Photo: Michael Ripley

Altrincham’s 85-goal haul to finish top scorers in last season’s National League North was characteristic of a Phil Parkinson and (assistant) Neil Sorvel team. It was also quite some going for a newly-promoted side, but far from being content just to compete, Parkinson is urging the play-off semi-finalists to think big.

In his two seasons at the helm, Altrincham boss Phil Parkinson has seen his side perform with energy and fluidity, with the outcome more often than not, winning football. While much has been consistent about the Robins in recent times, the two campaigns could barely have concluded with more contrasting emotions.

Finishing 5th in a National League North full of heavyweight competition, Alty were ultimately left sprawled on the canvas after their penalty shootout loss at Chorley in the play-off semi-final. It came just four days after their quarter-final triumph over Blyth Spartans by that very same, notoriously merciless match-deciding method.

Just over three weeks on from that semi-final showdown, the Robins gaffer shares how he has been processing the conclusion to their 2018/19.

“Immediate emotions were ‘really tough to take,’ seeing how well we’d done all season, but playing a Chorley team who’d been top of the league for so long and narrowly missing out on the title, there was no disgrace in terms of losing to them, the eventual winners of the play-offs as well. As tough as it was to take – and it will stick in my throat probably until we manage to get promotion, because that’s the type of person I am – we’ll really work hard this year to close the gap on all the things we need to improve on.

“I think reflection’s been the biggest thing I’ve been doing since that defeat until now really.”

Alongside a man who was a midfield fixture for second-tier Crewe Alexandra during the 2000s, Neil Sorvel, the Altrincham boss and former Crewe, Reading and Port Vale youngster has built a reputation as one of non-league’s most promising managers. Alty’s standing as a club should speak for itself, but they were tumbling down the stairs of non-league football when the pair arrived.

The Greater Manchester side had finished safe in the National League in 2014/15, only for two relegations in as many seasons to follow. As a soon-to-be Evo-Stik Premier club in late-April 2017, the Robins looked to Phil, who had taken Nantwich Town from that division’s relegation zone to 5th place during his two-year tenure.

Nantwich may have ultimately lost 2-0 to Spennymoor Town in the play-off semi-final just prior to Phil’s departure, with a fixture pile-up and injuries hard to gloss over, but he had enjoyed undoubted success with the club. A former captain, his Dabbers playing days included back-to-back promotions, the 2006 FA Vase, and the 2008 Cheshire Senior Cup under Steve Davis.

Leading them to the FA Trophy semis and FA Cup fourth qualifying round as manager, he had taken them to their highest position in eight years, and told how he had changed his mind 100 times and even felt physically sick as he agonised over whether to leave. Ultimately, Alty was a prospect he could not pass up, but with the club on such a slide, what was the first course of action after arriving?

“We were weighing up the squad and obviously looking at what they had, because all those players had been playing Conference or Conference North, pretty much all their careers. We were trying to weigh up whether it was worth keeping hold of them, or letting them go.

“Then I think it was quite apparent when myself and Neil sat down and spoke about everything that we needed to clear the decks, and not just the playing staff as well. We looked at certain things in the management structure in terms of physios, sports therapist, all the things that you need in the modern-day game, even at this level of football.

“If you want to be successful, you need to be covering as many bases as possible, so we had to change everything really from the football point of view, and make sure everyone was on the same page. That was critical for me, not just on the pitch but off it.”

That also included an aspect which forms an increasingly pivotal part in today’s game, yet clubs at various levels can still so often be wide of the mark in their use of it. For Phil, he saw an area Alty could refine and begin to properly utilise.

“I spent a lot of time with the media team in terms of making sure that the messages they were putting out were the right messages, because we had been through a tough time as a football club, and the first port of call is the media. I think we were getting that wrong, but after lots of conversations and meetings, and unfortunately some people having to leave, we got it right.

“I think our media’s one of the best, in terms of promoting what we do, in non-league, that I’ve seen anyway. I think all them things, as well as getting it right with recruitment, the training, the analysis, the performance side of things and obviously embedding the style of football that we play, giving us that identity back, was massive.

