Photo: Danny Draper/Ilkeston Town FC

A certified club great, Mark Clifford’s takeover of Ilkeston Town a fortnight ago was especially eye-catching given he was already head coach. Sustainability has been a key word uttered, but in his quest for success, he also hopes a revival of what made his playing days with the club so enjoyable can see the modern-day Robins into full flight.

It was with Mansfield Town that Mark Clifford would first play League football just before he turned 19, and though his professional introduction with the Stags was relatively fleeting at four games, he would be back one day to taste life again in Division Three. That came at Boston United, for a not-so-shy-and-retiring full-back by now in his mid-20s, and off the back of a golden time as a promotion winner in amber and black.

A defender with a taste for attacking, he was never too far from the pranks in the side that memorably pipped Dagenham & Redbridge to promotion in 2002. The 2-0 win at Hayes’ old Church Road ground sparked scenes that form the most enjoyably enduring images of his playing days, with the prelude to his Pilgrims move fitting neatly alongside that as his happiest period in football to date.

“I’ve had two where you look at the dressing room and go ‘that’s where the success came from; the banter that the lads had and the togetherness,’” he explained. “One was at Ilkeston before they sold me to Boston, and then the other one was at Boston, in the side that Steve Evans put together when we won the Conference.”

“They’re the types of dressing rooms that can go to anywhere in the country and go and get points in places where you’re probably not expected to.”

How he would love to implement the best of both spells in his new role. With Ilkeston, he was a promotion winner, spending four stints with a club that has had to be twice reformed in the past decade.

Having made extremely impressive coaching strides at Basford United, helping lead the Nottingham outfit up to Step 3 of non-league alongside Martin Carruthers, he was named Ilkeston Town’s new head coach in early-August. In mid-October, the fondly-remembered Robin was unveiled as the man to take over ownership of the Derbyshire club from Alan Hardy.

Success and self-sustainability were the central objectives then outlined, with the intention to ensure history is never repeated for a club that has felt the very worst outcome of financial peril in its previous incarnations. Along with a new crest, there are plans to redevelop the New Manor Ground on all four sides, install a 3G pitch, and to convert adjacent green belt land into a large car park.

New changing rooms, a full-time sports bar and high-quality corporate hospitality and function areas have also been spoken of, with industrial and office units around the exterior of the ground proposed as significant revenue generators. The intention is also to have an academy in the near future, but even with so much to try and put into practice, Mark insists he will not be looking to replace himself with a new head coach/manager any time soon.

“No, absolutely not; I think if that was the case it would put again another financial strain on the club. I intend to be the owner, I’ve got some very good backers, some great people behind the scenes to deal with the day-to-day running of the football club, and I can continue to do what I was brought in to do, which is manage the first team.”

The early days have yielded no lack of reasons for optimism. The Robins won the Midland Football League Premier Division last season, lifting the title on goal difference from Darren Byfield’s Walsall Wood.

Former Coventry City man Lee Fowler delivered the promotion after taking over from Martin McIntosh in December, but the Welshman would depart in the summer. Ilkeston currently sit 4th in the BetVictor Northern Premier Division’s South East Division, amassing 22 points, though like various non-league tables at this stage, it is obscured by some teams having played as many as 13/14 games, with others as few as six or seven.

Mark shares his assessment of the campaign so far.

“Considering I took over three days before our first game, on the 10th of August, with 11 players, two goalkeepers and one long-term injured, we lost that first game but we then steadily started to pick up points. I’m really happy as to where we are at this moment.

“I think we’ve put together a great group of lads who are still gelling, in all fairness. Some teams have had the whole of pre-season and the back-end of last season to build from there and develop their team and their squad, the camaraderie.

“We’re still kind of in that, and to sit where we are in the league and to put in the performances we’re putting in, I’m actually really pleased where we are now. I know there’s only going to be better things to come from us.”

Photo: Danny Draper/Ilkeston Town FC

A decade ago, play-off-winning Ilkeston reached the Conference North, though it was while at that level in September 2010 that an unpaid tax bill of £50,000 saw them wound up by the High Court as ‘plainly insolvent’. Former Nuneaton Borough and Chester City player Mark wants a new era with all the best of yesteryear, but vital lessons learned from failings of the past.

Is he also mindful of steering clear of specific mistakes he felt certain managers or executives made during his playing days?

“Yeah, absolutely. I think it’s important that the players are allowed the freedom.

“The manager – myself, obviously – should be allowed to get on with his job without people interrupting in the day-to-day running of the team. Often people can have an opinion on what you’re doing but they don’t know the complexities inside the squad and some of the things that you have to navigate.

“Players are football players but they’re humans, and they go through different phases in their lives as well, and it’s important that as a manager you manage that, but people outside, chairmen, don’t necessarily see the influence they’re having on the squad and the decisions that you have to make based on them. The funders (at Ilkeston) won’t be interfering in that, there’ll be a strong board that underpins that, but I want there to be an ability for the team to just do their job and the manager to get on with it.

“Yeah, somebody’s always answerable to somebody, but the bottom line is let’s just go and enjoy the football club, and that’s from a fans’ perspective and from the playing side as well.”

