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Cross posted at https://www.fmcheapseats.com/index.php/2021/05/12/from-non-league-to-the-big-leagues/ with images.
Becoming a manager doesn’t just happen, I don't think. It’s the journey of being a player, working your way up through the ranks of youth football, to semi pro then professional. Or like me, you play nothing but semi-pro football because you’re shit.
I was never the best, or good, or semi decent. Basically I got a game as I was the only left footed player, and I played left back for all my semi pro career. Before we get into my career, or lack thereof there are a few things about me you should know.
You’ve picked up my autobiography for one reason or another, but I’m sure you don’t know much about me really. My name is James Robson but everyone calls me Jimmy. I was born in South Shields which is a short drive away from Newcastle Upon Tyne. I always have to say it’s near Newcastle, as whenever I say I’m from Shields to anyone that doesn’t know the area they always say ‘oh where’s that?’ So I always say near Newcastle.
My father is from Calgary, Alberta in Canada. My mam is from DC in America. He was a player, like me, and found his way to England in the late 80’s and was playing for Middlesbrough when I was born in 1990. I’m classed as half English half Canadian but I hold American, Canadian and English passports. Weird that isn’t it.
My parents have since split up, with him moving back to Canada and is still involved in football which you’ll find out about later on in my story. I went to primary school in Shields before going to secondary school, college and uni in Newcastle. The North east is my home and has been all of my life.
During school and uni I got involved in playing local semi pro football. Since making my debut at the age of 17, I played for a number of lower league clubs around the region, not really making much of anything as a player. I had a trial at Spennymoor once, as well as the Spartans up in Blyth but nothing came of either of them. I studied sports science at uni and wanted to become a physio once I graduated. However I didn’t and carried on playing semi pro football, earning a decent, but not a good living.
I love football but I didn’t really support any one team, weird I know. I genuinely like all the clubs in the North East, well apart from Sunderland. I won’t go into specifics just yet, but that is a club I hate hate hate!! Anyway, where was I? Oh yes so in South Shields there’s South Shields FC, a club run in such a great way. They once won 31 games in a row.
I went to a lot of Shields games, as I did their counterpart just over the river in North Shields. I went to as much local football as I could. I had a season ticket at North Shields as I lived in a flat not far from the stadium. It used to be called the Ralph Gardner ground, but has since been renamed Darren Persson Stadium., When I was at uni I went to see a lot of Gateshead, Consett, Newcastle Benfield, Seaham Red Star and of course Newcastle United matches (I was there when Shearer scored his 201st goal against Portmsouth) many times during my life. I was what you’d call football mad, and damn proud of it.
I went to Holland, Italy and Spain with my dad to watch Newcastle. Went to Wembley to see South Shields, as well as taking in other grounds with Shields in places like Manchester, Liverpool, Canvey Island, Southend, Birmingham, you get the idea. I wasn’t an armchair fan, but I knew a bit about tactics and the like.
As I was a big follower of local football I’ve spent time speaking to managers and coaches of these clubs. During my uni days I was even invited to a training session at Shields by manager Graham Fenton! It was a great experience and one I’ll never forget. Trust me when I say, lower league football is where it’s at for me. The fans are all your proper die hards and not the armchair brigade with their opinions and ‘knowledge’. The atmosphere at games on a pissing down Tuesday night beat any game at any Premier League ground by a mile.
During the season last year I suffered a cruciate ligament injury, completely ending my career as a footballer. I was 29 with 12 years playing experience, but no experience of a ‘proper’ job. I was at a loose end and on crutches. There’s no insurance for semi pro players and I was worried I’d end up bankrupt or homeless. I had enough money saved up and had home insurance that I could maybe be okay for a year, 18 months at a push.
It took 10 months or so to start walking without the cripple sticks, and when I started feeling a bit better about myself I had a physio appointment one afternoon in August. Whilst there I recognised a man in the gym at the hospital. He was shorter than me (most people are, I'm 6 foot 4) with a beaming smile and was talking to the physio. You know that feeling you get when you really recognise someone but can’t quite put your finger on who it is? Well that was how I felt that morning.
