Photo: Darlington FC

Transitioning to some of non-league’s scarcities has brought its challenges for marksman of Premier League (and UEFA Cup…) yesteryear, Alun Armstrong. Nevertheless, in trying to marry intensity with enjoyment, and no lack of honesty, his early managerial career has yielded plenty, with increasingly promising signs as his first season as Darlington boss hurtles on.

A promotion-winning frontman with Stockport County and Middlesbrough, as well as a pivotal part of the former’s 1996/97 Coca-Cola Cup semi-final run, Alun Armstrong was a top-flight player for four seasons. He was also the Ipswich Town number ten joyously wheeling away after powering home a late header against Italian giants Inter that he might occasionally have been reminded of since.

A career with proud accomplishments, hampered if not decimated by injury, it began winding down in the latter part of his Ipswich days. When the Blaydon lad’s race was run, a coaching future later began to materialise, though he took a route less travelled.

“I never had any interest in going into management; I didn’t mind coaching,” he recalled. “I took a year off football when I retired and did a little bit of work, property developing, then you start missing it.”

“You miss that buzz, the dressing room, the camaraderie, and I started coaching, started my own business coaching kids. I went into Middlesbrough, coaching in the academy there, and just learning the trade that way.

“I ended off working at Durham University, in a Second Chance programme, which was for drug addicts, alcoholics, and football was part of the programme and I was coaching them. Rather than diving into coaching full tilt, I wanted to get to know the other side; how to deal with the personalities, because everyone’s different.

“I wanted to test myself and how I dealt with people that way, and it was tough. I did it for three or four years and that’s probably been the best thing I’ve done.

“Rather than diving straight into coaching the higher-level footballers, I’m dealing with the mental side, and that gave us a good grounding of looking after players, so to speak.”

When management unexpectedly called with Blyth Spartans three seasons ago, he oversaw a storming debut campaign at the Croft Park helm in which his side finished 14 points clear of Spennymoor Town to return to the National League North after five years away. The Northumberland outfit ended only four points off the play-offs in their first season back in the sixth tier, while last year saw them go one better, with their highest league finish (6th) in club history. They were beaten only on penalties in their quarter-final at Altrincham after seeing a two-goal lead agonisingly snatched away.

Before their play-off place was even sealed, the Spartans boss had made no secret of the increasing constraints he was facing, which included being informed that the club could not afford to go up, and that his budget for the next season would be lower than when he first arrived, in the Northern Premier League. Regrettably bidding farewell, he took over a Darlington team that had ended 2018/19 in 16th, 19 points lower than Blyth.

With the name, the fanbase and locality, though, not to mention his two spells as a Quakers player in the Football League before the culmination of their desperately sad demise eight years ago, it was a tantalising prospect for the 44-year-old. Darlo sit a point outside the National League North play-off places at present, and Alun shares his current level of contentment, leading on from his change in surroundings eight months ago.

“I’m feeling quite good, to be honest. The start of the season, obviously Blyth came out with all this legal jargon, that they were gonna sue us and everything, but there was nothing to be done.

“I’d wanted to keep the lads and the club didn’t want to keep them. The majority of the players were on options, and the club wouldn’t activate them options because it was going over the budget that they’d set in place for this season.

“I’d lost three players in the space of seven days at Blyth, and that made my mind up that I had to move on. It was just gonna be a mass exodus and I didn’t wanna start again up there, because I’d seen what was happening.

“I’d been offered the job at Darlington and I just jumped at the chance to try and be successful at another place. I came here with I think nine players in the squad when I signed at Darlington, and it took up almost three quarters of the budget.

“There was a big rebuilding job on, I knew that, and I had to move a lot of people out and slowly bring my own players in. It always takes time when you bring a new squad in, but I’m relatively happy with what we’re doing.

“I know that it took a little bit longer to get the squad to where we want it, but the club’s moving forward, we’re in a good place, and everything’s ticking along nicely at the minute.”

Their current run of five wins from six league games has included successes over 2nd and 3rd-placed York City and Chester, as well as a 2-0 victory over Alun’s old team in late-December. Like so many of last season’s Blyth squad who joined him at Darlington with their contracts up, he has twice experienced a reunion in the first few months of the season.

Darlo also won the first meeting, 2-1 at home in September, which was a welcome boost after a sketchy time in a stupendously match-packed August, with two wins from their first eight. Returning for the first time as the opposing manager, how was Alun received by the Green Army?

“It was a little bit surreal. Obviously, we played them at Blackwell (Meadows) first, and you just wanted to win that one, to try and prove a point.

“We managed to do that, it wasn’t a great spectacle, but going back up to Croft Park was really strange; in the away dressing room, going out in the away dugout. I had a great relationship with the fans and the people up at Blyth, so I never had any problems with them.

