He was the reluctant gaffer who has impressively found his feet in management. A record-breaking scorer during his playing days, the thrill of the three-point chase come match day is still driving Ashton United boss Jody Banim as much as it ever did, as his Robins bid to take flight in the Vanarama National League North.
Around this time in 2003, a 25-year-old Jody Banim was about to embark on a remarkable run in front of goal. In Radcliffe Borough colours, he would hit the target in 14 consecutive matches, a spell which also encompassed two hat-tricks.
Before the end of that calendar year, the attacking talent had earned a move from the Northern Premier League to League Two-bound Shrewsbury Town for a Radcliffe club-record, five-figure fee (reported as £20,000+). A little earlier on in his career, in his native North West, the former Manchester United youth was impressing so much at Rossendale United that his manager Jim McCluskie proclaimed: ‘Jody adds about 50 onto the gate because of his sheer entertainment value.’
It led to some playfully but respectfully nicknaming him George Best. Naturally, his game adapted as his career progressed, before the man who scored goals by the barrel-load in non-league started increasingly turning his attentions towards coaching.
Management, however, was not something you would have found on his agenda. Two years ago, nevertheless, he stepped into the breach at Ashton United alongside an ex-Oldham Athletic defender, after current Buxton managers Paul Phillips and Steve Halford departed.
“I took over with Will Haining on a joint-basis, and we lost a lot of players to start with,” Jody recalled. “The managers who left to go to Stalybridge took five or six of their preferred 11, so we were left with squad players.”
“It was just consolidating to start with, making sure we didn’t go down, then pushing on. I think we had a really good turn of the year in that first season.
“Our home form was very good; I think we won 12 and drew one of our last 13 home games. It kind of gave me hope going into last season that we could really implement a certain type of style, but also push for the play-offs.”
Haining left towards the end of 2016/17 and Jody agreed to take sole charge of a team that finished safe in mid-table, in 11th position in the Evo-Stik Premier Division. Even with optimism bubbling after their end to the previous campaign, last season would far exceed the expectations that many had down for the Greater Manchester side.
The Robins piled 14 more points on to their total from the season before, finishing 2nd to Altrincham and going on to be promoted in May after beating Grantham Town 2-0 in the play-off final at Hurst Cross. Liam Tomsett and Nic Evangelinos’ goals settled it on the day and Jody was given a triumphant, mid-interview soaking by his players in the post-match celebrations.
It all meant that the club had finally earned its place in the National League North, having made the play-offs in 2014, 2015 and 2016, and coming as close as a penalty shootout away from promotion in the first of those (losing out to AFC Fylde). Despite Ashton not being looked upon as frontrunners to go up in 2017/18, and the club’s hierarchy far from setting it as an objective, Jody explains that there was still very much an expectation from within.
“It wasn’t in (the board’s) plan to get promoted last season. Infrastructure, budget-wise, we shouldn’t have been where we were and we kind of punched above our weight.
“It’s great, it’s got us promoted, and I think the pressure came from within the changing room; there was no pressure from the board or the supporters for us to get promoted. I was taking over from two managers that had got them to three play-offs in four years, so I just wanted to follow on that good work.
“When we started last season it was instilling that belief into the players until it became second nature. The play-offs was the minimum target for us; not the minimum target for the football club.
“I think we need to establish ourselves in this league and then see if the club is big enough to compete in this league, and that was the chairman’s word from the start of the season.”
The early weeks of the new campaign have brought a win – a memorable 4-3 turnaround victory at FC United of Manchester – and four draws from their opening eight league matches. In the minds of many, early-September is a touch early to be examining the table too closely, but Ashton currently sit 17th in the 22-team division.
The Robins are perched up the higher end of the ‘goals scored’ (13) category in the league, but jointly share the record for most conceded (19) with bottom side FC United. Competing against several clubs with notable Football League pasts and ambitions to return, the firepower is understandably one of the first aspects Jody is drawn to when assessing the key differences he has noticed up close since moving a step higher.
“The clinical nature of most teams has been a difference this year. I think some of the mistakes we’ve made, we’d have potentially got away with last year, but with some of the bigger teams, they’ve got decent budgets and they can afford decent strikers who can finish off opportunities.
“I think the other difference is the fitness levels, with the full-time teams, which we’ve played already. A lot of teams are very physical; quite one-dimensional as well, to be honest with you.
