By Matt Badcock
Ben Strevens might not have been on the other end of the phone talking about his pride at being handed the Eastleigh job.
The 38-year-old said as much himself following a disappointing FA Cup defeat to Hampton & Richmond in his second game as caretaker.
“We’ve lost to a team from a lower division and there’s pretty much no chance now that I’ll get the job,” Strevens said after the 1-0 defeat to the Step 2 side. “I’m not stupid enough to imagine that.”
But here we are, a little more than three weeks’ later, and he’s got the gig. Strevens believes his honesty to say he wanted the job when Andy Hessenthaler, who he was assisstant to, left for Dover, was too forward.
It put pressure, he says, on a squad who wanted him to be their boss and they put in two below-par performances against Aldershot and Hampton.
But with Eastleigh so meticulous in their search for Hessenthaler’s successor, Strevens still had time to show why he should be the man.
A win at Halifax was followed by draws with high-flying Leyton Orient and, last weekend, Salford City before he was confirmed as boss on Monday.
“Thankfully for me the club were so thorough in the process with the interviews they did and the people they met, it gave me another few games in charge to show we could do it,” Strevens says. “We train at the club so they can see the atmosphere that’s created and, ultimately, the boys put in the performances on the pitch and they got me the job by the way they played.
“The way they performed helped my cause and, as much as there was an interview process, my biggest interview was to show how well the boys were playing.”
Strevens is no stranger to the club. He dropped out of the Football League in 2013 to join an Eastleigh side in the Conference South powered by the generous backing of Stewart Donald. Under manager Richard Hill, the title was swiftly delivered before they missed out on promotion to the Football League in the play-offs the next season.
A short spell at Whitehawk aside, where he also had a stint as caretaker manager, Strevens has been at the south-coast club ever since and was assistant when Chris Todd was at the helm.
When the vacancy came up on that occasion he didn’t feel it was the right time, and when Martin Allen brought him back to the club from Whitehawk, his mind was on playing before the experienced boss moved on and he was back on the coaching staff, first with Hill, and then alongside Hessenthaler.
Strevens says Hessenthaler has taught him huge amounts in the past six months and he also talks fondly of his previous managers.
Part of Paul Fairclough’s title-winning side at Barnet, Strevens enthuses about Gary Waddock at Wycombe, and “one of Non-League’s best ever managers” John Still, who he played under on three separate occasions.
The first was at Barnet when he was playing for Wingate & Finchley in Ryman Division Three before landing a move to the Football League with the Bees.
“It’s another test,” Strevens says about his new role. “I’ve played for a lot of years. That doesn’t mean I become a good manager. I’ve got to look at it as if I’m starting out like when I made my way into the professional game with Barnet.
“I’ve got to be open to new ideas, learn loads and be hard working. I say to the young pros here, they’ve got to do their extras, they’ve got to work in the gym, practice their finishing, practice clipping the ball with their left foot if that’s what they need to work on.
“I can’t tell them things and then be on a different journey. I’ve got to go and watch games now, watch players, educate myself as much as I can. I’ve got to do all the things I’m preaching to the other boys.
“I’m keen to do that, I want to do as well as I can at this. There are no guarantees with anything but I want to give myself the best possible chance to do well at this job and well for this football club. I’ve had a really good time here as a player, I’ve loved playing for this football club. There’s some really good people here. They’ve put a lot of trust and faith in me and I want to repay it as best I can.”
Strevens reiterates how happy he is with his current squad, but his own background has a big bearing on how he sees the game and the attributes he wants in his dressing room.
“I played for Wingate & Finchley in Ryman Division Three and I was found and given a chance to go and play for Barnet in the Football League Division Three, as it was then,” he says. “So I know there are some real gems in Non-League and people waiting for an opportunity.
“My job now, along with the people I’m going to trust to watch games and watch players, is to try and find those people.
“That’s no different to anyone else, but I’m keen to do that. I want a core of players given chances because they will be hungry like I was when I went to Barnet or the Dagenham & Redbridge group I was part of. That was probably the hungriest group I’ve ever been involved with.
“I don’t think I’m being too rude to any of them by saying I don’t think any of us, when we signed for Dagenham & Redbridge, would have been signed by a League club. We got that club promoted through hard work, real togetherness and a family spirit.”
Strevens was drifting along at Crawley when Still signed him for Dagenham in 2006.
“I’ve got no worries in saying that Dagenham spell and that group of players probably saved my career,” he says. “I’ve got to be honest, I don’t know where I would have ended up if I hadn’t signed for Dagenham & Redbridge. I’ll always be grateful to that group of boys.
“I’d been at Barnet a real long time. I look back on it now, and now I’m a manager, I probably wasn’t as easy to deal with as I should have been. I look back with a lot of regrets at the end of my time at Barnet. That’s in hindsight, I didn’t realise at the time, but I probably was hard to manage at times, although I think the rest of my career I’ve been good.
“So I was lucky I went into a group of boys at Dagenham who were doing well and were so hungry and determined to get into the Football League. It was a real family spirit. You either bought into it or you wouldn’t have been part of it. You had to go in with it.
“It’s probably my most enjoyable time I’ve had in football. I was as proud as anyone seeing the careers some of those boys had after Dagenham.
“Dagenham are still a club I really look out for and I love the people who work there. It was sad for me this last week with our old kitman at Eastleigh, Kevin Dixon, passing away and then a few days later I got the news Dave Andrews (former Daggers’ chariman) had passed away. They were really lovely people.
“That’s the thing I found at Dagenham and Eastleigh, now. They are real family clubs, with good people working behind the scenes.”
Eastleigh are still in rebuild mode. Donald left for Sunderland in the summer but before then they had become the case study for how spending power doesn’t always equate to success.
A more prudent approach will probably help and Strevens emphasises the importance of the players being involved with the fans more, as well as each other.
“When me and Hess really took it over this year properly, we wanted the boys to socialise away from the football club,” says Stevens, whose side sit five points outside the National League play-off places. “That doesn’t mean they’ve got to go and get drunk.
“They’ve been to golf, we took them paintballing the other week, they sorted out bowling among themselves – when you’re at a football club you see each other on a work basis but it’s nice to spend time with each other away from football.
“We did that at Dagenham. We socialised loads with each other – we probably had a few more nights out than we should have done – and it worked.
“The biggest thing at this level, and it’s been proven with the teams who have gone up over the last couple of years… this is no disrespect to the teams who have gone up but did anyone think Macclesfield would win the league last year? Their spirit and togetherness, the way they played for each other, the fact people didn’t expect them to do it kept driving them on. They won it here last season and we made sure the boys stayed out at clapped them because they were deserved champions.
“But we also wanted the boys to see how good it is to do something like that. I’m lucky now, I can look back, but when you win something you get caught up in it. You really appreciate it when you look back.
“I think back to the Dagenham group. Barnet was a great year and I really enjoyed it but at Dagenham we were something like 40/1 outsiders at the start of the season – a bit like Macclesfield.
“You can have good spirit but you need good players as well. We believe we have that here.”