With the seasoned goalscorer he is, there is an obvious parallel between how Ross Hannah made his name and the enthusiasm with which he has seized upon the chance to step into management, regardless of how unexpected. The former Bradford City striker speaks with gratitude towards Gainsborough Trinity chairman Richard Kane for his show of faith in two young coaches, as he and former club captain Liam King prepare for the first full season of what they hope will prove a sustained and successful partnership.
The Holy Blues have added to their ranks ahead of what promises to be a hugely intriguing 2019/20 in the BetVictor Northern Premier League Premier Division. The likes of ex-FC Halifax Town and Chester midfielder Kingsley James and striking ace Gavin Allott have been brought in as the Lincolnshire side bid to fight it out with South Shields, FC United, Warrington Town, Ashton United and various other contenders. Far from being content to play a bit part, their joint-boss is setting his sights as a player just as high as he always has.
In terms of the remit you and Liam have been given, how far ahead have the conversations been focusing? Is it ‘get us into the play-offs next season,’ or is there also talk of much longer-term objectives for the club?
Well from last season, the main goal was to get promotion, whether through the play-offs or to win the league, which we fully believed we had a squad to do so. Obviously we hit a bit of a blip after Christmas and it ended up with me and Liam taking over. We had no real plans to be there any longer than the chairman wanted us to be, and we ended up doing a good enough job for the chairman to give it us until the end of the season. We found ourselves five points out of the play-offs when we took it, and before the points deduction (for all clubs in the league who had won points against North Ferriby United) we were four points inside it, so obviously we made the right impact. Unfortunately, we couldn’t just get over the line for the play-offs. The chairman gave us a great opportunity and we sat down and had a look at who we wanted to get. We’re still looking to add to that, but looking at the season, we’re not putting anything specific; in camp, we’ve got our own targets that we’re looking to do or that we expect. I think it’s gonna be more competitive than last season, so it is going to be harder, but we believe that we can do it. I think a minimum play-offs would be what we’re looking at.
As well as taking on this management job, you’re also a way down the line with your coaching qualifications. When did the idea of coaching first come into play for you, how far back are we going?
Away from football, me and Liam work with two-to-six-year-olds, footballing coaching. It’s Liam’s business and now I’ve come out of full-time football I work for him. That’s something that we’ve done for the past five years, in our local area but we’ve since gone into the likes of Mansfield, Nottingham, so we’re branching out. We’ve always had that desire to go into coaching. I know it’s different coaching when you’re working with much younger kids, but Liam’s completed his UEFA B, I’m in the middle of completing it, so we’ve obviously had that aim to go into coaching, because like a lot of people, we live and breathe football. We want to progress and stay in the game in some capacity, and coaching was the one we wanted to do, but like I say, we did not expect to be in a job like this at this age.
With the managers you’ve worked with, there have been some different characters in there. Peter Jackson at Bradford, albeit briefly, as one example. Who have you particularly enjoyed working with?
Like any player, there’s obviously good things and not so good things about managers. I think if you can take little bits of all the managers you work under and that you respect and have done well in their careers, you’re gonna give yourself the best chance. Like you say, Peter Jackson, what a top man he was. Man-management, unreal; made you feel top of the world. That’s a massive part of the game, especially now, because the players have so much power that you’ve got to be a real players’ manager now, I think. He had a great coach alongside him as well; Colin Cooper, who’s involved with England Under-21s now, I think. Phil Parkinson, to be fair; I wouldn’t say his man-management skills were brilliant, but he knew how to organise a side and his recruitment was good. Steve Burr was good for me, personally; again, another top man-manager and got the best out of me. Paul Hurst, who’s obviously gone on to do good things at Shrewsbury and then got an opportunity at Championship level; good man-management, but tactically and his coaching was good. So there’s no one in particular that stands out. Like I said, the managers you work under, the good ones, you take things from that, and if you get an opportunity like we’ve got, you be your own person as well and put your own stamp on things, but you’d be stupid not to take things from those type of people.
What’s your playing involvement for next season looking like, have you still got a real spring in your step as a player?
