A lively young forward who could catch the eye with his enterprise when the ball was at his feet, as Kevin Davies’ career progressed he was of course reinvigorated as the focal point of a Bolton Wanderers attack during some heady days for the club. Now the one-time England international is a step on from leading a forward line, bidding instead to drive Southport on to bigger and brighter days in his very first managerial assignment.
Promotions, European football, cup runs, and an England bow at Wembley – the playing career of Kevin Davies stands up strongly to scrutiny. It would not be inaccurate to point to the Sheffielder’s time at a multi-national Bolton side that scaled the Premier League’s upper reaches under Sam Allardyce as his most renowned spell, as he became one of the country’s foremost target men.
What you could never attribute to the former Chesterfield teenager is a path exclusively laden with sunshine and rainbows. There was relegation, knockbacks and times of considerable introspection, and nothing was handed to him from his beginnings on the Lansdowne Estate in the Steel City.
So while so many think of ‘Premier League striker’ when they hear about Kevin Davies, the hard land of non-league has not been a challenge he has shied away from since embarking upon his first manager’s job in October. That came with Southport, who had hit the skids in their first campaign since relegation from the Vanarama National League, and lesser-spirited characters may have folded given the arduous run the Sandgrounders remained locked in before and after his arrival.
However, at the very beginning of what could prove a sustained and impactful career in coaching, he has begun to turn the ship. Warding off the threat of danger in this season’s congested National League North is a short-term objective, but he harbours the very ambition you would associate with someone who represented his country and made well over 400 top-flight appearances.
While he was eager to kick off his time as a number one, he explains why he was mindful of aligning himself with a club that shared his thirst for achievement.
“When I went to the interview, what struck me was the ambition of the club. Obviously a few new people coming on to the board, the ambition was there, the investment was there, and it felt like this was a club it would be right to start my managerial career with.
“Since I’ve been in the job I’ve not been disappointed by that. They’ve got the best interests of the club at heart and that’s something people have always warned me about; make sure you choose not only the right club but the right chairman, board, ownership, whatever you want to call it.
“With the interest in developing the stadium, the infrastructure, the vision of the people on the board now, it’s down to me to work with them to make the club a better place in the years to come.”
As Kevin alludes to, work has been moving at pace behind the scenes, with incoming Chief Executive Officer, Natalie Atkinson, arriving from fellow National League North club Curzon Ashton recently and bringing a number of ambitious plans for club-wide development. A few days ago, she met with the club’s volunteers, who have been outlined as a vital part of what the North West outfit will be trying to achieve in the months and years to come, while Kevin himself spent time amongst supporters shortly before Christmas.
“I think it’s important you understand what the fans want, how they see things…”
The ex-Southampton forward was not known for cowering away on the pitch – he even had his wrist broken when trying to save his brother’s shot as a kid and tried to play on – but facing up to questions from fans in the midst of a long winless run straight after relegation is not the most tantalising of propositions all the same. That barren patch had begun over a month before he arrived, with the previous management team of boss Alan Lewer and head of development Mark Wright leaving on September 26th.
Kevin’s first four matches were drawn and even though they did eventually return to the win column in emphatic style on New Year’s Day against Chorley, he met with fans in the aftermath of a 4-0 home loss to Bradford Park Avenue on December 23rd. That said, he wasn’t left to face people alone, and that solidarity is key to the project he feels he has committed to.
“It wasn’t the easiest of circumstances. We’d had two or three really poor performances at home, but I’ve never been one to shy away from challenges and it was something I’d wanted to do from the moment I walked through the door.
“I think it’s important you understand what the fans want, how they see things, and also it’s an opportunity for us to try and speak to them about what we’ve been doing behind the scenes as a group. I feel that we came out of it really positively; since that meeting the club’s had a few decent results over Christmas and New Year.
“It wasn’t easy to walk in there; you’re open to a lot of criticism about what’s been happening with the results and where we were in the table, but it’s an opportunity for me and (director) Phil (Hodgkinson) and the board. Everyone was there to support each other; it wasn’t just me being pushed out in front of the crowd and that’s the way it’s been since I arrived really.
“Every question was answered, so I feel like we and the fans left feeling optimistic about what we were trying to do.”
The Bolton sides Kevin turned out for in the Premier League and 2018’s Southport sitting five tiers lower are obviously far from being easily comparable. What stays in the former Wanderers number 14’s memory from his ten years at the club, though, besides his goals, the stellar names who lined up next to him and the famous victories, is the sense of team ethic and community they enjoyed.
