As Craig Elliott toils away at engineering Boston United’s long voyage back, it is a pilgrimage with precious little time for laxity. While the ex-Shaw Lane boss was seemingly always destined for management, he is learning as he goes to refine and even relinquish parts of an approach that has yielded much success for the young gaffer.
Just over a year ago, Boston United unveiled Craig Elliott as their new man at the helm. Replacing former Derby County midfielder Adam Murray (after ex-Preston striker Karl Hawley had held the fort), the former Ossett Town chief found himself managing for the first time in the sixth tier, as well as leading a club who were plying their trade in the Football League just over a decade earlier.
Although proving himself something of a dab hand when it comes to promotions, his most immediate task as a Vanarama National League North gaffer was to haul Boston clear of the relegation zone. That he did, with his team even in with a shout of the play-offs until the season’s end. The playing personnel at the Lincolnshire club has been a consistently-developing picture, with various ins and outs in the lead-up to this season, and since it began.
Behind such changes has been an endeavour, and admittedly sometimes an anxiousness, from the Pilgrims boss to find the elusive formula for success. In late-July, the West Yorkshireman told how he had been left decidedly unimpressed by some of his side after assembling a new-look squad over the summer, saying he prefers not to mess players around and little would be gained by waiting until September to make changes that already appeared necessary.
In ‘manager years,’ the Pontefract native would seemingly be just bedding in at 40, though you would be wide of the mark to assume so. It was nine seasons ago that Kellingley Welfare chose the former striker to lead them in the West Yorkshire League, but long before that, the one-time Harrogate Town and North Ferriby United player was the young kid with the notepad watching his dad manage Pontefract Collieries, keenly scoping a non-league landscape he would one day work within.
A knee injury put paid to the former Doncaster Rovers youngster’s days on the pitch at 27, which is one key reason why seeing today’s crop take their playing days for granted will never sit well with him. If you were to map out his profile, unwavering application is where it all begins, and a strong indication of that is something he seeks when sizing up any new recruits, as he explains.
“I’m not one for having laid-back training sessions or turning up and having a laid-back atmosphere on match day. I think to play to win at everything you do and try to be the best you can, and trying to push others around you, that’s how I am.
“I’m quite intense as a manager, I’m not gonna lie about that, and I just want that from the players really. When I go to watch potential signings, I purposely go early and watch warm-ups and the way they carry themselves around the ground on match day.
“I’m all for this sort of concentration and this intense way of playing and I’ve seen certain players who strut around and aren’t as concentrated in warm-ups as they should be, so little things like that have put me off. Just in general, players who – I think this goes for all managers – ask the wrong questions, in terms of financially, rather than ‘what’s the ambitions of the club and the team ethics?’”
Admittedly, there would appear few parallels to be drawn between those with Champions League aspirations and clubs cocking a snoop at promotion to the National League. Nevertheless, Chelsea boss Maurizio Sarri making sure he does not touch the ball once the game has begun is the kind of superstition Craig can certainly identify with, as he will reveal in the Q&A that concludes this feature.
As with the managers that populate the higher reaches of the game, the finer details make all the difference to him, though when you inherit any team, let alone one that finds itself out of sorts, it takes time to have them operating at the level you desire. As someone who makes no secret of what he demands, how did Craig approach it when he first arrived at Boston?
“I think they had information overload and it was just trying to limit that information really and keep everything as basic and black and white as I could, with a really high intensity in training. Trying to implement a will to win, even in training matches, and trying to transfer that onto the pitch, which sort of happened really.”
That upturn in results arrived five games in, with the Pilgrims notching up seven wins in December and January. Having been in the bottom two when Craig took over, it was a 9th-placed finish, with notable late-season triumphs over the two sides who would win promotion, Salford City (2-1) and Harrogate Town (3-0), leaving a healthy lashing of optimism to bubble away for the summer ahead.
Craig is a manager who won four trophies in his first season at Kellingley Welfare, and the promotion-winning Glasshoughton Welfare boss later dropped two tiers to leave Ossett Town and take on the Shaw Lane job in Toolstation NCEL Division One in February 2014. He then delivered three promotions in four seasons for the Barnsley-based outfit, leaving them with a heavy heart off the back of a televised home FA Cup first round tie with League Two Mansfield Town that brought over 1700 to Sheerien Park.
His chairman at the former Evo-Stik Premier club, Craig Wood, spoke in glowing terms of him and said that teams would be foolish not to take notice of the Ducks’ impressive managerial prospect.
One of those he had at Shaw Lane was a standout playing arrival at Boston United this season – the former Ipswich Town, Leeds United and Plymouth Argyle midfielder David Norris.
Striker Jordan Slew, 26, the former Sheffield United youngster who went to the Premier League with Blackburn Rovers for £1million, is among the recent new additions, bringing further higher-level experience, as well as perhaps unfulfilled potential his manager feels he can still help unravel. Craig has recently been left cursing the words ‘fine margins,’ with the Pilgrims a post’s width from beating Southport on Saturday, only to then see the visitors snatch the points deep into stoppage time.
