Simon Davey: 'It's one day. Next year we could be at Doncaster'

Mixing pragmatism with inspiration and innovation, Davey has guided Barnsley to Wembley. He tells Ian Herbert how a life spent scrapping for every penny and every point has taught him not to get carried away
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If there was ever a reason to celebrate the magic of the FA Cup, it resides in Simon Davey's willingness to sit down on a piece of concrete on a Thursday afternoon and talk for half an hour about what it will mean to him to walk out at Wembley.

Had Manchester United, Arsenal, Liverpool or Chelsea made it to the semi-finals, you would now be reading the product of a sanitised press conference in an air-conditioned room, provided by any one of four managers who between them have not the slightest idea about what it means to toil, to despair and to come up short in the English leagues. A player might have been put forward to talk – but probably not a Rooney, not a Ronaldo. There would not be much romance.

As footballers go, Davey could never hold a candle to such superstars, nor even – he admits – to his own Barnsley players, who face Cardiff at Wembley tomorrow. "They are better than I ever was," he says. Davey was a journeyman who never made it out of the bottom two leagues and, if a sense was really needed of the gulf which exists between him and the millionaires of the modern game, then it is provided by the story of his encounter with David Beckham, that star of the international footballing soap opera, on a Saturday afternoon in Preston in March 1995.

Beckham, then 19, had pitched up on loan from Manchester United. Davey, 23 and the subject of a recent £125,000 transfer from Carlisle, could hardly believe his luck. He had only made it to Brunton Park after writing a letter to all the other 91 League clubs, pleading for a trial, after Swansea, his hometown team, had released him. Just 10 clubs bothered with a reply and only Carlisle offered the trial.

So Beckham and Davey's paths later crossed at Preston where, in their second game together, a free-kick was awarded on the edge of the Fulham box. Davey took them for Carlisle – "I just used to smash them," he recalls from his seat on the doorstep of Barnsley's main stand, beneath a plaque commemorating "promotion to the Third Division, 1967-68" – but Beckham asked if he might have a go instead. When the other guy is on loan from Old Trafford, you tend to demur. Beckham's kick went into the top corner and his career went into the stratosphere while Davey meandered around on a road to nowhere.

"I just shook his hand after he scored. At least I had the No 7 shirt, Tom Finney's shirt. I think he was a bit distraught about that," says Davey, who played as a Preston forward for four more years before moving into coaching, and out of it again, before finding a route into management 17 months ago, after an offer from Barnsley – the epitome of those clubs who, like Bradford and Swindon, have found that a year or two playing the Uniteds and the Arsenals brings years of struggle afterwards.

Life has not been a bed of roses. There was a fight against relegation last season and even as Liverpool and Chelsea were being cast aside in the Cup, a descent into more of the same this time round. But the famous old trophy has, as only it can, defied all the footballing odds and put Barnsley in sight of their first FA Cup final since Arthur Fairclough lifted the trophy 96 years ago. Davey – as any of his players will tell you and as the talk on the doorstep reveals – is the undoubted inspiration.

A parable of perseverance his story might be, but the Barnsley manager seemed set for a higher plane on the day in 1987 when he learnt he was about to play in a Football League match. He was a Swansea City Under-16s player, sitting through an O Level maths class at Olchfa Comprehensive, when the school secretary put her head around the door and said the headmaster wanted to see him. "I thought: 'Oh no, here we go again,' but when I got to the office my mum and dad weren't there so I thought I'd be all right," he says.

Terry Yorath, the Swansea manager, had called to ask if Davey could be allowed the afternoon off in order to play that night. Davey arrived in his school uniform – "I was told to report in shirt and tie but the only one I had was my school tie" – and wasn't paid a penny for his substitute appearance at the Vetch against Torquay United. The next night he was back playing for the school team.

His full first-team debut followed the next season, when he managed to miss a penalty in a 3-1 win against Scarborough, having being offered the kick, which he had won, by the usual taker, Alan Davies. If Davies' gesture was a reversal of Davey's experience on a Preston field with Beckham eight years later, then it was also the start of a memorable relationship with the seasoned striker, who helped him through the dressing room cliques to find his way in football. "Alan would give me a lift and always say, 'If you're short of any money, let me know'," Davey recalls.

