In the opener of this new interview feature roaming through the routines, memories and lighter sides of those in the non-league managerial hotseats, Salford City’s joint-gaffer Bernard ‘Bern’ Morley is first up.
Nearing three years at the Ammies helm alongside comrade Anthony ‘Jonno’ Johnson, the man he began his managerial career with in a highly successful spell at Ramsbottom United, Bern has been helping to plot what would be a third promotion for the club during their tenure. That would take Salford up to the Vanarama National League, leaving them just one more admittedly sizeable step away from the club’s target of EFL status by 2020.
Although around since 1940 and their Salford Central days, most mentions of the club nowadays understandably go alongside references to their ownership group of Peter Lim and five of Manchester United’s famed ‘Class of ‘92’ (Gary and Phil Neville, Paul Scholes, Ryan Giggs and Nicky Butt). Following their 2014 takeover, greater national spotlight was shone upon the Ammies with two series of a BBC documentary charting life around the team, club and its community.
In that first campaign after the takeover, Bern and Jonno were appointed as mid-season replacements for previous boss Phil Power, with the hope of their no-nonsense approach and experience being able to address a slump in form and guide them back on the promotion path. Two moves up the leagues later, they currently sit top of the Vanarama National League North as they bid to go one better than last season after being denied by FC Halifax Town in the playoff semi.
This summer saw the dawn of their era as a professional club, which meant full-time two-year contracts for the managers. A few months in, Bern has been relishing the chance to dedicate his efforts each week to the team.
He cites returning from a midweek game last season at Boston United at 3am, before then having to report to his full-time ceiling-fixing and partitioning job a few hours later as the type of scenario he was glad to leave behind. The 33-year-old ex-Ramsbottom United and Clitheroe midfielder says the team are finishing games stronger, but he is keen to judge the true difference of the step-up in status over a longer stretch of time.
“The massive positive is time: answering our phone, being able to ring people, getting jobs done,” he explained. “Last season, the main breadwinner for me was my full-time job, so it was hard work getting on the phone during the day, trying to get signings over the line while you were working.”
“You’ve got your boss on your phone to you every two minutes going, ‘you’ve not got this done, you’ve not got that done.’ This season, you get plenty of time to plan things like who needs to train at what intensity, because some you might want to run, some you might want to send to the gym, some you might want to give the day off.
“We’re only three months into it, so in six months I might have a lot more answers if you were to ask me again, but we’re happy with what we’re doing. It’s a dream job to do full-time football.”
Having grown up together, with Bern coming from Radcliffe and Jonno from Bury, the Ammies gaffers are not far off a decade in management together now, leaving Ramsbottom during their sixth season at the club and having guided them to two promotions to reach the Evo-Stik Northern Premier League’s top flight. After taking over in the North West Counties League, they had led Rammy to its highest point in club history, though they both distinctly recall a 5-0 loss at Newcastle Town at the beginning as a sobering introduction to the managerial game.
The club’s chairman and founder Harry Williams telling them ‘win or lose, we still booze’ subsequently let the crestfallen young managers know that Ramsbottom was about more than just the results on the pitch. Bern fondly remembers the community environment at the club and how his and Jonno’s family were made to feel hugely significant in it all.
Speaking of a simple ‘work hard and see where it takes you’ ethos at Rammy, Bern says it was a dramatic change despite the drop down a league when they arrived at Salford, but they hit the ground running and ultimately began delivering under that pressure. On a long unbeaten run that had seen them rack up win after win, the BBC documentary in the first season showed the whole team at a curry house, receiving updates from Darlington’s Tuesday evening game at Warrington Town as they held their breaths for a draw or Darlo loss to crown them champions.
Finding out it finished 1-1 in that game confirmed it, and as the first major checkpoint on their journey at the club, is it up there for Bern when it comes to not just career highs, but life moments?
“Massively, yeah. That night was such a relief.
“For me and Anthony it was like, ‘we’ve really done it,’ after all the hard work you put into it, and when we finally got the result it was like a breath of fresh air. Coming in, we told the lads ‘this is what we are, and if you want to be part of it going forward then we’re going to be successful.’
