Of the Vanarama National League’s young managers, Danny Searle’s coaching experience stands especially strong, even though this is his maiden full season as a first-team boss. He believes attractive play can bear fruit amid the harsh land of this division, but while toiling away to help push Aldershot Town up the table, he wants to ensure no facet of the club is forgotten.
Much has changed at Aldershot in the six years since the Shots were last a League club, and even since their National League play-off appearance just 17 months ago. For a club who hosted Manchester United in round four of the League Cup almost exactly eight years ago, it had seemed they were set for the sixth tier in 2019/20. Safe to say, a relegation reprieve after Gateshead’s demotion wasn’t at all unwelcome.
Sights have been set on something of a new start down at the EBB Stadium (The Recreation Ground). Gary Waddock’s second managerial tenure drew to a close at the end of last season, with Danny Searle the man chosen to help the Shots spark again.
A vastly experienced coach at clubs like West Ham United and Chelsea, the 41-year-old was Braintree Town boss earlier this year, stepping up in late-January from assistant and delivering a number of impressive results in a dark season for the Iron. Although the Shots are fervently looking to relinquish their current relegation-zone residence (sitting 21st of 24 on goal difference), the opening 15 games have seen them enjoy wins at Woking, Ebbsfleet and Stockport, with a home success over Wrexham.
Two months into the season, and just shy of five since his appointment, has anything surprised the gaffer thus far?
“We knew it was gonna be tough, because it’s a tough league. I think when you look at the league table, there’s not masses of difference between most of the clubs; it’s an odd goal here or there.
“That wasn’t a surprise, but I think the pleasant surprise for me was the level of fanbase at Aldershot and how big a club it actually is. There’s some great people there, so that was nice, but from a football perspective, it hasn’t really been a surprise.
“It’s been difficult with not knowing what league we were in, and then having to recruit pretty much a whole entire new squad to deal with one or the other. We feel from a squad perspective, although the points might not say so at the minute, we feel like we’re in a good place.”
It would be foolhardy in the extreme for any manager to see results as inconsequential, and with more than 15 years coaching at professional clubs, Danny knows well the game’s unerring sense of immediacy at senior level. Nevertheless, there is an argument to say that leaving a lasting impression encompasses more than just a good win percentage.
“I’ve always been strong on making a club, a club,” Danny explained. “So, from top to bottom and bottom to top, everyone’s on the same page; the academy, the foundation, the community work that gets done.”
“It all kind of interlinks with what the first team are doing. Without all the other facets of the club, the first team just ends up becoming a team, rather than a club.
“For example, the FA Youth Cup on Monday night with our boys, the whole first-team squad was there, and staff, to make sure we’re supporting them just as much as they would support us on a match day. We all went out for a Nando’s, so it’s quite a tight-knit group.
“We’re trying to really bring that family feel to it. I’m massive on youth development, hence people will probably notice the age of the squad that we’ve got.
“I want to help develop young players and I think that they can more than handle themselves in this league, given the opportunity. It takes time because you’ve got to balance up your philosophy with trying to get points on the board, but we’re starting to play the style of football that I want to bring to the club.
“Hopefully once we get that cherry on the cake, that finisher in the squad, then we’ll start moving up the table.”
Shortly after this conversation, in came forward Mo Bettamer, following his exit from Barnet. The 26-year-old was a player Danny worked with at Braintree during his time as assistant, with Bettamer joining Barnet not long after his brace at Salford City caught the eye in a 2-2 draw last October.
Danny would become manager (initially interim) three months later, as Hakan Hayrettin, the former Iron boss brought back following Brad Quinton’s departure, left to link up with John Still at Maidstone United. With Braintree rock-bottom and nine adrift of safety, Danny would preside over six victories in his 16 games, beating play-off winners Salford and finalists AFC Fylde, as well as holding champions Leyton Orient.
Although a return to the National League South had long seemed inevitable, chairman Lee Harding told how ‘some of the results and performances will live long in the memory,’ as Danny stepped down in May. The erstwhile gaffer reflects on his introduction to life as a number one in the National League.
“I will forever be grateful for the opportunity I was given at Braintree; there’s really good football people there. It taught me loads, because Braintree are an astute club, they work within a tight budget to make sure that the club’s safe, and with that comes challenges, because they’re not going to just throw money at every problem that comes up.
“You have to work hard to try and be resourceful and do things differently, and it stood me in great stead. It’s given me a platform to understand a little bit more about the league, the players and the types of things you need to do on a daily basis to make sure you can compete, but also off the field, looking at what’s going on behind the scenes.