“We’ve got an identity now, but one that’s a winning identity and playing a brand of football that people want to pay to come and watch. We score goals; I think we’ve pretty much always been the highest scorers at every club myself and Neil have been at, so it shows that philosophy does work.

“Yeah, we concede goals as well, but unfortunately, open attacking play, you’re gonna be open to the odd sucker punch here and there.”

Their style has been married with undoubted substance. Winning 20 of their 42 league games this past season, the momentum was very much in evidence from their title-winning 2017/18 campaign, in which they plundered 101 league goals as they won the Evo-Stik Premier by 13 points.

Another promotion and a bounce straight into the fifth tier would have been remarkable, and they were not far away from managing just that. Having the on-pitch credentials is of course crucial, but in non-league, the phrase ‘not ready to go up’ has been uttered on plenty of occasions as clubs close in on promotion to a league that demands greater infrastructure in place than they perhaps have. Current Port Vale boss John Askey, for example, admitted Macclesfield Town were likely unequipped for the EFL, with his Silkmen side about to clinch the National League title in 2018.

Although one of the more sizeable fish in these here non-league waters, Phil describes how equipped he feels Alty would have been as a club, should they have won promotion this year.

“I think fanbase, the facilities that we’ve got; everything’s in place. The only thing would obviously be not having the kind of financial backing that some of the other clubs have.

“We are self-sustainable, so we heavily rely on fans and the income they bring. The other thing if we’d have gone up is I don’t think we’d have been able to go full-time, which I think is a must if you’re going to have any chance at that level.”

Also playing for the likes of Newcastle Town, Witton Albion and Kidsgrove Athletic along the way, Phil had a spell as player-manager at Alsager Town. An industrious midfielder as a player, he spoke of taking the reins at Altrincham as the kind of tangible evidence he needed that all the time spent away from his family, and the extra work on top of his full-time sports science lecturer role, was indeed leading somewhere.

Along with Neil Sorvel, his new three-year contract was announced earlier this month, which he says comes with the understanding that building blocks will continue to be put in place for the Robins to compete a league higher.

“It’s got to be. The wheels are in motion.

“The only reason I signed three years is because I believe the club can progress and it can fulfil my ambitions, and that is certainly to go full-time. I’ve never hidden that fact and I’ll keep driving the club in that direction until people say we can’t do it, but at the moment, they’re saying all the right things.

“It’s just a matter of we’ve got to do it in a certain order, at a certain pace; what we won’t want to do is put the club in jeopardy. Going back to what you said about going up, would we be well enough equipped?

“I think we’d survive, but I think there’s only so long you would survive at that level, being part-time.”

Arguably key to mounting another promotion bid is further strengthening the team. Attacker Tom Peers has agreed a return to the club after his FC United stint, while coveted young defender Toby Mullarkey has arrived from Nantwich Town.

Then comes holding on to what you already have, and one of the chief protagonists in the club’s recent progress has been a striker who featured in detail on here last April. Jordan Hulme has struck 51 goals in 94 games since joining two seasons ago, but although he is a player known for his unique and irrepressible personality, he admitted it took time for him to process leaving Salford City in 2017.

His form since has been magnificent, and he spoke highly of the impact Alty’s management team had on him after he became a Robins player. Phil agrees with the suggestion that it is a markedly different Jordan Hulme he sees now to the one who first arrived 23 months ago.

“Massively, yeah. You wouldn’t want to take away what he is – he’s a winner, he’s a character, and that’s one of the reasons I wanted to bring him in – but he’s never really been a centre-forward at Salford.

“He’d played out wide, he’d been a 10, but myself and Neil studied him quite heavily before we brought him in. He was someone we knew about, but we didn’t know if he could get us 20 goals a season.

“We knew, though, that with the runs he was making, the finishes he was showing, from the footage we’d seen and when we’d seen him physically, that we’d be able to get that player that you see today. I think it’s being able to identify those characteristics, because we did well with Jordan in particular, but when you say about how he’s changed, when he first came in, obviously he was down in the dumps, and I was a little bit concerned with him at the start.

