By Matt Badcock
Dropping into Non-League didn’t faze Edgar Davids.
“I am not one who polishes his medals,” the Dutch midfielder, who had three Eredivise titles and a Champions League triumph at Ajax and three Serie A league wins at Juventus, not to mention his 74 Netherlands caps, infamously said.
“It is what it is and you are where you are. If you have to go the Conference, you have to go to the Conference.”
It was a quote from the legendary midfielder not long after Barnet had been relegated out of the Football League with him as player-manager. The message was clear: he wanted to stay at Barnet.
Having been given a points total of 51 to reach by chairman Tony Kleanthous – a target he duly hit – when he arrived in League Two, the Bees may have considered themselves unlucky to be back in the Conference. But, here they were, and here was Davids.
Before clubs had reconvened for pre-season, Davids posted a picture on Twitter from a glamorous location with fellow Dutchman and all-round top-class midfielder Wesley Sneijder. Just a few weeks later he’d be on the sidelines for a home opener with Chester.
Naturally people scoffed. What did someone who’d played for Barcelona, Inter Milan and Tottenham know about Non-League?
Probably not a lot, but perhaps that says it all when it came to Davids. Frankly, he didn’t have to be there – often he wasn’t, famously forgoing some long trips north.
He became a target with Conference players desperate to either nutmeg him or play on his fiery temper, a tactic that often worked with Davids shown three red cards before promptly declaring at Salisbury City that enough was enough. Referees, he felt, were getting the book out so they could tell their mates they’d sent him off.
Possibly at times he didn’t help himself and by taking the No.1 squad number off keeper Graham Stack, he was asking for the attention from the opposition. Rumours, which proved to be true, floated around that he demanded to be called ‘Sir’ by his team. His touchline clothing choices were, let’s say, not usually seen being worn by a manager and would often get him into hot water with the league for breaching their guidelines. It’s difficult to imagine him being too fussed.
But deep down there was a softer side to a man who became one of football’s most recognisable characters. He has a big heart and just loved football – before Barnet he’d been turning out for a Sunday League team – and was even found having a kickabout in his tiny office with his scout.
When he was on his game, the class that took him to the very top shone through. When he wasn’t, the opposition thrived on it.
His teams played the sort of football you’d pay to see – although often to their undoing – and when he left in January 2014, the club were tenth in the table and three points outside the play-off places. Not a man to take guidance, his exit left people wondering what might have been.
Occasionally in Non-League football, these storylines throw themselves up. Someone will come along who has star status but, instead of choosing a more comfy living, opt for Non-League management. All credit to them even
if it often doesn’t last long. Paul Gascoigne’s reign at Kettering Town was famously ill-fated, while Jimmy Bullard had a brief spell at Leatherhead.
Stockport County had their interesting times, too, not least when Dietmar Hamann took over. Like Davids, he was a Champions League winner from his Liverpool days and he had played in a World Cup final with Germany.
Quite why he left a coaching role at Leicester City to take on the Hatters is not known, but he too entered the muck and nettles in search of managerial success.
Former County press officer Phil Brennan tells an amusing story about the man known as ‘Didi’. With media crawling over any chance to speak to the former Bayern Munich midfielder, requests would quickly pile up.
Soccer AM wanted to come down to film their Crossbar Challenge and get a few words with the man himself. Phil put the request in the manager’s in-tray, and didn’t hear anything to the contrary.
That was until the day of filming itself, when Hamann called and said, in light of their results at the time, he wouldn’t be doing it not least because it’s “not a serious football programme”.
It prompted a phone call to the en route camera crew who were able to divert to Oldham Atheltic.
A few weeks later, and with just three wins from his 19 league games, Hamann left Edgeley Park.
On a rare Saturday off, Phil switched on the television and flicked to Soccer AM. And who would be sat on the sofa…? Hamann.
It’s often only later when we look back at these fleeting moments in Non-League football history that it seems so remarkable. And it begs the question of who will we see in the future. Because there will no doubt be some big names gracing Non-League dug-outs in the future. As Davids said: “If you have to go the Conference, you have to go to the Conference.”