“There’s a lot of direct football being played and we’ve not been quite able to get a grip of that at this moment in time. A lot of teams play for second balls in that final third, set-pieces, long throw-ins etc. so we’ve just got to wise up a bit.
“That’s the big difference really.”
At pains to point out that the application of his side is never in question, Jody believes the standard of play they have produced in spells this season has even eclipsed that of last term. Ashton are a side that have favoured a ‘footballing’ style under his stewardship, and the gaffer concurs with the assertion that it is now simply about adding the vital extra know-how to an already impressive approach.
“Yeah, I think we just need to wise up a bit and stay concentrated. I don’t think we’ve had the mentality to stay concentrated for 90 minutes.
“We’ve played in patches. We’ve played some superb football; a lot better than we possibly did last season.
“We’ve opened teams up, we’ve scored goals, we’ve got ourselves into really good positions within games and managed to throw it away really.”
Upon promotion, Jody was quick to pay tribute to coaches Simon Woodford, Damian Crossley and Kieran Bentley, along with the club’s committee and board members. Characteristic of non-league it may be, but the people are very definitely what make it for Jody at Ashton.
“Yeah, the volunteers. I know everyone says it in non-league football, but they’re the lifeblood of the club.
“It’s possibly a bit different with the level we play at now, because a lot of the clubs are professional, so there’s a lot of staff on the payroll. We’re probably in the minority now in that we’re volunteer-led: the secretary, the groundsman, the chairman, tea ladies, stewards etc.
“Nobody takes a penny out of the football club. We’re a very small football club as well when it comes down to crowds; we’re only averaging 180 really, unless some of the big boys are coming to town and we’re trebling or quadrupling it sometimes.
“Going up, we’re obviously relying on those travelling supporters as well, but I think the uniqueness of us is around those volunteers and how much work and effort they put into running the club.”
The jump into a league that contains reputable club names like Stockport County, York City, and Chester, to name but three, undoubtedly equals a steeper overall challenge, though there have been favourable advancements with the step up, as Jody explains.
“It’s different because we’ve had midweek games for the first three weeks but we won’t have so many now, so we do get a lot longer to work with the players. We’ll have four hours a week to work with the players, whereas we were limited last season because we were virtually playing Saturday-Tuesday all season.
“Every game’s videoed now so we get access to all opposition game footage as well; there’s a lot around video analysis, opposition reports and data we couldn’t get our hands on last season. It helps us but also adds to the preparation load throughout the week, so there’s a lot more work this season to prepare us for games.”
The present-day National League North is new territory of sorts, but Ashton were at this level most recently in the 2004/05 season. It was a time when Jody was playing professionally for Shrewsbury Town, with a young Joe Hart one of his teammates.
In amongst life as a pro and semi-pro player through the years, Jody has worked as a recruitment consultant and now owns a sports coaching business, as well as a company delivering free programmes and traineeships for 16-18-year-olds. His aforementioned former Rossendale boss Jim McCluskie told once how ex-Manchester City and England forward David White would come down to work with the team sometimes and said he hadn’t seen a player with the skill Jody had.
Playing for numerous clubs in the North West, he also had a stint with American outfit Real Maryland FC in the USL Second Division (Radcliffe to Rockville – the route less travelled indeed!). Jody has not registered as a player this season, though who’s to say there won’t be a situation that calls for him to pull the boots on in competitive action again?
It is the dugout rather than the penalty area he operates from now, but as he will mention in the regular Q&A that concludes this feature, he still maintains some of his old matchday thinking habits. Asked if there is a particularly golden time that stands out in his career for enjoyment, the club he scored 97 in 125 games for comes right to the forefront of his thoughts.
“There’s different spells but I think probably the happiest was when I was at Radcliffe in those earlier days, when I was scoring the goals and breaking records, then obviously earning the move to Shrewsbury. There were good times as well winning leagues; I won promotion with Shrewsbury and with Burton Albion.
“I think the happiest was because I was younger, I was in my early-20s, things going well on the pitch, new experiences off it, so I’d probably say Radcliffe really. It was when I started to make a name for myself so it was probably the happiest time.”
Each manager in The Bosses’ Lounge also takes on a unique Q&A…
When did you want to start coaching/managing?