How poignant that Davies – a man whose personal tragedy epitomises the narrow line between triumph and disaster in football – should have been the one to shepherd Davey through those early days at the Vetch. Five years later, desperate at finding his career at Swansea ebbing away, Davies spent an evening watching videos of his Manchester United days, kissed his pregnant wife goodbye and left to take his own life.

Davey's Vetch Field days were short-lived. He had played three or four games a season for a couple years when he was released, soon after a back operation. There was no agent to help him on his way and the recent surgery did not help his case, so letters to all the clubs it had to be. "It was more out of necessity than determination," he says. When Carlisle offered a two-year contract on the back of a one-week trial he jumped at the chance, even if it meant 700-mile round trips back home, starting straight after matches with his girlfriend (now wife) Emma, a Swansea girl.

Success at Carlisle included being given the captaincy at the age of 21 by an incoming manager, David McCreery, a 35-yard free-kick against Shrewsbury which some fans rate as one of the club's greatest goals and, ultimately, the move to Preston, who won their league in his first season. But the struggles resumed when Davey damaged his back again, using a medicine ball in training and, aged 27, learnt that his career was over. David Moyes, Preston's manager, provided a lifeline, offering him a coaching role and ultimately leadership of the club's youth academy.

Moyes, with his assiduous preparation of his Everton team, is now a role model for Davey, as well as a firm friend. The two managers live a mile apart and Emma Davey and Moyes' wife, Pamela, are also close.

"I try to model myself on the way he prepares for games," Davey says. "You can't give players any excuses to come back at you and say, 'I didn't know that.' That was what David was first-class at."

As far removed as he appears to be from the big names in management, Davey appreciates that he shares something with Arsène Wenger, Rafael Benitez, Gérard Houllier and others. All have coached from an early age, having failed to cover themselves in glory as players.

"There are two ways of looking at never getting to the top as a player," he says. "Your ambition at the start, as a professional player, is to get to the top. But if you can't get there either through injury, technical or physiological reasons, you then thrust yourself into a coaching role. I got a head start on players I played with at my age, [who were] playing until they were 33 [and are] only now picking up their coaching badges."

His determination to succeed where he had not done so as a player saw him take a major gamble three years ago. With his Preston career seemingly heading nowhere, he packed in at Deepdale, froze his mortgage for six months and set off to study sports management systems in Metz, in France, and Connecticut and New York. Emma and their children – twins Sophie and Jordan, 11, and 13-year-old Chloe – stayed behind.

"It was a hard struggle for a year," Davey says. "I signed on the dole and we had to scrimp and save. But I [was able to] look at basketball and American football, how they did their fitness training regimes and curriculums so that if I did get another job, perhaps I could introduce some of these ideas." That chance came soon enough. Four months before his travelling was completed, Barnsley's academy director job came up. He was recommended and three months later, after Andy Ritchie was sacked as manager, Davey was asked to step up.

The gamble of going a year without a salary has worked, he says. "As a young manager you have to be open-minded. I don't want to be an old-school manager where it's five-a-side every day in training. I've learnt you have to use your imagination. You go to America and they're years ahead of us in psychologists and mind coaches and changes in their training methods."

Davey's players certainly speak with conviction about the manager they have found. The full-back Rob Kozluk draws a comparison between Davey and the Neil Warnock regime he played under at Sheffield United. "At Sheffield Stuart McCall and Kevin Blackwell ... did all the coaching, while [Neil] was very good at man-management," he says. "Simon does both. When he walks on the training field I say, 'Excuse me, you've lost your dog,' because he looks like a fan in his tracksuit. But it gets everyone going."

Of course, there is no certainty that Davey's efforts will have kept him in work by this time next year. Only goal difference keeps Barnsley out of the Championship relegation zone, which is why an FA Cup final, ludicrous though it sounds to say so, is not his priority.

"Secretly, the players would probably say they want an FA Cup winner's medal on their CV," he says. "But no matter what people say it's a one-day occasion at Wembley and next year I could be going to Doncaster and Bristol Rovers, when I'm sure my supporters would rather be going to Southampton or West Brom."

With that, he leaps from the step and is gone. Whatever tomorrow's outcome he has, by restoring some of the game's more fundamental values, made football the winner.