He was afforded no smooth transition as he entered the FC United fray last October, but whether it’s reversing the fortunes of a football club or an underachieving school, Neil Reynolds prefers to meet the challenge with the same sincerity as he did in the midfield engine room once upon a time.
Unveiled last year as FC United’s new manager after establishing a reputation as one of non-league’s most impressive up-and-coming gaffers, the pride was considerable for the former Bamber Bridge boss. As is typically the case when a vacancy arises, though, the team concerned tends to be somewhere between floundering and nose-diving, and in the more severe cases, it is the club itself experiencing turbulence.
Although the FC United name has been known far and wide over the past 14 years, the incoming number one had found no shortage of people offering a heads-up on the overall plight of a club bottom of the National League North. Indeed he found way more than just a need for tactical tweaks and a lift in morale, but ‘Reno’ wasn’t about to heed the advice of the ones who told him to steer clear.
“I was given the honour to go and manage FC United just over 12 months ago now, and what I found was a dressing room, or dynamics of a club, which enabled players to dictate to what they wanted,” he explained. “So if I give you examples of that, disproportionate wages, people having individual bonuses, people having a variety of different allocations that basically just split the dressing room in half.”
“With that, you had a lot of different characters in the dressing room that didn’t necessarily communicate that well with each other. I think at the time, a player was going through some form of conflict with the club and wasn’t around the place, and then they’d appear, so there were lots of things that took priority instead of the playing.”
Just 22 shy of 2,000 fans had been at Broadhurst Park for the final game before his arrival, a 2-1 defeat to fellow strugglers Darlington in which FC had led, only to end with no points and nine men. A positive start followed his appointment, with victory at Kidderminster Harriers in Dave Chadwick’s last game as interim boss, before three wins and two draws in the next five.
The problems had, however, been bubbling under at best, with dressing-room divides and a fractious atmosphere hampering the possibility of progress. Reno speaks of Kurt Willoughby as a success story – the young England C forward joined AFC Fylde in the summer – as well as noting the importance of bringing his Bamber Bridge captain Michael Potts in.
An emphatic home defeat to the league’s bottom side at the end of March would, though, become a line in the sand.
“We played Nuneaton at home and we lost 4-0. At that time, I hadn’t been as transparent with the fans as what I wanted to be, but something had gone on behind the scenes where the players were arguing about pay, because the York City game was cancelled.
“I quickly realised that this wasn’t about football, this was about individuals wanting to be paid an astronomical amount of money, and the club didn’t have that money. I decided after the 4-0 humiliation, probably one of the worst games of my career, for me to stand there and poker face it, I’d had enough.
“The fans kind of turned with me and realised the problems behind the scenes and what was happening. I was really honest in my programme notes, and that was for me, the beginning.
“We got relegated, but for me it wasn’t a sad time. We got relegated on the Saturday, and on the Sunday I’d pretty much released the whole playing squad, bar Michael Potts, Mike Donohue, Louis Myers and Chris Sharp.
“I’d had games watched for the last three or four months, and the next three weeks was about building a new culture at the club and a brand-new squad.”
Broadhurst Park looking stunning behind the scenes 😍
Thanks to all who have helped made this possible!
— FC United of Manchester (@FCUnitedMcr) November 20, 2019
Sticking to principles is easier said than done sometimes, especially when trying to construct the best possible team to mount a promotion charge. The natural temptation can be to deviate from budget parameters in certain cases – ‘what harm would paying that bit more do if he’s gonna get us an extra ten points?’
For obvious pragmatic reasons, and for what Reno was serious about setting into motion culturally, the club held firm in close-season negotiations with prospective signings, as he details.
“We had a list of about 25-28 players that I wanted to speak to. In the process, we kind of lost out on people, because I had this saying that it’s the last time while I’m manager that people will dictate to the football club what they want; we’ll dictate to the players what’s gonna happen.
“So I brought in a rigid payment structure, which doesn’t have any bonuses. It was on like a five-tier scale, which was really fluid and people could move up and down on, everyone knows what people are on in the dressing room, there’s no hidden brown envelopes.
“Players said in the summer ‘I really wanna play for FC United, but I want a contract, I want a bonus, I want this.’ I said ‘let me stop you – we haven’t got that type of money.’