“I wouldn’t just sign a player on a recommendation…”
The man who hit 85 goals for the club and struck that late UEFA Cup equaliser past a certain Oliver Kahn at Bayern Munich’s Allianz Arena in winter 2007 is out to sprinkle the same key ingredients at Southport that helped yield success for Bolton once upon a time.
“I think if you can work hard and enjoy it at the same time, that’s the ultimate as a group, if you get that going. Results will always help that.
“There’s always a time to do the team bonding and have a night out, get the families and kids involved and creating an environment where people want to stay. If you look at what happened at Bolton over the ten years that I was there, we had some great players and Sam Allardyce created something special and we’re all still in touch.
“The families, the kids all know each other, and that is something I want to implement into Southport. It’s things we’re looking into in terms of getting families to the games and creating an environment where they can come and enjoy the day.”
The changes at the club either being introduced at present or due to be in the future range from sprucing up the stadium’s tunnel area, to the refurbishment of the main stand and building a new covered all-seater stand incorporating offices, executive boxes and corporate facilities. There is also the intention of setting up a community foundation programme which will be boosted by the National League Trust, as well as plans for new 3G pitches in Southport for club and community use.
Outside of that, they intend to go one better than their current matchday offer of free entry to primary school kids by providing season tickets for every child in the town. Filling the place with the right people also extends to the backroom staff.
Ex-Luton Town and Bradford City defender John Dreyer had come in as Kevin’s assistant but left in December due to difficulties with his location. Former Chester FC boss Jon McCarthy left Port Vale just before Christmas to take the post, telling how he couldn’t pass on the opportunity to work with ‘a very bright and innovative young manager’ in Kevin.
The former Vale, Birmingham City and York winger brings added non-league know-how to the table and Kevin details the groundwork that goes into acquiring any new recruits for his squad.
“I wouldn’t just sign a player on a recommendation; you’ve got the responsibility of the club not only for this season but moving forward into next season. I think (midfielder) David Lynch was one of my first signings (from FC Halifax Town) and that’s the kind of person I want; he’s had experience of the league, won the league, trains like he plays, drives people on around him.
“It’s creating a culture within the dressing room, because it wasn’t a dressing room I wanted when I first came in. There were a few little things going on that needed to be addressed once I’d had the chance to monitor that and assess everybody.
“From day one, we brought Richard Boryszczuk in as a scout and it was a case of phoning around all my contacts, using all the knowledge of the people on the board and all the people I knew around this level from working for BT Sport for two years. Trying to see which players were available and which ones suit the way we wanted to play and the way we want the dressing room to be.
“Lots went on, and there was one or two who became available quite quickly and you have to make an action on because they attract other clubs, but in general we put all the hard work in to make sure the signings have been right and I don’t feel anyone’s really let me down. It’s a case of drilling down your contacts, watching two or three games a week and clips until all hours and making sure you get the right ones.”
Many English football fans remember the Chesterfield side that reached the 1997 FA Cup semi-final and forced a replay with Middlesbrough after a dramatic 3-3 draw at Old Trafford, in which the Spireites had led 2-0 and later levelled at the end of extra-time. Chesterfield fans will also painfully recall Jonathan Howard’s shot bouncing off the crossbar and seemingly over the line, only for what would have been a 3-1 lead against ten men late on to be taken away from them as it was deemed no goal.
Kevin was in that side as a lively wide attacking prospect under John Duncan, going on to the top flight with Southampton that same year and netting memorable goals against Everton and Manchester United along the way. The £7.5 million move he made in summer 1998 to Blackburn Rovers did not work out, as he returned to the Saints a year later, but his 2003 switch to Bolton is rightly pinpointed as a pivotal checkpoint in his career.
“…you look at Sam (Allardyce), where you’d get appraisals and walk out the room feeling ten feet tall…”
Having undergone a trial and intensive conditioning period with Allardyce’s side, Kevin signed and was simply reinvigorated. In contrast to his earlier career, he was reinvented as one of the best-known target men in the country, and as he recalls the interpersonal skill of the current Everton boss, he also describes how his university studies in recent times have been extremely relevant as he sets out his own management style.
“I think man-management’s huge; the player’s psyche and if he feels wanted or not. The body language is something I spent a long time looking at.
“I’ve been doing a Master’s as well at Manchester Met in Sporting Directorship, so there’s things I’m picking up on that course, which I’m a year-and-a-half into. Picking up on things I know managers have done, how people react, looking at the bench when goals go in – are they celebrating or are they more selfish?
