Gary McCann spoke to The Non-League Paper’s Dave Richardson for this week’s paper about life after Hendon and leading Hampton & Richmond Borough on a late charge for a National League South play-off spot.
Then Greens boss McCann began to feel a different emotion in the summer of 2018 as the Dulwich Hamlet players and supporters celebrated their play-off final victory on penalties.
A 12-and-a-half-year stint as manager at Hendon had led him to this cruel, season-defining moment and ultimately his final game in charge of the club he first joined as a goalkeeper in 1997.
McCann told The NLP: “From the minute the game was over, I thought did I have it in me to do it again, were there going to be other options out there?
“I thought about my own selfish situation which I’d never done in management, I’d always thought about the club first. Maybe it was time to think about myself.”
Two days later, McCann was told by Alan Dowson, who was set to leave Hampton & Richmond and become Woking’s new manager, that he was the Beavers’ number one target.
“I felt straight away it would be a difficult decision for me but one I was going to make professionally rather than emotionally,” the 47-year-old explained.
“It’s been well-documented I made a lot of dutiful decisions at Hendon and maybe damaged my own long-term career, who knows the damage I may have done.
“Emotionally, I stayed the right amount of time, professionally maybe seven or eight years longer than I should have.
“Four or five different options became available but I never felt a burning desire to go. It just didn’t feel right, Hendon needed me more. We were very much in turmoil for a while.
“We should have been relegated with the budget we had, I’m not exaggerating, it’s the truth. I felt a duty to see them through some dark years.”
The McCann Stand now sits proudly at Hendon’s Silver Jubilee Park, the ground the club waited eight years to move into after Claremont Road was sold to a property developer.
McCann, along with the Greens’ volunteers, was a driving force in keeping the club going during that time, working on very limited resources but in three-year cycles, twice built sides that reached the Isthmian League play-offs and, in-between, once his talented players had been picked up by other clubs, kept them in Step 3.
“There was a period that was really dark,” McCann recalled. “I relied solely on my management team and my family. There are periods where you question your involvement, your ability, even your sanity, at times.
“You question it all. Criticism is the nosiest and loudest it can be and the praise is the littlest guy in the corner whispering. You feel like it’s a thankless task.
“The two clubs I’ve been at they’ve appreciated the work I’ve done, how hard-working, how knowledgeable and passionate I am. That rubs off on your teams.
“My wife was a real motivator in it all, asking me where I would be if I wasn’t going off to football on Tuesday?
“I’ve had some difficulty off the field. Losing my brother three years before leaving Hendon, anxiety took over, I struggled to do team talks and I’m not convinced the changing room knew how difficult it was for me to stand there.
“They’re things supporters and people don’t see. But you get through the other side of it and here we are now. It was tough at Hendon, a really good learning curve for me as a manager.”
Hampton and Hendon have their similarities. Two community clubs with volunteers at the core and both considered among the smaller fish in their respective divisions.
It’s tough on the pitch too with budgets twice if not three times less than their rivals which often results in summers of endless phone calls and negotiations to hone and rebuild a squad.
But McCann, managing at Step 2 for the first time, has forged an impressive reputation for his recruitment and network of contacts in the game.
“It’s all about recruitment and we can sit here and portray as managers that we’re wonderful coaches, tacticians, motivators but it’s the team you can put together,” he said.
“If you get your recruitment right within the restraints of the budget you tend to be competitive. Mis-management of your budget is normally the downfall of your results and performances.
“I had an empty changing room when I took over [at Hampton]. I had to assemble a whole new squad, sign 17 or 18 players. I had a similar scenario this summer for different reasons.
“What I’m hoping for is to go into year three with at least nine or ten players from this season and if we can do that then we’ll be well-served for a real push again next year.”
McCann admits his time at Hampton so far has been a rollercoaster, finishing 15th last season, at times flirting with relegation, reaching the FA Cup first round where they beaten on TV by Oldham Athletic before chairman Graham Wood resigned at the end of the season.
The club announced a “much-reduced” budget for this campaign but McCann remained determined to continue, signing a new two-year contract.
However, eight defeats in their first 11 games signalled a tough season but a sell-on fee from Jamal Lowe’s transfer to Wigan from Portsmouth provided some much-needed financial backing which McCann has used wisely.
Now they’re in play-off contention from a run of 11 wins in their last 18, which includes just five defeats.
“We’ve recovered brilliantly but that’s not just through management and coaching, that’s from recruitment,” said McCann, who has tied down centre-back Charlie Wassmer, winger Ryan Hill and midfielder Wadah Ahmidi for next season.
“The chairman [Jacques Le Bars] has supported and backed us. I feel we’ve got one of the stronger squads now. We’ve proved that in the last three months. We’re still huge outsiders but we’ve definitely given ourselves a chance.
“The chairman has given me the indication he will support us if we really need it going into March and the home run. This year was very much about stabilising and progressing. We’ve done that.
“One more win will starve off relegation. I don’t think many after 18 games truly felt we had that in us.”
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