Photo: Peter Short

Paul Cox has been reunited with Kettering Town, though much has changed in their time apart, for both the club and their former defender. Six weeks and seven games since he was appointed, the Poppies are yet to lose, and the familiar face in the dugout is revelling in a vitality he feels he was sorely missing not so long ago.

A change is supposedly as good as a rest, though in hindsight, that wasn’t quite true for Paul Cox. An accomplished football mind and bright personality – which, as he will delve deeper into, can catch some off-guard – the National League-winning boss returned to management in October, 20 months on from leaving Guiseley.

Given the history and profile of Kettering Town, which the club’s erstwhile centre-half is as well-versed in as anyone, it perhaps doesn’t seem entirely apt to speak of his appointment as a huge coup. Nevertheless, the National League North newcomers have secured themselves a manager who had earned the right to be talked of as one of the most promising in the English professional game’s lower leagues just a few seasons ago.

At 41, he was the man who led Mansfield Town back into the Football League in 2013 as champions, after five years away. Also enjoying a promotion-laden past at Eastwood Town, he arrived at Kettering in October off the back of what he feels was invaluable time if not away from football, then studying and observing without its spotlight burning upon him.

“I think what I want to get across is when I resigned from Mansfield, I really should have taken the break then,” he explains. “I didn’t leave Mansfield for any other reason, I felt I needed a break then, and I made bad decisions in a career that saw me turn down a couple of moves to Championship clubs when I was at Mansfield.”

“I’d been in the game for a long time as a manager, it becomes intense and it becomes constant, and you stop educating yourself. So I made a few bad decisions from resigning at Mansfield, onwards.

“I got to the period at Guiseley; that’s the first time I’d been sacked in my life, either as a manager or in any other walk of life. That’s when it really homed in that I needed a break, not just for my mental wellbeing, but to re-educate myself and to freshen myself up to become current.”

He took over at a club who were celebrating the Evo-Stik South Premier Division Central title last season under Marcus Law, finishing some 14 points clear of current National League North leaders King’s Lynn Town. While the Linnets have soared at Step 2 since, the Poppies endured a much harsher adaptation, and they propped up the division at the time of Paul’s appointment.

As well as keeping a watch over various leagues in England, a sizeable amount of his time was spent across the Atlantic, including at the renowned IMG Academy in Bradenton, Florida, something of a gold standard in multi-sport training and education.

“I educated myself not just in this country but the US as well. I travelled all over the US looking at different coaching methods, sports science etc. and caught a lot of games in this country at various levels, from League One down to the Evo-Stik.

“It gave me a different perspective on the game; it allowed me to look at it whilst not being in the cauldron of football management. I probably learned more about the game being out of it than the ten years or so that I was consistently in it for.

“People will look at being out of the game as a negative, but I see it as a massive positive for me, because it’s reignited me as a person. I think more than anything it’s ignited a fire in me that I was probably lacking in the latter stages (of managing previously).

“Sometimes, you can probably lie to yourself; I took a job because I got offered a job, and I didn’t really look at the ins and outs of it. I just looked at it as another job instead of looking at the next two, three, four, five to ten years and taking that break and restarting myself.”

His Mansfield side had finished 11th in his debut season as a League manager (2013/14), though he left in November 2014 with the Stags 19th and nine without a win. It is typically in the midst of such runs when the progress and achievements that have gone before are temporarily forgotten, though not from chairman John Radford, with Paul also quick to pay tribute in return as he departed.

Torquay United was his next port of call in summer 2015, but he would resign that September after being told no salary was on its way anytime soon. The Nottingham-based boss was on to Barrow shortly afterwards, with 11th and 7th–placed finishes in the National League before he departed in August 2017.

Unveiled at Guiseley less than a fortnight later, the West Yorkshire club spoke of their ‘three-to-five-year plan,’ but Paul left in February 2018 after an arduous spell. Scrapping in the lower reaches of the National League, it would surely have been impossible not to reflect on previous decisions, and to Sliding Doors-style ponder the alternative narrative that could have followed.

With those aforementioned second-tier suitors during his Mansfield tenure, Paul reiterates why he never moved on at the time.

“It was total loyalty; I think I said at the time, I loved working for John. I think John knew how to motivate me; I’m a manager that usually gets results when I’m happy and I’m comfortable with the people that I work with.

“With John and (CEO) Carolyn (Radford) at that stage, I really enjoyed my football, even when we got up into League Two and budgets were cut; I think my budget in League Two was one of the lower ones at that level. That wasn’t the reason; I became a little bit tired, and started making tired decisions, if I’m honest.

“It was nothing to do with John, I still keep in touch with John now. John was always honest with me if an offer came in, we’d sit down, and I felt I was in the right place, I was enjoying my football at that stage and didn’t feel I needed to make the step.

