Neil Smith’s Bromley tenure has seen the South East Londoners enjoy the highest finishing positions in the club’s history, though their current berth as the top team in non-league is comfortably surpassing it. Growth from one year to the next has been there to see, and after their very long-awaited Wembley appearance last May, the Ravens’ hometown gaffer wants that momentum to keep them soaring for some time yet.
Although the club had been steadily on the climb before he stepped into the managerial hotseat, Neil Smith has been the charismatic fulcrum of Bromley’s more recent surge. After strong finishes in his first three full seasons in charge (10th, 9th and 11th) the former Fulham and Reading midfielder currently has the Hayes Lane side sitting top of the Vanarama National League, 14 games into 2019/20.
The Lilywhites have been well established in the division since reaching the fifth tier in 2015, but they perhaps fit neatly into the category of surprise early leaders for some this term. Last Saturday’s 3-1 loss at Yeovil may have been to a team in remarkable form, but it is tough not to also factor in the appearance of Bromley defender Chris Bush in goal for the majority of the game.
That followed a 19-minute delay as keeper Mark Cousins received treatment after rupturing a shoulder joint and sustaining a grade 3 separation. The Huish Park clash was Bromley’s first defeat since April and also included the headline-making dismissal of the home team’s ball boys late on, after delays in returning the ball.
Nevertheless, once the dust had settled, the Ravens boss was able to take stock with his team still a point clear at the National League summit, and he offers his take on why they have been able to jump up several places so far this season.
“We’ve tried to be a little bit more compact, defensively. We think we let in more goals than we should have last season, so we were a bit frustrated with that.
“We were still scoring or creating chances – now I’ve got someone in Michael Cheek and Reeco (Hackett-Fairchild) who are scoring those goals – but it was the defensive side. Obviously, after Saturday with our centre-half in goal, it sounds a bit silly, but the idea was to try and concede less.
“We want to be good on the eye for the supporter and we want the supporters to enjoy coming and watching Bromley play. We try to play a certain way, obviously sometimes you can’t because of the opposition, but there’s a philosophy we’re trying to integrate into the whole club; in our academy as well as our first team.”
👏| Your support was immense yesterday and we need it once again this Tuesday as we take on Woking!
— Bromley FC (@bromleyfc) September 21, 2019
Last season was the follow-on from a highly memorable 2017/18 campaign. Bromley had managed to challenge for the play-offs, but it was the march to the FA Trophy final that delightfully distinguished it.
On a late-March early evening, the fans who had travelled around 300 miles north were cock-a-hoop, as their Wembley song reverberated around a pocket of Gateshead after the final whistle of their semi-final second leg. On Non-League Finals Day at the national stadium, Bromley’s vast support dominated, but after Brackley Town’s last-gasp equaliser, the National League North side also came from behind in the penalty shootout to lift the Trophy.
Leaving Wembley that day, though there had been no promotion on the line, it left quite a sting, as Neil recalls.
“It was very hard, for days and weeks afterwards. In my eyes, we’d lost it three times, but then you sort of reflect on it, your hometown club taking 20,000 people to Wembley, having not been there for 70-odd years.
“There were positives. Obviously the negative is not winning the cup, but all it does is drive your hunger to have that chance again and make sure you take it.
“On the other side of it, you remember there’s a club now who can attract that many supporters, so you want to give them something so they come to the home games every time. Over the last two games we’ve had nearly 6,000 supporters coming in, and for a club like Bromley when I first walked through the door, getting 4-500 to getting an average of 2,500 is a massive, massive achievement.
“I think that comes down to getting to Wembley and getting people to see that there is a club down at the end of the road. We just wanna keep that going.”
There is reason to believe that day and the interest generated from getting there left something of a mark. The club has enjoyed a trio of promotions in the last 14 years, with play-off joy in the Isthmian League Division One (2005) and Premier (2007), before their National League South title of four years ago.
The gaffer has been on his own rise, though his footballing backstory is far from one of obscurity. His formative years at Tottenham Hotspur encompassed time spent around managerial and coaching luminaries like Terry Venables, Ray Clemence, Doug Livermore and the late Keith Blunt.
The first team had star names in Gary Lineker, Paul Gascoigne and company, while Neil signed as a first-year pro in Spurs’ FA Cup-winning season of 1990/91. ‘Smudge’ recalls skipper Gary Mabbutt always being on hand to offer advice and leadership, regardless of status within the ranks.
Given he won promotion with Gillingham, Fulham and Reading, as well as playing a Division Two play-off final with the latter, and an FA Trophy final with Woking, it is quite something that Bromley’s Trophy appearance in 2018 was Neil’s first time at Wembley in his career. Over three years into the top job at Hayes Lane, to be presiding over a 1st-placed side at this point tells its own story of his progression as a coach and manager.