“I was heavily involved in that and I’d like to think that, to a certain degree, I left a little bit of a legacy there with some of the community work that we tried to bring together. It was a great grounding, to be honest.”
With his first shot at transferring his know-how into leading a first team coming in the midst of a very steep uphill relegation fight, there was little time to hesitate on a plan of action. At Braintree and now at Aldershot, Danny considers the degree to which he has had to adapt his long-held coaching ideals, in search of quick results in the ruthless National League.
“My core philosophy will always be my philosophy. Yes we’ve had to adapt, because no disrespect to the players at this level, but sometimes some of the things that I would want from say an Under-23 at a Premier League club, the lads aren’t capable of doing.
“That’s a rarity, because there’s some very, very good players at this level, plus these players have had different groundings with managers at different types of levels. They’ve got, I wouldn’t say a fixed mindset, but they’ve got a mindset on how they believe the game should be played.
“That’s why the recruitment’s been important and bringing people in that want to buy into what you’re trying to do. It doesn’t always work, and some of the results will show that, but long-term, I genuinely believe that it will.
“People told me you can’t play football in this league, and I beg to differ. We did it at Braintree and we got some success, and I believe we’ll get success at Aldershot.”
Woke up this morning with a spring in my step 😉delighted to be appointed Assistant Manager @OfficialShots👌an absolute privilege to be joining @Danny_Searle at a superb football club 🙏 a big thank you to everyone for the kind messages #Excited #TheShots #ATFC 🔴🔵🔴 pic.twitter.com/pFFTbDwP8H
— Anwar Uddin (@AnwarU01) May 24, 2019
Having taken 15 points from the first 15 league games, Aldershot host Dover Athletic this evening (Tuesday 8th October). Then comes Hartlepool at home this Saturday (12th October), a game that has been designated as ‘pay what you want’ by the club for Non-League Day, so long as tickets are purchased in advance (online or in person).
The hope is naturally for a winning run and club-wide momentum to start rolling in tandem, while the Shots certainly have someone in the dugout who is well-versed at putting foundations in place and setting something in motion. A UEFA Pro Licence coach and holder of the FA’s Advanced Youth Award, Danny was Head of Coaching at West Ham United, as well as working for Chelsea, Charlton Athletic and Southend United.
Working at ground level – albeit it at extremely reputable clubs – is how he has made his way, so standoffish can surely not be a characteristic of his style. Danny describes how he sees the task of blending having a close rapport with players with keeping a level of distance some argue is essential as a manager.
“I’m probably not great at that; I’m a massive believer in creating a family environment. If I was gonna be a little bit critical of myself, it would be that I probably need to draw a line.
“Braintree was different, because we had to have a camaraderie, we had to be all in it together, because of the situation we found ourselves in, with league position etc. Aldershot’s been different because I can put a platform in place, but I think that comes down to the recruitment of the players as well.
“We’ve brought in really good people, so as of yet, I’ve not had to draw a line and say ‘listen, enough’s enough.’ We’ve got good players in there, they want to learn, they want to get better, they want to progress, they want to be successful, and the most important thing for me is they’ve got an open mindset, and that’s critical for the way I want to work.”
The desire to develop never ceases on a personal level either, which understandably, tends to use up a fair few of those daily 24 hours!
“It’s a hard one because football’s not only my job, it’s my hobby, it’s my passion, it’s my love, so I do watch a lot of football. I love spending time with my family; we like to go out to eat, I love the theatre.
“I’m studying my League Managers’ Diploma at the moment; I started that just as I graduated my (UEFA) Pro Licence, so I like to keep myself within education. I do a lot of reading of books on leadership, management, psychology.
“I’ve probably got a few more things (besides football) than I think I have actually. I like going to the gym; people probably wouldn’t know that if they looked at me, but I do!
“To be honest with you, my whole family’s in football; my stepson plays for West Brom, my eldest stepson works for an agency. My daughter plays netball and volleyball.
“My partner Claire’s massively into mindset; she’s a qualified hypnotherapist, she’s a life coach and an LP Practitioner. It’s quite a sporty family – I watch my stepson play cricket as well – so there’s not a lot of time, to be fair!
“But they’re good things to be busy with.”
Each manager in The Bosses’ Lounge also takes on a unique Q&A…
When did you want to start coaching/managing?