He arrives via a club he had left an undoubted mark on. Previously Under-21 boss, he became Basford United’s first-team coach after the departure of Chris Freestone in 2015, and as Martin Carruthers’ assistant, he was one half of a partnership that would thrive.

The club won two promotions and a pair of Notts Senior Cups during their tenure, with their 2017/18 side storming to the Evo-Stik South title. Fuelled by former Grimsby Town man Liam Hearn’s 39-goal haul in the league, they finished 15 clear on 100 points. Basford were also joint-top scorers (and in 9th place) a division higher when the management team departed in March this year.

Mark was briefly back in a scouting capacity over the summer, and as he left for the Ilkeston hotseat, Basford chairman Chris Munroe described him as ‘a class individual and a top coach.’ Recalling his initial departure alongside ex-Southend and Scunthorpe United goal-getter Carruthers, Mark responds to the question of whether it was unexpected, or altogether more mutual.

“It was a little unexpected, but it was mutual, and I’ve got a lot of respect for Basford and Chris Munroe; everything he’s done at that football club is absolutely phenomenal. I think some things just run their course, and I think that situation had just run its course.

“Chetts (Steve Chettle) has come in and done a fantastic job, they’re sitting in a great position and I’ve got nothing but love for Basford United, the fans and the players there, and Chris and his family as well. I wish them all the best.”

Former Nottingham Forest stalwart Steve Chettle is a case in point, and as well as in management roles, one-time Football League and even Premier League names often resurface in non-league teams up and down the country. Although living within their means is a necessity for Ilkeston, as a former pro himself, will Mark be open to adding a renowned player to his side now and again? Perhaps someone with undoubted class and experience who is looking to get going again, like former Forest midfielder Lewis McGugan, just as an example?

“Absolutely, I didn’t know Lewis was available, so Lewis, give me a shout! In all seriousness, I think you’ve always got to have those marquee signings.

“Not only do they raise the profile of the club, they add invaluable experience to some of the younger players, because I want the mixture of the team to be right. We’d like some experience, but we’d like a lot of young players as well, because they’re the future and we wanna build.

“Some of the older players might have a year or two in them, but we’re hoping with a young team and the right experienced heads we can develop a team for the next three-to-five years.”

Photo: Danny Draper/Ilkeston Town FC

It is longevity he touches on, though Mark admits as a player he had a case of itchy feet on occasions, though often with good reason.

“I’ve always really enjoyed football and I’ve probably been the master of my own downfall at times, where I’ve been somewhere and probably not really given my all, and it’s maybe led me to want to move on quite quickly, or I’ve not got on with someone at the club, maybe in the management. I’m a man’s man and I like to play for people, I wanna give my all for someone, and if I didn’t really have that at a club then it didn’t quite work for me as a player.

“So that’s what I’m hoping as a manager, the players wanna play for me, because they know I give everything for them and I’ll back them all the way, but ultimately, I expect the same back.”

Mark has recalled previously how Steve Evans sacked him four times during the season Boston won the Conference (surprising, given the famously placid nature of the current Gillingham manager…maybe not). At Ilkeston, he played for the late and lamented Keith Alexander, though he would turn down the chance to rejoin him at Lincoln City, given he was playing for the Imps’ Lincolnshire rivals Boston.

He has never struggled to find colourful personalities in football, so pinpointing a very select few is naturally difficult, but a couple of keepers spring straight to mind nevertheless.

“There’s lots. You’ve got the likes of Chris Marples from back in my old Ilkeston days; he was a typical goalkeeper and absolutely mad as a hatter.

“Paul Bastock, an absolute nutter as well but great lad and one that pulls dressing rooms together. More recently, the likes of Kieran Wells who’s at Hednesford; another fantastic character, a great lad, and I’ve no doubt he’s pulling Hednesford together, because he’s an absolute pleasure to have in your dressing room.

“You need those characters, it’s really important.”

His coaching path has seen him working on utilising football to help give second chances to youngsters, while social inclusion has been at the heart of his day-to-day efforts with Trent Bridge Community Trust. It is fair to say that never being shy of a challenge might also come in handy in his latest Ilkeston adventure.

When it comes to the football/life balance, nothing throws that into added chaos quite like taking over at a new team (and then taking over the club itself), as Mark and his wife Katrina now know all too well.

“Yeah, I’m not getting that balance right, my wife would be the first one to tell you; she’s reminded me over the last day or so. I need to find that balance.

“It’s gonna be busy, I’ve got children as well and they obviously need my attention and my time. I’m not getting that right at the moment, but it’s a big responsibility I’ve taken on, and if I didn’t put all my time into that at the moment, I wouldn’t be doing my job properly as owner and as manager.

“It will settle down, I know that, and my wife and children do understand that as well. It comes with the territory.

“They support me, that’s the main thing, they come to the games and they want to see the club and me and the team do well. At least they can be part of the success that we’ll have, and we will have success.

“It’s difficult for any manager, the phone doesn’t stop ringing, it honestly doesn’t. If you’ve not got players, you’ve got agents, it just doesn’t stop, so it’s really important that we remember we’re human beings as well and have an opportunity to sit back with our families and enjoy life.”

Interview/article by @chris_brookes

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