“To be fair to them, they really bought into it; the likes of Danny Webber, Gaz Seddon, Jason Jarrett. We did sort of give them a new lease of life, but we said to them, ‘listen, we’re hungry, we’re both young lads,’ and they were coming to the end of their career, whereas we’re just starting, so we sort of met half-way.
“We had a lot of people saying Darlington were too far in front and we wouldn’t get there, but we really worked hard and we got on a great run (winning 15 of 17) to win that league. There was a lot of pressure, not just from the owners but from the outside, and then you’re sat in an environment with the lads where you’re eating and having a bit of fun, but as soon as we got the news that they’d drawn and we’d won it, it was just a relief.
“With the owners we’ve got, you don’t get time to enjoy it because you start planning for next season straight away, but for moments, it was definitely up there with the best of them.”
The following season (2015/16) saw them achieve promotion to the National League North, albeit via a different route and certainly not without some bumps in the road. Their run to the FA Cup second round had seen them dispatch of League Two Notts County 2-0 in an unforgettable televised game, though Jordan Hulme’s 87th-minute clincher to win the playoff final 3-2 at home to Workington was the real prize for a team who’d come 3rd in the league.
Despite their numerous successes in management so far, there have naturally been the more arduous times for Bern and Jonno. One such example came in that second Salford season, as the Ammies let slip a 3-1 lead at home to lose 4-3 to Darlington late on.
That saw Salford leapfrogged by the North East side, who would go on to take the one automatic promotion place, and while thinking of the particularly soul-searching periods of his time in management, Bern admits that was undoubtedly one.
“Yeah, you talk about Darlington, especially the one at home. We’d had a good run in the FA Cup and we were still up there in the league, and we probably didn’t think we’d catch Blyth at the time and that Darlington one really rubbed salt in the wound, to lose to your biggest competitor.
“We’re renowned for not taking defeat well; I don’t think anyone does but it really hurts us and it’s not a case of ‘alright, we move on to the next game.’ After the 4-3 against Darlington they then beat us 3-2 in the 94th minute at their place soon after.
“That’s when you have to take a good look at yourselves and think ‘how do you come back from that?’ – and we did. Them bad days maybe give us a kick up the backside in terms of working a little bit harder, accepting we’d lost them two games and the only thing that would’ve put it right was to win promotion.”
Good and bad, to go through such experiences can lead to lasting bonds being forged within a team. As Salford managers, the pair work off what Jonno describes as ‘implicit trust,’ but both he and Bern say they are markedly different people.
It is the kind of question they are asked often, though Bern outlines his view on how they approach blending a distance between them and the players, with that ‘live and die for each other’ mentality.
“We started managing at 25/26, youngest managers probably in England at the time at the level we were managing at, and we’ve come up the leagues really close to our players, and the reason we were successful is we were still playing at 25/26 and we managed to get our friends playing with us. If you ask people who’ve worked with us and worked for us, they’ll tell you that we’ll have the crack and we’ll walk the walk with the lads, but there’s a line.
“That line only comes now and again, and that’s on a matchday at half 1 until half 5; that friendship goes out the window and it’s down to business. On the coaches on the way home from games we engage with the lads.
“I think it’s really important that you have that trust with the lads. I think the higher you get, you can hold players to ransom, because you’re talking about big money, but at the levels we’re at I think it’s really important that you have the lads playing for you and you try to be as open-minded with the lads as you can, as long as they know who’s in charge.
“When it comes to decisions, there’s no sort of emotion in it now; it’s strictly business. The further we move up the ladder, maybe me and Anthony will have to distance ourselves a bit more, we don’t know yet.”
While the situation at Salford is undoubtedly unique, the managers have spoken before about their squad budget being far less than many seem to believe, and lower than some in the National League North. Having resources is far better than not having them, as so many clubs will attest to, but as highlighted in a section of the aforementioned Class of ’92 series, players and clubs naturally began hiking up their asking price in the transfer market soon after the Ammies’ new ownership group came in.
