Photo: Barrow AFC

A couple of decades on the pitch had Ian Evatt earning the highs and enduring the hits in just about equal measure. The ex- Chesterfield and Blackpool captain insists he is not quite the menacing figure his playing days have led plenty to believe, though an unwillingness to budge has been at the heart of his National League-leading Barrow’s magnificent progress.

It is approaching two years since Barrow put their faith in a managerial novice – still being in the job after that length of time no mean feat nowadays, of course – and while nothing is decided, Ian Evatt’s team are currently in pole position to end the club’s 48-year wait for League football. Although the 38-year-old is deeply bonded with Chesterfield, it is Blackpool that many naturally associate the former commanding centre-half with.

For wider media, it is an obvious angle to plump for: the Ian Holloway disciple making waves in management, and like his accomplished and charismatic ex-gaffer, doing it his way. The link is a worthy one, though, as the ever-present from the Tangerines’ 2010/11 Premier League adventure tells when asked what the most frequent question has been during a spate of recent interviews.

“I think they’re mostly just intrigued with our style and philosophy; I don’t think it’s been seen very often at non-league level. As I’ve said in recent interviews, when I first got this job, people told me that you cannot get out of this league playing this way.

“It just made me more determined to do it, perfect it and improve, and this season we’ve shown that you can get results playing the way we do.”

As enrapturing an idea as free-flowing their way to the promised land of the EFL is, you don’t lead a division as unkind as the Vanarama National League as far into a season as March without a shrewd undercurrent. The Cumbrian side ended the ex-Derby County player’s first season at the helm in 10th place, ten positions higher and without the nerve-jangling final day seen in a desperately difficult 2017/18.

With nine games to go, his class of 19/20 lead the way from Harrogate Town by four points, while they are already 16 goals up (68) on their final total from last season, making them top scorers in the league by seven. Just as crucially, they are only two goals off the stingiest defence (Solihull Moors, with 37).

The Bluebirds boss describes the precision moves that were the catalyst for this season’s stride into leading from the front for several months.

“Last season, we were dominating games, possession-wise, we were just getting done both boxes really; probably weren’t clinical enough at one end, and were conceding sloppy goals the other end. Mostly set-pieces or crosses, and physical-contact sort of goals, so in the summer, I had an idea of what we needed to improve.

“We got our recruitment done really early; most of it was done by the end of May/early-June, which for a National League team is very good. Recruitment is an important part of the game and industry and we dig deep into that; for every role and position, we have a specific criteria.

“We have to watch clips, watch videos of players that meet that requirement. It’s not quite to the level of Moneyball, for instance, or how Brentford recruit, but it’s a similar principle in terms of we have an idea of what each position looks like and what they need to be able to do physically and technically.

“We figured that out pretty early and we’re now showing that we’ve added the goals to the team and are defensively a bit more solid as well.”

Frugal was never the way in those heady days at Blackpool – on the pitch at least. Only seven teams outscored them (55) in their solitary top-flight campaign, though 78 goals conceded was the worst in the division. By simple logic, though, they shouldn’t have even been there.

Hamstrung by budget constraints, Ian Holloway’s emotionally-charged, expressive way of leading and playing struck a chord, not just with fans and neutrals, but in sparking the managerial imagination of his number six. The Bristolian’s team talk before their 2-1 win at Liverpool in October 2010 (part of a double over the Reds) was especially awe-inspiring for the now-Barrow boss. Charlie Adam’s penalty and Luke Varney’s finish in front of the Kop put Blackpool into the top half and Liverpool into the relegation zone, in what sounds a prime cut from a parallel football universe.

In sport, what you cannot quantify can actually be most powerful. The Bluebirds’ second-year gaffer is a devoted student of the game, but just like his Blackpool team embodied when they attacked, there is nothing quite like instinct.

He describes how that plays a fundamental part in discussions with any potential new additions to his Cumbrian cohort.

“I make sure I meet with them. I always ring round for character references and I like to meet the players individually as well.

“You need to get a feel for people. It’s easy over a phone or being told by an agent, or an ex-player that you might know who played with him and says he’s a good guy, but until you sit down and look him in the eye and get that feel for him, you don’t really know.

“You’re not gonna get every one right, but the idea is to limit the gamble, and the more information you can take in, the better.”

Unlike Ian Holloway’s talks to become Grimsby Town boss at Papa’s Fish and Chips in Cleethorpes, Ian says there has not yet been a quirky setting for negotiations in his first 21 months at Holker Street. For any manager, authenticity will always shine through, and the balance between taking inspiration and knowing what cannot be convincingly replicated is pivotal. That would certainly appear to be pertinent for any of Holloway’s former players stepping into the ruthless coliseum of management.