I think coaching perspective, I always played football as a young kid, and I started doing my first coaching sessions when I was about 14 years old. It was a local club; the guy worked for my dad actually and his son was at a local club. He said would I go down and work with some players, the real little dots, and I said ‘why not?’ They paid me £1.50 a player to go and do it, and it was just a bit of extra cash and a bit of experience, and to be honest, I loved it. When it was becoming apparent that I wasn’t gonna have a career in the game, when I got released from a trial I was on at West Ham, my dad sort of said ‘what you gonna do?’ I kind of fell out of love with wanting to play, to be honest, and I said ‘well I don’t wanna do anything other than football,’ so I started my coaching badges and literally just set up a soccer school. It kind of went from there, so I knew from quite a young age that I loved coaching and working with young players. I was early-to-mid-20s when I said ‘right, I wanna be a manager,’ so I did my (UEFA) A Licence, my Pro Licence, and now I’m on to my League Managers’ Diploma.
Which training sessions do you enjoy leading the most?
I want my teams to dominate the ball. I’m always reluctant to do practices that involve no direction and they’re just passing for the sake of passing, so we do some possession practices that do involve goals and they’re almost like a hybrid of possession and a small-sided game. Those kind of combinations in and around the penalty area that lead to goals are something that we love working on. That nice, quick interchange of positions, interchange of play, they would be my favourite ones.
Will you ever take part in training (in terms of actually being in the sessions as an active part, like an extra player)?
To be honest, I think my days of staying up with the tempo of the training have well and truly gone! I think I made that decision once I went and helped out with an Under-13s session when I was at West Ham. I got involved a bit and I was just doing passing and I couldn’t get anywhere near them. I like to be on the side; I sometimes stand in the middle, just so I can be in it and see what people are seeing. I might take different positions up behind the defender, behind the forwards, to look at how things are working, but I’m definitely not a participation guy. I still think I’ve got a decent pass in me, so I don’t mind a demo!
Favourite ground that you’ve visited or would like to visit
I think the obvious one, I’d love to walk the team out at Wembley. I’m a born and bred West Ham fan, but as my coaching career’s kind of developed, I’ve got more of an admiration for certain players and managers now; (Sir Alex) Ferguson was my hero. From a club ground perspective, there’s loads – from the Nou Camp to the Bernabéu, Old Trafford – but I think the ultimate is to be able to lead a team out at Wembley. That is kind of the utopia for me.
Favourite player to watch (past or present)
I was a massive fan of players like (Paolo) Di Canio and (Eric) Cantona; those kind of flair players. The Class of ’92, the likes of (Paul) Scholes and (David) Beckham, these are phenomenal players, but because I started to follow managers with my coaching, you have a different respect when you’re watching the game as a coach to when you’re watching as a fan. That great sort of box four of (Emmanuel) Petit, (Patrick) Vieira, (Sol) Campbell, (Martin) Keown, (Tony) Adams, those kind of generations of players. More modern day, I think (Cristiano) Ronaldo just epitomises professionalism; I think the guy’s an absolute machine and any aspiring young footballer who wants to try and reach the higher echelons of the game, he’s definitely someone you could role model yourself on.
And how would you sell the club to let’s say Di Canio, if you were trying to sign him for Aldershot (in his prime)?!
I’d probably say something along the lines of ‘you do what you want and I’ll get the other ten doing all the other work’! I think the biggest criticism I’d have of some of the coaching in the modern game is people sign players and then try and change them. You get these anomalies in sport where people are what they are, and there’s not really many explanations why they can do what they do. You go back to the likes of (George) Best, (Diego) Maradona, Pele, those players weren’t coached to make those kind of decisions in those moments, they had a natural flair for the game. Obviously, technically they’d have worked on stuff, tactically they’d have been given information, but the key decisions, that’s almost like a genius status. With someone like Di Canio, if you were sitting in front of him, I think the general selling point for me is I wanna enhance that and I wanna build a team around that. Round pegs, round holes, and if he’s got that kind of ability, just keep giving him the ball.
Pre-season tour anywhere in the world
I think we’d definitely do Dubai as one of the venues. The facilities they’ve got, I mean Qatar, they’ve got the Aspire set-up out there which is just frightening. I love America, it’s somewhere I choose to go a lot on holiday, so again, facilities-wise, I think that would be somewhere that would be unbelievable to visit. There’s loads of places in Europe, but I think when you’re taking a team abroad, you want that hot weather, so they would probably be my two main choices. Selfishly, I’d probably wanna do Australia because I’ve never been!
Most challenging/frustrating part of your job
I think that transferring of ability and performance in training to consistently performing on a match day. It’s difficult to sometimes fathom how you can watch and work on a team all week, everyone knows their roles and responsibilities, we’ve practiced it and practiced it, we come to the heat of battle, but for some reason – and it’s never an intentional thing from the players – they switch off or something doesn’t go right and we forget what our basic principles are. I think you see that in a lot of games; Tottenham are no way a 7-2 team against Bayern Munich, but suddenly they lost all their fundamentals and they just fell apart. That transfer of what you know the players are capable of doing, and doing it consistently on a match day.