“We had a few pep talks with him, but as soon as he got into his flow, he bought into what we were doing, which was difficult, because he’s gone from a completely different way of playing, and from what I’m gathering, a completely different management team to the way we do things. Once he got his head round it, as you’ve seen, he’s one of the top marksmen in non-league at the moment.”

Football has always been filled with its ‘characters,’ to say the least, and tact, empathy and even humour all help succour rather than suppress players of that ilk. There have been various managers, including at the top level of course, who have made space in their team for the ‘boundary-pushers’ down the decades.

Those players can often be the match-winners, so is there room for a maverick, either in terms of style or personality, in a Phil Parkinson side?

“I think you definitely have to buy into the collective way of doing it. We’ve got James Poole who I suppose you would class as that maverick player, and he’s been unfortunate with injuries, so it’s been difficult to say whether it has worked, that style of player, or not.

“Josh Hancock’s sort of took that role as the 10, where we brought James in to play; now they’ve got to battle it out, because he’s coming back from injury. It’s a difficult one that, because we do ask them to fulfil a role, and it is a collective entity.

“It’s not like we say ‘right, you go and do what you wanna do,’ because the whole sort of system breaks down then. We do give them the freedom once they’re in a certain position on the pitch, but we do ask them to stay within the rigidity of the game plan.”

An Altrincham game these days is rarely dull, as evidenced by their two league meetings with Chorley last season – a 4-1 away defeat in January and a 5-3 home win in April.  They are a team full of verve, and all involved can reflect fondly this summer on a 2018/19 campaign that saw a 6-0 win at Curzon Ashton, 4-0s over Chester, Nuneaton Borough and Bradford (Park Avenue), and a 7-0 at Alfreton Town.

There was also a 5-0 over Whitley Bay in there as yet another for their swashbuckling catalogue. Beginning coaching as a young teenager, Phil describes where the biggest enjoyment comes from in what he does today.

“I look at it more from the management point of view than a coach, to be honest with you, because Neil does a lot of the coaching. Obviously, we converse a lot about it, and I’m always on the training pitch, but from my point of view, it’s seeing the realisation of all the planning, preparation and the input into a game, and seeing them produce the performances that get results.

“It is a results-driven business, but I’m a firm believer that if you get the right performances you’ll get the results. When I see the lads perform in certain ways, I just know the results will come.

“We’ve had some 5 and 6-0s this season and it’s just a pleasure to watch from the lads.”

As touched upon, Phil’s main job sees him work as a full-time sports science lecturer. Naturally, combining all-consuming roles doesn’t tend to leave all that much time for anything else.

“Well I used to enjoy exercising but it’s not really what it used to be, as people will probably tell me! I try and spend as much time as I can with my family, especially on a Sunday, because I must be a nightmare to live with the rest of the week.

“Apart from that, it’s just getting the odd gym session in now and again. I like going to the gym still, I like getting out for a run, just little things like that really where you get a bit of time to switch off, but you’re talking only a couple of hours or so.

“The rest of the time you’re switched on to what you’ve got to do.”

There is of course another notable Phil Parkinson in English football management, though Alty’s Phil is, at 38, some 13 years younger than the Bolton Wanderers boss. The ambition is to emulate him in carving out a future as an EFL manager, though studious as he is, Phil is acutely aware of the fragility of this industry we fall so hopelessly for.

“I’d love to be able to channel all my energies into football, but it’s such a huge gamble, a huge risk, how fickle football is. I could be doing well like I am at the moment, and then I could have a run of bad luck, injuries, bad performances, some things are just out of your zone of control and you could be out of a job, and I’ve got a family, a mortgage to pay.

“It’s got to be the right kind of time to go, or to progress with Altrincham, but you can’t switch off. Any manager you’ll speak to, who’s high or low, because you can’t affect it on the pitch, the only way you can affect it is by being as busy off the pitch as possible, just analysing everything.