His side sit three points outside the play-offs after 18 games, and allied with what he has already seen reap rewards in other leagues, what has he learned in the past 12 months about the National League North and what it demands?
“I think ultimately that team ethic really. The teams that have done well have had a consistent style of play and not changed too much.
“The successful teams have all bought into a role and a DNA of the club. I think that’s the biggest thing trying to implement at the minute into Boston, because there’s been a turnaround of players and managers over the years and they haven’t really got a DNA, whereas the other successful teams like Kidderminster, Chorley, teams know what they’re going to come up against.
“So it’s trying to find a DNA at a club, and that’s what I did at Shaw Lane; people knew how we played and players came in and could adjust to that system as quickly as they could. I think that’s what the big teams have got; they’ve got a consistent management team and a consistent style of play.
“It’s definitely a work in progress; looking at other teams, it’s not something that’ll happen overnight. I’m trying to bring in an honesty and to replicate what the fans are like at Boston really.
“They want to see a good honest player that works hard and gives everything, even when they lose games of football. Plenty of aggression as well, in both boxes.
“That’ll happen over time, I’m confident in that, but it is something where you need to get your recruitment right, and the right players in who can do that. The recruitment hasn’t been as good as I wanted it to be over the summer, where those sort of players don’t fit into that, and it will take 12-18 months in general to get it right.”
There is no breezing clear of competitors in this division, with the league notably jam-packed with erstwhile Football League names, too. Twice demoted after their 2007 relegation from League Two, it is over eight years since Boston United won the Unibond Premier play-offs under Paul Hurst and Rob Scott. There have been three ultimately unsuccessful play-off campaigns in the league above since Anthony Church’s extra-time winner at Bradford (Park Avenue) with 1500 travelling fans watching on.
The club were Wembley runners-up in the 1985 FA Trophy final, and it seems an awfully long time even since top-flight names of yesteryear Julian Joachim and Paul Gascoigne turned out in amber and black in the 2000s. The summer of 2007 saw Chestnut Homes step in after the relegated Pilgrims entered administration, and the Langworth-based company’s managing director David Newton is also the club’s chairman.
After Boston’s demotion to what was then the Blue Square North in June 2007, league chief executive John Moules said: “We’re giving Boston the opportunity to re-establish themselves as a leading club outside the Football League.”
While a league official’s words would hardly have lifted spirits for fans at the time, Craig is relishing the challenge of delivering just what Moules said, and he has appreciated the support so far afforded to him.
“It’s an outstanding club. The chairman’s an outstanding person; he’s got a great manner of managing me and people around him.
“You see a lot more about people when you lose games and he’s fantastic that way. The club’s managed in such a professional way and the players and myself are very lucky to be in the environment that he brings.”
Working as a primary school teacher and also a fraud officer for the council through the years, Craig sees much of himself in Boston’s working-class fanbase. Having earned his biggest assignment yet by taking the job, his commitment to his craft has not relented in the slightest.
“I’m like most people these days; I try and get as much information as I can. Reading these leadership books, motivational books, and there’s obviously a lot of information on social media.
“Talking to other people as well – leaders, friends, family, people like that – just in terms of how they manage smaller teams, bigger teams, individuals, because you are always learning. I think I’m still young as a football manager, so it’s important you get as much information on board as possible and take the bits that you think are relevant.
“My dad was a non-league manager and I did follow him about all over, to be honest. I loved the environment of the non-league world, I knew every other league and all the goalscorers and it’s just something that’s stayed with me all the way up to now really.
“I do find myself doing that; I watch all different levels, from Premier League right down to Sunday league football, because I just love it. It’s what I like doing really, trying to find hidden gems and trying to mould players into a team and be successful.”
Leaving thoughts of work behind as soon as it’s all done for the week is a reflex for plenty of people. It goes without saying that football is altogether tougher for those in the game to stop themselves from agonising over in their so-called spare time.
For Craig, that sentiment rings especially true.
“It’s one of my biggest weaknesses. I’ve got two children and I’m a bit of a nightmare; on holiday I’m still on my phone or researching, things like that.
“I think it’s my biggest strength and my biggest weakness. It’s something I’ve tried to get better at as I’ve got older.
“You don’t really get chance to enjoy the wins, because it’s on to the next game, so it’s very, very difficult, but I think it helps talking to other managers who share it.”
While non-league was a wonderland for Craig in his youth, Leeds United were the professional team he most admired. He would play for Mick Hennigan at Harrogate, who was assistant to Howard Wilkinson as Leeds became champions of England in 1991/92.
He cites the late Brian France (North Ferriby United) and John Reed (Harrogate Town) alongside Hennigan as ‘legends in non-league’ he played under, while Reed would later assist him at Shaw Lane. In February, Craig was linked to the hotseat at Grimsby Town in League Two, but dismissed it as ‘just speculation’ as he pointed to the big project he already had at Boston.
He also told of how he wanted to get the place bouncing as it moved up the league, and though it is far from a gentle sail, it is every bit the expedition he wants, especially given all it took to get here.