“How they train, how they respond to criticism. You ask their teammates and get as much information as you can and then try best to put it into the player.
“It can be the odd little text to let people know how well they’re doing or what you feel they could be doing more. Players are quite forthcoming as well; they’ll come and speak to me after training.
“Players within three or four days of me being there coming knocking the door down asking why they’re not playing, those are the types that you want around you. You’re putting extra sessions on to test people and see the ones that are turning up and committed.
“Those are all the things I’ve been putting into place in the last two or three months really before we can finally put a proper structure in place for them. I think for me personally, you look at Sam (Allardyce), where you’d get appraisals and walk out the room feeling ten feet tall, telling you you’d been involved in 70-80 percent of the goals and all these stats, but still putting a little bit of a challenge on there for you to improve.
“All those little things you take and you try to implement yourself while trying to put your own stamp on things. I think I’ve always been a pretty good judge of character, the gut instincts have always been fairly good, and you have to make some tough decisions on players, which has been hard but it’s something you have to do.”
Although Southport have clambered up the table since the end of 2017, the reinforcements have continued in recent days, with Accrington Stanley duo Ross Sykes (who had been at Southport already this season) and Mekhi McLeod arriving on loan. Full-back Graham Kelly joined from Port Vale on January 26th, while two weeks earlier, they made a triple signing, with full-back Jordan Richards (on a permanent deal from AFC Fylde), winger Dion Charles (bought from Fleetwood) and midfielder Elliot Osborne (also on a full deal from Fleetwood).
Building the ethos Kevin wants means setting the example of it from the top and investing himself in the culture more than anybody. To be so intensely immersed in all that goes on, though, has he felt the losses that bit more than when he was on the pitch himself?
“Yeah, I think so. The journey home when you’re by yourself, sometimes you question the preparation.
“I’ve always felt we’ve given the players the best preparation we can in terms of me looking at the opposition, preparing training, whether it’s recovery, yoga, little things we try and introduce to the group so the players have every opportunity to try and win games. There were some difficult results to take, particularly at home, some poor performances and that’s something we looked into as a group, because you can feel the pressure when you’re heading towards the bottom of the table.
“We kept on working hard on certain things to address that and we’ve had a couple of wins now. Jon McCarthy’s played a huge part in what we’ve done so far.
“With John Dreyer initially starting it was a difficult one to take because we knew it was going to be difficult with the travelling he had to do from Luton. We wanted to give it a good go but it was just too much in the end.
“Jon’s come in and worked extremely hard with me in preparing the team, adding one or two little things to the group; his expertise are in the defensive areas and the players have taken that on board. It’s been fast and frantic the first two or three months.
“Hopefully the squad have settled down; we’re always looking to add to it if players become available. It’s been a bit manic, challenging, but one I’ve enjoyed so far.”
Kevin came on for Peter Crouch to make his England debut at Wembley in a Euro 2012 qualifier with Montenegro in 2010, realising a lifelong ambition that even he had thought had long since passed him by. It is hard to process that he was in the Chesterfield team almost 25 years ago, but whether it has been through media work, academic studies, playing or coaching, he has remained constantly connected to the game that has been the huge vehicle in his life’s experiences.
“Even when you’re home, you’re on the phone, you’re emailing, you’re up until all hours watching games back and preparing…”
Even his younger brother, Matlock Town’s former Chesterfield forward Jamie Jackson, has forged a path in the sport. For something as all-consuming as football has been for Kevin, is it then possible to switch the lights off and regularly enjoy time away? And how crucial is it to have a partner and family who enable the whole balance to work?
“I’m very fortunate to have a wife (Emma) and kids that will support me. The last three months I’ve been doing the job, they’ve seen very little of me.
“Even when you’re home, you’re on the phone, you’re emailing, you’re up until all hours watching games back and preparing, so it’s full on, but I think in any sort of job, if it’s football anywhere in the world, the first 90 days are going to be crucial to you staying or being sacked. We know it’s a bigger picture at Southport and a five-year plan to get into the Football League, but the family have supported me all the way.
“I think it’s crucial after a bad performance that you can come home, you don’t try to let it affect you too much, and you can spend a bit of time with the family and have a glass of wine and try to relax, but it’s a difficult one.”