“We looked at every goal we conceded last year. We did a debrief with the players, and it came across quite negative, because we were showing them all the points we’d dropped and when we’d been in complete control of games; not the games when we hadn’t played well, we didn’t show them those, because they were games we deserved to lose.

“The poor performances were few and far between, but the performances where we’d done alright but maybe switched off from a set-piece or not quite done our jobs, we analysed that with the players and saw that we could have won the league. Every team will be able to do that and say ‘if we’d done that better,’ but it could have been probably 96 points if we look at the points we dropped and we shouldn’t have done.

“If we can just tighten up them fine margins and add that little bit more detail into our training and see if that can get us over the line or ensure a more comfortable play-off position, let’s see where we go from there. Again, when I say that, I feel uncomfortable saying about play-offs, because it’s such a tough league and so open.

“Just because we’ve had a good season doesn’t mean we have a divine right to be in the play-offs and win it, but we’ve certainly got to be aiming for that, otherwise what’s the point in stepping foot on the pitch?”

 

Each manager in The Bosses’ Lounge also takes on a unique Q&A…

When did you want to start coaching/managing?

I coached really early, to be honest. It’s something that I’ve always enjoyed doing, even though I say I don’t do that much now because Neil’s very, very good and I trust him implicitly. I coached from the age of about 13, so as well as playing, I think it was my district manager who saw something in me and thought I could help him with the younger kids. It stemmed from there really, then coaching for Crewe in the community and academies when I finished university and I fell out of football, the professional game. I’ve done that non-stop, and I’ve probably coached less, the more I’ve been with Altrincham, because like I said, I’ve got a UEFA A coach as my assistant manager, and he executes everything brilliantly. We work very closely together in terms of what we’re going to plan and prepare, but I know what I’m good at, which is managing the football club.

Although Neil does a lot of the coaching, which training sessions do you enjoy leading the most, when you do?

Defensive shape elements I tend to heavily focus on. We don’t do lots of that, because we work on being in possession, but when we do split the sessions they’re elements that I do enjoy getting my teeth into, and it’s something that we’re going to look to do a little bit more if possible as well.

Will you ever take part in training (in terms of actually being in the sessions as an active part, like an extra player)?

I’ve sort of done that when I first went into management at Alsager Town; I was a player-manager. It’s very, very difficult once you’re in that training session to get away from the joking and banter side of it where you’re one of the boys, to being the manager who’s got to stop the session because the intensity’s not quite right or somebody’s not doing what they need to be doing. I can identify that from the side, and that’s one of the important roles I have, monitoring, evaluating. Little things like having their hands in their pockets, to a snood up to their eyeballs when it’s cold! Not showing the right attitude, all them little things my players know they can’t get away with because we’re on them. Yeah I like to distance myself from the sessions and the players are that good now that they’d make me look silly anyway!

Favourite ground (other than your own) that you’ve visited or would like to visit

Obviously the Nou Camp would be one. I went to Barcelona and my biggest regret was I never actually went in there, so that’s the one, but my favourite ground would have to be Old Trafford. I love the atmosphere there, I love being able to get there whenever I can, which has been few and far between, but when I was able to get there I used to love going.

Favourite player to watch (past or present)

Roy Keane.

And how would you sell the club to him, if you were trying to sign him for Alty (in his prime)?!

‘You’re coming to win things, Roy!’ That’s all you need to say, I think! Such a fantastic player and a boyhood hero of mine, so I can’t even imagine speaking to Roy, never mind pitching the football club. But yeah, for me, Roy Keane was a winner, and I think listening to him speak, he’s a no-nonsense type of person and I don’t think you’d be going in talking about money with Roy. If everything else is right, as I said, all the things we try and iron out, players like Roy Keane want to win things and that’s the sort of thing you need to be putting on the table to those types.

Pre-season tour anywhere in the world

Again, probably somewhere in Spain, because the brand of football the Spanish play; it’s something we try and emulate, particularly what Man City are doing at the moment and what Pep (Guardiola) did in Spain. So yeah, pre-season tour in Spain would be right up my street.

