Observers of his two-decade career on the pitch largely recognised Darren Byfield for his goal threat, while those who worked with him identify a frontman whose impact directly benefited his strike partners.
What the man himself freely admits is that he’s always enjoyed calling the shots, so when the former Aston Villa, Sunderland and Jamaica forward began pursuing a post-playing future, his eyes were always on management.
It’s almost 20 years since a young striker from Aston, Birmingham first ran out for Villa in the Premier League, with a professional debut handed to Darren Byfield at Leeds United’s Elland Road. While he would reach double-figures for games at his famous first club, his release as a 23-year-old truly kick-started his career, which would see him bag goals with regularity, and as high up the pyramid as the Championship’s upper reaches, with the likes of Sunderland and Bristol City.
He also proudly pulled on the gold, green and black for the nation of his parentage, Jamaica, featuring at the iconic Estadio Azteca against Mexico in the 2003 CONCACAF Gold Cup. There would be appearances at Wembley and the Millennium Stadium, too, in playoff finals with Bristol City (Championship, 2008) and Walsall (Division Two, 2001), with his extra-time winner against Reading in the latter still standing as his favourite club football moment today.
Even after his international and Football League line-leading was done, he still appeared on scoresheets for AFC Telford United, Tamworth and Solihull Moors in non-league. It’s now Worcestershire where you find him, leading from the sideline each game as manager of Redditch United in the Evo-Stik League South Premier.
He has been at the Reds helm since May 2016 and is feeling a much greater grasp now of the landscape as a number one than when he first started, so at what point did he begin to envisage Darren Byfield the manager?
“It was as I got older,” he explained. “As a player, you concentrate on playing; there’s a lot of players who have management in the back of their head, but I didn’t.
“It was as I got older and understood a lot more about people’s positions in the game. I said to myself, ‘I like what that manager’s done,’ or ‘Oh, I wouldn’t do that,’ and I realised I want to do it.
“I don’t know anything but football; I left school and played football all my life and I want to stay in the game. Some want to become coaches, I wanted to manage.
“Anyone who knew me as a player knows I like to do things my way! It was a case of being in charge and implementing my ideas.”
Yet to turn 40 when he took on that first managerial role at The TRICO Stadium, he had gained valuable coaching experience at Solihull Moors during current Chester FC boss Marcus Bignot’s tenure. Joining a Redditch team who had just missed promotion the year before with a playoff semi loss, the 2016/17 season was a tough one as they finished 17th in the 24-team division and just three points above the drop zone.
Although very far from plain-sailing, that campaign has proved a great grounding for Darren, and promotion is the aim this time around as they sit just in touch with the top places at this mid-November point, in 7th place and with their striker Dior Angus the division’s top scorer with 13. Assisted by a man he describes as his closest friend, fellow ex-Villa youngster and long-time Football League defender Reuben Hazell, Darren also has another former teammate on his staff, in ex-Gillingham left-sider Danny Jackman.
He explains why Redditch has been a particularly worthwhile place for him to kick off and sustain his managerial intro, as we speak now, 18 months into his reign.
“It’s been a great learning curve. I like to do things the hard way, I suppose.
“I’ve come in and it’s helped me, because last season was really tough and we were poor. When I say that, I mean I was poor, because when you see teams failing, at any level, I agree that players have to take some responsibility, but at the end of the day, if your players are letting you down as a manager, week in week out, it’s your job to replace them.
“It’s your job to realise that these guys aren’t doing what you’re asking them to do, so ‘out you come for a few weeks until you realise what I want you to do.’ The buck stops with the manager, it really does.
“Being here at Redditch, it’s a case of I do the academy every day, so I’m on the pitch coaching, and then it’s part-time for the first team, so that’s the most frustrating part, if I’m going to be honest, in non-league. It’s a Tuesday evening and a Thursday evening – sometimes just a Thursday because you’re playing on a Tuesday – whereas full-time, every day I’d be in my element training.”
“Some want to become coaches, I wanted to manage.”
Touching there on the often very stark differences between fully professional and the majority of non-league football, for someone who began at a club the size of Aston Villa and made his name in the Football League, has the transition in terms of stadiums, resources, facilities etc. been a culture shock in any way?
“I went on loan to Blackpool when they were in League Two at the time, and I’ve played against non-league in the FA Cup, so I’m used to these things anyway. I’ve never had it where I was surrounded by big stadiums all the time, so that part was easy.
“The hardest part was not knowing the players, and recruitment, because at that time I was banned from driving for six months so I couldn’t get up and down the country to watch players and bring them in. This season’s been a lot easier and it’s because I know a lot of the players in the league.”
A striker who got into double-figures in seasons at Walsall, Rotherham, Gillingham and Millwall, Darren says the true difference in operating in non-league comes in an intangible form.
“Once I went into non-league, I watched and I studied a lot of the players while I was playing myself. The thing is, it’s not the case of League One / League Two being much better players – what I found was in the mentality of a lot of non-league players.
“I see a lot of non-league players just accepting when they’re beaten and I think it’s that mentality that’s the difference, not talent or ability. That’s not all non-league players, but a lot.
“I’ve found myself trying to get in their heads and say, ‘Look, you can be what you wanna be. Look at (Jamie) Vardy.’
“If that can’t inspire non-league players to realise then I don’t know what hope they have.”