“They said ‘but I really wanna play.’ I said ‘if you really wanna play, you’ll come on board with our structure.’
“I brought in a group of 23/24 players who all bought into the vision and the culture, who all hadn’t played for FC United before and were really excited about impressing these fans.”
On confirming his appointment, the club spoke of wanting someone who could work within said budget constraints, someone with vast non-league contacts – a quarter of a century’s experience there isn’t bad – and ambition. Also earmarked was ‘that something extra’; a Moston take on ‘je ne sais quoi’ perhaps.
With a set of like-minded players prepared to put it all on the line for the cause, you can go a fair way, though quality will always be the most alluring and effective difference-maker. FC currently have the BetVictor Northern Premier League Premier Division’s joint-leading scorer in their ranks.
Tunde Owolabi, who has 11 in the league and 14 overall, revealed recently that he turned down a move to National League Chorley. Soon after, it was announced the 24-year-old had committed his future to FC.
“Tunde Owolabi is an incredible talent. I enjoy working with everybody, but he’s that something else.
“He’s such a gentleman, his family’s so supportive, he had a remarkable season at Radcliffe last year, and then got an offer to go over to Malta and play professional football. For one reason or another it didn’t work out, and literally the story goes that he got off the plane at Manchester Airport, one of my friends called me that day to say he was back in the country, and within two hours of landing I’d phoned Tunde and said we wanted to meet up.
“Obviously he was quite apprehensive, within the next couple of days his phone rang multiple times, because he was hot property. We were able to offer him a deal, he went away to think about it, and Tunde agreed that FC United was gonna be his next destination.
“He came in, hit the ground running, scored two goals on his debut against Morpeth, and he’s been remarkable since. He’s earned himself a contract and he’s getting plaudits, but it’s not just about his goalscoring, he’s a hard-working character, he wants to get better.
“I’ve no doubt he’ll go and play higher, but for now, we wanna develop him and enjoy his time at FC United.”
The awards are sponsored by @BowlandBrewery the Official Cask Beer of the Northern Premier League
Congratulations Tunde 👏
— FC United of Manchester (@FCUnitedMcr) November 3, 2019
The progress of the Belgian-Nigerian has been something to savour, and the team’s current position of 6th is cause for similar encouragement. Last month’s 7-0 blitzing of Buxton, in which Owolabi scored four and helped set up three, was one of those classic ‘days in the sun’ for all involved to bask in – even in a Manchester autumn.
Nevertheless, the campaign hasn’t all been sunshine and rainbows, and certainly at the beginning, as Reno recalls.
“We lost our first three games, and again, there were question marks raised. I was saying ‘just give us time, the performances have been pleasing, bar the Scarborough game, give these lads time,’ and the fans did.
“One or two people said quite nasty things after the Scarborough game, but they were described to me as not real FC United fans. The real FC United fans really got behind us, and our statistics today are we’ve lost three games in the last 18 (now 21), to probably the three title favourites.
“So the journey that we’re on has been remarkable, but rapid.”
He arrived via a place that could never qualify as just another club along the way. Growing up in nearby Penwortham, Reno first joined Bamber Bridge as a player in 1998, going on to become assistant and manager across his three spells at Irongate.
A match-winning promotion hero at Clitheroe as a player, he led Bamber Bridge into the Northern Premier’s top flight two seasons ago, but he recalls the realisation that a necessary Brig conclusion had been reached.
“I wouldn’t be where I am now without Bamber Bridge. We managed to win the (Integro) League Cup, which was my first piece of silverware, and the season after, against all odds, we got promoted with South Shields, Scarborough and Hyde.
“If you think of Bamber Bridge having the lowest budget in the league at the time, what we were creating was something special. It got to the next summer and I was talking about moving the club on to the next level, ‘we need x, y and z,’ and I remember a fan coming to me and saying ‘listen Reno, you know you’re in danger of outgrowing the club?
“We as a football club, we like drinking real ales, we like the football on a Saturday,’ and this was a well established fan that said this to me. That just stuck with me, and I thought ‘am I in danger of outgrowing the club? I wanna be a professional manager, I wanna manage on a big stage.’