“Some people might say there is no loyalty in football, but I do strongly believe in it, especially if you’re working with the right people. Some people might say ‘you’ve missed an opportunity,’ but I’d rather be happy in the game than make a quick step and regret it later on.”

Taking up the Kettering role recently meant returning to the club he joined after leaving Notts County in 1995. After a spell at Halifax Town, he was back in 1997 for a second stint, making 125 appearances overall.

FA Trophy finalists in 2000, the Poppies finished as high as second in the Conference during Paul’s time there under Peter Morris in 1998/99. He was a 27-year-old defender then, so what feels instantly recognisable, and what feels decidedly different about the club, a couple of decades on?

“I think the main thing is it’s kind of part-time at the minute; when I first went there it was a full-time club. The fanbase at this minute in time is not as big as it was; I think the last game we got about 850.

“We were playing in front of quite big crowds and it was a sleeping giant in terms of non-league; you look alongside, I think there was the Stevenages, the Barnets, the Cheltenhams that were in and around there. So there is a difference, obviously we’re not playing at Rockingham Road, and I feel as though the club, even though they’ve had two or three promotions from the lower leagues, the real building starts now to take them back to where they should be.

“To do that, as I say, there’s an awful lot of work that needs doing, but I see that as a positive. I love the feeling of going in there and building what is potentially a really big club.”

Growing up in Nottingham’s Bulwell area, Paul came through at Notts County when the Magpies were a second-tier outfit, making his debut against Manchester City under Neil Warnock. With Notts in the same division as clubs like Newcastle United, West Ham and Sunderland during those days, his professional grounding included mixing it in some sizeable company.

At Paul’s first club in management, casino owner Robert Yong (a school classmate of his) had ambitions for Eastwood Town to one day become a genuine competitor to local sides Nottingham Forest and Notts County. From staying up in the Northern Premier League Division One, the Badgers reached the sixth tier, and notably made the third round of the FA Cup for the first time in 2008/09. Who did they narrowly lose to? Kettering, of course.

Paul led them to a finish of 4th in the Conference North in 2011, but ground grading prevented them from competing in the play-offs. In April of that season, Robert Yong and chairman Tony Minnis circulated the club’s availability, citing their play-off exclusion as a key reason, with ‘irreconcilable differences’ between the club and the Conference/Broxtowe Borough Council. Eastwood resigned from the Northern Premier League less than three years later.

Paul reflects fondly on a club that was undoubtedly the springboard for a managerial career he is now 13 years into.

“We built a siege mentality at a small club; that was the key to it. I was working with the academy, we were bringing some good kids through, and there was no money at the club, so we had to blood the kids.

“We developed a reputation of being a small club but a winning club. We did it so consistently, winning the Notts Senior Cup a few times, I think there were three or four promotions in there, and the club should have really been a Conference National club.

“It was The FA really that stopped the progression under the chairman Rob Yong’s leadership, with the ground grading. We had a great camaraderie amongst the players and the supporters; the whole club became one, from the chairman to the people running the bars.

“It was one big family and it was really enjoyable times that I look back on with so much fondness.”

It doesn’t take too long scouring non-league to stumble across players and managers much more closely associated with the higher levels of the game. From ex-England caretaker boss Peter Taylor at Dagenham & Redbridge, to former Premier League midfielder and Championship boss Lee Clark at Blyth Spartans. Another is Russell Slade at Hereford, who was in interim charge at Notts County in the latter stages of Paul’s time there as a player.

Personal circumstances can differ greatly, but the scarcity of management roles in general is a key factor in the bigger names taking on roles further down the pyramid. There is also the lure of potentially being the one to lead a non-league club up through the divisions.

The ambition for Paul coming in at Kettering is considerable, but allied with a vital dose of realism that can so often be missing at clubs – sometimes dangerously so. He tells how he has been greatly enthused by the authenticity of what was put across to him.

“I think there is a lot to be done at the club, but I was under no illusions when I came in. I spoke to the chairman, the owner and the board, the club was rock-bottom of the Conference North and had only won two games all season.

“No one tried to cover up anything, they explained what it was, where we were and the building process, and I think that’s what appealed to me, if I’m honest. The chance to go and build a club that, well, when I was there it was one of the biggest clubs in non-league football.

“It would have been easy to make the step into League Two at that stage, with the fanbase, the ground and the success they’d had. To see the club disappearing the way we did, it’s nice to go in there and start the rebuilding process.

“There’s a lot that needs doing, but that’s part of the motivation.”

The players have so far been dialled in. A 4-0 win over fellow strugglers Bradford (Park Avenue) set them on their way, and the weeks since have included a Joel Carta-inspired 2-1 win at Guiseley, a three-goal comeback to eventually draw 4-4 at Blyth, and away points at Gloucester City and Curzon Ashton.

