If a climb to the Vanarama National League North summit is called for, Southport manager Liam Watson surely qualifies by now as a master voyager. The one-time Football League marksman is back this season to lead a club he says he will always be a fan of, though rest assured, something feels unmistakably different this time around.
In a division that sticks out like a non-league sore thumb for its famous club names, those in the National League North dugouts pack their share of pedigree, too. Stockport County’s Jim Gannon has managed as high as the Championship, Alun Armstrong (Blyth Spartans) was a UEFA Cup goal hero for Ipswich Town, and Steve Watson (York City) is a Champions League competitor of Newcastle United past.
Among those with EFL links and promotion-winning pasts is a man now at the Southport helm for the fourth time (third permanent). A boyhood Evertonian and once a Preston North End pluck from non-league, Liam Watson has won this league twice already with the Port (2005 and 2010), and once with AFC Telford United (2014).
The only Southport manager to win two championships, he also won the division below with ‘little old’ Burscough in 2007 before leading them to just outside the National League North play-offs. On the way to such feats there have naturally been less rosy times, and not everyone through the years has been quite his pan of scouse, and vice versa.
Nevertheless, some ties have proved altogether truer, and the success and solidarity he knows can be attained is in no small part helping fuel him as this season’s months zip on by. Announced as manager in the summer following Kevin Davies’ departure, he has presided over a striking turnaround in recent months, after a dismal start to 2018/19 which had Southport in the relegation places as recently as mid-November.
In identifying the cogs he believed were clogging the playing side, he was reminded of the overhaul he engineered in 2003, though the club overall today is in many ways removed from what he recalls from seasons gone by, and he is delighted about it.
“Obviously there’s been change,” he said. “Charlie (Clapham) was chairman for a long, long time, and there was an awful lot of good things that he brought to the football club.
“Anyone who spends that amount of time at a club deserves respect, because he put a lot of money in over the years, but whenever it came to the final hurdle to really kick the club on he was reluctant to do so, and he was reluctant to bring somebody in alongside him, because that probably wouldn’t have worked. This is no disrespect to Charlie but he is very much his own man.
“Phil (Hodgkinson) and Ian (Kyle) have come in as new owners; they’re very transparent and determined that they want to move the club in the right direction, but also over the right amount of time. They both gave me unbelievable support, because if you think of the first 14 league games, we only took eight points, so to have that support was invaluable and I really do appreciate it.
“Southport has traditionally not been good in terms of going out and getting new business; it was always relied upon as ‘we need a new match sponsor – just go back to the same people.’ With Natalie (Atkinson) coming in as the CEO, she has been a breath of fresh air.
“She’s gone out, she’s tried to reengage, she’s employed her own staff, supported by Phil and Ian, and that’s what’s kicked the club on massively.”
Liam was in interim charge this time two years ago, having initially returned to the club as operations director, but 12 managers (including Steven Schumacher as caretaker) have come and gone since his last permanent tenure, not to mention players by the bucket load. It has very clearly been castles built from sand rather than solid foundations for the seaside club.
Under today’s management, the plan is to build the revenue over three seasons, which the club say has been welcomely boosted by function bookings at their Merseyrail Community Stadium home. The target is for a self-sufficient club that can compete in the National League, and with various projects ongoing, including refurbishments around the stadium, their community endeavours saw their first soccer school held earlier this season.
Playing-wise, Liam has set out to build a younger side, while the Under-21 team was discontinued back in September as it was felt 18-21-year-olds should be playing first-team football. As well as having extra room with resources – Phil Hodgkinson told on 12th January that Liam had spent just 10 percent of the transfer budget and 65 percent of the wage allocation – the new chapter includes transitioning to a full-time model.
“A lot of the time, players don’t struggle ability-wise; a lot of the times it’s mentally.”
The players currently train three mornings a week and will be full-time next season. It represents a significant change too for the manager, who, despite his achievements, has typically combined football with another job, and not one for the faint-hearted.
