 7 – when, in our sixth last game, we got the breakthrough. An 88th-minute winner gave us a 1-0 win against Hartlepool United. We hopped out of the relegation zone for the first time since August.
At last, someone else was feeling the heat.
Our penultimate game of the season was away to a Tranmere side that was already in the playoffs and rested almost all of their first XI for the game against us.
We left with a 2-1 win that pushed us over the line. We were safe.
It was a massive relief to not have to take it right to the last game, but the work on this season started straight away. None of us wanted to go through that again.
That was the brief for this season, really. If we could finish around the middle of the bottom half, brilliant.
I was expecting everything to be much as it was at the end of last season, while trying to build on the momentum we got from staying up.
What I wasn’t expecting was that it would be me in charge of that build.
Just as we were about to start pre-season, Mark got an opportunity to get back in the Football League with Macclesfield Town. He wanted me to go with him, but I didn’t think it was for me.
I told the board I was going to stay they said fine, let’s roll with it. See how we go.
As it is, we’re punching way above our weight.
"Why should I need to motivate you? You should be chomping at the bit. I should be holding you back!"
Our recruitment has been a big part of that. We brought in two or three in the summer, who have been excellent. And, after Christmas, when we saw we were sticking around in the top half, we got a few more in: lads who have won this division before.
That brings course and distance experience.
It’s a massive shot in the arm to the lads in the dressing room, when they see that quality coming into the building. It’s also a shot over the bows of everyone else out there, basically saying: “We’re going to have a pop.”
I didn’t want to change too much, though. I wanted to retain the attitude and spirit from the end of last season. So we still don’t train on a Friday. Still don’t travel the day before games. And we’re religious about what we do during the week.
We’re always working on patterns of play. Set-plays. The players know it all now, but if you’re successful they buy into it. And we keep scoring from them every week.
Kenny Dalglish was never one to say too much before a game, and I’m the same. I don’t think players should need motivating. If you can’t motivate yourself, you’re in the wrong game.
In our situation, this is all I need to tell them.
“You’ve worked nine months to get this opportunity. Everyone thought we were going to get relegated this season, and now we’re fighting for promotion. Why should I need to motivate you? You should be chomping at the bit. I should be holding you back!”
There aren’t many ex-goalkeepers who become managers. At my interview for this job, I got asked why that is.
It’s a good question.
I guess you gravitate towards what you know best. That’s certainly what I did. But why would a right-back or centre-forward make a better manager than a goalkeeper: someone who spends his career watching all the other 21 players on a pitch in front of him?
You see different systems and where they hurt you. You know what sort of balls coming in you don’t like. You know what hurts you, what disrupts you.
My answer is that there’s no reason at all, really. It just took me a little while to realise it.