“The season started well, we beat Stafford 6-1, we’d just gone to Daisy Hill and won 5-1 in the Lancashire Cup, and things were looking up, but I thought ‘I’m not getting the support from maybe the terraces now.’ Not in terms of the football, but maybe with being frightened of where we were gonna go as a club.
“I spoke to the chairman and there was hold-back because the finances maybe weren’t there to support the Conference North. I wasn’t looking to move, I’d heard a couple of rumours that there were clubs looking at me, and then the club received a phone call after the Daisy Hill game from FC United to ask if they could speak to me, because I was on contract.”
While his football management has begun to bring a modicum of spotlight, running concurrently (and for quite some time previous) has been a teaching career. Having been a Preston College lecturer, he was encouraged to pursue PE teaching in secondary schools, subsequently spending 14 years at Fulwood High School.
Progressing to vice-principal, he took a position at South Shore Academy Blackpool two years ago, becoming head teacher seven weeks later. Spending time at Plymouth Argyle as a youth player during England great Peter Shilton’s first-team managerial tenure, Reno says it is no secret to his education employers that he wants to manage full-time in the future.
Football and head teaching, though, are not the only roles he has to play during each week.
“I get used to working 18-hour days; I started at 6 this morning and I’ll probably get in at midnight after training tonight. I’ve got two amazing young kids; Molly’s left school and she’s at college now, and I’ve got my little boy, Jack.
“We spend a lot of time together, me and Mols, we do things at weekends or in the week, we’ll go into London. Jack’s my shadow, he comes everywhere with me, he has all the FC United gear.
“He travels on the team coach, he comes to every game, he comes to every training session. He’s ten and he also plays for Preston North End as an Under-11.
“We’re football-driven but also education-driven, and my kids are everything to me.”
The club famously formed out of numerous Manchester United supporters’ disillusion – culminating in the Glazer takeover in May 2005 – are back down in the seventh tier after four seasons in the National League North, during which they twice finished as high as 13th. After Karl Marginson’s 12 years and four promotions, and record scorer Tom Greaves’ near-one-year tenure, Reno is only the third permanent manager in the club’s history.
There have been successes in the Frank Hannah Manchester Cup and similar, but a manager can become the first to win a major cup competition for the club one day – and why not Reno? The furthest FC have previously gone is the FA Trophy quarter-final, and they are currently in the third round qualifying stage this time around.
In the more immediate term, it is about converting the likes of last Saturday’s ultimately gutting late 3-3 at Witton Albion into three-point hauls. There has been no hiding place from the strain in his first year, but Reno feels it is all set for a Red Rebels rising in the not-too-distant future.
“To be honest, the minute I walked into that stadium, there was no way I couldn’t manage the club. It sounds a bit corny but I fell in love; as soon as I walked in I went ‘this is my stage.’
“I was told by 99.9% of people I spoke to not to touch it, there was in-house fighting, ‘you’ll never turn the club around, it’s in a mess,’ but I like a challenge. I took over a failing school as a headteacher, and I wanted that challenge, but I knew it was gonna be hard work, emotionally and physically.
“I had this dream that we’re gonna turn FC United into something great again, because the stadium is fit for League football, the fans are. The rest then was history, but I certainly couldn’t be where I am now without the chance from Carl Garner (ex-chairman) at Clitheroe, or Neil Crowe (at Bamber Bridge) giving me the opportunity to be assistant manager, and Frank Doyle, the chairman, letting me go and achieve my ambition of managing.
“Massive thanks to Simon Wiles, my assistant there, as well. The support of the board and my staff at FC United now has been tremendous, in particular my new assistant Brian Richardson, so it’s all credit to them for that.”
Each manager in The Bosses’ Lounge also takes on a unique Q&A…
When did you want to start coaching/managing?
I played for Bamber Bridge on two occasions, got to the FA Cup second round with them and played Cambridge (United), but when I went back at 32, I was really interested in coaching and managing. Clitheroe gave me an opportunity at 29 to manage; probably a bit too early, and I went back to Bamber Bridge. I started on my badges, and the second year, Tony Greenwood offered me a job as player-coach. I got used to leading sessions, then he stood down and Neil Crowe asked me to be assistant manager. Spent five great years with Neil, nearly six years, just teetering on promotion and maybe cup success, but never really got over the line. There’s a few things that happened behind the scenes and Neil decided it was time to step away. I hadn’t hidden the fact that I wanted to manage, and the club offered me the job. The next 18 months for me was amazing.