Beginning at the high-security Ashworth Hospital in his mid-20s, Liam had five years working on the intensive care ward, frequently calling on him to work with such patients as convicted murderers. He notes just how crucial psychology was in those times, admittedly in a role with far more resting on it than the beautiful game, but far from leaving it behind, he feels he has very definitely been able to utilise those experiences in his chief position today.
“A lot of my background is in psychology more than coaching, because of my previous job, so (moving to full-time) actually enables me to spend more time with the player on an individual basis. I’ve got a great assistant (ex-Northern Ireland winger Jon McCarthy); he’s a top-drawer coach, a top-drawer man and I don’t have to worry about anything on that side of it.
“He knows that’s his domain, I don’t interfere, even though I have input. I let him get on with the coaching and it actually frees me up to deal with the board, deal with the press, the players, the contracts.
“A lot of the time, players don’t struggle ability-wise; a lot of the times it’s mentally. Confidence can be a massive issue, and sometimes, they get a bit too egotistic as well.
“If you’re part-time and you don’t have a game on Tuesday, you normally go and watch a game, and then you get an hour-and-a-half with the players on the Thursday, so to get more time with the players helps me massively to utilise what I’d say my skills are.”
Working as a scout for League One Scunthorpe United before his Southport return, Liam knows the fragility of a playing career better than most. He moved to Preston from Warrington Town in 1992 for a non-league record fee, but after a few games, his League endeavours had effectively ended because of injury.
Along with Stanley, he would lead the line for the likes of Marine and Witton Albion before a move into management with Runcorn FC Halton, where he had been playing, at just 29. Almost two decades later he remains grateful to his chairman back then, Dr David Robertson, for the faith he showed in him as a first-time manager.
This season, he had to draw on every fibre of his expertise after Southport’s start to the campaign, but prior to losses to Altrincham and AFC Telford United last time out, their recent form had been remarkable. A 4-1 triumph at Kidderminster Harriers kicked off a run of 13 wins from 22 in all competitions.
It is all in very stark contrast to the early knockings of the season, which began with four defeats in succession, so besides the continued squad reshaping, was there anything Liam especially believes enabled their turnaround?
“The dynamics were fundamentally wrong. We had too many players.
“A lot of the players had reached the pinnacle I’d say of where their careers will ever take them, because the salaries some of them were on far outweighed their ability; certainly far outweighed what they’ve achieved. We had to put that into perspective and you had to get the good lads, who are the honest ones you know are at the club for the right reasons, you had to build around them whilst moving players out, not just because of the money but you had to get people who want to buy into how you want to be and how you want to play.
“I wanted them all to be a team, rather than too many individuals. If you think back to the first day of the season, you’ve got a squad of 26 players, and only 11 get picked; there’s more sad faces and bitter faces than happy faces, and that’s not how it should be in any work environment.
“You’ve got to create an environment where people can express themselves.”
The early struggles came to a head with the 4-0 mid-August loss at Chorley. The forthright and frank openness that so many football fans yearn for, particularly in today’s greatly diluted game at the higher levels, was on full display as Liam gave his post-match interview.
He retained his characteristic calm but there was little mistaking his sentiments, as he spoke of certain squad members being overpaid and believing they were much better than they were, as well as vowing that some would never play for him again. An emphatic 4-1 win at Nuneaton Borough followed, but it was not really until November that they began to take off.
Reflecting on speaking his mind so openly after the Chorley match, Liam explains that while it came in the relatively immediate aftermath of the result, it was exactly as he intended.
“My close-knit friends, who know me properly, will know that was planned. It wasn’t ‘I’ve gone and done an interview straight after the game’ – I waited 45 minutes before I did that interview.
“Everything I said needed to be said. The good thing about it, I knew there was going to be a downturn in terms of the reaction, but I’d also find out who actually wanted to play for me and to be here, which was massive.
“Also, the fans, they see what I see, but most managers don’t say it; it’s not the ‘in’ thing, you look as if you’re on a rant. If you go back now and look at that video, I’m only saying then what I’m saying now: I knew they didn’t care, they weren’t interested, I knew some of them thought they were far better than what they were.