— Gillingham FC (@TheGillsFC) September 30, 2019
Joint-interim boss with Graham Baker at Woking in 2007, Welling United was where it started in earnest, and Neil considers how he differs now from his managerial beginnings.
“I have changed a hell of a lot. When I went into Welling, you’re 34/35, ex-player going into it, got loads of ideas, and sometimes you can try and put every idea you’ve got into a training session, and there’s no continuation of how you improve it.
“Someone said to me ‘you can have as many different training sessions as you like, but how are you gonna know if you’re improving on them if you’re doing a different one every time?’ So you listen to the advice that people are giving to you, and I’ve learned a hell of a lot.
“Those early days, it was crash, bang, wallop, ‘this is what I want you to do’ and ‘why are you not doing it?’ You learn over time that your patterns of play, you’ve got to be more repetitive on it so everybody knows what they’re doing and can do it with their eyes closed.
“It is something you learn once you’re into management, and you learn very quickly, because if it’s not going right, the job can be over very quickly.”
Living in Bromley throughout his life, he played briefly for the club at the end of his career, later returning as part of Mark Goldberg’s staff. Stepping up from interim boss in February 2016, a two-year deal was announced that April.
He had it from the outset at Spurs, and infectious man-managers and characters of the game were a feature of his Fulham days, with Kevin Keegan and Ray Wilkins among those in the dugout at Craven Cottage. Players like Philippe Albert and Peter Beardsley also passed through, while the appearance of such names as Hugh Grant and Keith Allen around the place after games perhaps further encapsulates ‘a fantastic two years’ in Neil’s career.
Mohamed Al-Fayed’s Fulham may be an extraordinarily flamboyant example, but a culture and community around a club is undoubtedly something Bromley have gone to great lengths to implement. The manager’s amiability and inter-personal skills are a major plus point, but as viewers of BT Sport’s recent non-league documentary The Gaffer will have seen, he can certainly flip a switch when a feisty team talk is required!
He describes how he sees the balance between having a buoyant environment and one in which players know not to take any liberties.
“When you’re having breakfast and stuff like that, I think you’ve got to have them relaxed. They’ve got to know that there is a boundary as well, there is a line not to cross, but at the same time, I want them to come in and enjoy what they’re doing.
“I think if you enjoy what you’re doing, you’ll work harder, you’ll love coming in, you wanna impress. I’ll praise them when they need praising and I’ll tell them when they’ve done wrong as well.
“I think I’m an open book; what you see is what you get. My door’s always open for any of the players – private or football – and you try and earn their trust, but they’ve got to earn mine as well.”
It is, however, a game where it is all too easy to upset the apple cart. The temptation for any number of managers during the blood and thunder of a season can be to gamble on a new signing, perhaps a bigger name, as the pressure to get results ramps up.
While that can yield great results, as with ex-Premier League defender Roger Johnson during Neil’s time at the Ravens helm, you do not have to look too far for examples in non-league of it not producing quite such a fruitful and lasting association. Neil gives his insight on assessing any potential new arrivals.
“I look at their character as well. I’ve got a good group of boys and you can have the best ability in the world, but if you’re gonna disrupt the changing room, I think that’s a big negative.
“I’m all for no superstars, the team spirit, because unless you’re a Lionel Messi or a Gazza, no one player is gonna win me a game. As a collective group, if they’re all pulling the same way, that gives us a better chance, so if someone’s coming in and disrupting that, I can’t have it.”
Ahead of this season, Jerry Dolke handed the Bromley chairmanship over to fellow director Robin Stanton-Gleaves, as he became director of football following three promotions over his 18-year tenure. Sustainability is always in the thoughts, but striving for an even more remarkable modern chapter to Bromley’s 127-year history is what all involved are working towards.
Neil, who ran this year’s London Marathon with the club’s safety officer David Cooke in aid of St Catherine’s Hospice, can never really escape sport. Even when football is ever so briefly on the back-burner, you can usually find him supporting his daughters’ diving endeavours.
Marathon completed. Never again pic.twitter.com/kWLaIoJ48B
— Neil Smith (@neil_smudge) April 28, 2019
He is part of a very well populated club in being someone who finds it anything but an easy task to switch off from football when he is away from the ‘workplace’.
“No, I’m not very good at separating it. I love watching golf and every sport that’s going on, but in terms of doing it, it is just football.
“If there’s a game on the telly I’ll watch it. You’re trying to pick up little ideas from whoever; from your Liverpools to your Sheffield Uniteds at the moment, to your Leeds, you see if you can bring it in to how you wanna play at Bromley.