It was another member of that 2010 Championship play-off-winning squad, current Sheffield Wednesday midfielder Barry Bannan, who recalled Blackpool’s boss putting on the film Any Given Sunday for the players to watch one day at training. So was that genuinely their entire assignment for that day?

“It was,” Ian confirmed. “It wasn’t Any Given Sunday, though, it was Coach Carter.”

“We watched the film, the gaffer was crying during the film, because he was an emotional guy! There’s a part in it where the teammates do suicide runs for the guy who the coach gave these to, a guy whose disciplinary record wasn’t great.

“He got set so-many-thousand press-ups and so many suicide runs, and basically, the team came together and said ‘we’ll do these for you to get you back on this team,’ and that’s the kind of message he was sending to us. ‘We’re there for each other and we stand up for each other.’

“He got quite emotional with it but the message definitely hit home.”

Fortitude has been another leading cast member along his way. In a playing career packed with promotions, the one-time Queens Park Rangers defender’s tale of triumph has come with much more sobering experiences.

Chesterfield’s dramatic survival in Division Two in May 2004 is etched in his and every Spireite of that time’s memory; without Glynn Hurst’s goal in the dying minutes at Saltergate to beat Luton Town, they were down and Grimsby Town were staying up. On other occasions, however, it didn’t end with such a euphoric reprieve.

He was a young player at Derby when the Rams were relegated from the Premier League in 2002, though his game time that season had largely come on loan at Northampton Town. Blackpool’s farewell to the top division in May 2011 was confirmed with a 4-2 loss after incredibly coming back to lead champions Manchester United 2-1 at Old Trafford on the final day.

Captaining Paul Cook’s League Two champions in 2014, as well as the side that reached the League One play-offs the season after, successive relegations at Chesterfield in 2017 and 2018 cut deeply at a club so firm in his affections. For the hardest experiences his playing days threw his way, there is one particular denied opportunity – followed by a painful twist of fortune – that is impossible to wipe from the story.

“I think the biggest mental challenge for me was August of the 2012 season. Southampton had come in for me on deadline day, made a very large offer for a player just turning 30; we’re talking life-changing money.

“Blackpool, as great as it was, we never paid that kind of money. It was good money, don’t get me wrong, but it wasn’t Premier League, life-changing money.

“That would have been a life-changing moment for me. Blackpool unfortunately turned the money down, so I decided to just let my contract run down and see what happened in the summer.

“Two months later, I had a horrendous knee injury, was out for 12 months, and the end of that season I was out of contract, released. Ended up going from Southampton in the Premier League to being captain of Chesterfield in League Two in the space of 12 months, and I wasn’t quite the same player as I was either, with the injury, so it just shows you how things can change in football.

“However, I did have a fantastic time with Chesterfield again. We won League Two and got to the play-offs in League One the next season, so there’s still good memories, but that moment in particular was difficult to deal with.”

Briefly in caretaker charge at Chesterfield at the sad conclusion of their near-century as a League club, the man who made 265 appearances as a Spireite (with 16 goals) still lives in the area – the furthest thing from a player who was just passing through at the club. Nevertheless, he ruled himself out of the managerial running after John Sheridan’s departure in January. In the context of the current season, it would have been a plummet from the top to the relegation zone to take over, but Ian also highlighted Barrow taking a chance on him in 2018, which Chesterfield opted against.

A boyhood Coventry City fan, having come into the pro game at Derby County, it was under a former Rams stalwart and manager Roy McFarland that he began to make serious headway in his early career, at Chesterfield. In the hard land of English football’s lower leagues, he played directly alongside just the beast for that terrain – Steve Blatherwick.

Eight years his senior, he even became Ian’s agent, and the ex-Nottingham Forest and Burnley man earns first mention as Ian considers the defensive partner he felt most in sync with in his career.

“Very early on, Blathers was a big influence on me. I was 21 at the time and he was a big, ugly, hairy-arsed defender!

“He taught me that side of the game and how to look after myself. Then as I progressed, the relationship I had with Alex Baptiste and Craig Cathcart at Blackpool, and later on in my career, Liam Cooper – who’s now captain of Leeds – at Chesterfield.

“They were the best ones, I’d say, that I played with.”

Understanding will be an indispensable ingredient in keeping this incredibly promising show on the road at Barrow. Ian signed a new three-year contract in late-April 2019, before another improved deal in October after spurning the advances of last season’s play-off finalists AFC Fylde.

He did get himself into the matchday action one last time, coming on – as a striker, no less – for the final few minutes of Barrow’s pre-season friendly at home to Blackpool last July. To spend over half of your life in a routine and mindset – gym sessions, training, the next match – and then suddenly leave it behind, can be immensely disorientating.

The two-time Wembley play-off final winner admits it has been no insignificant challenge crossing the bridge into management while maintaining certain elements of his ‘former’ football life.