A couple of years on, Bern confirms that the club still encounter significantly-heightened demands when they make attempts to strengthen their side, and they also see a difference in teams on the pitch when they line up against Salford.
“In terms of player recruitment, my answer would be that if a centre-midfielder wants to sign for Salford City, he automatically goes up £200 because of who we are. That’s what we believe people think, however, if that’s what it is then that’s what it is.
“People think we’re paying people £1500 a week, and two grand, and it’s absolute nonsense. On a personal level for me and Anthony, at neutral games we’ve been to, we’ve seen teams work nowhere near as hard as they do against us, and that’s been sides above as well.
“That’s something that really drives me and Anthony on and gives us that extra bit of desire to want to win leagues, because people want us to fail, because of the whole Salford City thing and this perception of us paying thousands and thousands a week, when really, we’re nowhere near. People think me and Anthony are on £1000 a week and we’re driving around in fancy cars, and again that’s not the case, I can tell you that now.
“That’s just football, or any sport, and I think you have to be strong characters to be in the job.”
That self-belief and thick skin extends to more and more areas for modern-day managers, and while there are plenty who choose to keep themselves away from social media, many throughout the game have recognised the potential of such a platform in harnessing a connection with supporters and even media. That said, when anyone who can get online suddenly has a direct communication path to players and managers, not everything will be positive and constructive.
Although he’s still relatively new to Twitter, Bern has had a good chance now to get to grips with it, and he takes the rough with the smooth.
“People call us Hale and Pace, and Morecambe and Wise, and we get called clueless, we’re lazy coaches. I just see that as a strength, because if people bang on about me and Anthony as they do then we’re obviously in their thought process – if it didn’t matter and we weren’t a threat to anybody then people wouldn’t talk about us.
“I’ve only been on Twitter 13 months so I’ve not had half of what Anthony has. The sort of criticism we get, it isn’t personal, it’s just football and it’s how you take it.
“These people who don’t want us to do well, it just drives us on to do even better.”
Away from phones, laptops and computer screens, Salford’s rapid development in all areas isn’t halting. This season has already seen their Moor Lane home unveiled as The Peninsula Stadium, with renovation completed on all four sides of the now-5,000-capacity ground and a naming-rights agreement secured with local law employment specialists Peninsula.
Sir Alex Ferguson was joined by Paul Scholes, Ryan Giggs and Gary Neville as he did the honours at the unveiling ceremony in October, while another of that famous Manchester United youth crop, the former Bury boss Chris Casper, is now on board as Sporting Director. There is no expectation on the Ammies managers more intense than the one they place on themselves, and as Salford lead the way in the league this season, the hunger to bury last May’s playoff semi-final loss and reach the National League couldn’t be stronger.
There would be no Salford City without the lifeblood that has been the volunteers and supporters, which is something those at the top continue to cherish and show their sincere recognition of. In the vision of all involved, the Ammies will be running out at league grounds every game, competing in the League Cup and starting at the first (and hopefully one day, third) round of the FA Cup each season.
On such a rise, it would be impossible to keep everything about the club completely the same, though Bern is confident that those in charge will ensure that growth comes with a grounded humility. The hope is that he and Jonno will be the ones to lead them to ever-loftier heights, so does he ever see himself changing as the scenery around them grows in prestige?
“I think there’s some strong characters around me and Anthony in terms of our families, the chairman (Karen Baird) and the owners. I don’t think they’ve ever said to us ‘you need to change what you are.’
“There’s things where we need to get more professional than we are, I understand that. If you were to ask me what that is, I don’t actually know what it is, but in terms of appearance, professionalism, organisation, there’s loads of things we need to get a lot more professional on.
“However, we’re hands-on managers; we speak to the fans, we interact with people. The higher we get, I don’t think I’ll ever change as a manager.
“There’ll be certain things you can and can’t do, I get that, but being who I am, I like to interact with people, sign things, talk to them after the game in the bar. I get that the higher you go, you don’t interact as much, but with the owners at Salford being who they are, I think that’s what they really enforce with us; to go in the bar after the game and speak to supporters for a good hour.