“As I said, they were at a good club, they were getting well looked after, and to actually do what they did, someone should have highlighted them rather than the manager.”
Although admittedly far more challenging and intricate than a simple copy job, when you have enjoyed success as a manager in the past, you will understandably try to apply those very same elements again. Socialising with teammates outside of training and match days can be a greater challenge in non-league, where people generally juggle full-time work with football, but Liam actively encourages his players to do it.
He tells fondly how his old vice-captain Michael Powell, a youngster in Southport’s 2004/05 title team and a mainstay in the Class of 2010 had text him that morning to say he had rounded up a bunch of his old teammates to come to a game sometime soon. It is that kind of camaraderie and strength of feeling he has been questing after again.
In managerial terms, he is still relatively young at 48, though it is a different game and world to when he began. He offers up his thoughts on how he believes the land has shifted in that regard.
“It’s more complex. Even say ten years ago, the lads, in my opinion, were a lot more humble.
“They had a lot more desire to go as far in the game as they possibly can; you’d take less money to play at a higher level. Nowadays, managers who speak to me will say ‘it’s the academy generation.’
“I feel very sorry for a lot of them lads, because if you think about it, they go in, they get promised this, and then all of a sudden, at 18, ‘oh, by the way, I know you’ve been here ten years but you’re not really what we want now, so you can go.’ Most of these players have actually suffered rejection along the way, and rejection’s a tough thing to get over, in whatever part of your life.
“You can have relationship rejection; this is football rejection, and you’re never quite the same, are you? Until you say yourself, ‘right, I’ve got to recreate myself, I’ve got to go and prove people wrong.’
“I think there’s a lot less of that type of person now than there was ten years ago, definitely.”
That is not to say he wistfully longs after ‘the good old days’ – the hardships that those times undoubtedly entailed remain as vivid as the highs. In fact, his departure from his fifth club, Stalybridge Celtic, in 2016 came with the declaration that he would not manage again.
“It was enough for me to turn around and go ‘you know what? If this is all that’s on offer now, I don’t wanna do it.’”
He recalls reading ‘a damning email from the chairman’ about the 2015/16 season they had just had, despite finishing 12th, reaching the first round of the FA Cup and having to sell three key players. There was also a heads-up that an already challenging budget was to be further cut.
Suffice to say, he has been reinvigorated since, and was enchanted greatly by watching from the crowd as his former manager and good friend John Coleman’s Accrington Stanley, a club Liam played for, clinched a place in League One in front of their fans last April. The brilliantly unforgettable memories come as a package deal with a couple of regrets from his management path thus far, he admits.
“If you look at my career, I’ve obviously made one or two mistakes. After Southport had a brilliant year in the Conference, I should have left at the end of that year, but at the time, I was still working in Ashworth and it was only the following year that I had the option to take redundancy.
“We’d gone from a season where we were fighting for promotion, just missed out on the play-offs, when there was only five in the play-offs, I stayed and most of the players got sold in the summer and I had to rebuild. I wish I wouldn’t have to go through that year again.
“There’s only one other thing I wish I’d never done in football and that was I went in at Stalybridge as a favour to the chairman. I went in when they were eight or nine points adrift, they were getting relegated, they’d taken something mad like one point out of the previous ten, and we took 15 points out of the last eight and stayed up on goal difference, with a 4-4 draw on the last day of the season.
“I knew that was a miracle. That was my biggest achievement, to actually go in when I didn’t know anyone; I did manage to nick Michael Powell and Chris Simm on deadline day, so I just had two in the changing room that were mine from years gone by.
“It just happened that we got the results and stayed up, but I just never should have stayed. I can’t honestly say I enjoyed my time there.
“It was like I’d done a full circle and I’d ended up back at Runcorn where I started. It was enough for me to turn around and go ‘you know what? If this is all that’s on offer now, I don’t wanna do it.’
“I ended up joining the board at Southport and concentrated on watching my son in his scholar years, which I enjoyed, and that time’s invaluable for any parent. When the takeover happened at Southport, with me knowing Phil, you knew he was going to do it properly.”