Which training sessions do you enjoy leading the most?
I like all of them. From pre-season, doing the training work and measuring lads’ fitness, to doing attacking phases, defensive phases, set-pieces. As a manager, though, sometimes it’s nice to just step back and let the coaching team do it. It is nice to see the management team leading an attacking session maybe, and it ends up in the back of the net, to that then working on match day. I just like all aspects of coaching.
Will you ever take part in training (in terms of actually being in the session as an active part, like an extra player)?
I must admit, I’m always hoping we’ve got odd numbers at training sessions, for the little small-sided games at the end! It is good to show you’re still one of the lads, but not cross the line. When the time’s right, so not if we’re preparing for a game on a Saturday; I’m not gonna get involved as a centre-midfielder when we’re doing shape. Head tennis and 5-a-side, definitely.
Favourite ground that you’ve visited or would like to visit
Newcastle United. Never been, the atmosphere just seems electric, the love for football the Geordies have. Newcastle’s the one on telly where I look and think ‘wow, if only,’ and what it must be like to walk out as a player and as a manager. I get the goosebumps now walking out at FC, but Newcastle United must be pretty incredible.
Favourite player to watch (past or present)
It’s not Newcastle-led, this, and I can’t remember him much from Newcastle, but Paul Gascoigne. My house is covered in Gascoigne memorabilia. He was someone that I looked up to after the 1990 World Cup and just thought ‘this is why I love football.’ Thirteen years old at the time and kind of just fell in love with it from that moment.
And how would you sell the club to him, if you were trying to sign him for FC United (in his prime)?!
What I like to do, sell the dream, sell the vision of the club. Build the team around him, make him feel special, but ultimately get him to achieve his next goal. So for me as a manager, it’s always about developing the individual so they can be the best they can be, and I’d be saying to Gazza ‘come and help us and we’ll help you.’ I say that to all my players, and I don’t believe if I had Gazza it’d be any different. I did meet him, when he was coming towards the end of his career. I said ‘come and sign for Bamber Bridge’ when we had the picture taken, and he said ‘I won’t rule it out, sunshine.’
Pre-season tour anywhere in the world
It’s got to be Madrid. To have the opportunity to go and take your lads to Real Madrid, and maybe play a game there, that would be special.
Most challenging/frustrating part of your job
My staff’ll say the same thing at school as they would do at football: I have OCD, I’m a control freak, I like everything to be done my way. When I say that, I don’t mean I’ve got to lead everything, but I like the office to be tidy, I like the stadium to be swept, I like the main office at FC United to be clean. My office at school, don’t leave a chair out, always make sure it’s clean. That just sets the standard, and the most frustrating thing for me with a football team, either in the dressing room where the lads don’t turn the kit out the right way, or they don’t move the coffee cup afterwards. It’s getting everyone on my wavelength, as far as the timings for matchday warm-ups; we come out at 2:17 because I need the warm-up started for 2:20 and I need it to end at a certain time. People don’t work to probably the weird standard that I work, but for me, that’s the frustration.
Funniest player/coach you’ve worked with, or just one of the funniest
Not necessarily the funniest, but when we had the back-end of our career, we had Paul McKenna and Jon Macken both sign for Bamber Bridge. When I say laugh, not laugh at their comedy value, but laugh at the stories that they used to share with us from their professional career. I remember looking forward to Saturday away days, and as a squad we’d fall about laughing. Then the best person to tell those stories afterwards was our captain, Matt Lawlor; when the players had gone he’d often tell the stories and recreate the voices. He was the best storyteller and everyone used to love Matt reciting them on behalf of different people.
