The end of the football season brings to an end a roller-coaster ride of emotion. Everybody feels it to differing degrees. The highs and the lows. But fans, chairmen, directors, managers, players, families... everybody feels football to some degree. As a manager, you sit in the middle of it all, arguably feeling it more than anybody, knowing that your job is to allow neither triumph nor disaster to gain a grip. It is up to you to maintain a healthy balance for everybody alongside you on the journey.
At the end of a season, there is time for reflection, for rejoicing or for commiserating, but one way or the other it is a time for planning, preparing and for looking forwards.
Personally, 2013-14 was a test of endurance for me. I have to be honest and say that losing in the 2008-09 Conference play-offs hurt me a ton more than this season’s relegation because my players deserved promotion in 2008-09 and didn’t get it. My feeling for them and our fans was intertwined with my own disappointment back then.Whereas this season, we got what we earned. I did not feel hard done by. Our fans tried hard and were so so loyal. But our team didn’t do enough to learn, improve and win.
I inherited a squad that was losing in April 2013. And I didn’t take long to work out why; the culture was wrong. The last 12 months have involved enduring difficult behaviour, trying my heart out to persuade change, fighting to create small improvements, being stuck with contracted players who didn’t want to change or move; it was tough. I had just to battle along. Dig deep for small gains. Then motivate myself to go again. Knowing that at the end of the season the power would shift and I could change what needed changing. And here we are. A step back. But sometimes you have to do that to move forwards.
I am lucky, if that is the word, that the fans at Stevenage, the board at Stevenage and the chairman at Stevenage have belief in me. They have listened to my constant interpretation of things and trusted my judgements. A different club with less strategic nous may well have decided that a managerial change was the answer. But not Stevenage. Unlike the 12 Premier League Clubs (60 per cent) that have changed manager this season, the club simply stuck with me all the way through and gave me a ‘bounce back’ mandate.
I have not been so excited about a new season in a long while.We built success at Stevenage through a phenomenal work rate, an innovative way of operating, a strong unity, and a ferocious ambition. Now we are looking to produce our best footballing product ever as we attack the future opportunity.
I left Stevenage in a strong position to be promoted into the Championship previously through a measured blend of defensive organisation, tactical ingenuity and attacking football. In 2014-15, we will seek to create a more exciting game than ever in League Two as we continue to learn and evolve and as we seek finally to stop the rot and strongly move forwards.
I visited Madrid last weekend to look at how both Real and Atletico operate. Benchmarking and learning from the current ‘best’ is always a good idea in my experience. I certainly gained a lot from it. I won’t have the resources to ‘be like them’. But that doesn’t stop me from doing my best to learn and adapt. So, for instance... Immediately, I have decided to introduce more specialist coaching into my environment in the key areas. My staff and personnel recruitment is already underway. Immediately, I have decided to re-engineer the relationship with our academy structure for mutual gain.
And, immediately, I have revised the philosophy of integration between the playing squad and the club and its communities.
These are tips of the iceberg of development. Our training methods will be further and significantly modernised and revolutionised to maximise the performance of our players.
The coming season gives me an opportunity to restore our club into one that people look to as a model of excellence on and off the field.
In interviews with possible summer recruits, players ask very little about Stevenage. They tend to think of Graham Westley’s Stevenage as being very hard working, innovative, organised and successful. They seem to have written off last year as the end of the change period. And they seem to think that the future will be bright again.
My level of optimism is tinged with the reality that a team of new lads can take time to gel, but my level of optimism is in knowing that we will work harder than any other team in our division to create success. Come hell or high water, we will find out what everybody else is putting in and we will go further. And we probably have the best training complex in League Two to operate out of.
As I said at the outset, a manager’s job is to stay balanced. Not to get too high or too low. Neither too optimistic nor too pessimistic.
These summer weeks are for holidays, rest, blue sky thinking. But they are also when next season’s Champions will be getting ahead. I know that what I learned in Madrid is an advantage. I know that the enormous extent of our recruitment planning is a huge advantage. I know that you get what you deserve and I am deter- mined that Stevenage will deserve again going forwards. Our playing squad are signing up to that agenda which is a great feeling.
Come August 9, the Leagues will be alive again. Every manager will want a great season. Every manager will want an opening win. I just want to get back to knowing that my lads will put down their shirts at the end of every game having given every ounce of energy to win.
As the old saying goes, I don’t want 101 per cent. But 99 per cent isn’t good enough. Not on any level.
May every single football fan enjoy a great summer break. And may every single England fan enjoy a great footballing summer.
We probably won’t win the World Cup. but let’s play to win. Let’s attack our opposition, let’s be inferior to nobody and brave enough to beat anybody.
Can I thank you all for reading my column this season and for the positive feedback that many of you have given me at grounds throughout the country.Your support is truly appreciated.
Remember, love football and football loves you.
LOYAL SUPPORT: Stevenage players salute their fans