By Matt Badcock
DARYL McMahon is the perfect guide of Ebbsfleet United’s new stand. Just three hours before last Tuesday visit of Torquay United, we’re walking across the pitch for the grand tour of the building that houses new changing rooms, conference rooms, supporters’ bar, media facilities and boardroom.
It’s impressive and signals the club’s progression. In the home changing room there will be a TV they can use to put live information across to the players to enhance half-time team talks.
McMahon, 34, jokes his new manager’s office might not be big enough for the fridge he has in his current one, but the big opening isn’t far away.
Fans are using the seats for games and soon the inside will be ready for use. The delay has been caused by the building contractor going bust partway through the job, but they’re as good as there now with just plastic sheeting to be pulled from carpets and some last minute tidying up.
Club owner Dr Abdulla Al-Humaidi, the man who has made it all possible, has two flat screen TVs in his boardroom and his own box that overlooks the end Fleet tend to kick to in the second half.
Not that he should be confused with having the ego of some club owners. He’s often spotted walking to matches from the train station and had to be encouraged to take the applause of the supporters when they won the National League South play-offs last season.
The next stage of ground development at the newly-named Kuflink Stadium is to rebuild the terracing behind the goal which will include a hotel. With this area of Kent going through a housing boom and, eventually, a mega Paramount Studios theme park set to be built, the club are looking to capture the imagination.
What better way to spread the word than a big date in the FA Cup first round proper on Saturday when League One side Doncaster Rovers come to town.
McMahon was busy watching clips of Barrow when the draw – which he admits will be tough – was made, but he appreciates what big days like this can bring from his Leyton Orient playing days. And how they can help foster what he describes as the most crucial factor at any club: spirit.
“We beat Fulham at Craven Cottage and lost at Charlton in the fourth round in the last minute,” he says. “It was a deflected free-kick from Jay Bothroyd.
“That was the year we won promotion as well and the cup run helped us as a team – we were a very together squad. In that year, in League Two, it was us Wycombe and Northampton who went up. Other teams probably had better players but we were a very good team and very together.
“You don’t win anything without spirit. You can have the most money or the least money, if you haven’t got spirit it doesn’t matter, you won’t achieve anything.
“Togetherness is the most important thing of any football club. And it’s not just the players, it’s the team behind the team. Like here. Peter Danzey, Cheryl in the office, Dave Archer, the commercial manager – all the people here who, when they come to work, every player says hello to them so everyone feels part of the same thing.”
It’s not something that just happens. But there’s an insight into how he operates before kick-off as he takes individual players aside before the game for a quiet word in the ear.
“We’ve been lucky that we’ve been able to go to Portugal in pre-season for the last three seasons and it’s definitely been a massive thing for us,” he says. “It settles everyone down and brings everyone together. They’re almost forced together every day for a week. We have quiz nights and do things together but they have their free time as well. If they want to play golf on their afternoon off they can socialise together. That’s really important.
“I’m fairly relaxed apart from, when we’re working, we’re working. Outside of that I’m very relaxed as long as you’re respectful of the environment and everyone in it. I’m chilled out with the players, I trust them.
“They also know they’ve got an open changing room. There’s no secrets. I speak to people face to face, I’ve got an open line to every player and they do to me.
“The managers I liked the most, I had that relationship with. They just take a bit of caring. Knowing what you’re like, what your life is like and try to understand things.”
Last Tuesday 1-0 defeat to Torquay was only the 13th in McMahon’s 101 league games since he took charge. In his first full season they finished runners-up to Sutton United and lost out in the play-off final to Maidstone United on penalties.
McMahon gauges the spirit and character he has in his changing room from the way they bounced back. Even 96 points last year weren’t enough to pip Maidenhead United to the title and in the play-off final against Chelmsford they had Anthony Cook sent off in the first half as they also found themselves a goal down. But they came back to finally win promotion to Step 1 four years after relegation.
Promotion had been the club’s be all and end all for a long time but McMahon insists on a squad that doesn’t feel like it can relax just because they achieved their goal.
A lot of that comes from the young players he says are “dying to play in the Football League,” the experienced Non-Leaguers who are “top players now in their own right,” and the older heads in the changing room, who have been there and done it. Characters like Andy Drury, Danny Kedwell and ex-Premier League forward Aaron McLean, who recently became the strikers’ coach as well.
“Macca will be the first one to admit that, he’s got technical ability and scores goals, he did it through hard work,” McMahon says. “Training harder than anyone else, working harder in games – he still does it now. Watch him in a game and he’s everywhere. It’s just built into him to be like that and it sets examples to young players. ‘If I do it and I’ve played in the Premier League, then you’ve got to do it because you’ve been playing in the Conference South’.
“That might sound a bit harsh, but it’s true. If you want to go to that next level you’ve got to be prepared to put the miles in. Whether it’s managing and going to games, getting on the phone, researching training, or a player making sure you’re ready to perform.”
McMahon says Drury plays like he’s in McMahon’s brain, while striker Kedwell has led from the front since the day McMahon took the manager’s job.
“It’s incredible to keep going, not so much the matches but the training every day,” he says. “The three of them, barring injury, don’t miss a day. The biggest one is Kedwell. In my two-and-a-half years he might have missed three training sessions because he’s never injured either. Keds is the one player we have, I don’t care what anyone says, who defies sports science! He does! No matter what you do to him. He runs at over 80 per cent for 90 minutes, which is unheard of really.”
What about the young players, are they different characters these days?
“Definitely,” McMahon says. “They’ve got a lot more than we had and they’re definitely better at analysis and self-analysis.
“Probably my age coming through, if somebody told you you’d done something wrong you’d want to have a row with them and fight your own ground.
“Now, younger players especially, want criticism to get better. Jack Powell is one who, nigh on every Monday, comes in to chat about his game from the Saturday and talk through his video clips. The things he’s done well, the things he hasn’t, the games he’s seen – he just loves football. You’ve got to have that time to help their development.”
McMahon’s own development as a manager is only just beginning. He hung up his boots aged 31 because he wanted to walk on the management and coaching path.
His own approach is relentless, he says he’s lucky wife Alex, who he met in a Romford club when he was 16, understands how he ticks. Last week they welcomed the latest arrival into their family, with daughter Marnie joined by baby sister Aspen.
“I’ve got a very settled home life,” he says. “I live 50 miles away so any stresses or strains I can leave on the drive back and when I get home be a husband and a dad. It’s hard at times. My wife understands sometimes my mind will be elsewhere.
“I’m still a novice in management. Hopefully, touch wood, it’s the start of a career, but you can never tell in football can you? It’s so volatile but so far so good and hopefully we can build on what we’ve started here.”
*This article originally featured in The @NonLeaguePaper, which is available every Sunday.