“I was fortunate enough that I managed to get a management role fairly early.” The accidental football manager is not talking sporting jobs. Decades ago, he had a post that acquainted him with routes; just not, generally, to the helm of Championship clubs or a touchline date with Pep Guardiola this week.
“I had a fantastic 19 years with the Royal Mail,” says Frankie McAvoy, now head coach of Preston. By his own admission, his reinvention has come as a happy surprise. “I thought I would always be in Royal Mail,” added the Scot. Not since Alan Johnson went from postman to home secretary, perhaps, has a career in the postal service taken such a left-field turn.
McAvoy hails from Bellshill, the Lanarkshire town that produced one of the managerial greats. “I lived beside the Matt Busby Centre and went to school right beside it as well,” he says. The similarities may end there: Busby was appointed by Manchester United at 35, whereas at that age McAvoy was still on the books of the Royal Mail.
He may be the lowest-profile manager appointed by a Premier League or Championship club for years. He does not object to characterisations as the unknown football manager. He lacked a Wikipedia entry, a status symbol of even the least famous, when he took caretaker charge of a relegation-threatened team in March. Eight games, five wins and 17 points later and a man who has never applied for a manager’s job – in football, anyway – was given the position on a permanent basis.
“I have always been in the background,” says Alex Neil’s long-term assistant at Hamilton, Norwich and Preston. “Sometimes it is probably the best place to be, to be brutally honest. I had no aspirations whatsoever to be a manager or a head coach. I felt I was best suited as a No 2, somebody that can advise and assist and help.”
North End were not the first to spot his managerial potential. “I started as a postal cadet, one of the first the Royal Mail brought in,” says the 54-year-old. “I became an operations manager and then a planning manager, which was really, really good. That helps you coming into football because a lot of people are always in football but I had a good background in organising. The training scheme was about teamwork.”
He started coaching his young sons, Declan and Dean, working with age groups from the under-sixes, but never with a change of career in mind. His first experience of Scottish Football Association coaching courses, when many of his peers were former players, showed the benefits of his line of work. “When we had to put session plans in place, it was probably a lot easier for me than for guys coming from playing football that probably hadn’t seen a computer before,” he explains. “When I was at Royal Mail, I was using computers way before they came into football.”
A successful season with a youth team featuring the sons of the former professionals Jock McStay and Pierce O’Leary brought him to the attention of Bobby Jenks, the talent spotter who later urged Aston Villa to sign John McGinn. A part-time role at Dunfermline beckoned, then Hamilton. There he managed a teenaged James McCarthy. The captain was Neil – “One of the most tactically gifted guys I have seen; I knew right away he would be a good manager,” – and McAvoy was offered a post in charge of the academy. “I wasn’t sure if going into football was the right thing to do but sometimes you take a risk,” he says.
It paid off. It was “surreal” to spend a season in the Premier League after Norwich’s 2015 promotion. It was still unexpected when Neil rang to say he expected Preston to ask his sidekick to take charge after his own sacking. “It put me right back to when I was leaving Royal Mail; it was at the stage of: ‘Do I do it?’. I said: ‘What’s the worst that can happen to me? The worst is that I don’t do well and I have got to move on. If you don’t take that job, you never know what will transpire.’” It went sufficiently well, with McAvoy proving tactically flexible and inventive, that North End ignored more than 70 applications to make an internal appointment.
But for Covid cases at Manchester United, forcing the postponement of Saturday’s friendly at Deepdale, McAvoy would have faced two of Busby’s former clubs this week. He can savour the game that went ahead. He was a rarity in Bellshill. “I always liked Manchester City instead of Manchester United,” he says. It was the product of a school trip to Maine Road, where he met Joe Royle and Tommy Caton. The modern-day City beat Preston 2-0 on Tuesday. Guardiola was nonetheless “extremely complimentary; it was a great education”.
Now for a season that involves planning for an operation he had never envisaged. “It is a great unknown,” McAvoy says. “You can’t see your future. Everybody would love to write a book but there are some pages of that book that you’ll never know what is there. It is intriguing.”