“In terms of switching off, it’s just watching sport. I watch the rugby at the moment, obviously with the World Cup going on.
“Very enthusiastic about England winning stuff, even the cricket, which I wouldn’t say I’m an enthusiast of, but when they’re winning the World Cup you sit down and watch the final. So I’ll watch everything, but do I get myself out and have a round of golf?
“No, I don’t!”
There is more still to learn in the regular Q&A that follows shortly. The aforementioned BT Sport documentary Neil featured in gave a behind-the-scenes look into the lives of a handful of the National League’s managers recently, so was it a nervy one as he sat down with the family to tune in?!
“Yeah I sort of watched it on my own first, just before I got the family involved in it! I do apologise for the language in it in the changing room, but that is a place of work and that’s where I earn my money.
“Other than that, it was good for the family to see. You’ve also got to have that time with the family and reflect on stuff, because you can be a long time doing your football stuff and scouting, watching games.
“The family are there and I like to give them as much time as I can.”
Each manager in The Bosses’ Lounge also takes on a unique Q&A…
When did you want to start coaching/managing?
It probably entered my head when I was at Reading. We’d just won promotion, and then I was going to sign for a couple of clubs. The ITV Digital collapse was obviously affecting a lot of clubs, and one of my clubs pulled out right at the last minute, so that sort of hit home that, at 31, I’ve got to start thinking ‘what am I gonna do if this is it?’ I signed for Stevenage and then went on to Woking, who were semi-professional at the time, and that was when I thought ‘right, let’s do my coaching badges.’ I did by (UEFA) B Licence, did a couple of other things, personal training course, because I thought that would all go hand in hand with it, and it’s just cracked on from there really. I’m now an A Licence coach and looking to do my Pro.
Which training sessions do you enjoy leading the most?
I like to be involved in all of it, but I’m probably better equipped to be a defensive coach, in respect of my positions as a holding midfield player, a right-back. That gives me the insight, and after working under Tony Pulis as well who was very thorough in the defensive side and organisation as a team, you take little hints from that.
Will you ever take part in training (in terms of actually being in the sessions as an active part, like an extra player)?
I have done. I’ve weened myself off! I have to do demonstrations sometimes of what I want them to do and how I want them to do it, but the majority of it is the coaching side. I don’t think players want to see a 48-year-old man embarrassing himself in front of everybody! But I love it, and when I can join in, I do.
Favourite ground that you’ve visited or would like to visit
I was lucky enough to come on as a sub against Liverpool at Anfield and you’re listening to ‘You’ll Never Walk Alone’ before the game, and that was a club that you grew up looking to play for and be around, because they were winning everything in the 70s and the 80s. I had that honour to get on the pitch and fulfil a dream of playing at Anfield and in front of the Kop. Then obviously Old Trafford, and I managed to play there as well, so I was very lucky in those terms. You’re looking around now and you’re looking at the new White Hart Lane and places like that. It’s probably gonna be an FA Cup game or something like that, if you can get that far and you get a Premier League side. They’re the dream stadiums that you want to manage at and be around, and I’ll always have that dream, but you’ve got to do very well in a cup game to get that dream processed.
Favourite player to watch (past or present)
My one was Kevin Keegan. I’ve openly stated that he was the one who, when I was playing football in the playground or over the park, Kevin Keegan was the main man, and again, I had the privilege of being managed by him. It was an absolute honour, and then when I was at Tottenham, I was training alongside the likes of Paul Gascoigne, who I thought when he came back from the 1990 World Cup was probably on his way to being the best player in the world. I’ve never seen anyone like him in all my life, he was amazing. I’ve been a very lucky person; without being a well-known player I managed to train alongside the Gary Linekers and the Paul Gascoignes of the world. Kevin Keegan was probably the man I wanted to sort of emulate when I was playing in the school playground.
And how would you sell the club to Keegan, if you were trying to sign him for Bromley (in his prime)?!
I would pick him, he would be my number nine, like he had with the Bobby Latchfords and people like that, or whoever it was up front. He’d need a big man up there, but his energy would just lift my team, so I’d build a team around him. The energy and enthusiasm that he had for football, he still had it when he was training with the boys at Fulham. He just loved it and he was very infectious, so in my team he’d be the player who I’d build the team around.
Pre-season tour anywhere in the world
I’d love to go to Camp Nou. I’d love to have a game there; Barcelona, pre-season friendly, full house. The way that they get the ground rocking, the size of it and everything else. That would probably be the dream, playing somewhere like Barcelona.
