Tim Flowers laughs heartily as Matt Elliott's husky London brogue relates a story about when he made his debut for Scotland. A reporter had set him a trap in the form of a mini-quiz about his adopted country, promising that he would feed him the answer about the Battle of Bannockburn, though he was on his own when it came to questions on bagpipes and haggis.
Their smiles light up the spartan manager's office at Stafford Rangers, where Flowers, a former England goalkeeper and Premier League winner with Blackburn, plots to revive the fallen giants of non-League football with Elliott, his assistant and one-time Leicester colleague. The duo finally achieved their first win in midweek, thumping Market Drayton 4-1 in a county cup tie, yet when the talk turns to stopping the sequence of losses that has led their new club into the Blue Square North relegation zone, it is clear this particular battle is no laughing matter.
During the 1970s, Stafford visited Wembley three times, winning the FA Trophy twice, as well as vying with Wigan for the Northern Premier League title. One year they took three League scalps in the FA Cup before losing to Peterborough before 31,000 at Stoke.
Today, according to Flowers, "we can't score and we gift goals of alarming simplicity", while last week's home defeat by Workington was watched by 353 diehards, down from 600 for their first game. For a duo who went to the 1998 World Cup (Elliott even strode across Parc des Princes in a kilt), relegation to the Evo-Stik League is a possibility.
They are not the first budding managers to start at the bottom. Martin O'Neill, who they both served at Leicester and admire greatly, got his break at Grantham, Brian Clough and Peter Taylor with Hartlepools and Sir Alex Ferguson at East Stirlingshire. Whether that illustrious band operated on a budget as tight as Stafford's – reputedly £2,000 a week – is unlikely. None, certainly, ever had to put up with text messages from players crying off midweek training.
"I can't get my head round people texting to say 'my car's broken down', or 'I've got to pick up the kids'," explains Flowers, who is also the goalkeeping coach to Northampton after working as No 2 to Iain Dowie at Coventry, Queens Park Rangers and Hull. The excuses may be genuine, but he and Elliott regard them as symptomatic of a culture they must change.
"We need men," Flowers, 43, states bluntly. "When I was in the League and we played part-time teams in cup football or friendlies, they were always massive, aggressive guys who got in your faces. Now they all seem fairly small. The biggest side we've seen is Alfreton, and they're running away with our league. I want us to be a big, tall, strong, physical team too. At Leicester there was Matt, Stevie Walsh, Gerry Taggart and Emile Heskey. I bet people looked at us in the tunnel and thought 'Bloody hell, look at the size of them, they're monsters'.
"I'm not advocating brutality – that would get me into trouble – but I'd like to see a bit of manliness. I want the lads to man up a little."
The search is on for one or more "growlers" who will bark at other people and they do not have to be giants. "Leadership is about more than just being 6ft 3in. I want someone to snap into a few tackles and get the others at it. When we lost at Vauxhall Motorsit was so quiet you could've heard a dormouse trot across the pitch. No one says anything."
Elliott, he argues, could do the role "blind-folded", but the former centre-back is 42 and quit active service six years ago. Andy Morrison, a now-retired Blackburn colleague, epitomises the type of "horrible geezer" they covet. Players who would improve the team they inherited in October have been identified but Stafford cannot match the money offered by clubs lower in the pyramid. Flowers pictures potential targets studying the league table, noting their position and ruling them out.
It would be wrong, though, to assume the frustrations have weakened his determination to succeed. He insists he remains calm, even if his "head went completely" at half-time in recent losses to Vauxhall and Workington. "I don't want to turn into one of those Mike Bassett characters, ranting every week, because in the end people won't listen to you.
"I want the lads here to feel the same desire as me and Matt; to be able to say to other teams, 'To beat us, you'll have to give everything you've got'. I'm not looking for miracles, just 100 per cent effort. As a player I had to be scraped off the training pitch. It meant the world to me and I gave it everything. If we do that and come up short I've no quarrel with that. Clubs having more money doesn't guarantee they'll run harder or tackle more fiercely. I'd like to bring in a few honey players, guys who can butter your bread, but you have to be competitive to attract them."
From horrible geezers to honey players via tales of unmanly texting; this is the world of the would-be Clough and Taylor. It may not be the Premier League, but for Flowers, losing to Gloucester or Blyth brings "the same dead feeling" as defeat by Manchester United or Arsenal.
"But we've got local rivals Telford twice over Christmas. Alfreton, too," he says, his natural optimism kicking in. "They're not unbeatable. You can get carried away and start thinking as if you're playing Barcelona."Reuse content