Dunstable Town boss Tony McCool explains how he competes against the Southern League big boys with a zero playing budget.
Most managers will tell you money is tight at their club and competing with big boys in their league can be tough. Some may also insist there is no money whatsoever available, but there are very few in the mould of Tony McCool.
In a life in football that has seen him coach on park pitches, academy training grounds, Football League stadiums and Wembley, it’s fair to say McCool has never exactly been flush with money.
Having spent over a decade working in academy football at Luton, QPR and Norwich, McCool was appointed Manager of Evo Stik Southern Premier League side Dunstable Town in the summer and, in doing so, agreed to do so without any playing budget – a consequence of serious financial problems at the club. McCool’s story is brilliant.
The obvious question Tony is why? Are you mad?
Ha – you’re not the first to think that! Of course it’s a tough job when you look at what we are competing with but I’ve always been a development coach and I back myself and Kevin [Gallen, his assistant and former England Under-21, QPR and Luton striker] to improve our group, help them adapt to this level and ultimately, start to win football matches.
So where did you get the players from?
It was a blank sheet and the plan was always to take good young players who have been involved with professional clubs and give them a chance at this level. We started with an open trial with 200 players, most of which had been released from clubs recently. From there we gradually put together a very young squad and formed a group we think can compete at this level.
The idea though is not just to compete. It might sound daft as we are down at the bottom of the table, but we wanted players that are capable of going up into Step 2 football and higher. It will take time, but we have a plan to rebuild this football club and the group we have put together can lead the way. But it starts with survival in this league.
Is that realistic, seriously?
I believe so – if I look at how far this group have come, I know it is. Of course we’ve had a couple of heavy defeats (including when a goalkeeping crisis meant McCool had to play a defender in goal for two games – unheard of at such a competitive level of football).
I’ll give you one example. One of my youngest lads came into the side and had a real tough time at full-back against Royston. Like all of the lads, this level of football is new to him.
The following week I picked him again and a lot of people at the club openly questioned my judgement, perhaps thinking I was putting the lad in the firing line and at risk of permanent damage to his psyche. He played and he did pretty well.
Then a few weeks later he came back into the side away at Hereford, in front of 2,000 fans against a side with a National League-level budget. I ended up having to stick him in at centre-back as I lost my two regulars the day before the game. He was magnificent, as were the rest of the boys.
We lost 2-0 but let me tell you, I was bursting with pride and the Hereford fans and management acknowledged just how well this young lad had played. It reflects the journey all these young players have been on in such a short space of time, and there is so much more scope for them to improve.
And you have the right staff?
We have a great team off the pitch and on the coaching side it’s a team effort with myself, Kev – who’s experience and knowledge is unreal – and Gareth Jackson, who has stepped up from his role with the development squad and has been one of my best signings to date.
So what’s the mood in the camp now?
Every game now is getting tighter, and the difference is usually simply a bit of experience or game management. We are playing some great football and the unit on the pitch is getting more organised and cohesive every week. We are far from whipping boys and I’m adamant the improvement will continue – you should see the intensity in training.
Lads in this group travel 30 miles to train without getting paid a penny. But they see the opportunity, they know they have a chance if they stick together and they’ve got each other’s backs. I see myself as a father figure to them now and the bond we are creating is something special. It has consumed me so much that I’ve just left my role with Norwich – people warned me, but I didn’t listen!
Ok, but you still run a local kids club as well, right?
Yes, and it means a lot to me. Kev and I started ‘2touch Football Academy’ and the aim was simple – to run a club in the local area that was completely free for kids to join.
In my work with schools up and down the country (McCool has also developed a business supporting school sports whilst coaching), I found that there are still so many kids with a talent for sport but whose parents or parent cannot afford the fees local clubs charge.
With help from the local council and the parents in the community, we have managed to set up and develop a grass roots club which is prospering and producing some great young players.
It wasn’t about being elite in any way, just a social enterprise but the results have been great and we are helping some very talented kids develop, and some will end up with pro clubs I’m certain.
I sense there is more to football than just winning for you?
Of course. I grew up on one of Luton’s biggest council estates and had it fairly tough as a kid. Football gave me so much, and it was only because of the generosity of one particularly generous coach at St Joseph’s youth club that I was able to play the game at all.
He used to drive miles out of his way to take me to games – I didn’t realise the favour he was doing me at the time and just assumed every player got that kind of help.
Not only can I identify with these kids, but I also know that there are some diamonds in there. I want to help them get a start at least and show them that there are people out there who will help them if they help themselves. It’s all starting to make sense now!
And what about your own playing career?
As a player, I was just ok. I was involved at a couple of professional clubs, but did my cruciate at Torquay when I was 16.
I played on – including a spell here at Dunstable with some great ex-pros where I learnt a lot about the game – but had to accept very early on that my knee was going to stop me having a serious playing career.
I’d already started coaching with Charlton Athletic Soccer Schools, but from my early 20s I really started to focus on coaching.
I started with Caddington’s South Midlands Reserve League team, went on to Brache Sparta whilst all the time gradually working my way through the academy at Luton.
A journey that saw you get to Wembley?
Yes, having progressed and built a reputation in the academy there, I was asked by Mick Harford to get involved in first team coaching.
We were struggling due to the points deduction after going into administration and we failed to keep the club up despite a great run of results but of course, there was that Johnstone’s Paint Trophy final at Wembley. I had to pinch myself as we approached Wembley on the bus. Wonderful times!
Do you consider yourself lucky then?
Absolutely! I’ve worked with people like Mick and Alan Neilson, plus Chris Cummins at Luton, Steve Gallen at QPR, and then also at some of the biggest clubs in the world with my business.
I left school at 16 with nothing but managed to work my way into the early stages of video analysis and technology in football. I learnt so much and became privy to an unbelievable level of insight behind closed doors working with some of the Premier League’s most famous managers and coaches. Little old me!
And yet you seem incredibly happy working in non-league football with no money?
I am indeed. I want for nothing – football has given me a career doing what I love. I have to admit that after going to QPR I became disenchanted with the way the academy system and professional football in general was heading.
I needed to get out and make a difference to people where I could have more of an impact. I love working with young players and I also love being part of Dunstable Town Football Club. To the fans, the people who work tirelessly without reward on the club’s behalf and also the local community, it means so much. It might sound a bit soppy, but it’s true. I’m deadly serious – these players are taking this club forward.
A coach from one of the country’s biggest clubs helped me sign a player on loan recently. He’d been told about what we were doing and had sent someone to see us play. What he heard back was so convincing that he rang me up and said he’d be happy to send any young player to us and that if I ever needed anything I just had to ask.
That will do for me!
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