By Matt Badcock
Non-League isn’t just a breeding ground for players – managers are learning their trade at these levels too.
Paul Hurst recently landed a Championship move to Ipswich Town, less than ten years after he started out in the Northern Premier League with Ilkeston Town.
We’ve cast our eye over the next generation. All are Under-35 and managed in Steps 1-4 last season – these are some of the most promising gaffers around.
Luke Garrard – Boreham Wood
Garrard was just 30 when Boreham Wood handed him the managerial reins. If eyebrows were raised at the National League club putting a rookie boss in charge at such a critical time, those doubts have long been dismissed.
The former AFC Wimbledon defender had been assistant boss to Ian Allinson for three years by the time he got the nod and, after negotiating a pretty tricky first campaign, he built a side last season that went so close to reaching the Football League.
Having finished fourth in the Non-League’s top flight, Garrard’s side lost out in the Wembley promotion final to ten-man Tranmere Rovers.
The 32-year-old will no doubt have learned a lot from that experience as he looks ahead to the new season with the ink still wet on a new three-year deal.
Garrard says high expectations are unrealistic for 2018-19 – star attacker Bruno Andrade has left for Lincoln City – but if he can make similar astute signings as he did last year, then the Wood could be knocking on the door again.
Daryl McMahon – Ebbsfleet United
In the Irishman’s three seasons at the Fleet helm, his side have won 72 of their 130 games, accumulating 254 points, and finishing in the play-off places each time.
They lost out in year one to Maidstone United on penalties in the National League South final before exorcising the demons a year later by beating Chelmsford City.
Returning to Non-League’s top flight after six seasons away, McMahon’s side finished the season strongly to book a play-off place.
Aldershot were defeated in the Play-off Eliminator before Tranmere Rovers needed extra-time to see off a leg-weary Ebbsfleet.
The spirit and culture McMahon, 34, has created at the club is clear to see and his down-to-earth approach makes him a players’ favourite. Destined for the Football League, the club have already knocked back approaches – they want to go with him.
(Ebbsfleet manager Daryl McMahon)
Anthony Johnson & Bernard Morley – Chester
Johnson and Morley were 27 and 26 when they were given short shrift by Ramsbottom United chairman Harry Williams. The pair wanted a shot in the North West Counties League with Rammy and they didn’t take no for an answer.
Within three seasons they’d won the title. They followed that up with a second successive promotion to reach Step 3.
Then Salford City came knocking. Opening themselves up to the TV cameras and their no-nonsense style has won both admirers and dissenters.
But speak to the pair and their knowledge of the game, and thirst to learn more, shines through. In the intense spotlight at Salford, they delivered three more promotions to take their personal tally to five in seven years.
It’s fair to say the working relationship with Salford’s Class of 92 owners had reached a tipping point and they left in the summer, denied a first chance at managing Step 1 football.
Instead they are charged with revitalising a beleaguered Chester, who are back in the National League North. If anyone can, these two can.
Harry Wheeler – Billericay Town
Yes, he had a side packed with talent playing below their true level, but at 29 years old Wheeler has shown impressive traits.
Blocking out the noise around the Blues, he got his side through a packed fixture schedule under incredible pressure to win the Bostik Premier.
This is a man who used to sneak through hedges to watch how the best coached at Premier League clubs – that desire to make a mark in the game will take him far.
Anthony Gale -Walton Casuals
Son of former Fulham and West Ham defender Tony Gale, football runs in the family. As do Walton Casuals. Dad is chairman and son is manager. No doubt that brings its own pressure but Gale has delivered after winning the Bostik South play-offs last season to earn a Step 3 spot.
James Bracken – Corinthian-Casuals
Bracken has one of Non-League’s most unique jobs – he doesn’t have a wage budget! The Surrey side are the remaining bastion of amateurism in English football and still don’t pay their players.
It means Bracken is often faced with rebuilding his side each season. But despite that he still manages to piece together a competitive side and last season was no exception.
Despite missing out in the play-off final on penalties to Walton Casuals, his side were promoted to Step 3 as the next best third-place side at Step 4 behind Hyde.