It was never really something I thought about. I literally left football when I was 33 and came back into it when I was 37. Paul Phillips and Steve Halford were ex-teammates and managers at Ashton at the time, so I just came in to help them out. I think it was six months later they got the Stalybridge Celtic job and I was one of the senior players that was asked to take over. I didn’t really want to do it at first, but Will (Haining) talked me into it and I’ve not looked back since.
Which training sessions do you enjoy leading the most?
Damian (Crossley) does I would say 90 percent of the coaching on a day-to-day basis with a lot of the ball work etc. A lot of planning goes into that. The tactical side is where I enjoy myself the most. Setting teams up shape-wise, looking at opponents’ weaknesses and where our strengths can exploit them.
Will you ever take part in training? And when did you last play?!
I played for the vets this week! I played a little bit last season; I played two or three games but my legs have gone, unfortunately! I join in with some of the games at the end but it starts getting less and less now.
Favourite ground (other than your own) that you’ve visited or would like to visit
It would be nice to go back to Old Trafford.
Favourite player to watch (past or present)
The Brazilian Ronaldo was my favourite. Also, as a United fan it’s strange to say, but I used to enjoy watching Robbie Fowler.
And how would you sell the club to one of those two, if you were trying to sign them for Ashton (in their prime)?!
(Laughs) We’re a family-friendly club, we like to do things the right way, we like to get the ball down and play. We do our best with what we’ve got and we try and create as professional an environment as possible.
Pre-season tour anywhere in the world
I love Barcelona. I think that’d be pretty cool.
Most challenging/frustrating part of your job
Obviously for us it’s probably budget-wise, being able to bring players in etc. and getting enough time with the players. It can be frustrating but it’s the stress and the strains for probably 99 percent of managers that are stupid enough to do it!
Funniest player/coach you’ve worked with, or just one of the funniest
I enjoyed playing for Nigel Clough, to be fair. I thought he was a very honest manager. The lads were great, and I just think he built up something with the players who’d been there a few years. I came into it a bit later; about 2008/2009, the year we won the Conference. I remember when he left the football club and grown men were crying, some of the players, so that kind of relationship he built up with his players I admired really. Also his honesty; when he dropped you he came up to you and explained why. A lot of managers just ignore you or treat you differently, so I admired that quality about him.
Most embarrassing moment as a manager/coach
Our keeper was injured towards the end of last season; I was getting mithered to put a keeper on the bench and I decided not to do it. In the end, my keeper got injured after 15 minutes.
Your routine on a match day
Quite a lot of the preparation’s already been done, unless there’s a quick turnaround in games. I’ve got a one-year-old boy so he’s taking up quite a lot of my time on a match day before I leave! But I just like to relax. I’m like a player really; I just start playing the game in my head, different scenarios etc. I used to like to do that as a player and envisage certain situations and how I’d react to it.
One singer/band or song you would sneak on to the team playlist
It’d have to be Oasis. I’ll say ‘Slide Away.’
Advice you remember getting that’s stuck with you
To be a nice person. There’s a lot of not very nice people in football, so it’s the same in any walk of life really – just be a good person. I’d rather people said I was a good lad rather than a good manager or player.
If you could have some time with any manager, past or present
It’d have to be (Sir Alex) Ferguson.
How have you changed since you first started coaching/managing, or what’s the biggest lesson you’ve learned?
Someone asked me this a while ago actually. (Has a think) Be patient, and walk away, digest it, think about it and don’t just be rash with my decision-making. At times, I’ve come away and ripped players off or formations off too hastily and the following game it all turns around again. Rather than kind of rushing into decisions or communicating my frustrations, just take a step back, evaluate it fully and kind of convey what I’m thinking.
Any misconceptions about you as a manager/personality, myths you’d like to dispel, or something you wish people could understand a bit more?
How long have you got?! No, not really. I’ve probably been called a few things in my time but it’s all part and parcel of football.
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 do. I thought I would miss playing a lot more than I do, but the buzz of getting three points really, really drives me and excites me. I’ve had a spell out of football as well, so I can appreciate how great the game is, how much you can give to people and how much I really, really missed it when I was out of it. I’m proud and privileged really to be involved in a really good football club at a really good level, working with good footballers who all wanna listen and all wanna learn.
Interview/article by @chris_brookes