Most embarrassing moment as a manager/coach/player
The worst moment of my career, by far, player, manager, was my first game at FC United. To the point where I asked Graham and Jimmy, the ground staff, to rebuild the dugouts. When I first got there, the dugouts were on a bit of a slant, and they didn’t have AstroTurf and it was wet, and I walked out in my suit. I’d been introduced to the crowd, I’m clapping, amazing, wonderful occasion. About 15 minutes into the game, the ball goes over, I’ve got my slidy black shoes on, and I try to keep the ball up, and I’ve just gone arse over tit. The whole stadium, 2,500, roaring with laughter, camera man’s got it. That was kind of my introduction to FC United. I laughed it off but at the time I thought ‘take me away from here’! Everyone who was proud of me and my next move had come to watch that game, and that’s what happened.
Your routine on a match day
The minute I’m up, I wanna be there. Sometimes I’ve got to take my little son to futsal, but I’ve had my breakfast, I’m in my suit, and the earliest I can get to that ground, I’m there. I like to just read the programme, have a coffee, I like to name the team as early as I can, because I know it in my head and it’s been going around on the Friday. The minute I’ve done all that, I can kind of relax. I make sure the warm-ups are all set up, Dave Chadwick does the warm-up, and then we’re all in. I know some people say they like to do the team talk at 2 o’clock; I do mine at ten to 2. I walk out, I clap the fans, I sit down for the first 30 seconds, and then pretty much I’m stood up for the rest of the game. That’s whether I’m at home or away.
One singer/band or song you would sneak on to the team playlist
‘Summer of ‘69’ – Bryan Adams.
Advice you remember getting that’s stuck with you
Don’t run with the hare and the hounds. Terry Gammans, Bamber Bridge chairman, told me when I was just going into coaching, ‘listen Reno, this is a big role for you. You can’t run with the hare and run with the hounds.’ Basically, what he was saying is you’re still a player, you’re still a manager, but you’ve got to know where your loyalties lie, and from that day I was so transparent with the squad and the management team. If a member of the squad came up to me to kind of moan, I wouldn’t keep it to myself, whereas in the past, before I heard that, I’d probably think ‘I’ll keep that to myself,’ but then that’s me running with them and telling the management team something different. So I like to think that my integrity, my honesty, anything that is on my mind I would not keep from somebody, especially if it was gonna undermine their position. Great piece of advice and I use that saying regularly.
If you could have some time with any manager, past or present
One’s Ian McGarry, who was my manager at Darwen when I was 16-19, and he taught me everything I know. He worked on Radio Lancashire after that, and I’d like to go back to Ian and just kind of relive his management career. So he’s the first one, in non-league football. The second one for me would be Alex Ferguson. Although I’m not specifically a Man United fan, he kind of inherited what I have; he had to get the structures right before the playing came, and it took three years, people were calling for his head. I’m not comparing myself to Alex Ferguson, but I’d love to spend a day just listening to him and comparing, seeing if we’re on the same page with it.
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 wear my heart on my sleeve in whatever I do. I don’t profess to get everything right at all times, I listen to advice, speak to people, but everything I do in life I wanna be the best. I know I can’t do it on my own. There isn’t a myth that I don’t work hard, but I always wanna get better. You know, don’t ever think that if I’ve got three defeats in 18 games I’m happy with it; I wanna go three defeats in 108 games. I’m always striving to do better, and no one will ever stop me doing that, even though I’ve had blips along the way, and I’ve had a blip with relegation, and I found FC United hard at the beginning. I dug in, I worked hard, I poker faced a lot, and I believe in my own ability.
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 same feeling, the feeling that never goes away. It’s that butterfly feeling, it’s the excitement, it’s the nerves. If that ever went, and it never has done, I wouldn’t know what to do. I get the same feeling now as when I took over Clitheroe, when I made my debut at 16, but management gives you a different buzz as well. It’s hard not to miss playing, but if you ask which I prefer, I prefer managing. There’s something about leading, about being able to shape somebody else’s life and being able to give them a little bit of advice, like I had when I was a young kid, that makes it more rewarding. I can’t shake losing; I can sometimes accept it if we play well, but it literally takes over my week. Winning is just the best feeling, and just puts me on such a high. I still get on with my work if we don’t win, but it’s just that feeling that you wanna eliminate straight away. There’s nothing worse than getting beat, but bar having my kids, I can’t think of a better feeling than winning.
Interview/article by @chris_brookes