Yeah, I do, and obviously that was a conversation we had during the summer. Liam’s actually younger than me (at 31), so he should still be playing, but unfortunately he’s had back problems and he has played a hell of a lot of games over the years. It got to a point where he was struggling day to day and it kind of opened his eyes a little bit, and he had to take a step back from it. Funnily enough, when he did that, we ended up going in as manager and assistant, which was weird! It’s football for you. For me, I’m still hungry, I still love training. We’re training tonight and I wake up and I can’t wait to go. I still want to play, I’ve still got aspirations to try and be the fittest there, the top scorer, so as long as I’ve got that, I’ll always be a player. I’ve got to realise that I am still a player, which I do, and I’ve managed to get to grips with balancing it…well I think I have, you’ll probably have to ask the lads! I feel like I have, and I’m enjoying it. I’m not gonna say it’s easy, because it isn’t. When you’re a player you just kind of turn up and listen and get on with it. Now, I turn up, I’ve got to get myself right for the game if I’m playing, I’ve got to sort my little bits out that I do with Liam, and it is a lot on a match day now; mentally it’s quite draining. Come Saturday night, I’m ready for bed quite early!
For a lot of new coaches and managers, it’s natural to go in with ideas of playing attractive football, ‘I’m gonna be this sort of coach and leader,’ and so on. As you know better than most, though, non-league’s pretty unforgiving, with the pitches especially. From your years of knowing non-league, what have you seen and thought ‘that works best’? Play football but know when to mix it?
Non-league is different obviously to Football League and that type of level. The pitches stay in good condition quite high up; at our level, you’re probably looking at three different stages of pitch standard. Pre-season when they’re alright and you can probably start the season playing a bit of football, and then the weather starts and it’s like a fight, boggy, and you probably go a bit more direct, because you can’t really play football. Then it gets to a surface where it’s rock hard, bouncing, so you’ve certainly got to have different ways of playing. You’ve got to vary it, but I think the most important thing is your recruitment and bringing the right players in if you’ve got a certain way of playing. It’s obviously been eight years since I was at this level, with Matlock, and I’ve noticed a lot of difference. I think a lot of teams do it a lot more professional now, the lads are a lot fitter, and the standard of the lads that are in the league is a lot better, because obviously higher up, you’re getting pushed down. End of the day, managers, players, all wanna play like your top teams – Liverpool, Man City – even teams in our league get players to try and play that way, which is difficult. South Shields are probably the best footballing side we played last year, and they’ve got it bang on really with the players that they’ve got in to play the way that they play. It’s pretty much perfect how they do it.
In your most recent times as a player, how have you been enjoying it? The second spell at Chester, for example, were you still able to enjoy things, or because of the situation the club was in, does that start to make you think that bit harder about the future?
I’d had a really good season at Chester, finished on 28 goals and got a move to Barrow, who were really ambitious at the time. Paul Cox was a good manager for that league, he’d won the Conference, so you sensed it was really good going there. Obviously football’s football, doesn’t work out sometimes how you imagine it, and it didn’t. At the end of that season, I had a phone call from Jon McCarthy, who was assistant in my first spell at Chester to Steve Burr, and he was now the manager at this time. He just said ‘would you come back?’ and I thought ‘well, there’s nowhere else I’d rather go, to be honest.’ There was Wrexham interested, which I was thinking really hard about, but when Chester rung me I just thought ‘it’s a no-brainer.’
I went back to Chester and that saying ‘you never go back’ probably proved right, because I had a couple of injuries and then obviously the financial difficulties that they ended up in, the manager changed, and it wasn’t anything like my first time there. It was a tough place to be at the time, because we weren’t doing so well in the league, obviously ended up getting relegated, and the off-field problems just got worse really. When the problems come like that and you get relegated and the football’s not great, it’s not a real great place to be. So I ended up going to Southport, which was another ambitious club in the league below, and the chance to work with Jon McCarthy again, and Kevin Davies as manager, ex-England, and slim chance of getting in the play-offs. At this point, I had to leave as well to help Chester, but as a player as well, you’d rather be fighting for something at the top of the league rather than a relegation fight. So I went there and it was alright. Realistically, looking back, we were probably miles off getting in the play-offs, but at the time I just needed to get out of Chester. It was a tough spell really, because I’d gone to carry on where I’d left off at Chester and it didn’t work out, it was difficult, but I was already thinking when I hit 30 – I’m 33 now – ‘well, I need to start planning.’