“I’d even went and watched them against Spennymoor; I was standing with the Blyth fans in the Spennymoor end and they were good as gold. They understood the situation, and I might have still been there if the cuts hadn’t come in.

“I’ll never forget my time up at Blyth, it was my first stint and I’m forever grateful for it, but things move on in football and the old saying ‘if you stand still then you end up going backwards,’ so unfortunately, I had to take that jump.”

As at Blyth, the erstwhile Premier League forward has been looking for as close to top-level intensity as possible from his part-time charges. As he will describe in the regular Q&A that concludes this feature, though, arduous running drills aren’t at all a staple.

With the season barely out of the starting blocks, Darlo lost the services of right-back Luke Trotman, forward Jamie Holmes and defender David Atkinson, which is understandably difficult not to factor in as Alun offers his assessment of the season so far.

“It’s gone okay; could have gone a lot better. People are probably sick of hearing me going on about it, to be honest, but I’ve never seen a part-time football club get three season-term injuries in the first game.

“We had a ruptured ACL (Jamie Holmes), we had a ruptured ankle ligament (David Atkinson), and a ruptured Achilles tendon (Luke Trotman), so for us to deal with that was really tough, but the board have backed us. They’ve let us bring some replacements in, rather than dealing with kids, and the lads have come in and done exceptionally well, so overall, we’re quite happy with where we are.”

The Quakers have just officially been able to confirm the loan addition from ÍBV of striker Gary Martin, the former Middlesbrough youngster who has signed for his hometown club, albeit via Hungary, Iceland, Denmark and Norway. Leading the line for Darlo is something his manager knows all about, and he is meticulous when it comes to who he brings into the ranks.

“I always like to meet players face to face. I speak to them on the phone but I never offer them a deal until I’ve met them face to face, because I need to see what they’re like.

“I do a little bit of digging, you try to find out about them and their past, what they’re like, if there’s any problems, any egos or anything like that, but to be honest, I try to make my own judgements on them. I’ll not sign a player unless I’ve met him.

“You learn from your mistakes; I did it a couple of times at Blyth, not last season but the season before. It didn’t turn out as I wanted, because you’re buying them blind, as such.

“You learn from it, and I’ve got a lot of contacts in the game, so you speak to them and find out about them. I think I spoke to Gary Martin three or four months ago, to be honest.

“He came back from Iceland and he wanted to come and play for Darlington, so I’d done a lot of digging on him, we knew a little bit of history because of what he had with York, playing for a pub team while he was signed for York and whatnot! He came and trained with us for two/three months prior to him signing, so he’s got to know the lads, he’s been great around the place, and he just wants to play for his hometown club and score goals, so it was a no-brainer, to be honest with you.”

Such brilliant simplicity was something he first got to properly enjoy as a professional with Stockport County. Allowed to leave Kevin Keegan’s Newcastle United as a 19-year-old in summer 1994, his four years (and 62 goals) at Edgeley Park began under the late and lamented Danny Bergara.

Playing for the Uruguayan’s successor Dave Jones, Alun was an integral cog in the Hatters side that won promotion to the second tier as runners-up in 1996/97, the same season they came to national attention for reaching the last four of the League Cup. Two down to Bryan Robson’s Middlesbrough from the home leg, County would beat Juninho, Emerson, Fabrizio Ravanelli and company 1-0 at the Riverside, with Alun’s superbly improvised flick setting up Sean Connelly to fire home a rasping early goal that sent the travelling fans cock-a-hoop.

It became his home stadium a year later, as he joined ex-England and Manchester United skipper Robson’s Boro in the final three months of what was a 22-goal personal season. The Teessiders pipped North East neighbours Sunderland to the second automatic promotion place by one point.

With Charlton also in the running on the final day, Alun struck the crucial breakthrough in the second half against Oxford United, soon adding another in a 4-1 win at the Riverside for a Boro team that contained the mercurial Paul Merson and Paul Gascoigne. The promotion relief for Alun was all the more emphatic, given he was due to miss the play-offs for an operation, with a bulging disc in his back making his week leading up to that Oxford win unbearable.

Greatly restricted by a ruptured Achilles and double hernia, he featured 33 times for the club overall, but the Boro fans had far from forgotten his contribution, even applauding him after he returned to score both in a 2-1 win for Ipswich. That was in April 2001, with the Premier League newcomers famously on their way to finishing 5th, and his time with the Tractor Boys he says ranks as his happiest in football.

“We had a lot of players there that had come from the same kind of background; they’d started at a high-up club, never broke through and then ended up dropping down the leagues to build their career back up. There was more talented players out there, without a shadow of a doubt, but we had a group of players that worked ever so hard for each other and everything just clicked.

“It was such a good 18 months that I had there, that first period, qualifying for European football and all that. George Burley was looking after everyone exceptionally well.