Most challenging/frustrating part of your job
It’s not a frustration, but obviously when you lose, that’s the worst part of it. You set yourself up the best you can to go and get a win, and sometimes it might be a mistake, or even like on Saturday when our goalkeeper gets carried off after the first minute, and knowing that your players, who have prepared to go and win a game, through no other reason than the circumstances, haven’t been able to. You just come home frustrated that the boys couldn’t get the result that they deserved. That’s the frustration, when you come away from a game knowing that you could have won, and you haven’t.
Funniest player/coach you’ve worked with, or just one of the funniest
I’d have to say I’ve got a very good coach at the moment, and it’s not just because of that, but he is – Mark Hammond. There’s a lot of banter that flies around and he’s great for the players. He makes me laugh, which is always a bonus, so coaching-wise, I’d have to say Mark Hammond. Player-wise, I’d probably have to say someone like Chris Coleman was hilarious. As a captain as well, again very infectious, very funny, always had a quick word, always took the mick out of you, but always could take it.
Most embarrassing moment as a manager/coach
I was playing for Gillingham at the old Crewe ground, we were losing 2-1, very frustrated, I heard a whistle and I went running up to the changing room, threw my dummy out, smashing teacups around and everything else. One of the subs came up and said ‘what you doing?’ I said ‘we’ve just lost.’ He said ‘the game’s still going on,’ so I had to run down the stairs from the changing room, run onto the pitch – obviously the ref didn’t see me run off to then come and run back on – and someone took a quick free-kick from Crewe. As he passed the ball to someone, I’d run on and tackled him. I got a booking for leaving the field of play without permission, and then tackling someone without him knowing that I’d just come running on the pitch, so embarrassing moments, that’s probably one of them!
Your routine on a match day
My girls do diving at Crystal Palace Diving Club, so I’ll go and drop them off at 7 o’clock in the morning and maybe sit and watch them for a little bit and just focus on having some quality time with my three girls. I’ll come home, I’ll get changed, I’ll get to the club at around about half 11/quarter to 12 and just sit and watch some of the football while I’m talking to the coaches about how we plan to do what we’re gonna do and hopefully get the result. Then just really chill out; once you’ve named the team it’s down to the players to go and do their bit, so there’s no point getting too het up about it. That’s my normal routine, just to chill out in the morning and not get too anxious, because you don’t want to show that to the players.
One singer/band or song you would sneak on to the team playlist
I like a bit of everything; I do actually like the boys’ playlist at the moment. Frankie Raymond has got one, I don’t even know who it is, but it’s brilliant, whatever the song is! In terms of what music I like, anything that’s got a good tempo and a good beat to it, I’m all for, but Frankie Raymond is my go-to guy on the music side and I think he’s hit it right on the money at the moment. It’s not one to get the adrenaline pumping or anything like that, it’s more the relaxed side of it, but I like a bit of Sam Smith at the moment. I won’t be able to play that in the changing room!
Advice you remember getting that’s stuck with you
Terry Venables once said to me when I was about 13 or 14 – for whatever reason, I wasn’t playing and I came on as a sub – he said ‘why are you down?’ I said ‘I was a sub.’ He said ‘well look, however long you come on for, if you come on for ten minutes, make it the best ten minutes of your life, because no one’s ever been picked because they’ve got the hump,’ and it’s always stuck with me. So every game, don’t wait until the second half, from the first minute make it the best that it can be, and if it’s not working, just keep making it the best you can, because you can’t affect what you can’t affect. That’s my advice to anybody: whatever place of work you’ve got, just be the best you can be. Come home knowing that you couldn’t have done any more. That’s all that I ask from my players, and at this moment in time, that’s what they’re giving me.
If you could have some time with any manager, past or present
You’ve got to go Alex Ferguson, for how he was, especially in the modern game, but I’d also love to have sat down and spoke to Bill Shankly. You listen to podcasts of him, or you see old interviews of him, and he just had so much enthusiasm and so much desire that you couldn’t not give your best for him. The same for Alex Ferguson as well.
Any misconceptions about you as a manager/personality, myths you’d like to dispel, or something you wish people could understand a bit more?
They’ll obviously think of me however they wanna think of me. I’m not too fussed about that, but I’d like to think I’m 100 percent committed to my job, I’m enthusiastic, I know when to have a laugh and I know when to work hard. In the end, however they wanna think of me, I’ve obviously been that person that day. Sometimes I might have been angry and they think I’m an angry person, and I’m not, I just wanna win. That’s it, pretty much.
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?
I love everything I do. I love where I work, I love the people I work with, I love football and I don’t class it as work. I’m a very, very lucky man and I appreciate how lucky I am. I know how many people would love to be in my shoes and I don’t take anything for granted. It is a passion but it’s also a love. I know that even if I wasn’t getting paid I’d still be around football somewhere. It’s just an honour to be doing what I’m doing.
Interview/article by @chris_brookes