After Gary Johnson’s September arrival at Torquay United last season, the Gulls flew on from mid-table to the National League South title by ten points. His former Cheltenham Town skipper Aaron Downes joined him as assistant/first-team coach three months later, returning to the club where he was previously Player of the Year.
Still only 34, the Australian former defender is grateful to have been able to maintain the strong sense of structure and purpose that many players feel suddenly stripped of when they retire. The ex-Chesterfield man, though, can thank himself for the forward planning and endeavour he showed in pursuing and completing a number of coaching qualifications before his retirement last year. A self-confessed chatterbox – as he was reminded not so long ago by former teammate Dean Holden – ‘Downsey’ might be the ideal present-day substitute for Bob Hoskins on those old BT adverts. ‘It’s good to talk,’ and he’s been putting that to great use, drawing upon the leadership fundamentals he so often displayed as a player.
More than content with what he achieved on the pitch, he is now an integral part of the efforts to return a club most closely associated with League football to its more preferred surroundings after six seasons away. The Gulls’ own ‘land of plenty,’ perhaps (with no ‘fried-out Kombi’ necessary…but more of that later)…
It’s been a year now back at Torquay, how are you enjoying it all?
Personally, very good, loving it. As you retire from being a player, a lot of people wonder what to do, but I suppose fortunately and unfortunately for me, I had a few injuries, so I kind of knew that I would retire a little bit earlier than most. I didn’t think that I would get much further than 31/32 as a player, because of the knee injuries I had. I had my (UEFA) B Licence and A Licence before I retired, so the natural progression was to go into coaching, and I was fortunate enough to have the manager in Gary Johnson at Cheltenham who allowed me to do that. He took me on as a first-team coach and the head of coaching, and then when he got the job at Torquay he asked me to come down as the assistant. It was ideal for me, I knew the club well, I knew the area well, being here three years as a player, and I still knew a few people in the club. As a young coach, it’s great for me to learn off such an experienced manager. He gives me quite a bit of leeway to go out and learn, and coach every day. The players have been spot on, a great bunch to work with. The club’s also been giving us and the players the basis we need to be successful.
Has the transition from playing been absolutely seamless, or have you also found it tough to leave that behind?
I would be lying if I said I don’t miss playing. Obviously, nothing compares to playing, something you grow up doing as a kid and you wanna do forever. My body let me know in no uncertain terms that I couldn’t do it forever! It has been quite seamless, though. The fortunate thing for me is I’ve never had a day at home unemployed yet. As a player, the hardest thing is when you’re employed on the Saturday, your contract runs out on Sunday, and then Monday, the reality sets in. The season’s finished and you’re like ‘well, what am I gonna do now?’ I was very fortunate to go from playing straight into coaching. Like I say, I desperately miss playing, 100 percent, but I really love what I do. It’s full on, it’s different to playing; playing, you can focus purely on your own game. You’ve got to work hard at it and be quite meticulous. If you take a day off, it could be the day you miss something about the opposition, and it costs you on a Saturday because you’ve not had chance to work on it.
Having worked with Gary as a player and coach, what is the dynamic like? Will you have healthy disagreements sometimes?
The manager’s been there, done it, so sometimes it is tough to question his knowledge! I definitely do question some things, I’m not a ‘yes’ man, and he told me that from day one – ‘don’t just agree with me, if you have a feeling, we’ll discuss it…and then we’ll agree that I’m right!’ As far as training, he gives me a free role. The reason he brought me in is because I know how he wants to play, the way he likes things done, the way he wants to work. That trust is definitely there, the loyalty is 100 percent there, and that’s a big thing for him as well. The dynamic works really well. One thing is he’s not narrow-minded and only listens to himself, he does take on board others’ opinions, and you’ve got to do that to be in the game for as long as he has.
Will you ever be immersed in the training sessions as an extra player, or is it more beneficial (coaching-wise and physically) to be out of the way?
It’s tough to keep me out of it! I definitely join in, as and when I’m needed. When I’m taking the session fully, I tend not to join in, but if we’re doing an active recovery day, then I’ll join in and have a bit of fun. If we’re having a session that’s concentrated and it’s got to be really focused on a specific tactic or whatever, then I won’t join in that, but towards the end of the session, where we’re just gonna do a 5-a-side round robin, I’ll play in that. When we’re doing an 11-v-11, the gaffer’s taking it and we need an extra body, then I’ll join in, because I like to keep myself fit.
Who are some of the characters in the team now? Any standouts?
