Making do: A day in the life of a lower league manager
At League One strugglers Walsall, winning matches is just one of new boss Dean Smith's worries. Glenn Moore watched him work
Saturday 12 February 2011
Towards the end of a day shadowing Dean Smith, the manager of Walsall, I mention Paul Simpson, his Stockport County counterpart who painted the dressing rooms last summer while his wife scrubbed the toilets.
"I did that when assistant manager at Orient," recalls Smith with a rueful smile. Slapping on the emulsion did not save Simpson, he was fired last month. It did not save Smith either. He was sacked with the manager, Martin Ling, in January 2009.
Two years later he was offered a return to management when Walsall, bottom of League One, fired Chris Hutchings. Smith, who was running the youth development programme, was asked to step into the breach. When the team showed signs of life he was told the job is his until the end of the season. The good news is he has not had to get the paintbrush out, Walsall have decent facilities for a club of modest resources. However, multi-tasking remains de rigueur.
8.15am: Catch up with the admin
Smith arrives at Walsall's neat training ground just north of the town. Married with two school-age children he is lucky in that he lives half-an-hour away. Managers, aware they have limited job security, are loath to keep moving house and often live apart from their families – in the most extreme case Nottingham Forest boss Billy Davies's family are in Glasgow.
We are joined by Jon Whitney who Smith has promoted from physio to assistant manager. Smith's other coaching staff are part-time. Former Southampton manager Chris Nicholl, who Smith played under at Walsall 17 years ago, is an adviser. The goalkeeping coach, former Republic of Ireland international Mick Kearns, doubles up as community director. And that is it. It is not quite the army of assistants enjoyed by the likes of Harry Redknapp. "We've been thinking about having a staff five-a-side team," said Smith, "but I'm not sure we have enough bodies."
As in many offices, the first topic of debate over a cup of instant coffee is what they did the previous night. It wasn't very exciting. Smith went to watch Rochdale v Bristol Rovers, Whitney was at Port Vale reserves v Nottingham Forest reserves. Walsall's scouting network consists of Smith and Whitney, and two part-timers who assess future opponents.
While Smith went to Rochdale because Walsall play them in a fortnight, most games are watched with a view to potential signings. "Recruitment is the most important part of being a football manager," says Smith. "I was very conscious the first player I brought in was going to affect how I was perceived as a manager, my eye for a player. I had to get it right. It means a lot of travelling. Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday I'm often at games, but the hours aren't any longer than in the previous job as I was at our centre of excellence most nights." The first signing was Matt Gill, on loan from Norwich. "He's been good for us, so the judgement has been good so far. Long may it continue," adds Smith.
The discussion is interrupted by Dan Mole, Walsall's surprisingly young secretary. It is National Apprentice Week and Walsall are doing their bit providing apprentices and players who came through the system for interview. Mole wants to know exactly what qualifications they receive. Smith opens his laptop and goes on the web to find out.
9.45am: Facing the media
Walsall time their press conferences to avoid clashing with the many bigger sides in the region to help reporters attend. Smith handles the half-dozen present with aplomb, deflecting praise onto the team and neatly avoiding the curveball: "Having been caretaker yourself what advice can you offer Michael Appleton?" Smith replies that the new man at nearby West Bromwich does not need tips from him. The last task is an interview with the in-house web TV; Mole, who doubles up as press officer, operates the camera.
Back in the office we are joined by Nicholl. His legendary 40-yard 1977 League Cup-winning goal for Aston Villa is mentioned and Smith pulls it up on YouTube. The office is neat, but spartan. On the wall there are fixture lists, squad details and timetables but he has not had time to personalise it. Files still bear the names of his predecessor on their spine. Through the window behind him Whitney is laying out an array of coaching aids, cones, mannequins and hurdles ready for training. Smith explains: "We're giving them a fun session today. Yesterday we worked them into the ground, so today's going to be light. With the reserves playing we don't have that many players in." On his laptop he calls up one of hundreds of coaching sessions he has collected over the years and makes a few notes.
