It was my first job. I was nervous. Who wouldn’t be? Still, I knew what to do. What needed to be done. Faced with that room full of men for the first time, though, I felt something akin to fear. “Who are you?” they were thinking, “And why should we listen to you?”
“I’m the man that will put Basingstoke on the map,” I thought.
I chatted to the assistant. I would have chatted to the coaching staff, but they had departed with the manager. Frank Gray’s legacy was going to take some sorting out. Maybe it’s always like this: you take over a group of people and a collection of plans and ideas that have never come to fruition and now make no sense without their originator. I found a club that was heavily committed to part time contracts with players, many of whom wouldn’t be first team regulars. The wage bill would soon take the club into debt if it wasn’t dealt with as a matter of urgency. I found a club whose captain would be unlikely to make the bench on a regular basis, let alone the first team. I found a club that had no coaches. There was no youth team and no reserve team.
I needed to bring my own people in. Most of all, I needed an assistant to give me a valuable second opinion on the players. You need a reliable set of eyes at training, even with a small squad. I recruited a new assistant — Phil Gilchrist. His predecessor had a very rosy view of the players that took me some time to dispel through bitter experience and the more realistic assessments of Gilchrist, so I felt like I’d made the right choice. I also brought in a couple of coaches and a physio. A couple of guys were persuaded to work as scouts in their spare time in exchange for covering their expenses.
One of my first acts as Basingstoke’s manager was to change the captain. This can cause problems if the incumbent is a popular guy, but I detected nothing of the sort. Stuart Lake seemed to be a popular choice as captain around the squad. I hoped that he would be a guy I could work with.
I worked hard those first couple of months. I recruited staff and then made difficult decisions to let some players go. In some cases it was a gamble. The squad was already painfully thin. I was releasing players with no chance of finding a replacement straight away. In most cases, I was looking at bringing in people on a ‘pay to play’ basis. Longer term, I was intending to let most players leave the club when their contracts expired at the end of the season. I would keep the core of the team, recruiting a mix of aging professionals and eager youngsters to fill in the gaps. These I would supplement with some quality season-long loan signings.
I planned to consolidate for the first season, then attempt promotion the following year. I wanted to get the club in a position to have at least 22 players on its books. I wanted developing and fringe players to be getting regular games in the reserves. I wanted a youth team to develop new players at the club. In four to five years, Basingstoke would be playing in the Football League for the first time in their long history.
It also took a month or so to really refine my tactics to suit the players at my disposal. On the playing side, things were going well on the face of it. My first-choice strikers were scoring goals. We were winning games more often than losing them and we climbed the table to maintain a healthy position in the playoff places. The future was looking bright.
The warning signs were there, however. Most of the time, I found it difficult to evoke any kind of reaction during team talks. I carried on regardless. I had a job to do. Still, even when you’re getting results on the pitch, it’s hard to talk to a room full of people and get virtually no reaction from them at all. Galling as this was, I didn’t worry too much while the atmosphere was fairly positive. We won games and everyone seemed reasonably content. In retrospect, they maybe should have been happier than they were given our decent performances. The cracks really started to show, however, when the results went against us. It seemed to be impossible to motivate the players. How do you motivate someone that is barely listening?
My best striker — Tim Sills — was an important part of my plans for the club. He was a strong player and good in the air. At this level, he would score 10–20 goals a season. He was one of the four or five players I saw as the core of my team for next season. Inevitably, a few months into the season, his form dropped a little and he stopped scoring goals. I kept playing him, despite some below par performances. I spoke to my assistant, wondering if he knew something I didn’t. “He is struggling to motivate himself to play for you.” Huh.
I called Tim into my office to have a chat with him. I wasn’t going to tackle his attitude towards me, merely suggest that he take some time off. He was hostile from the outset, however. It was all I could do to keep my cool. I calmly told him that I was dropping him for a few games and giving some leave. He just about managed an “OK” before stomping out of the room.
I talked to Gilchrist later. “They all feel the same as Tim, really.”
“What do you mean?” I asked.
“None of them want to play for you,” he said, “They don’t know who you are.”
So that was it. I didn’t have the background. I didn’t have the experience of years in the game to call upon. These were disappointed part-timers that hoped to make into the big leagues and had fallen short. They wanted a boss that had been there and done that. They wanted someone to look up to, in other words. Results are everything in football, though, and history means nothing in the final calculation. If nothing else, I would win the respect of my players if we were successful. If I just stuck at it, I would win them over.
Results became something of a rollercoaster in the run up to Christmas. We would lose twice in a row, playing badly. Then, we would win a draw a game. I’d think we were turning a corner, and we’d go on another 2–3 game losing streak. We just couldn’t get any momentum going. We slid down the table, and morale was palpably bad.
I talked to the players individually. Superficially, I seemed to be getting through to them. Or maybe they were just going through the motions. Nodding when they were supposed to nod and saying “Yes boss” because it was expected. I held a team meeting and this seemed to elicit a positive response from the whole squad, but that didn’t translate to any tangible results. All the time, my assistant was whispering in my ear, “They don’t respect you. They don’t trust you. They don’t know who you are. Who are you?” Over and over my exhortations in the dressing room were met with silence and on the pitch every fragile piece of carefully nurtured confidence was shattered by defeat after defeat.
My job was still safe. The situation was still salvageable. I just couldn’t see how to turn it around. As a manager of a football club, all you have is words. If your players aren’t listening to you, there is no hope. New Year, new start, though: I called a team meeting in the first week of January. It was a last-ditch effort to get everyone playing with some confidence. I tried to be encouraging. “Look,” I said, “I know we’ve had some bad results of late, but I really think we can turn this around. I know you have the talent and the ability to win games and take this football club to the top. Where it belongs.” I turned to Stuart Lake then. The man I had chosen to be club captain. The man I had picked to be the bridge between management and playing staff. This was his chance to chime in with something to motivate the other players.
“Oh great,” said Lake, his voice loaded with sarcasm, “Another team meeting.”
That was it. It was over. They were all against me now. The players never wanted to play for me. Now my captain was openly showing contempt for me in front of the entire squad. If we were close to the end of the season I could have maybe held on until the summer break and sacked the lot of them. I could maybe have rebuilt from the ground up with my players: people that would play for me. With months to go, however, I’d probably be sacked when the bad results continued.
As for my ever-helpful assistant, I wonder about him. I wonder how much of his whispered advice was just part of his own plan to undermine me. Maybe he hoped to get his chance at my job somewhere down the road? Maybe I’m being paranoid. It’s difficult not to feel aggrieved, though, when the people you appointed turn against you.
I took the only option available to me. I resigned immediately.