“They’re really big on that and having that family-orientated background. They put facilities on, on a matchday, because they want families turning up.
“People have always said to me and Anthony that the higher you get, you’re gonna have to change, but I don’t know how we could.”
Each manager in The Bosses’ Lounge will also take on a unique Q&A…so here’s the very first!
When did you want to start coaching/managing – was that when you both got the Ramsbottom job or had you done any before?
That was the first time I’d ever coached or managed, or even ever thought about it, to be honest. Just purely based on the fact that we had to leave Clitheroe, so then I went playing for Ramsbottom, purely based on the friendship I had with (owner) Harry (Williams) and I was just sat in a changing room with a bunch of lads who didn’t look interested in playing for the manager that was there. I just made a phone call to Anthony, who was still at Clitheroe, saying ‘would you fancy taking the Ramsbottom job on? Should we go in for it?’
Which training sessions do you enjoy leading the most?
We’re winners, so on a Friday, pre-match, it’s high-intensity, 6-a-side, short, sharp. You just want to see the lads working hard, screaming and shouting, because footballers hate working hard, and that’s mine and Anthony’s sort of kick we get out of it where you know they’re calling you every name under the sun!
Will you ever take part in training?
I’ve always joined in training until this season, and I think it comes back to professionalism. I think it’s only fair to join in training when it’s not really important, and that sounds stupid really. We’re both overweight, we’re both getting older, and for us to join in the sessions will only hinder the quality of the session! We want our sessions to be match-intensity. We bang on about discipline and hard work, and if you see your two managers joining in like that then it can’t be as professional.
Favourite ground (other than your own) that you’ve visited or would like to visit
The best one I played at was Telford. I played there years ago when they were in the Conference and they had a big fancy gym underneath it, four or five thousand there, and I was a young lad playing semi-pro, so that was brilliant. The whole of football, it’s hard to say. I’ve been to Parkhead and that was brilliant. Old Trafford’s as good as it comes in terms of the atmosphere where I’ve been, and I am a City fan, but I’ve been to Old Trafford a couple of times and it is a good place to be in.
Favourite player to watch (past or present)
Roy Keane. As a player, he was hard, he had everything about him. Was his discipline great? Not really, because he got sent off, but he was a great leader. That’s everything me and Anthony want from our captains now; someone who replicates what you are as managers and who’s your eyes and ears on the pitch. I think with how he played and how he applied himself, he was someone I’d always look up to as a player. As a manager, he said it how it was, he had no hidden agenda. I’m not saying I’m like Roy Keane, but in terms of how he applies himself, how hard he works, that’s the reason I aspired to be like him.
And how would you sell the club to him if you were trying to sign him?!
Taking away who the owners are, I’d say ‘we are what you were’ and we’ve got that fiery side. Would we clash? Probably! Sometimes as a manager that’s what you want out of a footballer, as long as they’re not disrespectful towards you. That’s how it is with me and Anthony and it’s not that you can’t challenge us; if someone wants to come to us and say ‘Gaffer, we feel like you’ve got it wrong today’ then we’ll be open-minded like that.
Pre-season tour anywhere in the world
America. Long Beach, Vegas – all that comes to mind! I played there (Northern Nevada Aces, Nevada Wonders) so that’s why I’d like to take the lads there. Going to places like California, it was great to experience as a player, so I’d love the lads to experience it themselves.
Most challenging part of your job
I think it’s managing the dressing room. Me and Anthony work hard with being open-minded with the lads, because I think if you’re arrogant as a manager, you don’t get that extra 10 percent from them. This season, we’ve got some big players and managing them all was always going to be a challenge, but we relish challenges like that.
Funniest player/coach you’ve worked with, or just one of the funniest
I don’t think we’ll ever replace Jordan Hulme (former Ramsbottom United and Salford City striker now at Altrincham) as a character. Great footballer, but as a character, just irreplaceable. I’ve met some good people in my nine years of managing and 15 years of playing, but Jordan Hulme, he’s hard to explain. I think if you were to put that out – ‘Jordan Hulme’s a character’ – there’ll be thousands that vouch for it.