It would appear to say something about the mettle a Liam Watson side tends to have when each of his four promotions have been earned on the last day of a season, and with three away from home. Nine years ago, Southport outgunned Fleetwood Town with 91 goals in the league, though Liam says his first title at the club, five years earlier, will always be the favourite.
Away at a Harrogate side led by recent Port Vale boss Neil Aspin, the Sandgrounders required a win to seal it, while their hosts needed the points themselves to get in the play-offs. Even at 5-2 up, with stoppage time ticking away, Liam says he still could not relax.
At Lancashire outfit Burscough, a mass unbeaten run pushed them all the way to the Northern Premier title, with the Green Army hitting the top for the first time on the very last day in a true ‘winner takes all’ showdown at Telford, the club Liam would lead to the National League North title in his debut season seven years on. Despite a crowd of 5,710, Burscough took one coach of fans to Telford, which broke down on the way back, only for the team to pull up behind them and allow all the fans on.
Those are the times for a manager when the elation for once far exceeds the mere temporary release that wins usually bring during the hard land of a long season. Each of the championships Liam’s teams have won down the years has been marked in fitting fashion.
“Every single one of them was celebrated with a holiday…Magaluf! 2009/10, I think the celebrations went on for not days but weeks.
“Charlie, the chairman, was always one to say ‘get the lads to Magas for a holiday.’ Chris Lloyd at Burscough, he was the same, and at Telford – it started off with Lee Carter, the CEO, and Ian Dosser became the chairman – once we’d won the league, all the lads went away again.
“It’s brilliant, and they’re the experiences you never forget. They’re the ones you crave and we’ve already had a couple (this season): beating Boreham Wood at home (in the FA Trophy), seeing the fans back on the pitch, going to Tranmere (in the FA Cup) and getting a draw, when we should have actually won.
“I remember Phil saying to me he wants to see Haig Avenue sold out, and I’m thinking ‘that won’t happen, we’ve had Sheffield Wednesday here and gone into big games and didn’t manage it.’ When he came out with it, people probably thought ‘great thing to say, but it won’t happen,’ but it happened; Tranmere was a complete and utter sell-out.
“Even though we never got to play Tottenham, the fact that we pulled Tottenham (in the third round draw) actually gave Phil one of his things he stated he was going to do.”
Originally hailing from the Walton area of Liverpool, Liam grew up with a brother a couple of years older. As he shares (alongside much more) in the Q&A that concludes this interview, the anticipation and the love for the game he used to feel when school was done and it was time for the real business of the evening kickaround at the park burns just as brightly within him today when match day arrives.
Fundamental in making him the manager he is today has been becoming well acquainted with all that goes alongside the constant hunt for results for those brave enough to step into the breach. That said, he feels some of the criticism in the early part of this season was unjust, given that he took over a Southport side ‘in a very similar state’ to the one he inherited in 2003.
The pluses have been plentiful in the last three months, though, despite a couple of speed bumps in the last two outings. With a break before they return to action at home to Chorley on 9th February, the Yellows are seven points off the play-off places, and nine clear of the drop zone they were firmly in the grips of not so many months ago.
The vigour is there in abundance to bring success again and Liam hopes the winning habit can soon prove irrepressibly pervasive for the Port.
“I always still had a hardcore of support but it was important that Phil and Ian as new owners, that they believed in me, which they did. It’s probably one of the biggest issues now for young managers, where clubs take the easy option and sack them.
“There’s got to be an aim, and the aim has got to be achievable. Phil’s given me an aim here, where this season it was to improve it, get the dressing room right, see how far we can go, let’s have a good cup run, which we have.
“It’s brought in a couple of hundred thousand, but let’s win a trophy. We’re in two county cups; the last few years we’ve put kids out and been beat 7-0, and you think ‘why would you do that?’
“It’s disrespectful to the competition, to the teams you’re playing against, and to your fans who want to see you go to Bolton and win a cup. You can’t beat winning.”
You can read the second half of this interview, as Liam takes on the Bosses’ Lounge Q&A here
Interview/article by @chris_brookes