He walked across and I said morning to Danny, the physio, when the shorter man nodded, smiled and said ‘morning bonny lad, how are ya?’
I said good morning, I’m fine thanks for asking, you know the usual pleasantries when Danny said ‘This is the guy I told you about. His knee was wrecked but he’s done well to get back walking in less than 10 months’
The shorter man was asking questions about my time as a player, how I got injured and that kind of thing. I told him who my father was and the man told me he’d met my father many times in the 90’s. I just thought he was being sincere as my dad was a player in the Premier League for a few seasons. He also asked if I was interested in getting into the other sides of football just like my dad has done. I was truthful when I said I wanted to be a physio, but who would hire a physio that can’t look after his own body, yet alone other peoples?
After my session with Danny, the man was still there, presumably working out himself. After a shower and on my way out I saw him again and we carried on talking. He asked me if there was ever an opportunity for coaching or even a physio role at a club in the region, would I be interested? I then asked him, honestly ‘I’m sorry to ask mate, but I know I recognise you and I cannot for the life of me remember your name?’
‘Don’t be sorry son, I get it all the time’
With that he told me his name and I instantly remembered. How could I not remember who he was, especially being from where I’m from! I felt embarrassed I didn't remember him.
I told him I’m sorry for not remembering his name and hoped I’d not insulted in him.
‘Nee bother bonny lad. Listen, I think you’re the right kind of person we’re looking into for a job at a club I work for, if you’re interested?’
‘You don’t really know me though, and I’m a physio with no experience, surely there’s more qualified candidates for the job? Actually, what job is it?’
‘Follow me, we’ll talk on the way’
This is my story of how a chance meeting with a former Premier League player gave me my start in the busy world of football management.
You're a manager, Jim, time to act like one
I’m sure you’re wondering who the mystery player is. Well it was Lee Clark, director of football at lower league side, level 11 to be precise, Newcastle Blue Star. I knew about this club from being in Newcastle most of my life. (Authors note, I’d never been to a Blue Star game, although I know they played down Scotswood Road) They’ve a decent following albeit just from the local area of course. I did actually remember hearing about Lee joining them a year or so ago.
We spoke about my career as a player and his as both player and manager (Unbiased authors note – I told him, tongue in cheek, that I forgive him for playing for Sunderland. He laughed). He told me he went to Blue Star as it’s a local club in his home town and he wanted to go in there, change things as best he can and set them up for success. He’d rejected offers to become a manager at other clubs (more on this later) and was looking for a manager to take over the first team. You already know where this is going.
I told him about my interest in the physical side of the game, as well as the mental side. I also told him my desire to go back to my dads homeland at some point in my life. He could see I was determined and probably ready to become a coach. I was surprised when he said to me he was looking to take someone under his wing at Blue Star and give them a start in management. I was even more shocked when he said he wanted me to that person!
Here was someone held in very high regard in Newcastle and someone that’s managed big clubs and played high level football, telling me, an out of work ex semi-pro player he wanted to take someone under his wing!
‘You’re perfect, you know this level of football inside out. You’re from the area, you’re intelligent enough and I can tell you’ll give it your all’ His words made me feel really good about myself, and less than 48 hours later I was officially the new manager of Newcastle Blue Star FC.
No fanfare from the media other than a post on the clubs official Twitter account greeted me, and that was just how I wanted it to be. I wanted to go about things in a laid back manner. This was my first job in management and I didn’t want anything to derail me. Okay so we were in the doldrums of football in England, but we all have to start somewhere, and Newcastle was, and still is my home
Blue Star were in the Northern Premier Alliance division, level 11 on the pyramid and expectations were high within the club. With Lee there, and assistant manager Steve Preen, who were both experienced players and coaches, the chairman was looking for us to get promoted within 2 seasons by following the lead set by South Shields, who had managed an incredible 4 promotions in 8 years since Graham Fenton took over.
