The reality for every manager is that you will get sacked at some point in your career, but that does not stop you feeling sorry for colleagues when you see it happen to them. You learn very quickly that it is starkly different to life as a player: a run of sub-par performances on the pitch might see you dropped to the bench, but if you’re the guy in the technical area then every bad period of results ramps up that feeling of uncertainty.
It has been a brutal spell for some managers in the Premier League recently, culminating in Ole Gunnar Solskjær’s departure from Manchester United, and that gives you food for thought. You look at your own situation when you see others losing their jobs: you realise you are fortunate but also understand how quickly that can change.
I definitely don’t want to experience too many more board meetings like the one at Hereford when, nine or 10 games into this season, we had only won once. You have to sit there and take the heat a little bit, because you are not getting the results and these are the people you answer to. While I might know where we’re going, the structure I’m trying to implement and the issues we will have to overcome in getting there, it’s not me doing the hiring and firing. The hope is that your board and chairman have belief in your vision: fortunately mine do and, given we have won our last four league games without conceding, I feel thankful that we have all been on the same page.
Sometimes you look at managers higher up the divisions, such as Steve Bruce when he left Newcastle, and feel so sorry for them. The level of expectation, and the pelters they get when people perceive they are falling short, is on a different scale altogether even if the basic pressure of getting results is relatable. It isn’t enough just to be a football coach when you’re managing at the top: you need to be marketable, a good speaker and also have a rhino hide to deal with the scrutiny.
Managing at National League level has its particular stresses and strains, particularly as a 37-year-old in his first job. Fewer people are watching my every move, but the real-world pressures are greater. There will be no huge pay-off if Hereford decide we should part ways; I would have to go and find another way to provide for my family, with no guarantees that football would offer a new challenge straight away. I’ve seen other managers, including friends of mine, suffer in exactly that way. By contrast, if you lose your job in the Premier League, the worst-case scenario is that you’ll have to look down a division or two.
The margin for error is slim in our division and, if things are going badly, you rarely have resources to bring in four or five players. You live or die by your summer recruitment: these are the guys you will need to get a tune out of in order to turn things around, otherwise you risk being shown the door.
As a player, you know when your manager is under pressure. The rumours start going around but you also pick up the signs. Sometimes you won’t see it in a manager’s demeanour, but in his tactics and selection. Everything might go out of the window – the gameplan, the messages to the players, the teams they pick – and they become a bit like a rabbit in the headlights. One thing I sensed at Manchester United in recent weeks was that the setup seemed to be a bit lost. The team have to do their bit and rally round too. I raise my eyebrows when I see players tweeting their thanks to a departing manager even though it’s been clear they didn’t give him everything they had.
I was certainly never the type to down tools during my playing career but there’s no doubt that, when you have a really good bond with a particular manager, you want to work extra hard to make sure he keeps his job. I’ve also been in dressing rooms where, make no mistake, many of the players won’t run through a brick wall to ensure the manager survives. Some of the guys might even be happy when the going gets tough, but that’s part of the job and I doubt it’s much different at any club in the country.
The reality is that you can’t keep your entire squad happy all the time. I doubt I’m everybody at Hereford’s favourite person, because you can only pick 11 players to start each game. But you can help your cause by winning and we have put ourselves in a position where a play‑off push should be in our sights. We were playing good football throughout our sticky patch and the fans stayed with us, which made life much easier. The solidarity from friends within the game when the wins started coming was fantastic too: it means a lot to receive supportive messages from people who know exactly what you are going through.
Introspection goes with the territory, though. When we’re not winning I go into a bit of a hole and tend not to sleep well; you then push yourself, and your staff, even harder to find ways out of the situation. If you can’t do that then you are likely to be on your way out: the bell will toll for everybody at some point, but that is the bargain anyone embarking upon a career in management has to accept.