“Finishing 5th in the Premier League, it was unheard of, until Leicester went and bettered everyone by winning the league. It was fantastic, it was a proper family club, and I loved that place down there; we didn’t wanna move back, to be honest.

“I was there four-and-a-half years, and we didn’t wanna move away, but football takes you away from places. Fantastic family club and it’s a shame to see them where they are at this moment in time.”

He of course remains synonymous with netting the winner against Inter in the UEFA Cup in November 2001, coming off the bench to plant an 81st-minute header past Francesco Toldo, who had been in goal for Italy in the European Championship final against France the previous year. His perfectly-placed penalty past the 6ft 5in stopper in the return leg was a consolation in a 4-1 loss in the iconic Giuseppe Meazza (San Siro) – but what a consolation. After Christian Vieri’s dominating performance, Brazilian superstar Ronaldo even came on.

Despite relegation, Alun would get to play (and score) in the competition again in 2002/03, thanks to Ipswich’s Fair Play record – nothing quite like Slovan Liberec sandwiched between Gillingham and Crystal Palace on the fixture list. Huge highs and gutting disappointment aside, it was as much about the people he shared his Portman Road career with, not least the Elvis-impersonating Icelander.

“Hermann (Hreiðarsson) was different class. He’s a big, lovable character, he got on with everyone, but he just wore his heart on his sleeve as well, big Hermann.

“Then you had Jim Magilton, who, if you didn’t pass him the ball when he wanted it, you knew you were in bother! There was some great characters there; Matty Holland, Marcus Stewart – me and him had a great relationship – Martijn Reuser, Fabian Wilnis.

“Tony Mowbray and Mark Venus, who are now in charge at Blackburn. There were no egos in that dressing room as well.

“(George Burley) could have easily had some egos, but there wasn’t. He had the local lads: James Scowcroft, Titus Bramble, Richard Wright.

“It was a great set-up there, some great characters and fantastic footballers as well.”

His answer, then, to the question of his most difficult and unenjoyable spell as a player, really says something.

“That was at Ipswich as well! Obviously, the new manager came in, Joe (Royle), and we didn’t click, we didn’t see eye to eye.

“The worst point was I had a year-and-a-half left on my contract, George Burley came in and asked us to go to Derby with him. I went to see Joe, and Joe said ‘no, you’re part of the squad,’ but I was never starting; I was either on the bench or just sitting doing nothing.

“He said ‘you’re part of the squad,’ and I said ‘well, it doesn’t look like it.’ I think the problem was Derby were in the Championship as well, and they were challenging Ipswich for a play-off position.

“It came to the end of the season and Joe pulled us and said ‘oh, you’re free to go now,’ and I had a year left on my contract. That there was the biggest blow to me; it just showed us how to treat people.

“That’s one thing I’d never do, just keep them to stop them from being successful elsewhere, and then just let them go. I ended up not going (to Derby), I stayed the following season and I was going out on loan, but it started to make us lose a little bit of love for football.

“I was 27/28 at the time, and you’re thinking ‘I’m stuck now, because he hasn’t let me go out on loan,’ and people are always worrying about my injuries and that, so it was tough to end up getting put in that rat race at the end of the season, with loads of other players trying to get clubs. Obviously, I had quite a lot of injuries in my career, which people always had a look at, and rightly so.

“It was just a nightmare year, my final year at Ipswich.”

The promise of that next game is one of football’s most comforting characteristics. For Darlington, they host Alfreton Town this Saturday in what will be their first league match in a fortnight, due to FA Trophy involvement.

Cup competition has brought a standout memory of the burgeoning Alun Armstrong era, with Joe Wheatley’s 97th-minute leveller at League Two Walsall in November forcing a first-round FA Cup replay (and just a touch of carnage in the away end). A moment like that is all about people, as is Alun’s time away from the dugout.

With 23-year-old Luke a resounding success up front for him in that first Blyth season, 16-year-old son Rhys, a midfielder, is currently with him at Darlington, having debuted at Blyth. Alun turned down a National League job at Hartlepool United two seasons ago; how he’d love to lead Darlo into that division.

As immersed in management as he undoubtedly is, he is also routinely left with little choice but to be temporarily taken away from it when he gets home.

“I’ve got nine kids, so you can imagine that all my spare time gets taken up! Obviously, Luke’s playing for Salford now, so any spare time I try to get to watch any of his games.

“That’s the only disappointing thing when you’ve got a son who’s playing football and you’re busy managing your own team; you never see enough of his games to try and help him. When he was playing for me, it was a lot easier; I could develop him and help him that way.

“I love films and box sets, but that’s just to take your mind off stuff really. It’s all family, I haven’t got time for anything else.

“I had a kid when I was 18/19, my oldest is 25 now, so I’ve always had kids, and that’s all I do my football for, my family.”

You can read the second half of this interview, as Alun takes on the unique Bosses’ Lounge Q&A here

Interview/article by @chris_brookes

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