As circumstances stipulated, this past season saw him back in the on-field action, but it is very much Nathan Arnold the manager now. The Lincoln City and Grimsby Town favourite (no easy combination to achieve…) has tasted the big occasion a few times over the years and he is a man who knows all about promotion and the momentum it can bring.
That is certainly included in the plan at another Lincolnshire club, United Counties League Division One’s Bourne Town, where the 33-year-old has taken his first step into management. One of those synonymous with Lincoln City’s incredible FA Cup quarter-final run and National League title success of 2016/17, it was while an Imps player that he was actually making headway towards a future in football beyond playing.
The ex-Mansfield Town winger has undergone no shortage of introspection over recent years, and he is keen to not only continue using his experiences to help others away from football, but to open doors in the game for the next generation.
Restrictions and disruption aside, how has this role with Bourne Town been to get to grips with so far?
Yeah, I think I limped through the first four or five months; obviously with COVID as well, it was a little bit stop-start. I think it was always going to take a while to get going. When a club’s been stable at that level for a while, somebody comes in with fresh ideas and new ambitions, it can take a while for people to warm up to that idea. I think all I did was help them recognise their potential, so the first few months were a slow burner, but we’re in a really good place now. With COVID, I think we utilised the time we could spend together to put a plan in place for not just when we start back, but for the next two or three seasons. So it’s been really exciting.
You have been back on the pitch as well this past season, is it something you want to continue?
When it comes to training, I take the sessions and coach the players, and I’ll only play if need be. I played a few games this season; I think we only played eight or nine in total. The aim is to get a competitive squad, where I move aside, but we were short of players, so I was happy to get my boots back on and help the team the best I could, bring my experience to a young side, because we had seven players under the age of 20.
What is the outlook for the club as we speak now? It’s easy for anyone to say ‘we’ve got huge ambitions, we want to be in the League in five years, ten years’, but what kind of club does Bourne Town see itself as at the moment?
When I first went in, the infrastructure was something that did impress me. They recruit from the age of six, they’ve got 25 teams in total, so they’ve got the junior set-up, reserves and first team. When I talk about the potential, I kind of hand-picked a club at that level where I thought I could affect things going forward. The talks over the last two or three months have been around making us as competitive as possible at the level that we’re at, but we’re kind of looking at the bigger picture as well, we want to get things going, and we want to go as far as we can through the leagues. Obviously the first promotion’s always the hardest, especially for a club that hasn’t really shown any evidence of doing that in the past 5-10 years. They have operated in Step 5 before, but I think now, with a blueprint and a structure, and having a strategy as well to be sustainable when we move through the leagues, I think that’s important. It’s a hard one with Bourne, because I think they’ve lived in the shadows of Deeping for a while. We’re trying to create our own identity and trying to set ourselves up for some success, so I’m really pleased that everyone’s aligned themselves now with our ambitions.
All of us here at Bourne Town FC are delighted to announce a new face in the dugout….
— Bourne Town FC (@BourneTownFC) August 21, 2020
Prior to Bourne, was Melton Town your starting point in coaching, or had you done some before that?
Yeah, I’d done a bit before. I did my badges at Lincoln City, and it was the Cowleys actually who encouraged me to do them. I was doing some video analysis work, some games for Dan and Nick as well, so I quite enjoyed picking games apart.
With football and away from it, how has this past year been for you? Has it been welcome in a sense to take a step back, or more so challenging?
Away from football, I had my own business that I started up, and that was gathering pace before COVID hit, lost all momentum and my revenue stopped. I had to then go out and find a job. Going from 14 years as a professional to then going into the real world and finding not only a job but something that you enjoy was really tough. Fortunately, I’ve found something again that kind of aligned with what I like to do, and what I was doing previously around mental health. Then with the football side of things, that’s never left me really, so it’s always good to be part of something that has a purpose attached to it. I could have probably fast tracked my managerial career and got my foot in the door a bit higher, but it just fit, and the timing, especially with COVID, I thought was perfect for me to start a project. To have something with a bit of longevity as well, because you know how fragile football management can be, so I wanted to make sure I get in with the right people. The chairman at Bourne, when we had the initial conversations, he was new to his role, so it just feels like a fresh start. It’s been quite an enjoyable 12 months, even though we’ve had COVID. I’ve been quite fortunate that my full-time job is in education, so we can continue. With football, we’ve got a videographer in and kind of brought some exposure to Bourne, so this time around, recruitment’s been really easy and we’ve done our business early.
As a player, maybe it’s difficult to nail down exactly, because different things can be needed at different times over the course of a career, but is there a specific kind of approach that you feel got the best from you, from a manager?