Funniest player/coach you’ve worked with, or just one of the funniest
There’s a few nutcases that I know, almost to the point of thinking ‘how have you survived this long in the game, because you don’t take anything seriously?’! But no, you’ve thrown me there actually!
Most embarrassing moment as a manager/coach
I’ve got that one straight away. It was at Aldershot, our second game of the season, we were 1-0 up at Woking and the injury-time board went up for I think it was three minutes. As I say, I’m a Ferguson fan, so I had my watch going; I haven’t taken into account any time for stoppages, I’ve just got my watch going. The ball went out for a throw-in and the referee’s blown the whistle to ask our player to move back, but I thought he blew it for full-time, so I’ve turned around and jumped, both feet in the air, both arms in the air, screaming at the top of my voice. Everyone’s like ‘Danny, it’s a throw-in.’ Everyone in the stand behind us was looking at us like ‘what an idiot,’ but I wasn’t that bothered, because we won the game!
Your routine on a match day
I like to get there as early as I possibly can, especially at home. I try to make it as relaxing as I possibly can; my partner’s criticised me for this, she said ‘it’s too relaxed’! I’ll get there really early, I’ll sit down, I’m a big advocate of social media so I’ll chuck a couple of posts out in the morning, sit and have a cup of tea with my feet up, just on my own. Just basically looking at our pitch, because we’ve got an unbelievable pitch at Aldershot. Like I said, I like it to be a big family environment, comfortable, so as the players trickle in, the staff, the officials, the opposition, just make everyone feel as welcome as we can and keep everything as fixed as we can until that time when ‘it’s business now.’ Up until then I like to stay as calm and relaxed as I possibly can. I might put some telly on; I’m a big fan of old American shows, so if there’s anything on Channel 4, Everybody Loves Raymond, Frasier, all those, I’ll stick those on. I’ve seen them all a million times so I don’t really have to concentrate, they just go on in the background! When the 12:30 game comes on, we’ll stick the first half of that on.
One singer/band or song you would sneak on to the team playlist
I wouldn’t be allowed anywhere near the team playlist. I can’t understand anything they listen to. I quite like it, though; I do like a good beat and whatnot. Before the players get in, myself and Dave Blackmore, our goalkeeping coach, Danny Whitehall, one of the first-team coaches, we take over the speakers, because no one’s there. We listen to loads of old 80s/90s music, sometimes house, sometimes garage. We’ve had Spandau Ballet on. I like all music, so there wouldn’t be one specific genre, but pretty old, to be fair!
Advice you remember getting that’s stuck with you
I’ve had it said to me by a few people, and it’s ‘know who you are and stick to that, don’t change.’ If you’ve got a philosophy then stick to your guns.
If you could have some time with any manager, past or present
Who wouldn’t want to spend time with (Pep) Guardiola? Listening to what he’s got to say and how he does things. You have got your (Mauricio) Pochettinos, but (Diego) Simeone at Atlético (Madrid), he’s almost changed the dynamic of La Liga with how Atlético approach the game and how good they are defensively, so I’d love to speak to him. (Arsene) Wenger would be a great one to speak to, with how he revolutionised the English game on and off the field, but people like Bobby Robson, Matt Busby, Bob Paisley. I’d be greedy, I’d want to speak to them all.
Any misconceptions about you as a manager/personality, myths you’d like to dispel, or something you wish people could understand a bit more?
That’s a hard one to answer because from a management perspective, I’m pretty new. Coaching-wise, I’d like to think people see me for what I am. I’m a bit of a big softie; there’s a few people from my playing days who’ll probably tell you I’ve got a bit of a temper! Bromley at home this year it came out a little bit, but it very rarely does! To be honest, I don’t tend to read a lot of comments on forums and all that kind of stuff. Most people I speak to seem to see me for what I am. That might change by the end of the season! I’m quite an open person, I don’t really close the door on anyone, to be fair.
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?
My main focus every morning I wake up when I’m in work is I know I’m gonna be on the grass at some point. When I got interviewed for the job, one of the questions was ‘what type of manager are you? Are you a tracksuit manager that gets involved in training, or an office-based manager who has someone do it for him?’ I’m definitely a tracksuit manager. I do the majority of the coaching, I wanna work with players, and my biggest passion is developing. Even staff, I like working with staff and trying to help them pass their courses and whatnot. The thought of being out on the grass with the lads and actually coaching, that’s the fuel to my fire, if you want.
Interview/article by @chris_brookes