Climbing to 19th and four points clear of the drop zone, they have also reached the first round proper of the FA Trophy, with FC United away next Saturday (14th December). A sense of equilibrium is something he wants for his team, and away from football’s rough and tumble, he feels he has struck upon it in his own life of late.

“At this minute, I’ve developed this work-leisure time balance now. I spend a lot more time with my two young girls, they’re both budding dancers.

“I think the difference between me now and me three or four years ago is I’m making time now to see them evolve and grow, which for me is fantastic. Going back to Mansfield time, I was that engrossed with it all that I became blinkered; nothing mattered apart from football.

“I think the experience that I’ve had in the last two or three years has taught me to balance my life with football, which I think has made me not just a better manager but a better person. I see things differently now, from a different perspective, and I get a lot of joy out of seeing my two girls growing.”

 

Each manager in The Bosses’ Lounge also takes on a unique Q&A…

When did you want to start coaching/managing?

I go back to my playing days, and because I had two bad cruciate injuries, it was always on my mind. I’ve always had the love of the game, and to be part of it as a coach I think was always in the back of my mind. It was mainly the coaching that I was interested in; I wasn’t really interesting in managing! I think I sort of fell into the management side of it. It was in my late-20s when I started taking my coaching qualifications and teaching qualifications. I was like a sponge in the early days, probably still am now, with the ability to watch and learn other people and to take good things, and to progress up the ladder.

Which training sessions do you enjoy leading the most?

I’m quite open-minded with all sessions. I just think as a coach, it’s great when you’ve got young players that are hungry to learn the game and to work on specifics with them. Me being a natural defender, I always like working with the back four, because I can relate to that a bit more. If you can add a bit to a player that’s developing, I’ve took quite a number of players from the lower leagues, people like Sam Clucas, worked with them and seen them blossom and go on to play at a very high level. I had Ryan Yates from Forest who I worked with in the early days (at Barrow on loan), and seeing players go on and progress, I get an immense sense of pride that you’ve had a small part to play in their development. I like to work all over the pitch with individuals and groups.

Will you ever take part in training (in terms of actually being in the session as an active part, like an extra player)?

I kind of keep away from that now; my knees are shot, especially my right one where I had my two injuries! If there’s a nice, friendly 5-a-side, it’s nice to go in there and still kick the ball; in my head I’m still 15 years old. I think as a coach I can still go in and demonstrate, and it’s nice to walk through some scenarios, especially with the back four, but it’s more about the teaching of the game, rather than joining in now.

Favourite ground that you’ve visited or would like to visit

There’s one that stands out and I was lucky enough to play there a couple of times, which was Newcastle United. I was lucky enough to play at the majority of the grounds in my early career, but I never heard the sound like the Newcastle home support. It’s a fantastic ground and I went to watch the Manchester United game up there last season, and that just brought back so many great memories of when I played there.

Favourite player to watch (past or present)

Once again I go back to Newcastle United, I was lucky enough to play against Kevin Keegan’s side and there was one player that really stood out, and that was Peter Beardsley. I played against him a couple of times and you understood then the gulf of being a top international footballer to a Championship player. He was so clever and I don’t think he got as much adulation as he should have done.

And how would you sell the club to him, if you were trying to sign him for Kettering (in his prime)?!

I’d break the bank to try and get him. I think players like him, one, it brings in supporters, because he was an entertainer, but two, I think with how articulate he was on the ball, it would educate players around him.

Pre-season tour anywhere in the world

When I was out in the States last year, I visited the IMG Academy in Bradenton in Florida. That’s where a lot of the big clubs are going now, a lot of the South American clubs. The facilities in the US, some of the ones I visited, were absolutely out of this world, and I think any club in this country would be over the moon with the facilities.

Most challenging/frustrating part of your job

The most frustrating aspect of the game is the business. I saw a quote from Gareth Southgate not long ago which I could relate to, where he says ‘I’m totally in love with football but I get frustrated by the business.’ I think sometimes the game should just be left alone as a working-class person’s sport, and sometimes lose the politics within the game, because they ruin what is a fabulous sport. I love the sport, I’m just not too in love with the business side of it.

Funniest player/coach you’ve worked with, or just one of the funniest

We had a guy called Chris Shaw at Eastwood, a left-back. Only just finished playing now, I think his last club was Ilkeston. His nickname was Trigger at the club, and I don’t think he was the brightest, to be fair, but Chris would run through a brick wall for you, he’d have a smile on his face every training session, and he’d make the dressing room come alive every time he walked in. He was a fabulous servant of the club and I still keep in touch with him now.

Most embarrassing moment as a manager/coach/player

There was one game, I think when (Mansfield) were in League Two, away from home, and I was getting a bit of stick from the crowd. I turned around and I actually fell over the water bottles, which as you can imagine, when you’re getting a bit of stick, there was no hiding place. There was a loud cheer and numerous quotes coming from the crowd, shall we say?!