“With my other jobs, I’ve done my (coaching) badges over the years and given up a lot of time and my own money. It’s been difficult at times.
“I take a lot of pride in the fact I’ve worked my way up from the lower leagues, from Kellingley in the West Yorkshire League. It’s been a long journey and I hope it continues.”
Each manager in The Bosses’ Lounge also takes on a unique Q&A…
When did you want to start coaching/managing?
I think there was a year out and I missed it. I went into a sort of depression with it where I didn’t want to retire. I looked into different avenues and a job became available at Kellingley in the West Yorkshire League, just a local club team, and I’ve never looked back since really.
Which training sessions do you enjoy leading the most?
I think it’s when you’re playing against the big teams and you’re giving a bit more information. I enjoy those sessions because it’s testing you and it’s testing the players.
Will you ever take part in training (in terms of actually being in the sessions as an active part, like an extra player)? And when did you last play?!
I don’t take part as a player but I’m always active within the session. I’ve tried as I’ve got a bit older to stand back a bit more and let the other coaches take over, but I find it difficult because I am a control freak. The last game I played was North Ferriby against Farsley and that was me done really.
Favourite ground that you’ve visited or would like to visit
Managing for me at Boston feels great. I am a bit old school with my traditional grounds and places like York City, Boston, it’s a dying art really, because a lot of the newer stadiums are all a bit similar.
Favourite player to watch (past or present)
Growing up, I was a Leeds United fan and Vinnie Jones was one because he used to get the crowd going and the players around him. He wanted to win every single week and it epitomises what I like in players really. It was a successful period for Leeds United as well and I just remember him having that haircut as well! He was a fans’ favourite and just an all-round character.
And how would you sell the club to him, if you were trying to sign him for Boston (in his prime)?!
I think ‘come and play for these fans,’ because the enthusiasm, the way they want to win, it rubs off onto the players. Also, it’s a massive club, and the players and manager who get it right’ll be heroes.
Pre-season tour anywhere in the world
It’s got to be somewhere warm; a Barcelona-type area.
Most challenging/frustrating part of your job
Like with most managers, budgets and money in the game’s a challenge; if you’re trying to sign a player and they want more money. It’s difficult sometimes to get them to come to the club for the right reasons and I find it disheartening, to be honest. Like I said, I’m a bit old school in terms of thinking players should see the level we’re at. It’s just something that’s crept into the game and filtered down into non-league. It’s just a shame. I’d love people to go back to playing for the right reasons.
Funniest player/coach you’ve worked with, or just one of the funniest
There was a lad called Shane Kelsey I had at Shaw Lane who was just an absolute dream player. He should have played a lot higher than he did but he was absolutely fantastic. Real dry sense of humour, proper Barnsley lad as well and an absolute gem of a character.
Most embarrassing moment as a manager/coach
I have got one actually; this happened a few weeks ago. I ended up washing the bibs, and so I was sorting out the bibs in the dressing room, and in between them were my wife’s knickers!
Your routine on a match day
I’m superstitious beyond belief. I have to have a coffee at a certain time, I have to touch both goalposts, I have to put one bottle of water on each corner of the technical area. Sometimes managers ask me to move them and it just drives me crazy. I always try to not pick the team until the very last minute. I like to keep my team talks to being more off-the-cuff as well.
One singer/band or song you would sneak on to the team playlist
I like Billy Ocean ‘Red Light Spells Danger.’ That’s an old classic.
Advice you remember getting that’s stuck with you
The harder you work, the luckier you get. It’s something I try to instil into the players, and when you’re going through bad times, work as hard as you possibly can. It’s a lonely, hard place, football management, football in general really, and I think hard work pays off somewhere down the line.
If you could have some time with any manager, past or present
Probably some of the managers who’ve worked up from lower leagues; your Neil Warnock characters, Steve Evans at Peterborough, Tony Pulis. People who’ve worked their way up and shown it’s possible. I’m quite inspired by how they’ve done that. They’ve stuck to their beliefs: hard work, team spirit, organisation. That’s what I’m about really.
How have you changed since you first started coaching/managing, or what’s the biggest lesson you’ve learned?
I’ve tried to give tasks more to other people, whereas years ago, I did absolutely everything. I find it difficult but it’s something I’ve tried to do. I don’t think in general I’ve changed; I’ve tried to stick to my beliefs. Sometimes I do; sometimes I have moments where I wobble.
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 I can be ruthless; I do move players on quickly but it’s not something I go home and feel comfortable about. I always try to make decisions based on the good of the team. It’s never about doing it for the sake of my ego or anything like that. I think sometimes when you make quick decisions on a player, or a selection on a Saturday, I think I come across as if I’m not bothered about it, but it never sits easy with me.
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?
It’s just that winning feeling. You can’t describe it to anybody else. As a player, as a manager, you come home on a Saturday night and it’s worth all your hard work. Until you’ve been involved in that environment it’s difficult to describe that feeling.
Interview/article by @chris_brookes