“To be honest, I lived and breathed football for 21 years, I was dedicated. Football nowadays, the way the game is being played, is a 24/7 industry/business; there aren’t times where you can switch off and go and have ten pints like you used to be able to.

“You’ve got to live and breathe it to get the best out of your body and the best out of your career. Management, if you wanna get the most out of it and be the best you can be, you need to put in the hours of work.

“That means obviously taking training, planning sessions, learning, improving, but also watching other games, watching opposition, analysing training, analysing your own team’s performance, and that is time-consuming, there’s no doubt about it. So, to find that balance is difficult, to look after yourself and your own mental and physical health, but I’m getting there now.

“I’ve got myself a nice little routine that I’m in at the moment, I’m enjoying it, I’m enjoying getting back to some sort of fitness, but the most important thing for me is how much I’m enjoying my job, and enjoying how my team are growing and improving.”

From the firepower of National League top scorer Scott Quigley – not to mention the 20-goal season of John Rooney from midfield – back to the consistent performers in Joel Dixon’s defence, his side is one packed with pockets of encouragement. Together with the constant drive for details to unlock that extra edge for his team, and the continual piece-placing of the longer-term puzzle, Ian shares some more of life outside the dugout.

“I love my cricket; I still play for a local team when I get chance in the summer. I like to have a game in the off-season, just to come away from football, but to be honest, I’m a massive student of the game still.

“I want to get to the top of the management ladder. I’m massive on American sports; documentaries on their coaching philosophies, how they get the best out of players, the messages they send.

“I’m forever reading books and watching documentaries on that type of thing, just to learn and improve really.”

As the curtain fell on the 1971/72 season, third-bottom Barrow were the team voted out of the Football League after five decades. The 2014/15 National League North winners are taking nothing for granted, and the 2-0 home defeat to Notts County last time out (just their third loss in six months) was a fork in the road, but there is every belief in the ranks.

With diligence behind the scenes, their Holker Street home has been approved by the EFL, and to get over the promotion line would very clearly surpass anything in the club’s modern history. For the boss, such an accomplishment would have huge personal pride of place, even if he was to still be managing 30 years from now.

While he surges on in 2020, days like Blackpool’s 2-0 win over Yeovil Town in the League One play-off final under Simon Grayson in 2007, and of course, that first-half comeback from twice behind against Cardiff City to unlock the Tangerines’ barely plausible Premier League dream, aren’t bad to have in the memory bank.

“I look back on my career now and I think it’s a rarity that I actually played in and was promoted out of every league – League Two, League One and the Championship – which is something to be proud of. I’ve scored from Premier League to League Two as well; I don’t think many players have done that, so it gives me a great sense of pride, but also a great network of people within the game.

“In terms of fond moments, obviously playing in the Premier League, at a young age for Derby and then again for Blackpool, is fantastic. That Blackpool team, what we achieved will never be achieved again; to get promoted from the Championship with a budget of £3 million is unheard of.

“They’re the proudest moments, but to be honest, as much as I loved playing football, it seems a crazy thing to say, but my passion and love for the game has increased since becoming a manager. I’m enjoying this more than I ever did as a footballer.”

 

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

When did you want to start coaching/managing?

I think the first time I actually started considering it was when I was at Blackpool with Ollie really. We started taking in his messages and understood that repetition in training and getting used to a system and perfecting that system, and also having that belief and mentality of succeeding, can actually work. I started to take an interest then, and then it just took off really, and as soon as I hit the wrong side of 30, with the injury I spoke about earlier, you start to take it seriously and getting qualifications etc.

Which training sessions do you enjoy leading the most?

I like it all; from the gym work to the technical side. Just seeing the lads improve is amazing really, and the most pleasing thing for me is when you’ve worked on something in training and you see it come to fruition in a game. That’s really self-satisfying.

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

Every now and again I take part in the small-sided games on a Friday. We tend to keep it low-key on a Friday and I come in and I’m still the best player, so it’s nice to give me that bit of confidence!

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

Obviously Wembley rings true because I played there five times; had some great times there, some bad times. I went up to watch a couple of Old Firm games; Celtic Park on a derby day or a Champions League night is amazing, incredible atmosphere. That rings back in my memories. What a stadium that is and would be to manage in; the playing side’s gone now, but definitely managing. I think the best stadium in England currently is the Emirates; possibly not for the atmosphere, but definitely the facilities and how it looks.

Favourite player to watch (past or present)

I think as a young kid, watching Coventry, Cyrille Regis was a huge icon really for me growing up. Unfortunately, he’s passed away now, but what a fantastic player he was. Later on, as I appreciated what you have to do as a footballer to maintain and get to the top of the football tree, Cristiano Ronaldo. (Lionel) Messi’s technically amazing and so natural, but Cristiano, how hard he works on his game, how hard he works in the gym to improve and get the best out of his body is something to look at and think ‘wow, that dedication is amazing.’

