Padiham manager Steve Wilkes celebrated his 900th competitive game as a manager on Saturday, when he took charge of the Storks for the game against New Mills at the YESSS Electrical Arena.
It turned out to be a good day for Steve, who was presented with a glass plaque by the club before the game to commemorate the milestone, and then watched on as his son Zack scored his first goal for Padiham since joining the club, the third goal in the Storks’ 4-2 win.
It was the latest highlight in a managerial career that has now spanned 20 years for Steve, but if it hadn’t been for some words of encouragement from former England manager Sam Allardyce, he might never have taken his first steps into management.
As a player, Steve began his career as a professional at Wigan Athletic before moving to Preston North End, and he then dropped into non-league football after suffering a series of injuries.
The opportunity to take his first step into management came at the age of 29, when he was playing at Darwen.
“I joined Darwen in 1997 and was captain, and then manager Ian McGarry was sacked at the end of the season”, said Steve.
“The Chairman at the time, Kath Marah, asked me if I wanted the job and at first I said ‘no’ because I was only 29 and wasn’t sure if it was for me.
“I had never contemplated going into management, it was never on my radar at all, so I spoke to Sam Allardyce, who I was friendly with as we had played together at Preston, and also to Roy Tunks who was the goalkeeper when I was there, and later became assistant manager at Wigan Athletic.
“They were the first people that I rang for advice and they both said the same – give it a try, if you don’t like it and aren’t cut out for it, you will know within about 6 weeks.
“When I was offered the job at Darwen, the reason I wasn’t sure about it was because – and people who read this might not believe it – I was a very shy lad.
“I couldn’t speak in public, I couldn’t stand in front of people and talk. For the first twelve months or so I was at Darwen, I used to have a script. I used to sit at work on a Saturday morning writing down what I would say to the players in the dressing room that afternoon.
“But you eventually get experience and confidence, and now here I am 20 years later”.
From those early days, Steve spent seven years as Darwen player/manager, before moving to Padiham, then had spells at Runcorn Linnets and Ashton Athletic before moving back to Padiham in 2013.
“When I moved to Padiham the first time, Secretary Alan Smith said that they had brought me in as a manager not as a player. I was 36 at the time so it was probably time to finish anyway, I was beginning to creak a bit when I got up in the morning after games.
“I should probably never have left Padiham in the first place, but the chance to manage at Runcorn Linnets, who were in a higher division at the time, was a lure for me. Then I had a fantastic 12 months at Ashton Athletic, which is a brilliant club with brilliant people.
“But when the Padiham job came up again, I felt I had a job to do there, and I brought in Steve Cunningham and Danny Craig as my management team and we all clicked.
“We won the league in my first season back, and that has definitely been the highlight of my career”.
The milestone of 900 games was something that Steve has had his eye on for some time, but since the news broke in the run up to Saturday’s game, he admits he has been greatly touched by the messages of support he has received.
“It all started when someone asked me last season how many games I’d managed, and to be honest I had never thought about it.
“So I spoke to Paul Cowburn, the League Statistician, and he helped me work out how many North West Counties games I had been involved in up to then.
“I’ve been surprised and overwhelmed at the number of messages I have had since an article in the Burnley Express went on Twitter on Friday.
“My phone rang on Friday afternoon, and someone said “Is that Steve Wilkes?”. He then congratulated me on reaching 900 games, and I asked who it was. He said, “it’s David May, the former Manchester United player”.
“David got the number from a friend of mine who knows him, and knows I am a big Man United fan, so that was nice”.
Despite his long spell in the dug out, Steve insists he has no intention of packing up just yet.
“It’s been a roller coaster at times, sometimes I have come home on a Saturday night and said ‘that’s it’, but then you wake up on a Sunday morning and then you think ‘I love this job’. Everyone knows the passion I have.
“From a personal point of view, it would be nice to get to 1000 games, which if you get a few cup runs, you could probably manage in the space of a couple of seasons, but you never know in this job.
“But my main ambition is to get Padiham back up into the Evo-Stik League. As a club and for me as a manager, maybe we didn’t realise how hard it was to compete in that league when we went up before, so my ambition has to be to get back in there, stabilise and establish the club at that level”.