Lee said he’d deal with signing players for me at the start, but after watching the team training on my first day there, I noticed a couple of young lads having a kick about on the field next to our pitch on Scotswood Road, and asked if they’d like to train with us. A couple were signed* and we were building a squad early on.
The next couple of days flew by, and by the time of our first game against AFC Killingworth, another local team came around, I had a team talk in mind. We’d worked on a few things in training, mainly touching on how we’re going to be getting the ball to the front 2, and what I wanted from each of the team individually. I had no problem talking to my team, I was a confident person and I could relate to players at this level, after all I was one of them only 11 months prior.
I knew the standard of player at this level wasn’t very technical so the idea was going to be a flat 4-4-2 and a direct approach. Killingworth found out the hard way that when Jimmy Robson has a plan, by god I’m sticking to it!
You always remember your first of everything, your first football match, your first day of school, the first girl you kiss and so on. As this was something close to me and I wanted to keep a log of everything, I made a vow to myself to keep a log of every match I ever had as a football manager, and I’m proud to say that it was something I stuck to from that first match right up to now. I don’t remember every single detail of every match, nobody could, but with my log of games, dates and scores, I also kept newspaper trimmings of my games as well as keeping a diary, I was able to jot down memorable moments, feelings and whatnot, which came in handy for my memoirs, which you are currently reading.
As for my first game in management, well I couldn’t have wished for a better start. The game ended 4-0 and the team looked exceptionally well structured. Alun Hunt was one of those young lads we picked up and he banged in a brace to announce to the league that he’s here, I’m here and Blue Star are most certainly here!
One thing we did early on was average 4 goals a game in our first 6 matches and it was clear to anyone that our side had goals in it. I felt like that guy from Groundhog Day, except it wasn’t every day but every week we had been smashing in 4 goals a game. We had conceded goals here and there, but they were all conceded once the game was already won, so I wasn’t too concerned initially.
The lower leagues have regional specific cup’s the teams compete in, and we had been drawn against Wallington in the Challenge Cup. I told the players in one of our meetings that the cup isn’t the priority and that we’ll approach those games in a relaxed manner We did beat them and were drawn against Seaton Delaval in the quarters.
Heading into November we’d won 8 on the spin before complacency reared its ugly head against Ponteland United. As had been the case for the previous 8, we controlled the match with our long passing game. Our forward 2 kept causing problems and our back 4 were never under any real pressure. However, the few times we were tested our back line and keeper were equal to it. Until Livingstone ran onto a loose ball and thundered it toward goal. A standard long range effort and would’ve been saved comfortably if it hadn’t of nipped Gilhespy’s trailing left foot on it’s way to goal. That deflection sent Lynch in our net the wrong way and the ball went in.
This loss wouldn’t define our season and in the dressing room after the game we all sat and discussed the match and what we would do heading into the rest of the season.
At that point in the season we were top after those 9 games played. I knew I had a good squad on my hands and felt if we kept playing as we had, then we’d do alright that season. Plus, I always had Lee and Steve to lean on any time I could, with Lee especially taking time outside of the club to speak with me about tactics, team talks and all other things related to managing a team.
**In game translation, I signed a couple of those greyed out players to fill out the team.
Cross posted at https://www.fmcheapseats.com/index.php/2021/05/14/you-can-never-tell-whether-bad-luck-may-not-after-all-turn-out-to-good-luck/ with images
You can never tell whether bad luck may not, after all, turn out to good luck
A couple more wins took us into the new year in style as we found ourselves comfortably top of the league by 7 points heading into the second half of the season. As good as it was going, there was always some bad news to counter the good.
One thing about football at this level is the turnover of players is remarkable, it really is. I played for 6 clubs in 12 seasons, and that was me who wasn’t very good. I got word from Lee that forward Andy Bulford, scorer of 6 in 11 games had agreed to move onto Chadderton.