(Corinthian-Casuals boss James Bracken)
Tommy Wright – Darlington
Wright may be 33 but he’s already five years into his managerial career. Starting out at Corby Town, he led them to the Southern Premier title in 2014 for a debut season to remember. Tougher times followed as they were relegated from Step 2 but Wright was hampered by off-field problems.
He moved onto Nuneaton Town next who, at the time of his arrival into the dug-out, were struggling at the foot of the National League North table before he guided them away from danger.
Last season former club Darlington came knocking and he couldn’t turn it down. He’ll be looking to get them in the play-off picture next term.
Sam Denly – Hythe Town
Still aged just 33, but already has more than four years management experience at Step 4 under his belt.
The majority of that was at Herne Bay before he joined Hythe Town in January this year with the club pointing at his proven capabilities.
Brother of Kent and England cricketer Joe Denly, his side were ten points adrift of the Bostik South play-offs when he took over but only missed out last time out by virtue of goal difference. A big season lies ahead for him.
Tom Baker – Trafford
Forced to retired from playing aged 30, not long after he’d won his fourth NPL Premier division promotion, the former Bradford PA, Halifax Town and Chorley moved into the dug-out three years ago.
Gone close to returning the club back to Step 3 in the last two season with back-to-back sixth-place finishes.
Rob Small – Bowers & Pitsea
Small, 33, has taken a small club from the bottom of the Essex Senior League to the brink of Step 3 football. Along the way his side reached the FA Vase final, won promotion and finished in the play-off places last season.
By day he works in the city but his knack for getting in good people who want to play for him. He’s one to really watch out for.
Gary Meakin – Beaconsfield Town
Another who started his management career young. The former Northwood, Beaconsfield SYCOB, Wingate & Finchley and Egham Town boss enjoyed big success last season.
In a photo finish with AFC Rushden & Diamonds, the 34-year-old’s side won the title on the final day of the season thanks to a run of seven wins in their final eight games. And all that after they’d been tipped to struggle.
Tom Greaves – FC United
By the 33-year-old’s own admission, management came a bit sooner than he thought. When long-serving Red Rebels boss Karl Marginson left the club, they turned to a playing legend as caretaker boss.
He soon showed what he’s all about, taking the club up the table and away from danger while also combining his duties with playing. In that time he also fired himself to his 100th FC goal, a strike that put him top of the club’s all-time goal chart. Imagine if he can have a similar impact from the dug-out.
Jamie Coyle – Dartford (joint-manager with Adam Flanagan)
A serial achiever in his playing career, Coyle has also tasted success on the management teams of Leatherhead and Maidstone United.
The 35-year-old, who is an FA Coach Educator, took his first No.1 role at Welling United last season and, while still playing, built a squad from scratch. Inconsistency saw them miss out on a play-off spot but Coyle caught the eye.
Now he’s moved back to former club Dartford to take the reins left by Darts’ legend, and his ex-boss, Tony Burman, alongside Adam Flanagan.
Liam McDonald – Rushall Olympic
West Ham’s Dapo Afolayan, Arsenal’s Cohen Bramall, Leicester City’s Tyreese Shade – all players who have featured for McDonald.
The 33-year-old has seen lots of his players at Redditch, Hednesford United and Solihull Moors go into the Football League, including Jermaine Hylton and Jamey Osborne.
His early managerial career saw a rapid rise from Step 3 to Step 1 with Solihull Moors where he took over from Marcus Bignot and kept them in Non-League’s top flight.
A bad run saw him lose his job last season but he’s trying to bounce back with Rushall Olympic, whose fortunes he is already turning around.
Sammy Moore – Concord Rangers
Still only 30 and still pulling the boots on, Moore took his first steps into management last season at Leatherhead, assisted by his former AFC?Wimbledon team-mate Jack Midson.
Moore took the Tanners to the FA Cup second round where they led League Two Wycombe Wanderers before falling to a 3-1 defeat, and only just missed out on a place in the play-offs.
Moore has now stepped up a league to National League South side Concord Rangers and is making some impressive signings.
Ones to watch in their first full seasons at Steps 1-4
Matthew Bates – Hartlepool Utd
Adam Hinshelwood – Worthing
Steve Kinniburgh – Corby Town
Dean Barker – Northwood
Danny Robinson – Thatcham Tn
*This article originally featured in The @NonLeaguePaper which is available every Sunday and Monday
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