The Monday Profile: Graham Westley
It was only a matter of time before Graham Westley’s achievements at Stevenage piqued the interest of more firmly established members of the Football League. And the club that tempted him from Broadhall Way could hardly be more established. Following the confirmation of Westley’s appointment as Preston manager last Friday, much scepticism was expressed among the Football League Twitterati regarding the suitability of club for man, suggesting perhaps that he would have done better to wait for an offer from the league above that in which he continues to ply his trade. However, for anyone who has followed his career, there was no doubt that the chance to lead a club with such significant (if ancient) history would prove too difficult to refuse.
Not so long ago, that such an offer would be made at all would have seemed incredible. Like many of the current crop of coaching starlets, a career-ending injury pushed Westley into management at the age of 28. A short and unspectacular stint at Kingstonian was followed by nine months at Enfield, by then a fading former giant of the non-league scene. His failure here could have been the end of a career, but a year later Westley bought a majority shareholding in Farnborough Town and appointed himself to the manager’s role. It was here that he made a name for himself, first in gaining promotion to the Conference National and then by leading Farnborough to a fourth round FA Cup tie with Arsenal in 2003. However, what should have been a moment of glory left an indelible stain on his reputation. Having switched the match from Cherrywood Road to Highbury in pursuit of the money, Westley almost immediately withdrew his financial support and condemned the club to years of pain, culminating in its dissolution in 2007.
The fact that these misdemeanours have been hardly touched upon in comment following the news of the Lilywhites’ interest in Westley says a great deal about his achievements at Stevenage in the last two and a half seasons. His stock in north Hertfordshire hasn’t always been so high. Not long after leaving Farnborough, Westley was appointed as manager at Broadhall Way, taking with him several of his former side’s best players. Initial success in reviving a struggling club was followed by more modest results in the next two seasons, and increasingly acrimonious relations with the fans. After parting company with Boro in 2006, unnotable spells at Rushden and Diamonds and Kettering Town were followed by a year’s hiatus. By Westley’s own admission, this period prompted a reassessment of his approach to management and his public persona. That he was confident enough to return to a club that he had left just two years earlier is indicative of his self-belief and ambition. That he went on to lead it to consecutive promotions suggests that his self belief might be well founded.
Subsequent events are well documented. But what can PNE fans expect from the new man in the Deepdale dugout? Along with a number of other young managers, Westley takes a keen interest in sports science and fitness. Neil Mellor et al will be pumping iron like the 38th Governor of California, although it won’t all be protein shakes and raw eggs. Westley applies an eye for detail to his training programs: the surprise star of this Premier League season, Steve Morison, is one ex-charge who has benefitted from this, having spent the summer before his final season at Boro in a North London gym working on his acceleration at the behest of the gaffer. For the team as a whole, meanwhile, the result of this hard work is an ability to stay the 90-minute course, testing opponents with strong running from midfield while maintaining concentration at the back.
Unsurprisingly, given the muscularity of the training regime, this defensive durability has been the key element in Stevenage’s recent ascent. Daniel Speller’s superb and timely analysis of Stevenage’s tactics for The Seventy Two details its individual components very well, but here a few stats will suffice to tell the story: in winning promotion from League Two last season, Boro kept 14 clean sheets and have racked up 8 more in League One so far; no side conceded fewer goals in League Two last term than Stevenage, while in League One only runaway leaders Charlton have been meaner.
At the other end, the attacking approach is direct, although any thoughts of Charles Hughes conjured by the use of that word would be unmerited. Pacey wingers and marauding midfielders are the key. Lawrie Wilson and John Mousinho have been the main men for Boro these past two years, and in the likes of Paul Parry, Danny Mayor, Adam Barton and Iain Hume, it would appear that Westley will have something to work with.
Though the raw materials for success appear to be in place, some question marks remain. Relations with his superiors, in particular, are a potential point of friction. Throughout his career, Westley has thrived when given a free hand as a manager. Of course, being the majority owner guaranteed all the freedom he desired at Farnborough. But some of Stevenage’s success must be attributed to the trust placed in him by club chairman Phil Wallace, whose financial sense must make him one of the better employers in the League. With PNE’s accounts in such a parlous state and the presence of football’s self-styled knight in shining armour at the club, will Westley be allowed the space to get on with the job? Just as importantly, will the players be willing to graft like their counterparts at Stevenage? Westley and his coaching staff have very little experience of the game’s upper reaches, and it’ll be very important for them to get senior members of the squad such as Graham Alexander onside early in their tenure. Another ex-Stevenage boss, Mark Stimson, failed in his crack at League management with Gillingham precisely because he replaced too many experienced pros with favourites from previous clubs.
The decision to take over the reins at Deepdale was certainly a brave one. A comfortable environment and a chance at unexpected glory traded in for brand new challenges and a club in financial difficulty. If the decision pays off, though, it won’t just be the Lancastrians who are upwardly mobile.