Of course I was annoyed at this, but there’s always a player at this level around the corner, and Lee had already made the move for Vinny Mukendi to come in. He was 6 foot 7, so the obvious thing to do was get the ball high and into him in the air.
That would be the last thing Lee would do for Blue Star as he had been approached by Dover Athletic to become their new manager. I knew this would happen at some point, I just wasn’t expecting it within 6 months of my arrival at Blue Star. So I was left to fend for myself, but when Lee came to tell me the news in person he said I could ring him any time to speak about anything at all, which I really appreciated.
Then to make my life worse, my assistant manager Steve Preen came to discuss things and he said he was also leaving Blue Star to join Burscough as their under 23’s manager. I had to find a new assistant, and a new director of football. Well I didn’t have to, but I wanted some people in that I could trust and work alongside. I spoke to the chairman in great detail, and he confided in me that he knew they would both leave, it was always a matter of time. He said I had free reign on replacing them, although a DOF wasn’t compulsory. I decided I would ring my dad for advice on this.
The first thing my dad said was I would need someone I could trust. I had made a few friends during my playing days, and one former team mate stood out, so I called my pal Liam Atwell and told him the situation I was in. His words were something along the lines of ‘Of course I’ll come give you a hand until you find someone, no problem pal’. The silly twat hadn’t clicked on that I wanted him to be my assistant! He came in, much like me to no fanfare, but I had someone else in that would work with me.
The club advertised for director of football on it’s Twitter page, and we had exactly 1 person show an interest in the role. Andre Awana came into the club ground on afternoon, laid out an 11 page document on why he should be hired and what he would bring to the role. I told him he was more than welcome in the role if he was serious. I hired him for 2 reasons. The first was he really put some thought into the role with the 11 pages he brought and presented to us, and secondly I wanted someone that would oversee things like transfers, scouting reports and what not. It wouldn’t be too much longer before I took over these responsibilities, but as a rookie manager I wanted as much help as I could get.
They say bad luck comes in three’s, and with the 2 members of staff leaving, the third bit of bad luck wasn’t far behind. My first game as the sole member of staff at Blue Star saw us play the quarter final of the cup against Seaton. An even first half where we conceded early on but equalised was followed by a real end to end battle.
8 yellow cards and a red card in a game both of us were trying desperately to win. As soon as Hillerby was given his marching orders in extra time that was the opening Seaton needed. They took the lead and it was looking like they’d won it then. We scraped an equaliser right at the end of extra time, a goal we didn’t deserve really, as we held on since the red and could’ve been behind by a bigger margin on another day.
We were relieved, and lucky for the game to be going to penalties. I picked the takers, Jewson, Mukendi, Doran, Chater, Murphy & Lyn. I told them what one of my former coaches told me ‘Pick your spot, don’t change your mind’ and all were confident, at least they looked confident.
Leading scorer Jewson missed his, he hit it right down the middle and the keepers leg saved it. Mukendi nearly took the net into orbit with his rocket of a penalty. Doran must’ve been watching the six nations as he put his over the bar in his best rugby conversion imitation. Chater’s effort slipped just under the keepers arm and was lucky to trickle in. Murphy put his to the keepers left before Lyn stepped up. By this point we were drawing on penalties 3 apiece. Lyn stepped up to ball, then took 4 steps back. I could tell from the dugout where he was going to put the ball, as did the Seaton keeper. Lyn hit the ball towards his right and the keepers left, as the keeper did indeed go left. Not only did he save it but he held on to the ball to take the piss even more!
Their player absolutely buried his kick to give them a 4-3 penalty win and knock us out of the cup. I felt up until the red we controlled that game, but we didn’t deserve to win it in the end, and we didn’t
Still, you take the bad with the good, and we just had the league to concentrate on now, which is exactly what we did.
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