Photo: Spalding United

Pushing beyond the threshold to reach for better was every bit a feature of Gabriel Zakuani’s playing career, and shortly before last season’s action ground to an early halt, the four-time promotion-winner found himself in the managerial hotseat for the first time at Spalding United. The popular ex-Peterborough United defender has brought characteristic enthusiasm so far, but with that comes an ambitious and unapologetic tenacity not to simply settle.

Early-February brought the announcement of a deal being agreed for next season for the Tulips boss, having been appointed four months earlier following a caretaker stint alongside Neal Spafford. The all-too-brief period of actual match action to partake in before the season at Step 4 was suspended had certainly whet the appetite for Gaby.

Some wider spotlight briefly fell their way after the temporary addition of Nile Ranger, but the recent signing of another undeniably talented one-time Newcastle United prospect was arguably all the more headline-worthy. That was Marcus Maddison, a former Peterborough teammate of Gaby’s, and as recently as April, on the pitch with Bolton Wanderers in League Two (on loan from Charlton Athletic). On the surface, it is an utterly remarkable signing – more of an eyebrow-raiser than Botox could probably even compete with – but it then starts to become all the more understandable. A chance for the 27-year-old to go ‘back to basics’, to focus on finding joy and release in playing again, away from some of the relentless vitriol and the more damning aspects of the professional game and the conversation that surrounds it.

It fits strongly with how Gaby has set out to be as a manager: a driver of standards but someone to back his players to the hilt, in an environment people want to be part of.

“I look at my list of managers and they’re all really good,” he said. “I had Chris Coleman, Roy Hodgson, Tony Pulis, Darren Ferguson, and even people like Steve Evans; you can always take a little bit because they’re successful for a reason.”

“There are things that I wouldn’t do (as a manager), because I know things that I didn’t like (as a player). The main thing for me is I will always take the slack; if we had a bad game, it’ll be ‘maybe I got it wrong’.

“I would never put a bad performance on a player, or blame a player. As long as they’re giving 100 per cent, I will take the slack for the team, and that’s the way I want to go about it.

“I always want to be the one to take all the stick or whatever comes our way, and then obviously if things are going well, then I’ll take the plaudits with it and share it with the players. Mainly, I want my players to always be at ease, and to only worry about getting on the pitch and getting the three points.

“I don’t want them thinking their manager’s against them or throwing them under the bus. I think that’s the worst thing a manager can do.”

He only turned 35 himself last week but the footballing block is one he has negotiated his way around more than enough times by now to know that bright ideas and objectives are only one piece in the puzzle. Before then-Premier League Fulham broke Leyton Orient’s 25-year club transfer record to sign the coveted teenage prospect in 2006, Gaby had served his apprenticeship in the unforgiving land of fourth-tier football.

A sense of humour and liking for the lighter side of life shone through during his playing days, and undoubtedly still do, though sustaining a 17-year career, almost all of which was in the Football League, does not happen by accident. Three of the four promotions he won (with Orient, Stoke City and two with Peterborough) were automatic, and while Spalding have only finished as high as 13th in recent years, he isn’t at all hesitant about how high to set the bar for his side in the newly-formed Northern Premier League – Midlands next season.

“I think a lot of people probably didn’t hear about Spalding until I came in and started making a bit of noise about it, but it’s not just for publicity or for people to think ‘they’ve got a few big names down there now’. We have a vision, and the vision is to improve on the previous seasons.

“I’ve looked at the last few seasons, and it seemed when I first walked in, it had a culture of just being okay and surviving. That’s sort of the vibe I got, and I changed that mentality straight away; I said ‘I’m going into every game to win’.

“We need to win and we’re going into every game to impose our game on the opposition and make them worry about us, instead of worrying about ‘oh, this team’s got this player’. I don’t want that to be the case any more, I want teams to fear us and for us to be the team that everyone’s talking about.