And how would you have sold the club to let’s say Cyrille Regis, if you were trying to sign him for Barrow (in his prime)?!

To be honest, I think Cyrille might not have suited the way we play! He was smash and grab, very physical, direct; we tend to build slowly. Can counter-attack with pace, but we are a possession-based team, so he might not have suited the recruitment criteria that I was speaking about earlier! We might not have gone down that route, but Cristiano would be fine to come to Barrow any time he wants.

Pre-season tour anywhere in the world

I think what I’d like to do is take them to America, like we spoke about. Probably have a couple of days’ blowout in Vegas! Just as team-bonding, and then go into the serious training schedule; somewhere like the UCLA complex in Los Angeles is incredible. To take them there and have that facility to work with would be incredible.

Most challenging/frustrating part of your job

The frustrating aspect is the actual fixtures, the results. You put so much hard work into the week and preparation, and then all it takes is a moment of concentration, or an official’s decision or a bit of luck, and the whole of the week goes to waste. That’s what’s frustrating. Winning is better as a manager, but losing is definitely worse.

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

Manager-wise, Ollie’s obviously just bonkers. There’s a lot of publicity about the teddy bear team talk he did at Derby; he bought 11 teddies and moved them about in a formation in a hotel. You have to be pretty crazy to be able to do that! Some of his analogies and how he compares things to life in general, he’s bonkers, but there’s method in his madness and he doesn’t get the credit he deserves for being an astute football manager.

Most embarrassing moment as a manager/player

We train at a facility in Manchester called Hopwood Hall College, and they have glass shutters to walk through to the canteen, and you scan your card and these open, so if you haven’t got a card, you’re tailgating someone to get through. As I was walking through on my first day, they literally closed and cut both sides of my head and nearly knocked me unconscious! First day of pre-season that was a bit embarrassing, but other than that, there’s not a great deal.

Your routine on a match day

I’m very much a creature of habit, and especially when you’re winning games, superstitions take over. We always have breakfast at half past 8 in the morning and I always eat the same thing. Then there’s the pre-match at half 11, I don’t eat anything pre-match, and then I head straight to the ground for probably quarter past 12. Watch the early game on TV and just relax really and make sure everything’s prepared and ready for the players to go. The players come at half past 1, the team sheets go in at 2. Obviously the team’s set out on the tactics board before then, and we have five minutes with the players at quarter past 2 before they go out to warm up. Then a bit more at five to 3; just a few key messages before they go out.

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

Do you know what? That is a tough question, because I kind of change with the wind. Funnily enough, this is strange for me, I never used to like Lady Gaga, she used to really annoy me, and then I saw the film A Star is Born and my opinion on her completely changed. So at the minute, I’m liking a bit of Gaga, to be honest. I’m liking a lot of the songs out of that film; ‘Shallow’, and there’s ‘Million Reasons’ that she did before that. I’m liking the deep stuff at the minute!

Advice you remember getting that’s stuck with you

I just think the biggest thing in football I’ve learned off people and managers – they’ve not always abided by these messages – is just to be straight and honest with players. They might not always agree with your decisions but they’ll respect you for it. I think when you start misleading players and telling them lies, you get found out pretty quick, so it’s important that you maintain the same messages and be open and honest with everyone. Regardless of whether they agree with you or not, the respect will still be there.

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

Sir Alex Ferguson, for obvious reasons. The way he maintained that success over such a long period of time is amazing, but I think the game probably has moved on and changed, and I think the reason he probably retired was because he was recognising that. Marcelo Bielsa, I think the guy’s just a genius; him and Pep (Guardiola). Bielsa’s different to Pep in terms of the amount of analytical work he does, the long hours he has his players in for, but how he keeps them engaged is amazing. Pep obviously for the style he plays and the attention to detail is fantastic. Then I’d probably say Jose (Mourinho); I think he’s the biggest one that drives the mental aspect of the game and having that belief and confidence to go and succeed.

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 because of the way I played, fans seem to think I’m a bit of a hard man! I’m 6 foot 4 but I’m as soft as they come really; I’m a big teddy bear. My bark is louder than my bite, but keep that quiet, because my players still need to fear 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?

Yeah, you do, you get that warm feeling in your stomach. When that goes, I guess it’s time to give in. Being a part, and managing to work in the game that I love for so long is something that I’m extremely proud of. I’m at the start of a career again. I’m a novice again and that’s what’s exciting me; there’s so much to learn, so much to improve on. I’m giving it my all to make sure I try and get the best I can out of this career.

Interview/article by @chris_brookes

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