Reds chairman Chris Swan said Darren was the standout candidate from the high-calibre managerial applicants they had, citing his ‘professionalism, passion and sheer determination.’ He wasn’t shy to speak his mind as a player and says people who knew him back then understood where his bad points were.
With the onus now on him to lead every day, he doesn’t think much has changed in his approach, on the surface at least.
“(I’m) the same – but I know it’s not always the right way. As a manager, I need to work on myself to realise there’s things I want them to do but I’m not working with ex-professionals who were brought up through academies, every day training to know little things that are required in football.
“Last year, I’m asking players to do stuff they can’t possibly do at this precise moment; it’s going to come from me putting in work to help them develop. I also have to understand that these players are coming to training from work, so it’s my job to motivate them.
“For me, it’s about learning about myself. As a player, anyone will tell you that I was very aggressive with it; I wasn’t shy to say what I think and I’ve always been that way, rightly or wrongly.
“That was me and the best managers knew when to leave me alone. They also knew when to get on my case and that’s man-management.
“I’m learning all this, and in 20 years, I’m still going to be learning, but I think we’re doing well at the minute. It’s about me growing and wanting to better myself, and having the right people around me.
“I’ve got my closest friend, Reuben Hazell, alongside me, who is not shy to tell me what he thinks. I’ve got Danny Jackman, who I’ve known from Aston Villa and Gillingham.
“They’re ex-pros, so when they think, ‘Oh, Darren’s gone off the rails again,’ they can calm me down. I know the things I need to better myself, so for me as a manager, I’m still working on myself, but from this season to last season, I’ve calmed down so much.”
In a career where he could largely be counted on to rack up his share of goals, Darren actually feels that his biggest attribute was unsettling a defence to help his fellow attacking players. After returning from his participation in the 2003 CONCACAF Gold Cup with Jamaica in the United States and Mexico, his eyes had been opened to an alternative viewpoint as he saw the drive and hunger his Jamaican-born Reggae Boyz teammates carried.
Even his Rotherham boss at the time, Ronnie Moore, was startled by the difference, as his work-rate seemed to hit new heights on the training pitch that pre-season, and it ultimately led him to promotion-chasing Sunderland, where he played under Mick McCarthy. In his own light-hearted words, ‘everyone knows I’m a journeyman,’ so naturally Darren played under numerous bosses, having been given his Villa debut by Brian Little.
The line that so often comes from ex-players who go into management is that they took elements of each manager they worked with, but asked which one he thinks he enjoyed the best understanding with, Darren found it difficult to pinpoint a name. He did, however, have special praise for the ex-Queens Park Rangers defender currently working to keep Chester FC in the Vanarama National League.
“It’s a weird one…do you know what? I can’t answer it.
“I’ve always had good managers, but I always believed something let them down – great coaches / bad man-management, or great man-manager but not a good coach, or too strict, too nice. So, when players do say that, about taking something from everyone, I know exactly where they’re coming from.
“I had Marcus Bignot, to be fair, who will stand out a lot more, because it was great to work with him, it really was. I was a player-coach at Solihull Moors so I watched a lot more with him because of where I was at in that stage of my career.
“Marcus will be successful because he loves football and his attention to detail is second to none. He’s a very good coach, he knows when to manage, he knows when to have a laugh and a joke.
“Me and him are kind of like the same person in that sense and so we bounced off each other.”
Soon after Darren took the Redditch job, he brought in another notable (and not-so-shy) frontman, in the ex-Republic of Ireland striker Clinton Morrison, who said he had turned down clubs to work with Darren. Surrounding one’s self with the right people, in terms of shared trust and respect but also those who’ll speak up when something needs to be addressed, is pivotal in building and leading a team.
“I take more time now to think about the other person, and that’s the biggest thing that’s helping me..”
As well as being helped by having friends and former teammates by his side in the aforementioned Reuben Hazell and Danny Jackman, Darren says he’s finding a greater empathy towards those he’s tasked with guiding, and that’s what he believes is the biggest lesson he’s taken from football overall.
“I’ll tell you what I do now: whatever it is, whatever problems, whatever emotions are going on, I stand still, and all I say now is ‘alright, I’m gonna become you, and I’m gonna look at it from your point of view.’
“That’s in everything that I do. ‘Why do you act that way? Okay, could be this.’
“So, I take more time now to think about the other person, and that’s the biggest thing that’s helping me right now to become a better person and with helping others. Even when I shout and have a go at my defenders, my midfielders, my strikers, afterwards I’ll ask ‘why did you think that way?
“How are you? Do you have problems away from the pitch?'”
During his international career, Darren and his Jamaica counterparts would refer to the national stadium in Kingston as ‘The Office,’ and in many ways, the football pitch, whether it’s matchday or training, remains that to him. The man whose left-footed, skidding drive sent thousands of Walsall fans wild in Cardiff now spends much of each week working to develop the match-winners of tomorrow within Redditch’s academy.
Aside from of course managing the first team, he also has a daughter who just started secondary school, so is there any time left to be selfish and dedicate to himself?
“My life is all football now. If I’m not with my daughter, or with the first team or the academy, I’m driving up and down watching games, looking for players.
“I love when I can go round with my friends and have a drink, have a chat and catch up, but my clubbing days are way past me – I mean I’m 41 now! I’m just an adult really now, a grown man and those days are finished, I suppose.
“I wish I could play golf. I used to play a lot of snooker, badminton, but I just don’t have time for it; it’s just all football-related now.”
Interview/article by @chris_brookes