“We’ve got a good board that’s come in, and they’re backing me to do it my way. I think if you don’t aim high then you don’t succeed, and I’ve always aimed high in my career, so I would be looking at the play-offs, and I would personally be disappointed if we didn’t get there.

“Then if we push on once we’re in there, anything can happen.”

United Counties League Premier champions in 2013/14, the club’s most recent promotion challenge came four years ago under Dave Frecklington and latterly Chris Rawlinson, who stepped up from assistant when Frecklington took the Gainsborough Trinity job that February. It was play-off final heartbreak against Witton Albion in that year’s Evo-Stik South and the Lincolnshire side have not been close again since.

League positions can be looked at from afar, though it is only once you get beneath the surface at close quarters that you really start to understand a club and their current standing. Although the real, sustained cut and thrust of a full season is still to come, what does Gaby know now about management that he didn’t before taking the job?

“Oh, there’s a lot! There’s a lot about non-league especially.

“The football side, I can talk to anyone all day long, because I know football, I know how it works, the ins and outs of it from being a professional footballer for so long. It’s more the man-management side of things.

“Non-league side is just realising that people have a work life as well, so you’ve got to manage that, and people may not be as available as professionals, where you have to be professional at every single moment. If you work, you just have to try and make the training sessions, so it’s a completely different mindset at times.

“Players are as professional as they can be. Obviously, the budgets aren’t the same as playing in the League, so you have to manage that, and just characters as well; you have to know who can take getting stick and who can’t.

“That’s a difference as well I’ve had to adapt to, because I’m coming from a very authoritative position, so I have to realise that there may not be players as mentally strong as me, that may need to be managed in a different way. You just end up learning that as you go along.”

The former Northampton Town and Gillingham man played for Dagenham & Redbridge last January in a 2-0 National League win over Notts County; before the year was over, in the midst of a pandemic, he was a manager. He considers whether leading as a number one is where the biggest buzz lies for him now, or if he could just as happily be a coach or assistant somewhere in the future.

“I think now being in the hotseat, I don’t think I could be the assistant now, long-term. I’ve done things my way and I’ve persuaded players to sign who people wouldn’t have thought would drop down to these levels.

“I think I’ve shown the ingredients – even though I’ve not had the games yet to stamp my record – of being a good manager, being able to persuade players to come and play for me, and to have a team that believe in my vision. I’ve not really fell out with anyone.

“I’ve had to be a bit ruthless and get rid of certain players that maybe didn’t fit what I’m trying to do, but it doesn’t mean they’re bad players. If we go on a bad run, it’s my neck on the line, so I’ve got to do things exactly my way; I need to be judged on my team, and not what previous managers have brought in or done.

“If they’ve brought players who are good enough for me, then they play for me. I’ll always be fair, but I’ll always pick players who suit my style.

“The authority side, it’s appealing, because it’s a challenge, and I like a challenge. If I’m being judged on a challenge, then I want the challenge to be done my way.”

Featuring in five separate seasons in the Championship, the north Londoner’s international career with his native DR Congo encompassed three Africa Cup of Nations tournaments. The Leopards were third-place finishers in 2015 under Florent Ibengé, with Gaby captaining the side in the opening game of their 2017 run to the quarter-final.

Among his teammates in South Africa in the 2013 edition was Lomana LuaLua, and the ex-Portsmouth star was brought in by Gaby as an attacking coach once he took the reins at Spalding. He confirms that the former Newcastle United man is currently set to remain involved next season.

“He was the first person I called, because he actually lives in Peterborough. I gave him a call, because Spalding’s only about half an hour from Peterborough, to see if he fancied it.

“He’d contacted me about getting involved in coaching, and knowing my ties around the Peterborough area, he wanted to get involved around there, so when I got the job, it was perfect. I know my strikers and everyone would know who he is, so it opens their mind up to ‘if this is an ex-Premier League player who’s teaching me, you take everything he says on board, because he’s been there and done it.’”

Speaking of forward players with ties to Tyneside, it brings us to the direct individual opponent that most sticks in the mind from Gaby’s career.