10:30am: Taking training
We go outside and watch Whitney lead the dozen players through a series of mini-games, all of which rely on, and hone, ball control. Fun, with a point. Smith then carts a couple of mannequins over to a pitch and adds the goalkeepers for a finishing exercise. The session ends, as all sessions tend to, from park teams to the elite, with a small-sided game. It is noticeable that Jimmy Walker, the veteran goalkeeper who has fought his way back into the team, is the most vocal presence. Young-ish struggling teams need organisers and personalities to climb the table.
And that is what Walsall have done. Two defeats in Smith's eight games, with seven points from the last nine, have hauled Walsall off the bottom. An escape is now a possibility, which should ensure Smith gets the job permanently.
On reflection, "permanently" is an exaggeration. The average tenure for a League One manager is less than 19 months. Smith is Walsall's eighth manager in 10 years which suggests he will be lucky to get that long. As a first-time manager Smith will then have a 50-50 chance of getting a second opportunity.
Smith knows the statistics, and the human cost. On Monday night he had been on the phone to former Orient team-mate Andy Scott, fired by Brentford after the first bad run in three years. Smith recognises he has swapped a relatively secure job – by football standards – for a precarious one. The difference is underlined at the Banks's Stadium. The nameplate on his old office reads: "Dean Smith. Head of Youth Development". On his new one it simply reads: "Manager". At least it is not a chalkboard, with a wet sponge attached.
Did he hesitate? "I had no second thoughts as I was the only coach who could take the lads for the next match. We played Saturday and Tuesday, then I started thinking, "is it for me or not?" I think the response from the lads told me, and I enjoyed it. That decided me.
"I'm a bit of a dreamer who thinks maybe I could be the next Dario Gradi and build this into a bit of a Crewe. I suppose there are a lot of us like that. One of the things I thought about was these opportunities don't come around that often."
Indeed, having done all his badges, including the £7,000-a-head Uefa Pro Licence, Smith, like many of his peers, had been frustrated at seeing better-known but less qualified ex-players walking into jobs.
The generally healthy lunch – lots of protein and fruit, though the sugary apple pie might not pass a dietician's test – is subsidised by the players paying into a weekly kitty. As we eat I am compelled to ask Whitney if it is true that he was a gravedigger, or is it one of those mischievous additions that can creep into Wikipedia? It is true. After injury brought his playing career to a premature end, and before he took his physiotherapy degree, he worked for his father-in-law's undertaking business. An effervescent personality, perfect for a manager's No 2, Whitney did the lot, from embalming to digging graves. He found he quite enjoyed it, but missed football. It is the perfect lunch conversation.
1.15pm: Watching the stiffs
Smith goes off to watch the first half of West Bromwich's reserve-team match with West Ham. As the match is behind closed doors it is decided not to risk trying to sneak myself and the photographer in, so we drive down the M6 to watch Walsall's second string (manager: J Whitney) lose to an experienced Derby team. Smith joins us in time for kick-off and his lack of staff is thrown into sharp relief by the numbers accompanying Derby, including Nigel Clough and his first-team coaches, who share a box with Smith to watch.
After the game Smith is joined in his office by his former boss, Ling, who has just been fired by Cambridge United. "You think Walsall lacks resources? You should have seen us," he says. Ling has been attending a League Managers' Association seminar on youth development at West Bromwich. "I walked in and said, 'is this the out-of-work club?' Everyone was there."
A discussion ensues on youth development – there are grave suspicions about how the Premier League's forthcoming plans will affect smaller clubs. Then it is time to leave. Smith stands on a chair to turn off the lights – the string on the pull switch is broken and this is the only way to reach it.
5.30pm: Lights out
Whitney heads off to watch Wales under-21s at Wrexham. Ling asks Smith if he wants to go to Luton to see the England semi-professional side. "We can't afford them," said Smith, "and anyway, my wife's out tonight so we have to stay in and mind the kids."
On the horizon is today's match against promotion-chasing Bournemouth, but for the moment a rare night's relaxation – a couple of beers and a take-out curry in front of England v Denmark – beckons.
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