By Matt Badcock
Hard work beats talent, so they say, and Lee Fowler knows it’s the only way to be now he’s a manager.
As a player, there weren’t many more gifted in Wales than the Cardiff-born midfielder. A youngster at Coventry City, he would set-up a goal underneath the window of Gordon Strachan and send his first shot off the window to make sure the manager was watching.
On his day in the National League he would be the best player on the park. Spraying balls around the pitch and making things happen.
But when asked recently on the podcast I Had Trials Once – presented by his former Fleetwood team-mate Gaz Seddon and Altrincham striker Jordan Hulme – Fowler made reference to how he failed as a player.
He was on the bench in the Premier League, scored the winning penalty that sent Huddersfield into Division Two in 2004 and was part of Fleetwood’s record-breaking Conference title win.
But by his own admission it could have been even more and that’s why he’s determined to make it as a manager.
His first season probably feels like ten. Starting out at Nuneaton as Nicky Eaden’s assistant, a club in crisis before recently being saved, Fowler learned quickly. In December he took the Ilkeston Town job in Step 5 and by the time the first campaign was signed off, he had a title win on his CV. He’s already caught the eye of other clubs who are watching on his progress.
“It’s been a crazy season – it’s only going to help me in the long term!” he says. “Obviously you want stability from an owner and a chairman or a football club. We didn’t have that Nuneaton with any of the chairmen. The club was a mess to be honest.
“But we learned how to galvanise a group and keep them motivated. Going into Ilkeston wasn’t easy either. They’d had three managers themselves and there were issues in terms of the dynamics of the group. I had to win them over. I made a few mistakes but also a lot of good decisions and we got there in the end.”
Honesty is Fowler’s first policy. He’s up front, gives rollickings or praise when required and believes it earns respect. After the first game he bought a £70 round of drinks out of his own pocket and has also taken the players bowling.
“I think it’s (honesty) rare in the football industry anyway but especially for managers. Some are so afraid of, what they might say is confrontation, but it’s not it’s just being honest.
“I’ve played under managers where you know they’re lying to you. They make up any excuse as to why you’re not playing but lads see through it and don’t respect you.
“When you do get dropped and they don’t say anything, it brings resentment. The biggest thing I’ve learned from when I played was, just sit and talk to people. Pull them when they’re doing good, pull them when they’re doing badly and then they know there’s a consistency. Then when you are asking them to put their bodies on the line, they will respect you.
“They might not like the decisions all the time but the one thing they will say, especially the lads at Nuneaton and Ilkeston, is they know I will tell them the truth and I care for them.
“That’s the reason why we got so much out of the lads at Nuneaton and why they’ve bought into me at Ilkeston.”
Ilkeston pipped Walsall Wood to the Midland League title – winning penultimate game of the season 7-0, against Dunkirk, before thumping Loughborough University 8-1 on the final day to seal the title and book Step 4 football for the go-again outfit. Fowler couldn’t be more proud of how his players got over the line.
“I see football as people first rather than footballers,” Fowler says. “Managers and players can often treat each other like a piece of meat.
“A manager might think, ‘Well I can use him for six months and then I’ll bomb him off’. I want to go a different way for it.”
When Jamie Walker and his partner had a baby, a card was arranged along with some presents and flowers were sent to another player’s nan when she was in hospital as well as a note in the programme.
It’s not to say it’s anything drastically out there, but Fowler believes those small gestures go a long way.
“I’ve played under managers who have played in the Premier League or the World Cup and they don’t have that about them – they’re isolated,” he says.
“Football has changed so much, you near enough have to be everything – their manager, their dad, their minder, their best friend. The people who got the best out of me were the ones who were invested in me as a person to get the best out of me as a player.
“Managers are trying to get the best out of players but how can you if you don’t know if they have any kids, what background they’re from, what they’ve got going on? Look at the Cowleys – they’re like that. Every time they’re interviewed in the paper I read it. Telford manager Gav Cowan’s another one who is on that path.
“It’s the new breed of the way managers are. It’s good to listen to people like Gav, the Cowleys, Lee Johnson at Bristol City, who has helped me out with a few bits and bobs over the years. They all talk properly about people. It’s not just because the cameras are there. Look at Jurgen Klopp – people want to play for him. There’s no doubt they won 4-0 against Barcelona because of him.”
Fowler’s relationship with Dean Saunders has always been strong and he highlights Steve Burr, who he played for at Kidderminster Harriers, as someone he enjoyed playing for.
Fowler wants his players to have their opinion heard. When he arrived at Ilkeston the training ground was quickly changed from a five-a-side cage to Eastwood’s 3G surface and even got better footballs.
But he knows there’s a balance with his determination to get everything spot on and professional to players who have been grafting all day enjoying turning up and playing.
“I always want to work,” Fowler says. “I’m on people’s websites, their twitter feeds. If I’ve got a free Saturday or Tuesday I’m at their game. I get video clips and break them down.
“Sometimes that can be a little too much for this sort of level. They’ve been at work all day and they’re not used to that level of detail.
“But I promised myself when I went into a football club I would leave no stone unturned. I’m scared of a player turning around and saying, ‘He didn’t have a clue, he didn’t even know what formation they played’. That’s been embedded in me.”