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Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Football's Breeding Ground

Nobes looks at how spending time in the Non Leagues can help managers to a better career.

Returning Gillingham boss Andy Hessenthaler spent three seasons in Non League

Gillingham's decision to re-appoint Andy Hessenthaler as their manager might have struck observers as a willingness to stick to the familiar.

However, the man himself says he is a "different person" after spending three years in charge of Dover Athletic.

The 44-year-old previously spent four years as player-manager at the Priestfield between 2000 and 2004. Then in the Championship for the first time in their history, he led them to 13th, 12th, and 11th in his first three seasons.

They survived relegation the following year on goal difference and a poor start the next season saw the Gills struggling at the foot of the table again and Hessenthaler resigning as manager.

He continued to play for the Kent club as new boss Stan Ternent fought in vain to keep them in the second tier, and eventually left to play for League Two side Barnet in 2006.

His managerial career only re-started a year later when he linked up with Dover, then wallowing in the Isthmian League First Division South - four levels below the Football League.

Successive titles followed as he led the Whites into the Conference South and helped stage a third successive promotion bid this term. However, they lost out to Woking in the play-off semi finals.

His move back to Gillingham means he joins ten other managers in League Two who have spent time managing in the Non Leagues.

Some, like John Coleman at Accrington and Torquay's Paul Buckle, have led their current teams up from the Conference.

Others, like Peter Taylor of Bradford and Rotherham's Ronnie Moore, have spent time at Non League clubs as they've moved around the game.

Mark Yates earned his break managing in the Football League
at Cheltenham after impressing at Kidderminster. New Barnet boss Mark Stimson - sacked by Gillingham to make way for Hessenthaler - also has Conference experience.

However they have made it though, they are joined in a common unity that their time in the Non League game has only been beneficial to their footballing experience and knowledge.

It begs the questions why more managers don't consider dropping that far down. Perhaps there is a fear that if an opportunity at a big club arises they must take it - even if they fear they're too young and inexperienced to handle it.

History shows that often managers can start too high up the pyramid and often have to go down to work their way back up. And you can work your way up.

Gary Johnson, after a spell at Cambridge in the Football League and then in Latvia, returned to England to the Conference and Yeovil. He took the Glovers up to League One and eventually helped Bristol City into the Championship.

Exeter boss Paul Tisdale's rise has been equally meteoric. A decade after starting out in the depths of Non League at Western League side Team Bath, he's now in the third tier.

Not only that, but his success at St James Park - leading the Devon club to successive promotions and then League One safety means he is one of the most highly rated young managers in the Football League.

It is why managers shouldn't be afraid of starting out in Non League football or dropping out of the Football League to take on their next job.

Gary Waddock endured a difficult introduction to management at QPR in the Championship, swiftly being fired. However, he took over at Non League Aldershot in 2007 and helped them to the Conference title in his first season.

His reputation was enhanced greatly, eventually earning him a move to Wycombe and League One football - albeit he was unable to save the Buckinghamshire side from relegation this season.

Another example is Martin Ling. After a prolonged spell as manager of Leyton Orient, he replaced Gary Brabin at Cambridge United in the Conference last summer.

A season of transition where the U's struggled to make an impact at the top end would have taught him much and he will be hoping for progress next term.

Wycombe boss Gary Waddock rebuilt his managerial career in the Conference

Simon Davey, after leaving Barnsley last August, re-surfaced at Conference-bound Darlington and is now plotting their instant promotion back to League Two. He was not afraid of the prospect of managing outside the League though.

Nor should he have been, as working in the Non League game opens up a manager's eyes to a whole new market and calibre of players he may have ordinarily missed.

Players who, despite plying their trade in the semi-professional game, are more than good enough to appear in the Football League.

You need only look at the astounding success of Dagenham & Redbridge this season to prove that.

With the wily and vastly experienced John Still at the helm, the East London minnows will be pitting their wits against the likes of Sheffield Wednesday and Southampton next season.

A considerable achievement considering the Daggers financial situation compared to their rivals. However, using unrivalled Non League contacts in the South East, Still constructed a squad of young, hungry, and talented players.

It was a similar method used by the late Macclesfield boss Keith Alexander. After a season as manager at Lincoln in the early '90s, Alexander was fired and dropped into the Non Leagues.

After rebuilding his career at the likes of Ilkeston and Northwich Victoria, he eventually got another bite of the cherry at Sincil Bank in 2002. The Imps had been in administration and were forced to offload any high-earners from their squad.

Tipped for relegation by the pundits, Alexander set about using his Non League contacts to build a side on the division's tightest budget.

Amazingly, Lincoln made it all the way to the play-off final where they were eventually undone 5-2 by Sean O'Driscoll's slick Bournemouth team. Neverthless, it had been an almost miraculous achievement by 'Big Keef.'

There is also a lot to be said for looking to the Non Leagues for recruitments, rather than at players working their down the football ladder after spending years at the top end.

Not only for financial reasons - players signed from Non League are bound to cost less in wages than players used to the higher divisions.

It can also be said that those used to the semi-professional game have a hunger and appetite than cannot be matched.

They are often players who failed to make the grade at a top club and have had to drop into the lower leagues to continue their career.

For them, it's not about the money and picking up one last pay cheque before retiring, it is just about the enjoyment and pleasure of playing professional football against big teams at proper grounds.

They are also used to the fast-paced, physical nature of the lower divisions of the game. Players making their way down the pyramid can often be surprised by just how little time on the ball they get, or how poor the pitches are.

Well-known names are no guarantee of success. Indeed, as Shrewsbury found out in 2003 - it can often lead to disaster.

The Shropshire side featured ex-Nottingham Forest duo Ian Woan and Nigel Jemson but still found themselves relegated to the Conference.

Contrast that with the success of Dagenham this term and the model operated by Keith Alexander, and it shows that looking down for players need not mean your ambition can't look up.

As Hessenthaler prepares to lead Gillingham's promotion challenge next term - it is something he will do well to take heed of.

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