Yeah we’ve got some great characters, some great lads. We’ve got a few experienced boys who sort of take the role of looking after the boys; the captain Asa Hall, Liam Davis. Then you’ve got a few characters like Jamie Reid and Jake Andrews, who like to have a joke and a giggle. They’re all mates, which is important. When you get a promotion as a group, it sort of binds you and gives you a camaraderie that will stay with you for a long time. When we got promoted at Cheltenham, our team, we’re all still great mates and keep in contact one way or another. It’s great to go in every day and work with these lads, because even after a loss, they’re still willing to work, enthusiastic. It’s very rare we have a tough day.
And the characters from your own playing career, who brightened the changing room, or who were the ones to steer clear of on a night out?! However you wanna look at it.
I’ve played with that many that it’s hard to go into them. Cheltenham changing room was brilliant, with Kyle Storer, Harry Pell, Danny Wright, Asa Hall again was in that. Earlier on in my career, at Chesterfield, Barry Roche, Jack Lester, who was unbelievable, Shane Nicholson, Steve Blatherwick, Ian Evatt, Ian Breckin, Rob Page, Darren Currie, there’s numerous. Great professionals but a good laugh; a lot of the better players that I played with had both sides to them. They could have a joke, but if you’re down at half-time, the experienced boys would come in, and the manager a lot of the time didn’t need to say a lot. They hated losing – hated it. Great lads, but on the pitch, they could be really competitive, and animals, and they’re the kind of people I like.
— PELLE #8 (@Harrypell_7) October 7, 2018
You won promotions, got some Player of the Year awards, but was there a happiest period of your playing career? A specific season, or couple of years perhaps that stands out?
I think the year we got promoted with Cheltenham; it was unbelievable. Seventeen players got signed; when the manager put the team together there was only two players from the season before that stayed on. For 17 of us all to gel so quickly, and go on to win the league by 12 points, was quite something. We weren’t affected by the negativity of a relegation the season before, but the club was, the fans were, so the manager had to really turn that around. He’s got a great knack of bringing a big group together; bringing them all together in a common goal. Being captain in that changing room was quite an honour. I had some great seasons, but that season was probably the pinnacle for me.
It might very well be Gary Johnson, but in terms of a manager who understood you best as a player and the approach you needed, who would spring to mind on that?
I was very fortunate to be under some very good managers. I played under Gary later on in my career, so he knew he didn’t necessarily have to get into me as much. At 30 years old, I could get myself going, and I could get other players going; I was sort of helping him in that respect. He treated me well as a captain, definitely, because if I did have a tough game, he wouldn’t slaughter me in front of the lads. I also had some good managers who would get into me when I was younger, and I needed that, because it was sink or swim. I had Roy McFarland, the manager who first signed me (at Chesterfield) and gave me my debut, and he was brilliant for me. As a centre-half, he taught me a lot. He didn’t do loads of individual, specific coaching with me, but just the way he was and the chats that he had were brilliant. A great motivator. We had probably the lowest budget in League One at the time, and we were comfortably staying up, or getting around the play-offs, in a league we should have been getting relegated from.
Another one, John Sheridan. When he came in, we got promoted at Chesterfield, and again, he was a great motivator; he could really get stuck into players. He was a real, vocal player, and as a manager he was the same. From Monday to Friday, he was the best bloke you could meet; calm, relaxed, great around the training ground, funny. Then on a Saturday he was a different animal, because he just wanted to win, and that was great, that was inspiring.
You were linked to a possible Championship move, I seem to remember, at one point at least. Did you ever hear of anything being in the works at the time?
There’s always rumours that fly about, but I wouldn’t like to speculate. There was always interest here and there when I was younger. I don’t wanna sound ‘sob story’ here, because it’s definitely not, but I think my knee injuries put people off. I think, though, I probably fulfilled my potential in League One. I potentially could have given the Championship a crack, but once I had my knee injury, then I lost a yard of pace, so I had to rely a lot on my positional sense, and I think in the Championship I would have got exposed. With my career and the injuries that I had, I’m quite happy with how I ended up. There’s no sort of regrets from me, I’m quite proud that I was able to recover from three ACLs, a broken ankle. I’ve had 11 operations on my knee, so to still be able to join in now with the lads, I’m quite happy.
You were involved plenty at younger age groups, but what about a chance with Australia at senior level? Did you have an idea of how close or far away you were from playing for the Socceroos?