I think in the younger days, an arm around me would be most effective. I always go back to what was probably the defining moment, under Nicky Law at Alfreton, so I probably went from a boy to a man in those two seasons. I think as I progressed and got older, the managers that hold me accountable, I think I needed that. I needed to have that responsibility and to be held accountable in terms of my lifestyle, my behaviours, which really helped discipline myself and focus on my career. If you’ve got a manager that doesn’t hold you accountable, sometimes you can get into bad habits, so I’m really fortunate that the managers I had were quite stern, quite tough on me, and with all the other players. I try and obviously implement that now with management and my players.
In terms of Danny and Nicky (Cowley), you were obviously part of huge success together, but tell me about the dynamic between you. Was it based around having a bond, or would there be a certain distance, or even differences of opinion sometimes?
Really good relationship with Dan and Nicky, even to this day. I think that’s just testament to them as people. I can’t speak for other players during that time, but I know that if I was to pick up my phone now and reach out to them, they’d respond. Our relationship was really good, and I think I was the type of player that swam against the tide a little bit; when some of the lads were playing poker and cards at the back of the bus, I was sat at the front, reading or journaling, writing stuff down. We’d be in the video analysis room and I’d soak it up like a sponge and be taking notes. As much as it was probably frowned upon then, I’m really glad I did now, because I gained so much knowledge from doing that. They’re really articulate, they’re really good at what they do, and Nick said the last time I spoke to him, one thing that surprised him was that when I signed for Lincoln, I was 28/29, and normally players at that age are not coachable, but he said I was always willing to learn. That’s something that I learned about myself, but also for players when they get to that age, that you can still learn. I felt at Lincoln City that they probably added 10-15 per cent to my game, which surprised me as well.
— Lincoln City FC (@LincolnCity_FC) January 19, 2017
So did separating yourself a little bit, with reading on the bus and things like that, happen in later years? Was there a time earlier on where you’d be right amongst it, in terms of the messing around, the jokes, card games etc.?
I think I was a bit of a people-pleaser, probably up until the age of 26/27. I think I always followed the crowd or thought I was missing something on a Saturday when everyone was going out. I had my moments through my career when I was one of the lads, and I always tried to be as sociable as possible. Fortunately for me, there were three or four at Lincoln City that didn’t drink much, so I didn’t stand out as much when I chose not to. I don’t think I’ve always had that mature look of it, it was just the case of some personal things happening in my life which probably moved me away from all of that. I was 30 when I came away from professional football, still fit and healthy, but it was a conscious decision that I made. Whether some people think it was premature or not, I was looking ahead. I wanted to be the one to make a decision, and I was fortunate that I could make that decision to transition into something that I wanted to do, rather than being forced into it.
Growing up, were you fanatical about football, or was it something that you just happened to be good at? Did you support Mansfield or another team?
Yeah, always had a ball at my feet. I can remember my mum at Christmas time bought me a football and it was like my best friend from that point. It was like a release for me, and it was like I could escape reality a bit, where my worries would go away with football. I used to have a Subbuteo set, so I loved all different teams, all different kits you’d get with the Subbuteo set. I just loved football, the Premier League and any football I could watch. My local team Mansfield, my uncle was a fanatic, and my earliest memory going to Mansfield was him throwing me over the turnstiles, and his mate was on the gate, so I used to get in for free! That was my very first memory really of watching my local team. I think I got inspired by the atmosphere and being at a football match and watching it live.
You’ve spoken in the past about even the greatest times in your career happening simultaneously with difficult moments away from football. Was there a spell overall, though, that felt the happiest, the most complete for you?
I’d probably say at Lincoln City really. Grimsby and Lincoln back-to-back, it was a difficult time off the pitch, but on the pitch, it was the most successful time of my career. Lincoln City was probably the best time I had, just because of the magnitude of the season that I was involved with. It’s really close, though, because I’d scored at Wembley the year before with Grimsby, and been to Wembley two or three times prior to going to Lincoln. It just felt like Christmases all coming at once in that period of time in my life. I was at Cambridge the year before that, so Cambridge, Grimsby and Lincoln in three seasons, getting promoted with three different clubs from the National League back-to-back. I got to 25 and I never thought I’d experience anything like that, so I’m just really grateful that I got those experiences at the back-end of my career.
🤩 That memorable moment from @nathananthony10.
— Grimsby Town F.C. (@officialgtfc) May 15, 2019
Was there a most difficult time?
