Photo: Enfield Borough FC

Promotions, a taste of the top level, plus a fair few thousand who will testify to his undoubted talent. Anthony McNamee had an inkling early on that there was more beyond football, but the game still gives him something nothing else can, which brings the one-time Watford wideman striding into perhaps his most daring step yet.

In a time called April 2014, Leicester City have just sealed their place back in the Premier League after a decade away, while the big prize looks destined for Brendan Rodgers’ Liverpool (just three more games…). For Watford, a campaign in which they have fallen well short of the Championship play-offs they were so close to winning a season earlier is almost up, though the clairvoyants are raving about a Serbian manager who used to play for Chelsea.

The month also sees a well-remembered former Hornets prospect, part of their last foray into the top flight at the time, make what remains his most recent competitive appearance, for Woking at 29. To say that Anthony McNamee, in League One two seasons earlier with MK Dons and Wycombe Wanderers (loan), hung up the boots soon afterwards would be inaccurate.

To indicate that he drifted out of football in the years that followed, even more so.

“That was the last time I played, as a professional,” he recalls. “After Woking, I went to America, done a few training sessions with (NASL side at the time) Fort Lauderdale (Strikers); I trained there for six weeks and came back to England, so nothing really came of that.

“That was it. I’ve just been playing men’s vets football and stuff like that, but I was always coaching, even when I was playing, for the local kids in the area, helping clubs set up Under-12s and that, so that’s something I was always interested in.

“It wasn’t that hard to really transition into coaching, to be honest.”

Recent weeks, though, have taken the ex-Norwich City and Swindon Town man one step further – into first-team management. The club he has just started the season with didn’t exist until five years ago, when Enfield Borough, now of the Combined Counties League Division One, were founded by current chairman Marvin Walker (alongside his previous assistant Aaron Archer).

Promotion-winning former Wadham Lodge and Brimsdown boss Walker had made a concerted effort as a manager to help steer talented players toward possible prosperous futures in the game. Enfield Borough’s inaugural gaffer himself, he has now handed the potential launchpad into life as a number one to Anthony, who explained.

“I’ve been coaching the Aldershot Town college programme, London site, and one of the directors is good friends with Marv. Marv said he was looking for some coaching, came and told me, and I thought ‘yeah, it’s something I’d be interested in’.

“I’m based in Thornton Heath, so I’m like deep south, and Enfield’s…up north! So it’s a bit of a trek, but it’s an opportunity.

“I’ve pretty much got free reign when it comes to the playing side; that’s all I really wanted.”

In truth, the conviction to back him and his capabilities was all he was really looking for as a player, too. Indeed you have to turn the clock back all the way to when an Italian manager at Watford was a novel idea – and when football bosses in general tended to actually complete a full season in the same job – to reach the gaffer that he feels best understood what he needed as a player.

“Probably Gianluca Vialli. I felt like he encouraged me, he gave me so much confidence.

“I made my debut when I was 17, and he didn’t make it feel like it was a problem or something to be nervous about, he kind of just threw me in there and pretty much told me I can do it. Him and (assistant) Ray Wilkins were excellent.

“I was obviously a bit disappointed he got sacked. I think if he didn’t get sacked, I would have had a better career, to be honest.”

 

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He was still 17 when he picked the ball up on the left against Gillingham at Vicarage Road in Division One, strode forward and threw out a stepover before firing a superb, angled effort into the far corner from just outside the box. Vialli, the sight of whom in health and huge spirits with Roberto Mancini in Italy’s dugout this summer warmed many a footballing heart, left the Hornets hotseat soon after.

The ex-Chelsea boss and Champions League-winning frontman has not managed in the 19 years since, and Anthony did become a Premier League player in any case, four years down the line (after 42 games for Adrian Boothroyd as relegation-tipped Watford came 3rd and won the Championship play-offs). Even playing a minute at the top was a dream realised, though he had been among the brightest prospects outside the Premier League shortly before.

To then be on loan in League One with Crewe Alexandra late in the following campaign seemed surprising from the outside, as did the fact that his taste of the big time at 22 years old proved to be his only such opportunity (despite also later helping Norwich get there).

I just think it’s the confidence of a manager. I was Vialli’s player coming through, he gave me my chance.

“When Aidy Boothroyd came in, I started the first half of the season, and I think I kind of burned out, because even though I’d been in the first team for three years, that was my first run of games starting, so when it got to Christmas time, I think I was burned out. That’s when he brought in Chris Eagles (on loan from Manchester United).

“Then we got promoted and it was like ‘well, I’m back to being on the bench again’. I had a few games, done well, scored in the FA Cup to get us through against West Ham, and then I don’t think I played after that.

“People change, don’t they? When they get themselves in a position, they just move in the directions they want to go.”

His current pairing with ex-Queens Park Rangers man Pat Kanyuka as assistant speaks to the rapport between the one-time Swindon Town counterparts. Safe to say, though, that for a winger like Anthony, a centre-back probably wouldn’t be first on the list when it comes to teammates he has felt the strongest connections with on the pitch in his career.

“There’s a few. At Watford, it was Jordan Stewart; he was my roommate, so we got on really well.

“Ashley Young was one, coming through the youth team pretty much playing on opposite wings all the time. At Swindon, it was probably Jamie Vincent; he was the left-back behind me.

“He just used to feed me the ball all the time, so it allowed me chance to shine.”