“I’ve always been a physical player so I’ve always enjoyed that side of the game, and when I played Andy Carroll, that was the hardest anyone’s ever pushed me at that level to compete against. Every time we played each other, one of us has shed blood!

“We both seemed to enjoy it and embraced it, we gave each other verbals, and on the pitch, it was definitely something worth watching.”

The gift of the gab (no pun intended) can take you a long way. Ian Wright’s potent mix of supreme striking talent and raw, characterful relatability struck a chord with so many aspiring footballers in the 90s, including Gaby’s younger brother, former Seattle Sounders star Steve Zakuani.

A season ticket holder at Highbury, Gaby’s own inspiration came from another Arsenal icon, as he will discuss in the Q&A section that concludes this feature. Growing up in Tottenham, professional football was there as something visible to reach for, for countless youngsters, and music carries the same significance for so many in similar areas of the capital.

Skepta and Jme are two local names by now synonymous with the grime scene and the wider recognition that ultimately came its way. From Bow, meanwhile, hailed Dizzee Rascal, who struck up a friendship with Gaby when the two were in the early stages of their respective career paths. As many will know by now, Gaby even appeared in the video for his 2007 track ‘Flex’, along with magician Dynamo and The Streets’ Mike Skinner, no less.

“The connection with us is from when I joined Leyton Orient,” Gaby explains. “Leyton is basically side by side with Bow, and he was obviously making a lot of noise in the music industry, and at the time, a lot of teams were coming down to Orient to look at me, so we were both making a buzz.”

“We ended up one time having an interview with the same reporter, around the area at the same time, and from there, we just clicked and became friends.”

When the pressure has landed at his feet in the form of initiation songs in his career, however, Gaby has tended to wind it all back a stage further!

“Yeah, I ended up doing it a lot late in my career because I was becoming a bit of a journeyman! I always went for the safe option, which was ‘Re-Rewind’ (The Crowd Say Bo Selecta), (Artful Dodger featuring) Craig David.”

Any new arrivals at Spalding this coming season can look forward to a similar scenario coming their way.

“That’s still to come but I’ve implemented that already, because we’ve got players like Gregg Smith who are gonna be the ones to stand up on a chair and sing!”

In the blink of an eye, the Championship centre-back in his mid-20s is now a manager. A decade ago, the Twitter world we have come to know was comparatively serene, but there was certainly the feeling of something new and interesting gathering pace.

For the first time, footballers had a direct platform to share their unmediated thoughts with their public – or to get creative, in Gaby’s case. With the phrase ‘every day I’m shufflin” doing the rounds at the time (courtesy of LMFAO’s ‘Party Rock Anthem’), Gaby started his own hashtag, #EveryDayImTacklin, selling t-shirts and even starting an app from it.

So, did the hashtag naturally reach its conclusion as that song (and indeed LMFAO) began to slide out of view?

“That song was popular, so it was a bit of a buzz at the time, and I made the t-shirts, I had a lot of charity projects with Tackle Africa, which went in line with that. So it was sort of a hype at the time, and then I changed it, and it became even worse probably, because I did the whole #TwoFootedLunge thing!

“So I went along with that for a while, then I think I just matured a bit, where I became a bit too responsible. I was captain of football clubs, so if I’m sort of promoting dirty play, it didn’t go in line with it!

“A lot of people took it too literal and thought that was the sort of player I was.”

Ten years on, what would be a worthy replacement for the man affectionately known as #TheWall? #EveryDayImOnThePhone? #EveryDayImManagin?

“Yeah, I don’t know, #EveryDayImManagin’s not bad, to be fair! I’ve always wanted to work for whatever I do and give it 100 per cent.

“I enjoy maybe making myself seem a bit rougher than I am, because I want to win the mental side of it as well as the physical side on the pitch.”

Each manager in The Bosses’ Lounge also takes on a unique Q&A, and you can read Gaby’s here in part two

Interview/article by @chris_brookes

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