In 2016, Kevin received the Sir Tom Finney Award at the Football League Awards, an accolade given to a player who has enjoyed an outstanding career. Retiring in September 2015 after over 800 games, he had some magnificent experiences as a player, the likes of which would have taken some predicting when he was growing up a Sheffield United-mad youngster.
Naturally, it will take time for people to get used to Kevin Davies the manager, such was his longevity and recognisability as a frontman, but shaping the next generation and managing today’s is an area he has been increasingly devoted to for some time now. While he continues to put down the building blocks of his managerial story, he tells how the example set by those he enjoyed his best Bolton days with – from Youri Djorkaeff and Fernando Hierro, to Jay-Jay Okocha and the late Gary Speed – can always be seen in his work today.
“It was just the time that they had for people, given what they’d done in their careers, and it’s that team thinking, rather than looking after number one. That’s everything I want to do as a manager myself really.”
Each manager in The Bosses’ Lounge also takes on a unique Q&A…
When did you want to start coaching/managing and when did you?
I think it’s something where you get into your 30s and wonder what life’s going to be like after playing, so I started doing my coaching badges early in my 30s, the (UEFA) B Licence and on to the A Licence after that. It’s something that I enjoy. I do a lot of work with the Bolton and Bury Football League, going out to put sessions on for teams that have been struggling, or players that need a bit of help. It’s something I felt like I wanted to do; as I say, I’ve been preparing for it since my early-30s, and all the other things like speaking to people, going back to university, doing all the right things and making sure you’re ready when the opportunity comes to go in and do interviews. Even at 39/40, I’d never been to an interview in my life, so it’s all kind of new and it can be a bit nerve-racking, but fortunately it went well.
Which training sessions do you enjoy leading the most?
Everyone likes a bit of shooting, don’t they? We’ve got some very good strikers at the club at the minute and a very good coach in Jon McCarthy who leads on most of the sessions we decide we want to do at the start of the week. Everyone likes a bit of finishing and a 5-a-side, which we did last night. You want to spend more time with the players; at the minute we’re getting them for two, maybe three hours a week, which is not enough really. As a club, we’re looking to go towards full-time for the rest of the season and next season. We’ve got a new training facility and we can spend a bit more time trying to develop players, making them better as individuals and ultimately as a team. That’s exciting for myself and Jon as coaches.
Will you ever take part in training?
I did initially, when the numbers weren’t quite right or someone dropped out. Some people keep saying I should have registered just in case I needed to play but I’ve not done a lot in terms of fitness since I retired two years ago, so way below par!
Favourite ground (other than your own) that you’ve visited or would like to visit
I think I’ve pretty much done them all. I’ve never been to the Bernabéu, which is one I’d like to go to. In England, I always enjoyed playing at Newcastle with the fans there and the passion they show for it. The other one is Goodison Park – I just loved playing at Goodison Park, particularly under those lights. The crowd are quite close to you and I’ve always liked those old-fashioned stadiums and not been as big a fan of some of the newer ones. You get the Emirates and yeah it’s great, but I would prefer somewhere like Highbury.
Favourite player to watch (past or present)
I think for me growing up it was always Bryan Robson. I was always a central midfielder until I went to Chesterfield at 16, so his battling qualities, playing with broken arms and cuts, he was always someone I looked up to and I’ve met him on a few occasions since I’ve retired as well. Brian Deane/Tony Agana partnership (Sheffield United) as well.
And how would you sell the club to Bryan Robson if you were trying to sign him (in his prime)?!
I think we’re just trying to sell the vision that’s been sold to me, in terms of where the club’s going. We want a group of players that are going to go on and create history for the club, create memories, try and get to cup finals. I think that’s what football’s all about really.
Pre-season tour anywhere in the world
There’s a place called Bormio (northern Italy) where we used to go, I think it’s up near the Alps. We’ve been to that many – Austria, Switzerland – but Bormio was the one that was amazing in terms of the high altitude. We used to train there and come back fitter and I just loved being up in the mountains, the freshness and the natural environment where you can go and do a really hard pre-season. I think it’s really important as well to go away as a group because it gives you time to gel and also to get away from the day-to-day of England and the weather, particularly in the North West!
Most challenging/frustrating part of your job
To be honest, challenging, frustrating, I haven’t felt that. Letting late goals in is something we had a few of in my first few games; I think we’ve lost over a dozen points in the last five or ten minutes of games. Those are the ones where you think ‘should I have taken him off or put this formation on?’ and it’s something where you can beat yourself up a little bit for a couple of days. Once you’ve come back to training you feel good about yourself, you’ve refocused and you’re ready to go again.