Although they were not the only bright prospects in Watford’s squad, there was a certain symmetry to him and Ashley Young lining up together at the beginning of their 20s. Homegrown products, with skill and exuberance; the kind of players that fans – and managers – of other teams would have happily taken off Watford’s hands at that time.

For Anthony, did it feel back then like it was possible for them to flourish together in the same side longer term, or that there would ultimately be a ‘one or the other’ element?

“Me and Ashley Young were never in competition, because I was older than him, so coming through the youth team, I was always ahead of him. Then even when I broke into the first team, I was ahead, but when Ray Lewington took over, I don’t think I was his player.

“He was the reserve-team manager when I broke into the first team, so I didn’t really get to play with the reserves at the time. So when he took over, he put me straight back into the reserves, when I was playing first team; his excuse to me was ‘well, you didn’t have a chance to play reserve-team football yet’.

“I had a good four months under Vialli, but when I look back at my games and stuff, I didn’t really play under Ray Lewington; I probably started twice in two years. At that time, that was when he brought in Ashley Young, so I wasn’t really in his plans, I was just there because I was pretty much a fans’ favourite.

“If we were losing, he’d put me on to see if I could do anything, and if I did do something good, it wouldn’t mean I’m starting next week.”

Coaching and management gives him considerable opportunity to pass on the benefit of what he experienced, good and bad, in professional football, though that is not limited to the players he coaches. Anthony’s cousin is Fulham forward Bobby De Cordova-Reid, whose form caught fire as a 24-year-old at Bristol City in 2017/18, leading to a Premier League move to Cardiff City.

Together with the pride felt in the family, Anthony feels an extra edge of fulfilment at seeing him shine.

“I feel like he’s finishing the job I kind of let go. He’s taken it a lot further than I took it.

“Even seeing him play for Jamaica, something that I always wanted to do, it’s a very proud moment. I’m hoping that my son gets to watch him play often, then he can catch that bug and keep it going like that.”

 

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As he alluded to, ex-England youngster Anthony was eligible for Jamaica, voicing in the media his strong interest in representing the Reggae Boyz during his time at Swindon. How close did he feel he was to getting that opportunity?

“I heard I was close, but at that time, Jamaica stopped wanting to use the English-based players, so there was a bit of back and forth when I was at Watford and Norwich, so that was the kind of thing that killed me. I don’t know whether they didn’t have the money or whatever, but something was going on with the federation at that point.

“I let them know that I wanted to play but nothing came of it.”

Three seasons after leaving Swindon, he was back at the County Ground and in the Macclesfield Town team that beat a side two divisions above them 2-0 in the FA Cup in November 2012. Swindon boss Paolo Di Canio would subsequently promise to fine his players for ‘unprofessional behaviour’ after the tie…

The 88 games he played for the Robins, though, are in Anthony’s thoughts as he is asked about when he felt happiest as a player.

“It’s probably playing at Swindon, and then going to Norwich. It’s hard, because I’d say my Watford days, coming through the youth team, I loved it.

“Going from the youth team to the first team, and then actually being in the first team but not playing, that was difficult, because I didn’t feel welcome, if you know what I mean? I felt like I was there because the fans liked me, but I was never going to play.

“So I feel like that stalled me, but when I went to Swindon, knowing I’m going to be playing every week, that was a whole different feeling. Then moving to Norwich, which is a big club, that was another good moment for me.”

Although he only turned 37 last month, he is, as mentioned earlier, far from a coaching newcomer. Does his biggest buzz come from simply helping develop players, or does being a manager carry most appeal?

“I want to go down the management route. I enjoy being a coach, but I enjoy having a team around me, and listening to other people’s advice.

“I think that’s the good part of it, you can’t steer the ship by yourself, you have to take input, take advice. Hopefully, I can get a good team around me, that if I was to go higher up the leagues, they would follow me everywhere.”

As fans of his former clubs may be wondering, though, is he strictly manager only at Enfield Borough, or might he yet be the one to serve up a few drops of the shoulder and crosses this season?

“I’ve been thinking about it! I joined in training the other day, and I was blowing big time, so I’m not sure I’m going to be making it!

“But I’m going to register.”

As many who follow the game know, there are the bleaker sides, and the hope is that the players who have gone into management in recent years can be the ones to break the cycle of certain practices that may have once been commonplace, but are undoubtedly detrimental to a player’s state of mind. Asked if there is anything he saw in his career that he would not repeat now he is a manager himself, Anthony says of being isolated from the rest of the first-team squad: “That’s something I would never do to a player.”

Now he is at the beginning again, from a different vantage point, and wiser to the game, but with the same love for it. Given the chance today to speak to the Anthony McNamee coming through at Watford, what would he say?

“I’d tell him ‘just speak up’. I’d say ‘speak up for things to get better’.

“The area I’m from, we’re very boisterous round here, but I’ve always been told ‘if you go in a professional environment, change your ways’ kind of thing. I think I’ve done that, because I wasn’t at Watford from young, I came in just before college, so going in there was a whole new thing.

“I’m thinking ‘I have to be professional’. I didn’t come in with that street mentality, which I had from living in the type of area I was from.

“I think doing that, it kind of held me back, and it was hard to get out of it. I always felt ‘I’m in an institution where it’s professional, it’s a big thing’, because I didn’t know any footballers, I didn’t know any pros, I didn’t know what to expect.

“It was just like ‘this is the holy grail, behave yourself’, you know? The manager’s telling you to do something, do it, even if you don’t think it’s right, but knowing what I know now, I wouldn’t be like that.”

Interview/article by @chris_brookes

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