Yeah, Cambridge United. I’d signed a two-year contract, I think they paid a bit of money for me at Alfreton, because I was under 24 and I couldn’t go on a free. I went on a two-year deal under Richard Money and my first season was a little bit stop-start, I was in and out of the team, he had a way to go of putting a midfielder out on the wing, just for his height, 6 foot 3. Having said that, we went to Wembley twice, won the FA Trophy and got up by the play-offs, but I can remember Richard Money pulling me and about five others just before the play-offs, and he said ‘you can all have your summer early, you’ve not made the play-off squad’. That was tough, because I was still in the first year of my contract, I’d moved away from family and friends, I was house-sharing down in Cambridge. I had a daughter and I’d travel every Friday to see her. So I committed a lot and sacrificed a lot, and I just felt that was my toughest year really, but it probably did fuel me to go on. I went on a season-long loan to Grimsby, so it all worked out.
Have there been any teammates that you’ve felt an extra sense of understanding with on the pitch?
Matt Rhead was probably the one, I think because he was so dominant and so predictable. We did stats on him at Lincoln and he used to be called The 90 Per Cent Man, because he used to win that many of his headers! It was a dream to play with him, because you could just gamble and make your runs, knowing that the ball’s coming, no matter who the opposition was. I can remember playing at the Emirates against Arsenal and he just dominated the two centre-halves. It was a pleasure to play with Rheady, he actually didn’t get enough credit. Especially when we played teams that didn’t really know much about him, I think they probably underestimated him a lot, and I think that’s probably why we had so much success.
Were there any memorable battles with individual opponents that stick in your mind?
James Jennings, he was at Forest Green and he came on when we were winning the game 2-1 (in the 2016 National League play-off final with Grimsby), just running the clock down before I scored the third goal. The ball came to me out wide, and I always found anyway he was a really tough opponent and we’ve always had a good battle, but I did a few keepy-uppies and obviously he thought I was just taking the piss, so he tried putting me in the stands and we had a bit of back and forth. But I can always remember with James in the National League, it was always a really good battle, and I knew I had to be on my game to get the better of him.
There can be so many misconceptions in football, about different players and managers. Have you ever felt there have been any with you? Or mostly a fair impression wherever you’ve gone?
Yeah, I think a few clubs really. I think definitely my little stint at Salford, I think at Boston as well. You’re not gonna please everybody but I think some things came out that were probably wide of the mark, I felt, and were a little bit harsh. I was at a stage of my career where I was probably operating a little bit from the emotional side maybe, and just a misunderstanding from maybe me and a journalist, say for instance, then it gets publicised. I think whenever I’ve worked a while at a club and built that rapport with the people there, I’d like to think that people know that I’m well respected, but there have been clubs where I’ve only been there a short amount of time and they probably haven’t seen the real me.
Have you ever had to sing when you’ve joined a team, and if so, which song(s) have you gone for?
I normally keep it simple and sing ‘Stand By Me’ (Ben E. King), which is kind of standard but I stick with that, it’s my trusty song.
Work and football aside, are there any other interests you particularly enjoy?
I’ve got a barber qualification, got that years ago, so now the lockdown’s easing and hairdressers and barbers can go back, I’ll probably use a few evenings to get into Lincoln. I like meeting some of the young supporters of Lincoln City, the same with Grimsby, and more so just to get back in the community where the people are. That’s one thing I always tried to do, whatever club I played for, try to get in the community and have a proper relationship with them.
Finally, with all you’ve seen of the game, you could quite easily look at it now and go ‘I’ve had my fill of it’. Do you feel, though, a real desire to play your part in helping people through football, as well as enjoying it yourself?
Absolutely. I always said I’d never stay in football just for the enjoyment of it; I feel like I’m doing football a disservice. Of course, it’s a privilege, football, and some people choose to play as long as they can, but I just wanted to be effective really. As soon as I couldn’t click into gear any more, I wanted to get out, and then look at ways I could give back to the sport. So now I’m managing, I’ve found there’s a lot of players that fall by the wayside, they get released, and I’ve picked up a few players from Doncaster, Peterborough, Lincoln City, Grimsby. It’s really important, especially in non-league, and the basement of non-league, that people are looking after these players, because a lot of managers are in a rush to build a profile and get as high as they can. I’m no different, I want to go and manage at the highest level possible and test myself, but at the same time, I don’t want to trample on anyone or leave anyone behind. For me, as much as personal gain’s involved, in terms of getting promoted with Bourne, one thing that I do try and instil is giving players a platform and an opportunity to kickstart their careers. I pride myself heavily on giving them a chance, because ultimately, it’s where it all started for me. I had one guy at Mansfield when I was ten who saw something in me, and then I spent 11 years there and made my professional debut in the Football League. So I definitely look at younger players and giving them an opportunity to try and make it as high as they can.
Interview by @chris_brookes