Most embarrassing moment as a manager
I think seeing myself on telly; I always think that’s embarrassing, I don’t like to hear myself. As a manager, I’ve got my team talks messed up once or twice over the years and I’ve come out with one-liners that just don’t make sense! You’ve got 17 or 18 lads in the changing room waiting for you to make that mistake so they can have a laugh and I’ve come out with some embarrassing ones.
Your routine on a matchday
For the last nine years, I’ve always driven in with Anthony. We always stop for something to eat. We’ll never pick the team until we get there, so an hour-and-a-half before kick-off; people find that strange. I’ll always talk first at half-time and after the game. He’ll name the team and has done for the last nine years, so we’ve got our own little jobs and we don’t change.
One singer/band or song you would sneak on to the team playlist
Deacon Blue – ‘Dignity’. And ‘Forever in Blue Jeans,’ I don’t know who sings that (Neil Diamond).
Advice you remember getting that’s stuck with you
I think in terms of managing, to be able to take criticism. You’ve got to be able to take it and not always see it as a negative. In the early days, I hated to be criticised about what team we picked, how we played, but now I think it’s what makes you a better manager. I think people patting you on the back every week telling you how good a job you’re doing isn’t good. If you’re good at doing something and you can take criticism, that can only make you a better person.
If you could have some time with any manager, past or present
Definitely Sir Alex Ferguson, 100 percent. Again, not being a United fan, but I’ve always said I believe that he’s as powerful as he is because of the Scottish side of him; that accent straight away gives you a different approach to a person. Just as well because of how many characters he’s managed and how brave he was as a manager, getting rid of Jaap Stam, (David) Beckham etc. He made some big, big decisions in his day, and never looked back on them. I think as a manager, you always sort of walk on eggshells around your good players, whereas Alex Ferguson didn’t care who you were. I think Eric Cantona was one he let get away with certain things, and that was because he was Eric Cantona, but I think if you ever stepped out of line it didn’t matter who you were, he treated people exactly the same. I think it takes a strong manager to set the bar and let the lads know that nobody can just get away with anything.
How have you changed since you first started coaching/managing, or what’s the biggest lesson you’ve learned?
I think if people were asked about me they’d say I’m honest, and I work hard and I’m passionate. Now, controlling those emotions on a matchday is something I feel like I’ve managed in the last couple of years especially. Screaming and shouting is who we are, but I’ve just tried to pick and choose when I do it now. I feel like that’s an art, knowing your players and who you can scream and shout at to get the best out of and who you have to put an arm around. I feel like we’ve both come away from it and only do it when it’s most necessary. We’ve met Alex Ferguson a couple of months ago and had a good chat with him, and the most recent one was Eddie Jones (England rugby union manager), who says he doesn’t scream and shout at all. That’s because he’s managing at an elite level, whereas in non-league, I think you have to show that passion and desire so players sense that. The minute I sort of lose that desire, I just don’t think you’d get that same sort of reaction out of the lads.
Any misconceptions about you as a manager/personality, myths you’d like to dispel, or something you wish people could understand a bit more?
Yeah, I think people need to understand that we’re being treated like every other manager at this level of football. Obviously, we’ve got access to better facilities and the advice we get from our owners is more advanced, but in terms of the financial side, how we do things and what we get given, we’re not treated any different and I think that’s good. Of course I’d want to be the highest-paid and have a fancy car, but I think it’s important people understand that our owners make sure our feet are always planted. The minute we get above our station, they would never allow that.
And finally, what’s the best thing about having this life around football?
It’s everything I’ve always wanted to. It’s everything Anthony’s always wanted to do. Obviously, we always wanted to be professional footballers, but managing professionally is the next best thing to playing, and with some of the experiences we’ve had, it’s irreplaceable. Playing at St. George’s Park against Benfica Under-23s, meeting Alex Ferguson, socialising with one or two people, and just basically being given the opportunity to manage for the ‘Class of ’92’ is a big sell in itself.
Interview/article by @chris_brookes