Darlington manager Alun Armstrong is the latest to feature in The Bosses’ Lounge. If you missed the first half of his interview, you can find it here.
In the second half, Alun takes on the regular Q&A that goes with this feature, blending managerial and coaching outlooks, inspirations and lighter moments. Here we go…
When did you want to start managing?
I had a phone call from Tom Wade, who was manager up at Blyth, and (son) Luke was up there at the time, playing for Blyth. He just rang us and said ‘would you be interested in doing some coaching?’ I said I couldn’t because I was working part-time with Middlesbrough, coaching in the academy, and they train they same nights. He rang us another week/two weeks later and said ‘I’m after an assistant manager, would you be interested in that role?’ It’s something that I’d never really been interested in, but I just saw an opportunity to work with Luke, to try and develop him. I had to have a chat with him and my wife, and we decided to give it a go and see what happens. Then, 15 minutes before I got to the meeting with Tom and the chairman, Tom rings and says ‘look, I’m stepping down, you’re just gonna take over as manager straight away.’ He was gonna resign at the end of the season, so he was gonna slowly build us up to it, but that just never happened. It happened so quickly and out of the blue, so I basically had to think on my feet. We won the league by 14 points, so it couldn’t have been too bad of a start! I’m enjoying it, don’t get us wrong, but it is tough; it just takes over your life.
Which training sessions do you enjoy leading the most?
The biggest thing for me at this level – people might say it’s a bit derogatory but it’s not – it’s the transition phases that we’re constantly working on. The higher up you play, the ball’s kept a lot longer; at this level there’s a lot of turnover in possession. We work on a lot of that, with a lot of high pressing and high-energy football. I like everything to be intense when we train. We’re a fit team, and when I was up at Blyth we were fit, and people used to think that we did loads of running, but very rarely did we do running. We just work on loads of transition and high-intensity stuff, small-sided stuff. We work on a bit of shape now and again, but these lads have been to work and the last thing they wanna do is stand around and work on shape. You’ve just got to try and get the best out of the group that you’ve got, but the way I’ve found it is make it high intensity with loads of transition, because that’s where the game’s won and lost at this level. You’ve got to make it fun as well, so that’s what we try and do with the transition games, and it seems to work.
Will you ever take part in training, in terms of actually being in the session as an active part, like an extra player?
I used to, but not now; I get too many injuries! I pull something every now and again. My assistant Daz Holloway, he joins in if we’re short on numbers. I used to love joining in, but I used to pull something every other week, so it was a waste of time. You do miss that part; you are chomping at the bit to join in all the time. I think you’ve just got to listen to your head rather than your heart.
Favourite ground that you’ve visited or would like to visit
The favourite ground has got to be the San Siro for me. The history behind it and obviously because of what happened for me out there; that’ll just live with me forever. When you look at the players that have graced that stadium, and it’s just the most spectacular place when you see it. I think they’re knocking it down and building a new one. I’ve been to Nou Camp and all that to look at it, and that’s a spectacular place, but it holds something special, the San Siro.
Favourite player to watch (past or present)
When I was a kid, I used to love watching the Liverpool team with (Kenny) Dalglish, Ian Rush and people like that. Craig Johnston, Alan Hansen. You look at Ian Rush and it was just ridiculous how easy he found goalscoring. As I start growing up, you start looking at your local team, which was Newcastle, and you’ve got Kevin Keegan, Peter Beardsley, Paul Gascoigne.
And how would you sell the club to let’s say Ian Rush, if you were trying to sign him for Darlington (in his prime)?!
That would be a tough one! The biggest thing for me, whoever plays for me, you’ll always enjoy it. Every one I’ve signed, the first thing I’ve said to them is ‘you’ll enjoy your football, express yourself, I’m not asking you to do things that you’re not good at. I’ll always ask you to work on things that you’re good at and try and get the best out of them.’ That’s basically the way I’ve worked with the lads, because I can’t compete financially with a lot of them, and I look after them. That’s one thing we do, I try and look after the lads, because I know working and that is really tough. I do try and manage it with the lads and give them the benefit of the doubt. As long as they’re performing on the match days, they’ll get well looked after.
Pre-season tour anywhere in the world
I would probably like to try Dubai, to be honest. I’ve never been there, but you hear people say how fantastic it is out there. The heat and all that would probably be really intense for the lads; it would get them fit, I’m sure of it. Just something totally different, which would make it exciting for people. You’d probably be able to sell that to players: ‘we’re going here for a pre-season trip.’ Something like that, I’d love to try that.
Most challenging/frustrating part of your job
You’re not sure what you’re gonna get for training on the Tuesdays and the Thursdays, with lads at work and that. You haven’t got time to do all the work you wanna do, the shape and all that, because they’ve been to work all day. Trying to just manage that is the most frustrating part. You wanna get full-time; being a full-time pro for 15/16 years, that’s what you’re used to. I had to try and turn the other way, and that is the most frustrating part. I have so much respect for part-time players, as they can be at work from six in the morning, then go straight to training and not get back home until ten at night. That is something you never saw as a professional, so they need looking after properly.
Funniest player/coach you’ve worked with, or just one of the funniest
There’s only one person, no one can ever take it away from him – obviously Gazza. There’s no one like him, and together with being one of the funniest lads he’s one of the nicest as well. He’ll do anything for anyone, and I had a horrible injury time up at Middlesbrough, but he was always there, he always used to help us and make us laugh. He used to pick you up when you were down, because he’d been through it himself. Obviously being a Geordie lad it helped me massively. Fantastic bloke; you can’t say a bad word about him when you really get to know him. Him, (Paul) Merson and Andy Townsend were just one of the funniest group of lads I’ve ever met.