Liam had already had this business set up, and he said ‘look, once you step out of full-time, look at coming and doing more coaching, we’ll expand and build it and you can play a big role in that.’ I had another year at Chester after Southport, so I went back, obviously the managers had come in, Bernard and Jonno, and were pretty clear with the situation; I knew I had to leave but obviously was on a full-time contract, me and another lad. It was a case of just sticking in there and it sorting itself out, which it did in the end and I got a call from Gainsborough. I pretty much jumped at the chance really because it was the closest team I’ve played for and I just wanted to be close to home. I’ve got a six-year-old and a three-year-old, so I’d kind of put myself first through my career and it was time to change that really and be at home more.
Matlock’s the obvious, and there were plenty of people touting you – and some Vardy lad at Halifax… – for a Football League move, which happened with Bradford that summer (2011). When I say happiest times in football for you, which spells spring to mind?
Yeah, that’s an obvious one, Matlock. To score the amount of goals that I did, even at the time it didn’t really sink in, but comparing the seasons that I’ve had since or before, it was just incredible. I just felt like every time I went on the pitch I was gonna score, no matter what. Whenever I touched the ball or hit a shot it felt like it was gonna go in, and what a feeling that is as a striker, it’s unbelievable. I couldn’t have been any more confident; not in an arrogant way, just ‘if I get a chance, I’ll score a goal.’ I think I created a name for myself as a goalscorer, which I still believe I am; you don’t lose that knack of scoring goals. That was a good spell for me, but I had a mindset of ‘I’m gonna make it as a pro, I’m gonna make it full-time.’ I’d never stop thinking of that. I was working with one of the lads, he had his own gardening business, and I was driving to work every morning thinking ‘I can’t be doing this every day.’ It did drive me on, and it obviously worked. I got my chance at Bradford City, Peter Jackson signed me, and if he’d have stayed in charge it could have been a different story, but I’m not gonna get the violin out. Scoring the first professional goal (away at Oxford United) was big, and then playing for Grimsby at Wembley twice, that was a massive highlight.
It obviously applies much more to some players and managers than others, but have you ever found any misconceptions about you as a player or personality, or generally pretty fair?
I think I’m genuine, I’m honest, so I’d like to think no one would really say a bad word about me in that respect. Probably thought that I’ve not got enough credit for the other things I do on the pitch; sometimes you’re just labelled as a goalscorer. I mean don’t get me wrong, I’ll take it all day long! Sometimes you can just be labelled as a goalscorer but they don’t know how hard he works, the opportunity he creates for other people. So, nothing major really, no. I’m probably clutching there a little bit.
Finally, bringing it back to Gainsborough, seeing it from the inside, what encourages you about the club? What has it got going for it and why did you see this being something you could really make a go of?
I think first of all you need a good man to back you, give you that opportunity to develop, because obviously we’re young coaches, and someone that’s willing to get better and not just be ‘oh we’ll be alright.’ I’m not talking about on the field, I’m talking about the whole club, and the chairman we’ve got there, I’m not just saying it, he is absolutely top drawer. He’s a top guy, honest as they come, backs us, backs anybody who’s working for him. It’s got the infrastructure to be a Conference club one day. I think so. I mean the pitch is absolutely top drawer; the groundsman’s a joke. The ground is Conference North at least. With the chairman, we speak every day and we’re always looking at what areas we can improve. Football-wise, we just need to try and get it back on track, because when they did get relegated, it was the first time they ever had. The chairman took that quite personally, and he’s got a bee in his bonnet a little bit that he’s gonna make it right! Hopefully, we’re the ones that can do that, but it’s a really well-run club, good people behind the scenes, and we feel that we’ve got the lads in this season especially, the right characters, the right mentality, and also with the right ability to give us the best chance.
Interview by @chris_brookes