Funniest player/coach you’ve worked with, or just one of the funniest
Probably Little Sam; Sammy Lee was always a great character around the place (as Bolton assistant and later, manager). Even Sean Dyche now, I saw him a couple of weeks ago doing my Master’s course and he said, ‘Look, win or lose (at Burnley), we’re the same on Monday, we’re bright, we’re bubbly.’
Most embarrassing moment as a manager (or player)
I’m not very good with names, so probably getting players’ names wrong. It’s nothing personal, it’s just something I’m really terrible at.
Your routine on a matchday
If we’re playing at home, get in nice and early, two or three hours before kick-off. I’ve always been one who’s very prepared for things anyway, so it’s getting a system in place, the team’s picked, and then just getting things set up around the ground, checking the pitch, speaking to people around the place, watching a game back. I’ll speak to the assistant about one or two things we may do during the course of the game if things happen, so just planning for that really, and then going in meeting the mascots and all those kinds of things. Then we get the team in for an hour-and-a-half, name the team, do a little bit of information on what we think’s going to win us the game today, and then getting amongst the boys individually and showing them clips on things if we can, match reports on individuals, where we can hurt them etc. You do your referees bit at 2 o’clock and then Jon (McCarthy) will come in and do a little bit on the opposition once we’ve got their team, then get the boys out, go out and watch the warm-up, do a little bit of finishing at the end with them and then it’s final preparations, a little chat and send them out. I’m not superstitious; I don’t do things a certain way because we won the week before or anything like that.
One singer/band or song you would sneak on to the team playlist
I can’t get near it at the minute! I wouldn’t embarrass myself; you start to feel a bit old around some of the group so I totally leave the music to the players.
Advice you remember getting that’s stuck with you
With my sort of first manager (Dave Barker), I was from a relatively poor background, living on the Lansdowne Estate just up from Bramall Lane, family of six kids, and he just put in early the values of working hard. Walking five miles to training, the dedication for the team, the effort, and having that bit of resilience. When I got released from Sheffield United at the age of 15 was heartbreaking, but having an older brother around me who would push me and wouldn’t let me quit meant it was something that was installed in me from a young age, so that’s something I always wanted to take with me through my career.
If you could have some time with any manager, past or present
I think with the stories you hear about (Brian) Clough, that would have been a very interesting one. I know Sean Dyche (former Nottingham Forest youth player) puts those values into his team at Burnley. You’d like to spend an afternoon just listening to his stories really.
How have you changed since you first started coaching/managing, or what’s the biggest lesson you’ve learned?
I think trying to get as much time as you can with the players is difficult at this level, so it’s about making sure you have that extra bit of communication, whether it’s a text or phone call. Speaking to players you know aren’t happy, rather than evading them, because things will materialise from that. So, spending as much time as possible with the players, offering to meet up for coffees, ‘get to training early and we’ll have a chat,’ and things like that. Communication is something I’ll always be looking to improve and it’s key to everything really.
Any misconceptions about you as a manager/personality, myths you’d like to dispel, or something you wish people could understand a bit more?
Not really, no. I’ll always answer any question honestly, I’ll always be open. I try and be open and honest with the players and I expect that to work both ways. Last night we had a conversation saying, ‘Anybody’s got a problem, come and speak to us. Don’t go speaking to agents or people at different levels, come and speak to us and we’ll have a conversation. It’ll be open, it’ll be frank and everyone will know where they stand.’
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, I think so. I didn’t miss playing or the dressing room when I retired as much as I thought I would. I’ve always been busy, I’ve worked hard in the media for two years, up and down the country, long hours, so I wasn’t sat at home twiddling my thumbs. I probably enjoyed not having to do all the things you have to do as a footballer now: the dedication, the ice baths, eating right, being told what to wear, where to go. I didn’t miss all that, so I’ve enjoyed retiring, but it’s nice to be back in that environment, taking control and being able to affect people’s destinies and as a club as well. It’s nice being able to put all I’ve learned into practice and to be in the football environment again. It’s taken a while but we’ve had some wins now and we just want to go on a charge until the end of the season. That’s something that drives you on every day and why you’re prepared to drive two or three hours into mid-Wales to watch a game in the hope you can pick up a player! All those little things I do, I hope that everyone at the club has that same work ethic, then we’ll be fine as a group. It’s nice to be given that opportunity by a club that I feel very much part of.
Interview/article by @chris_brookes