Shaun Derry had no managerial experience whatsoever when he picked up the phone at the end of October last year and rang Jim Rodwell, Notts County’s chief executive, to say he was the man to save his hometown club.
Some might have thought Derry was on a hiding to nothing when he ended up replacing Chris Kiwomya in charge of a team bottom of League One and a dressing room where two players turned up late for training on his very first day. Fortunately, the rookie manager knew exactly what was needed from his experience of relegation from the Premier League with Queen’s Park Rangers just months earlier.
“If you go down, you go down fighting and we never went down fighting that year,” the 36-year-old tells The Independent on a sunny lunchtime at the club’s Arnold Town training base. “There was friction in the dressing room and factions. That was similar to when I walked in here.
“I had my own thoughts on how I would combat that at QPR and I backed myself to implement them as a manager and did just that. I absolutely expected people to arrive on time, I absolutely expected people to train like they should train. Training today was an hour and a half but everybody came off having given their all – they don’t leave anything on the training field here.”
It is an approach that has paid dividends. Derry kept County up on the final day last season and today, approaching the first anniversary of his appointment on 6 November, they sit fifth in League One on the back of four straight wins.
Derry may be a highly regarded young manager, but his success is a triumph of old-school values. This is evident not just from the unfashionable black boots he is wearing – which he had to find online – but from his reflection that his biggest surprise back at the club where he started out more than 20 year ago has been the easy life today’s apprentices enjoy. “I remember my time as a YTS. I used to take players’ boots home and clean them in my mum’s sink. The actual bread and butter of the game is quickly going and it’s a shame.”
To restore some of these lost values, Derry overhauled his squad in the summer, releasing 17 players and recruiting 14 – among them, a handful of thirtysomethings: Roy Carroll, Hayden Mullins, Alan Smith, Gary Jones and Garry Thompson. Derry has strong views on “ageism in the game” and cites his own example – he was still playing on loan at Millwall when he got the Notts job – as he hails this old guard’s impact. “People say, ‘Oh, he’s old’, and I don’t understand it. I played my best football from 33 through to 35. I knew they were still on form and could deliver something to the group. More importantly, I knew they could step into that changing room with the honesty and integrity they’ve always had and bring a feel-good factor.”
If these are all “men”, in the old-fashioned sense, so too are the managers he turns to for advice – Neil Warnock (his boss at Notts, Sheffield United, Crystal Palace and QPR), Harry Redknapp and Tony Pulis, who are all “there at the end of the phone”. A call to Redknapp led to a loan deal for Michael Petrasso – who scored twice as Notts overturned a two-goal deficit to win at Barnsley on Tuesday – and another profitable relationship for Derry is with Stuart Pearce at neighbours Nottingham Forest, who have loaned him Louis Laing and Stephen McLaughlin.
Yet his most important relationship is with his wisecracking No 2 Greg Abbott, the former Carlisle manager. The pair share a house, and Derry says: “My best signing for as long as I am a manager will be Greg Abbott. We put a lot of hours in. We are here until eight at night and when we’re not, we are in the house. It is all about football. When I go home and am back with my kids, I try and be a dad and a husband but I’d be lying if I said football was not constantly on my mind.”
He hung up his boots as management is “so time-consuming” and even with his own Nottingham-based parents there is no escape. After all, his father, John, is a Meadow Lane regular and used to ring to complain about previous managers. “He still has his say [but] I have helped him understand what it is like from a different angle.” And it is an undoubted source of pride that Derry Sr has seen his favourites transformed. “What has been achieved this last year, no one can ever take it away. I could progress and be a better manager, and I would love that absolutely, but if it all goes wrong, no one could ever take this experience away.”Reuse content