Your routine on a match day

I’m a bit strange like that, because mine starts on Friday night. I’ve done some strange things. At Barrow, after about four games, I can remember I’d not had a haircut and not had a shave, and we’d won I think the fourth game on the bounce. Just as a bit of banter in the dressing room afterwards, I said ‘look, I’m not gonna cut my hair, and I’m not gonna have a shave until we lose.’ We went something like 28 games unbeaten, and it came to the third round of the FA Cup, and I was live on TV for the draw, I think. I knew I’d get loads of stick from the lads if I cut my hair and had a shave, so I went on TV looking like Worzel Gummidge! My routine starts on a Friday night and if we’re on a nice little run I won’t change anything in my routine; the food I eat, if I have a glass of wine it has to be the same wine, lucky pants, lucky socks! Yeah, I’m a little bit weird like that, to be honest, but it’s done alright in the past, and we’ve had some great runs at Mansfield, Eastwood.

Before FA Cup runs, going back to the Eastwood days, when I met my wife, if we’d play a bigger club I’d always say ‘if we win tomorrow, I’ll treat you to something.’ It went from a nice meal out, to something bigger like a pair of shoes, and I can remember going to Mansfield, and we sat with John and Carolyn one night. I think we were playing Lincoln on the Saturday, and John and Carolyn were saying ‘what’s on the radar for this one then?’ I think it was a new dress, something like that. We won the home tie and I think Carolyn and Tash were talking, we went out for some food, and John and Carolyn had mentioned ‘what’s gonna happen?’ and I think marriage got brought up! John had basically said ‘if we draw somebody big out of the hat for the next round, then you’ve got to get married.’ That’s how it all came about. We were sat there one night and I didn’t know what to do; laugh or cry! ‘Mansfield Town…will play…Liverpool’ We beat Lincoln (in the replay) and you can imagine the phone went straight away, John rang me, and Carolyn rang Tash saying ‘right, you’ve gotta get this done.’ I think it was a two-week period, John had put the marquee up, and it was a surreal moment, because we had camera crews at the wedding, I think (league sponsors) Blue Square Bet had said ‘if you beat Liverpool we’ll pay for your honeymoon, anywhere in the world.’ It became really surreal, because it took away a little bit the size of the game we played!

One singer/band or song you would sneak on to the team playlist

We always had The Prodigy on at Mansfield and at Eastwood – ‘Omen’. It was a song that really got the lads up for the game, so it’d have to be that one. (Has he introduced it at Kettering yet?) We haven’t introduced it yet; I think some of the music is more on the soul side! I’m just taking my time before we introduce that.

Advice you remember getting that’s stuck with you

I’d always tell somebody that’s coming into the game to just be yourself, and do it your way, and that way have no regrets. If you succeed or fail, always do it your way. I think the other one would be to always stay hungry. The game at the minute is full of fantastic rewards in terms of finance, cars, houses, and all the things that are glitter, as I call them, but sometimes they can be off-putting. They can stop you from enjoying this fantastic sport, so just get that balance.

If you could have some time with any manager, past or present

Jose Mourinho. I’m loving that he’s back in the game now; I think the game’s missing characters at the minute. The man’s a serial winner, his personality’s infectious, and I’d love to sit down with him, have a chat with him, learn off him.

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’ve always said I’ve probably got one of those faces that says something that I’m not. There’s been a number of people who, when they’ve actually come up and spoke to me, say ‘Paul, you’re a pretty nice guy, aren’t you?’ I’m quite animated on the touchline, I’m quite an angry man, but that’s me getting my drug, if that makes sense, from the game on a Saturday afternoon. My wife’s actually said now I’m probably a far better person now I’m back in the game! I’ve spent so much time with people, whether I go and have a drink with the supporters after the game, or meet someone and have a cup of tea at a service station and stuff like that, and people have said ‘you’re a really nice guy.’ I’ve said ‘why would you not think that?!’ I understand it, it’s perception, and people can only take a perception of what they see. I’m always open to talking to supporters or anyone in the game, I love talking about the game. I’m a working-class lad that’s been lucky enough to be involved in the game as a player and as a coach and a manager, so I see myself as being no different to anyone else. Sometimes people’s perception of you can be totally wrong.

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 do now. I do now, because as I said, I think that’s something that I lost. I don’t know if it was the business side of the game that took me away from the love of the sport. I think now, I’ve got a balance and a focus in myself that I’m just totally in love with the game again. I love being on the touchline, I love when it’s raining, it’s muddy, I love being on the training ground with the players. It’s that that I’ve rediscovered. I put that down to the break I had and the education I’ve gone through, in terms of reigniting that passion and that love of the sport, not the business. I don’t know if I’ll ever love the business, but I totally love the sport, and really proud and glad that I took the step to get back in there.

Interview/article by @chris_brookes

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