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Lessons From The Ladder

Following Tom Williams’ successful series of interviews with key figures in the lower leagues, AnalystsBar are looking to share these powerful insights across a series of blogs called ‘Lessons from the Ladder. Below is our first piece, Getting on the Ladder:


At the lower levels of English football, change and innovation can feel threatening. Tradition often casts a long shadow at these football clubs, particularly when you have little else of obvious value, and the echoes of past glories still reverberate through every stadium. So stepping into the job of manager at one of these clubs (probably part-time, possibly without a playing career behind you) with dreams of making a definable difference is a daunting challenge. But it is a step many have to take to get a foothold on the footballing ladder.


In this blog we confront the narrative that success in football management is reserved solely for those who have had a glittering professional career. We delve into the experiences of individuals who have defied convention, challenging the belief that on-field prowess is a prerequisite for success in the dugout and how life in the lower leagues can equip them for future success. We also look at the challenges facing those who have played professionally and show that getting on to the ladder is anything but simple, even with a good career behind you.


Ebbsfleet’s Danny Searle met Tom before his appointment as interim manager in February 2024 and shared his journey in the game, one that has taken him from youth coaching at Chelsea, Charlton and West Ham but as far afield as Banik Ostrava in the Czech Republic without a professional career behind him:


“It's not a boasting or gloating thing, I think that I've worked really hard to get where I've got to. And all the coaches and managers out there that didn't have playing careers will tell you, it's a different journey for us. We have to work harder, I'd say, than a lot of the others because we have to prove ourselves. We have to earn respect, particularly in the dressing room. So I do take great pride in it. And I think that if I can keep going on the trajectory that I am, then hopefully I can get to where I want to get to”. 

Someone else who understands the struggle of getting to where you want to go without having played professionally and the determination required to succeed is former Wealdstone manager Stuart Maynard, speaking to Tom before he went on to manage Notts County in League Two. He shared how his unshakeable belief was something that he relied on during his journey: 


I just see it as an ambition, as with everyone at this level, you always want to strive to improve, to try and be the best you can and give your best. I believe that it's something, me and Matty, we do believe in. In the future we do want to go managing in the EFL and see where the journey takes us, and that's kind of where we're at”. 


But even if you have had a good career in the game, it is no guarantee of success. Jordan Keane, described as a “legend” by Stockport County fans following his role in their return to the Football League, describes how he is finding his early steps into coaching and management:


“I think I've always known I've wanted to coach and manage. I couldn't put a date on it. Just driving in to training as a player, I’m trying to think about how I am going to get to the next level. I’ve thought about coaching for the last few years now, ever since I joined Stockport, working under managers and trying to read why and how coaches are doing things. And I've done it from an early age. Speaking to a few people, they were saying, “Oh, you sound like you want to be a coach” and stuff like that. I definitely take ideas, write them down and think how to do things and how we've done things in the past. And sometimes it might just be completely off the cuff, I'm looking and think, “I'll use that” and I'll use it with the kids I’m coaching that week”. 


The importance of working alongside others who share your footballing beliefs and can challenge you is something that Stuart Maynard understands very well, having worked closely with Matthew Saunders at both Wealdstone and Notts County:  


“I think when I first came into management, we kind of came into it jointly and we kind of did it jointly together. I'm not one of those people who say “I'm the manager and that is it”. It's the whole team. It's everyone, it’s your goalie coach, to your physio, to your S&C coach, it's to your first team coach. Everyone has such a key role to play, there's no physical way that you can sit here and say “I'm the manager. I make all the big decisions”. It's not for me, it doesn't work like that. Me and Matty are constantly on the phone together, talking about shapes, tactics, who are up against, players that we're watching. I always believe that Matty had that football brain that thought similar to the way that I thought. We brought him to Wealdstone with us eventually as a player and then he came into the coaching staff. And you just knew, like... he's one of the best. He's one of the best coaches and his football knowledge is right up there. I rate him highly and that's why we're in it together. We work together well, I don't see it as I'm the manager and he's the assistant. I look at it as, we do it together and we get the results that we get because we bounce off of each other and that's what you need”

Jordan Keane doesn’t need to look far for support in his coaching career, either. Father-in-law Gary Bowyer, former manager of Blackburn, Blackpool, Bradford and most recently a Scottish Championship winner with Dundee, is always on hand for advice: 


“I've always picked his brains and vice versa. I tap into him a little bit and see how he does it, how he copes - he knows a lot about management”. 


But Keane is also quick to praise his other role models and the influence they have had on him as he tries to make his way on the coaching ladder: 


“When I signed for Stockport, Jim Gannon was my manager at the time. When you're younger, you play for yourself a little bit. When I got to that level it was a case of, right, it's time to learn and it was more tactics, it was a game plan, it was shape. His attention to detail was massive. And then we went and won the league that first year. More often than not, he was right. Again, it was his attention to details, like throw-ins. How to throw it, where to bounce it back. And, at the time, you're thinking at 23 or 24 years old, “it's just a throw -in”, but it's not. And then you soon realise, a throw -in is an actual pass, a throw -in is an opportunity to go forward, an opportunity to create a chance, and the percentages of how you win a game. Crosses. Again, it wasn't just a cross, it's how you cross it? Where do you cross it? Percentages of when you cross it low. Do you get a corner? Do you then get a chance to score? It was intense and we were part-time as well at the time. So Jim I'd say was my first one where I thought, wow, there's levels to management, there's levels to coaching. He was my first insight into a top manager”.

 

Like Keane, Danny Searle used his early footballing experiences in youth coaching to inspire his journey up the footballing ladder and into first team management, utilising every experience and observation to inform his future plans: 


“I wanted to work at the top level. I wanted that feeling of getting up on a game day and knowing that it matters. This is going to determine people's weekends, whether they go home happy, whether they go home angry, whether they're writing nice things about you on social media, whether they're writing horrible things about you on social media. All of it depends on this 90 minutes of football. And I wanted that and I was hungry for that. And I don't think that's changed. In fact, I think it's even worse now! I want success. I want to be successful and I'm going to do whatever it takes to get that”.


It is testament to all three interviewees that they practice what they preach. Following interviews with Tom earlier in the year, Searle was offered the interim manager post at Ebbsfleet and used his determination to succeed to help secure survival for them in the National League. Maynard took the Head Coach role at League Two Notts County and, true to his word, brought Matty Saunders alongside him as they continue their journey together. Jordan Keane, while still maintaining his playing career at Halifax, continues to build on his coaching credentials and is making progress towards his UEFA A Licence. 


 

About Analysts Bar

“Finding inspiration in every kick of a ball"


Analysts Bar is a project originally created in 2021 by fellow Notts County supporters Colin Sisson and Richard Ogando who are both heavily involved in data-led football performance analysis and player talent ID.


They are joined by popular Non-League analysts Tom Williams and Joe Payne and it is hoped that between them they will provide additional insight into the world of football tactics, performance analysis and player scouting at lower league level and across the globe.


A common passion for the beautiful game ensures Analysts Bar solutions deliver on every level with a team that find inspiration in every kick of a ball.


Commercial enquiries are welcomed and the Analysts Bar team already boast a number of clubs, players, agents and media outlets as clients, as well as The FA following work undertaken for England C squad selection for two years running.


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