I went on a few training camps with the Socceroos, when I was with the Olyroos, the Olympic squad. I went to the World Cup with the Under-20s in 2005 and played there. I did my qualification with the Olympic squad, and then I missed the final cut, which is disappointing. In the build-up to the Olympics, the assistant manager of the Socceroos was the Olyroos coach, Graham Arnold, who’s now the Socceroos manager. He brought a few of us in to train, to give us experience, to blend us with the Socceroos, and also so he could monitor us while they were in London. I had a couple camps down in London, but never got on the bench. Being honest, I don’t think I was ever close to the Socceroos. It was a fantastic experience to train with them and be around them, and see some of the best players Australia’s ever produced. It was one of the greatest honours to represent Australia as many times as I did at youth level, so I’m really happy about that.
Did you ever have to sing when you joined a new team?
Yes, always, even as staff! I had one or two songs, but I always went down the Aussie route. ‘Waltzing Matilda’ I always did, but a lot of them didn’t really know that one. The other one was ‘Down Under’ – Men at Work. The ones that are nervous, they want the group to join in and help them, but I didn’t care really! A few of them knew ‘Down Under,’ so they could join in a little bit. I’m a terrible singer anyway, so I’m not gonna have any records any time soon, that’s for sure.
One singer/band/song you’d sneak on to the team playlist?
My music varies massively, so I love something like good old Aussie rock, like AC/DC, or it could be a British one like Dire Straits. It could be Elton John, Queen, then also some modern sort of stuff, like The Killers. If I had to put one on, I’d go AC/DC ‘Thunderstruck’; that really gets you going. Good old Aussie stuff.
— Torquay United FC (@TUFC1899) December 13, 2018
Loosely following on from that, is life for you fully over here now for the future, or do you see yourself ever setting up home in Australia?
My wife’s English, and we’ve been married just over ten years now, and we’re quite settled. In Cheltenham, we love it there, it’s a great part of the country. We’ve got friends there, and friends all over the country really, through football. All my family’s back in Australia and I do miss them. I love getting over and seeing them, but my wife’s very close to her family as well and they’ve really taken me in. I’m quite happy here, especially with the work that I do. You try not to look too far ahead, you try and enjoy what’s happening at the minute.
We hear about the battle for the work/life balance for managers, but what about you now in this role? Are you still thinking when you’ve gone home about tactics and systems? How much of that balance have you found so far?
You’d have to ask my wife! As a young coach now, I haven’t quite worked that very well; it’s tough to not work, in your head. It’s hard to sort of park it, but I know the manager’s the same. He’s at home constantly thinking about new things, and I think he knows that I’m the same. There’s plenty of times where it’ll be like 10 o’clock at night, my phone’ll go and it’s the gaffer going ‘Downesy, what about this?’ I’ll be like ‘I was just thinking that myself,’ so we’re quite in tune. You’ve got so much self-improvement to be working on, so watching other managers, speaking to different people, reading different books. You can’t show up Monday to Friday and put the same session on. A good quote was told to me a while ago: ‘the best coaches do the same thing differently.’ So you’re trying to give them the same message, but also entertain them so the players aren’t bored. A lot of things just come to you late at night and you’re like ‘oh that’ll work,’ so it is a 24/7 job. You’ve got to still take that time to spend with family and try to switch off. It’s difficult, but I am learning.
A last one then, and it’s when you take a step back at this point, what do you think you’ve learned from the game up to now? Through the challenges, the setbacks, the high points.
I’ve definitely, through injuries, developed a strong mental character. I left home at 16 and I’ve never properly been back. It’s hard to blow my own trumpet a bit, but you get quite good mental strength to be living away from home, on your own, especially when I was younger. I left home at 16 in Australia and moved to Canberra, then I came over here as an 18-year-old. You get knock-backs; I was at Bolton Wanderers and then got rejected, so that was a kick in the teeth. I had a trial at different clubs and ended up getting a contract at Chesterfield. Life lessons were big, but the people I’ve met, I’ve developed lifelong friendships. The people I lived with in Bolton in digs, I’m still friends with. Players I played with, a lot of them are ships in the night, and we only see each other briefly, but I’ve developed over the years five or six friendships that I’ll have for life. I met my wife; that’s unbelievable. She’s an amazing person. I have to say that the women who are married to coaches or footballers at a lower-league level, they don’t half have to be strong. My wife’s definitely that, she’s one of the good ones, that’s for sure, and I’m very fortunate to have her to support me in everything I’ve been through.
Interview by @chris_brookes