Can League Two produce another Martin O'Neill?
With the news of Martin O’Neill’s resignation as manager of Aston Villa still smouldering as it burns off the presses, one of the summer’s more surprising managerial developments has come to pass. While Villa are obviously outside the scope of this august publication, a comment made by Richard Bevan of the LMA has caught my attention. Bevan is quoted as follows in relation to O’Neill’s departure:
“He is a great example to all aspiring managers, having built the foundations in non-league football to then go on to successfully manage at the highest level in the game.”
So how many of the current crop of managers in the lower echelons of the English domestic game have the potential, or ambition, or even the wherewithal, to achieve what O’Neill has, in making himself one of the bastions of club management in this country over the last two decades?
Clough but not enough
Many have, in recent times, attempted similar career trajectories as that followed by the bespectacled Northern Irishman. Perhaps the best contemporary example is Nigel Clough, currently bedding down at Derby having worked wonders at Burton Albion, in a similar fashion to O’Neill’s opening gambit at Wycombe in the early nineties.
Whereas Clough junior will more than likely remain forever in the shadow of his father, who managed O’Neill at Nottingham Forest, the work he is quietly undertaking at Pride Park gives rise to the thought that he may well make the step up to the Premier League one day. He may in fact be able to do so with real confidence, based on experiences at the sharp end of English football.
However, for every Clough, there’s a Tony Adams. For every Lee Clark, there’s a Steve Claridge. So, what of those operating in League Two these days?
League Two managers at the start of the 2010/11 season can broadly be split in to three categories. Residing in the first, men such as Sammy McIlroy at Morecambe, the evergreen Dario Gradi at Crewe, Graham Turner, having swapped Hereford for Shrewsbury, Bradford’s Peter Taylor, Ronnie Moore of Rotherham, newly-promoted Stevenage’s Graham Westley and John Coleman, boss at Accrington.
These managers have years of experience, wily nous gleaned from many years at all levels of the English game. All, to one extent or another, offer fine examples for young up and comers to follow, particularly in the case of Coleman, Gradi and McIlroy in how to operate on a budget tighter than last year’s funkiest jeans.
These are not men that clubs higher up the ladder will turn to when looking to fill forthcoming vacancies, but their wisdom will ensure that their teams are as organised and effective as they conceivably can be this season.
In category two, we locate a plethora of middling men, some of whom may make the step up to League One or the Championship, but who, in the main, will more than likely be plying their trade in the bottom two divisions for a while yet.
Any number of names could find it’s way in to this list, but I would surmise that Ian Sampson at Northampton, Bury’s Alan Knill, Mark Stimson at Barnet, Chris Wilder of Oxford, Burton boss Paul Peschisolido and Paul Simpson, newly installed at Stockport, as well as a good few others, could find themselves wandering around the lower leagues, without ever really making that big step up.
Many of these managers have had a crack at the big leagues before, without distinction, dropping down to refresh and renew their careers for another stab at glory, while men such as Sampson and Knill are men dedicated to their clubs and largely loved by their supporters for their passion and loyalty.
Don’t be surprised if any of the bright, young-ish managers here lead a successful promotion campaign this season and are mentioned when one of the Seventy Two’s leading lights has a dip in form and needs a managerial makeover. All of these managers are capable men, with the acumen needed to build and sustain a successful squad, but few of them have the proven ability to manage big names or budgets and it would be a surprise if many of them ever get the opportunity to try.
Buckle knuckles down
Finally, we reach the final in our arbitrary trio of categories: those who, it appears, have all that might be required to make the step up, following in O’Neill’s footsteps.
The first suggestion is Paul Buckle, who, in his quietly unassuming and efficient way has transformed the fortunes of unfashionable Torquay United, turning them in to a team with the winning habit, and a pleasingly attractive and yet functional way of maximising players of limited but focused abilities in to a genuine outside bet for promotion this season.
Buckle ruthlessly reshaped his squad in January, jettisoning popular players such as Chris Hargreaves and Tim Sills, in favour of younger, more energetic and pacy players such as Chris Zebroski. The results reaped both in the final third of last season and at the start of this one indicate a manager who knows how to work within his limits, encourage and mould individuals into a team, and work astutely enough tactically to win plenty of games.
It would be a surprise if Buckle is not plying his trade at a higher level before too long. Whether he has it in him to make it all the way to the top six of the English game might well be another matter, but he certainly appears to be League Two’s best chance at this moment in time.
Names in the frame
Others, such as Micky Adams at Port Vale, and John Sheridan at Chesterfield are rebuilding their careers successfully, and can be expected to progress, whether with their current employers or at pastures new, over the coming seasons.
Neither of these men have the potential of Buckle, but Adams’ work at Vale Park last season, morphing a poor side into genuine promotion contenders, beggared belief. Sheridan too moulded a decent side at Saltergate, and with the new ground factor this year, Chesterfield can be expected to be there or thereabouts at the end of the season.
If either attain promotion this year, expect covetous glances from chairmen in the lower reaches of the Championship.
Finally, we come to Andy Hessenthaler, newly reacquainted with the Priestfield faithful at Gillingham after a wondrously victorious time in the non-league at Dover, where his charges achieved promotion after promotion.
The way Hessenthaler and his chairman, Paul Scally, have gone about re-tooling the Gills’ squad for this season makes them strong favourites for promotion, and with Hessenthaler at the helm, this is doubly so. Well-liked and talented, he is a man with a winning mentality, momentum, and the will for success which was so crucial to Martin O’Neill’s early successes at Adams Park.
Whether he has what it takes to go all the way in the managerial game will more than likely be a mixture of talent, good fortune, and being in the right place at the right time, but of all the twenty-four managers in League Two at the start of this potentially fascinating campaign, Hessenthaler is the one with the credentials and history most similar to O’Neill’s. It will be interesting to see if the football gods smile upon him as they have the now ex-Villa boss.
While the premise of this article may appear somewhat far-fetched, the idea that either Paul Buckle or Andy Hessenthaler, particularly, may follow Martin O’Neill to the top of the game in England isn’t as preposterous as all that.
After all, when Wycombe were promoted to the league back in 1991, who would have thought that, nineteen years later, we would be talking in this way about their manager? Sure, a lot has changed since then, and the dispiriting lack of quality in English managers and coaches has led to a surfeit of opportunity for the best on offer to rise to the top, but it is not impossible.
As Richard Bevan said this afternoon, it is only to be hoped that managers in League Two see Martin O’Neill as a shining example to aspire to follow rather than the exception to the rule.
Written by: Haydon Spenceley