(Was he there when Gazza drove the team bus?) I was injured at the time, I wasn’t on the bus, but he decided to take the lads to the bookies before we travelled! He’s decided to turn the bus far too quick, and there’s big boulders at the top and he’s just scraped the bus along the side, so it wasn’t a good idea. There’s times where he’s come for his dinner with just his dressing gown on and slippers, and for the breakfast in the morning. He just made you laugh all the time. I remember when we were in Ireland mid-season, I was injured, and me and Neil Maddison were in the bar before the game, and Gazza comes in and has a quick drop, and this was in the warm-up! He said ‘I just need that to calm us down!’ That was just a mid-season friendly, but he was different class, and most of the stories you probably couldn’t print.
Most embarrassing moment as a manager/coach/player
A couple of years ago, we were playing Spennymoor, we’d won 11 on the bounce I think, for Blyth, and we were getting beat 2-0 at half-time. This was the first time I’ve lost my rag with the lads, because we’d been fantastic, and I threw a water bottle across the room and nearly knocked Jarrett Rivers out by mistake. It wasn’t even to do with him, so I had to take a step back, I’m thinking ‘crikey.’ That’s the only thing I can think of, embarrassing, because I was embarrassed, especially hitting him, of all people! Bottle full of water getting flung at Jarrett, who was fantastic for us! To win that many games on the bounce and be losing to your local team – I only lived 20-25 minutes from Spennymoor – I lost my rag. I learned from it, that’s a certainty!
Your routine on a match day
I was never like it as a player, but I’ve got to have a shower at a certain time, a shave before I have the shower, but if I have a run where I haven’t had a shave and we’re winning games, I never shave, the next game. One thing is I’ve got my set plays and everything set up. I used to do them all myself up at Blyth and stick them up on the wall, and the start of the season, the kitman, Gaz, said he’ll do it for us. He was doing it the first five games and the results were horrific! I start doing them and we start winning, so that’s the biggest thing for me, and I’ve got to set them up in a certain way, it’s just in my head. It’s so strange why things like that happen.
One singer/band or song you would sneak on to the team playlist
Probably surprise you this, but anything from G-Unit or 50 Cent. I was a massive fan and I’ve got all the albums; 50 Cent, G-Unit, Eminem, Lloyd Banks, all that. The players will probably be surprised at that. It was at Ipswich and we had a young Darren Bent coming through. He loved his music, young Benty, and he started bringing these albums in. I was like ‘who’s that?’ and it just took off from there. I’ve still got the CDs he gave us, from back then, all remixes and everything. I just got hooked then, which was unbelievable, because I was never a big rap fan until that moment.
Advice you remember getting that’s stuck with you
There’s one thing I try to pass on to the players, and I can’t even remember who said it to me, but as a coach, you just try to give as much information and advice as you can, and someone once said to me, ‘Just try it. It might be the wrong thing, but if it works, you’re a winner, and if it doesn’t work, what have you lost?’ So whatever the advice is, give it a go, because you’ve got nothing to lose on it. If it works, you’ve won, and if it doesn’t, so be it, you leave it and move on to the next one. You’ve got to be open-minded to everything. I’m always willing to give everything a go and see if I benefit from it.
If you could have some time with any manager, past or present
There’s so many, but with me being from the North East, I think it’s got to be Bobby Robson. I think it’s got to be, when you look at him, what that bloke achieved and the stories you heard about him. I never managed to work with him, but when you hear what people have said about him, you’d just love to sit and have a chat with him and see how he’d done everything he’d done.
(Would he get chance to talk to him after he played against his Newcastle side, or just a handshake in passing?) It was just to shake your hand. I was just a local lad from Blaydon, so I used to get star-struck a lot of the times on the pitch; when you’re playing against Alan Shearer, because I was a big fan. I remember Ruud Gullit when he was up at Newcastle, huge personality, huge player, so just meeting people like that. Kevin Keegan, even when he was my manager at Newcastle it was like ‘that’s Kevin Keegan.’ It was one of them, it was just really surreal. I found it really strange, because they were big characters, in my eyes.
Any misconceptions about you as a manager/personality, myths you’d like to dispel, or something you wish people could understand a bit more?
I think it’s generally been fair. I try to say it how it is, whatever I’m saying, because I don’t wanna mug the fans off, because I see what they see. I do see a lot of people, especially away from home, where they say they’ve deserved this, deserved that, but I’d rather be honest. I don’t like hiding things from the fans, because it always gets back eventually, so I try to be as honest as I can. It might hurt some people sometimes, but there’s no point in painting over the cracks.
And finally, what’s the best thing about having this life around football? When you wake up and football’s your focus for the day, do you still get that same buzz as you always did?
The best bit is when you get in that dressing room; you can’t replicate that. When you’re going in there, you know what it’s for, you wanna win a game of football, you can’t recreate that. Even when you play your 5-a-sides and all that, it’s something you can’t recreate. I thought I’d get it from just coaching, especially coaching the kids in the academy and all that, but it just never gave that buzz of the crowd when it’s there, when you’re winning a game of football. As a manager, I don’t know what it is, but it gives you so much more satisfaction, winning a game, than it does as a player, but when you lose a game, boy does it hurt a lot more than it did as a player. I never knew it would be like that as a manager, because as a player, you didn’t see that, you didn’t see what the managers are going through. When you’ve gone to that other side, it’s everything. For two or three days sometimes, I’m the most miserable man in the world! I get bollocked off the wife and the kids, but if we win a game, everything’s hunky-dory, it feels great. I’ve probably got to learn to deal with that better, but I think it’s just in you. I think when you’ve got that in you, you can’t do anything about it. The minute you lose that or take that away, it’s gonna be tough to deal with.
Interview by @chris_brookes