Most challenging/frustrating part of your job

Not having enough time. That’s the biggest thing for me. I’d love to give it more time and be just purely focused on that, rather than finishing a game at half 5/6 o’clock then worrying about doing my lesson plans for the Monday! That’s how quickly it switches over, it’s crazy. People think I’m joking when I say it, but I start thinking about my lesson on Monday as soon as the game finishes. You’re balancing plates all the time, so if I had anything that I’d love to change, it’d be time. Obviously, my ultimate dream would be to go full-time.

Funniest player/coach you’ve worked with, or just one of the funniest

Yeah that’s easy: non-league wise, it’d have to be (former Nantwich Town striker) Michael Lennon. He’s gonna love me saying that as well! He’s got a massive head, but funny guy, big character; very much like what I was hoping Jordan (Hulme) would bring to the football club. He was a centre-forward, and when you score lots of goals, you can get away with murder, and Mickey certainly did that.

Most embarrassing moment as a manager/coach/player

When I was at Alsager, as I said, as a player-manager, you did everything really. I had to drive the minibus to the games, and I remember picking the lads up in Crewe Alex car park, and my previous manager Steve Davis, he was manager at Crewe at the time, and I’ve gone in the car park and there’s a height barrier. I thought ‘I can get under this, it’s the right height for the van,’ but I’ve gone under it and I’m scraping the top of the van and all the lads are in there cringing. The barrier snaps off, collapses on the car park, and I’m having to ring my former gaffer saying ‘what do I do?’ He basically said ‘drive off and I’ll sort it out,’ but that was quite an embarrassing moment, yeah, taking off a height barrier in the car park when I’ve got a group of players in the back.

Your routine on a match day

I like to get there about half an hour before the players. I like to settle myself down, and again, people will probably not believe me when I say this, but I write my team out probably at that point as well, because I see players coming in, and in non-league, it’s such a unique environment where I’ve had to change my team sometimes from looking at a player and they’re under the weather or not quite right. I know people will say ‘I’m picking my team on a Thursday night,’ and you are, it’s in your mind, but I won’t write my team down until literally half an hour before the lads are arriving. That’s my kind of routine and I’ll liaise with my staff – medical team, assistant manager, coaches – just to make sure that we’re making the right decisions for that game.

One singer/band or song you would sneak on to the team playlist

Definitely anything Arctic Monkeys. They’re the band, if I had to listen to someone, particularly their older stuff. ‘Dancing Shoes’ springs to mind straight away, ‘Teddy Picker,’ anything like that. Yeah I’m a big Arctic Monkeys fan.

Advice you remember getting that’s stuck with you

Remember everyone on your way up, because you’ll see them on the way down. There’s never been a truer word said. If you treat everyone with respect and fairly, they’ll always remember that.

If you could have some time with any manager, past or present

Brian Clough. Love how charismatic he was. Not saying I’m anywhere near like that, but I try and bring that to what I do. He obviously believed in what he did implicitly, and I think that’s important as a manager. People always knock you down and doubt what you’re doing, but if you believe in what you’re doing then the players will and everyone else around you will. If you struggle to make decisions, it’s the wrong game for you.

Any misconceptions about you as a manager/personality, myths you’d like to dispel, or something you wish people could understand a bit more?

I think some people think that because we play football on the ground and play through the thirds that we’ve got this mentality that we’re doing something special, when it’s not, we’re just doing something that we believe in. It works, and as long as we’re winning games doing it, we’ll always continue to do that.

And finally, what’s the best thing about having this life around football? When you wake up and football’s your focus for the day, do you still get that same buzz as you always did?

Yeah football’s everything to me. I’ve said it ever since I’ve come back in as a manager, I’d be lost without football. I love my life, I love everything I do, but that is who I am, that’s my identity. It’s what I associate myself with, it’s what other people do. I’m not gonna say it’s life or death – I know Bill Shankly said that – but it is everything to me, and that’s why I give it so much.

Interview/article by @chris_brookes

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