Photo: Dave Howarth/EMPICS Sport

A young gaffer he might still be, but Darren Byfield is also a rejuvenated manager after his time at Walsall Wood last season. The man whose swing of the left boot won Walsall promotion at the Millennium Stadium once upon a time is now moving up two divisions himself, as he takes over at Alvechurch.

‘I don’t know anything but football; I left school and played football all my life and I want to stay in the game. Some want to become coaches – I wanted to manage.’ Those were the sentiments Darren Byfield expressed on here in late-2017, in his second season of his first managerial job, at Redditch United in the Evo-Stik League South Premier.

A former Premier League youngster with Aston Villa, he later became one of the second tier’s leading marksmen at Rotherham United, as well as tasting international football with Jamaica during a two-decade playing career. To hear someone with his experience brimming with desire to guide the next generation was heartening, and though he would depart Redditch at the end of that calendar year, the official statement commended him on his ‘tremendous hard work and commitment.’

That said, there had been friction and strain with the powers that be during his tenure, and he would encounter similar at Stratford Town, feeling it best to resign in early-September 2018 after three months at the helm. Walsall Wood were Midland League Division One champions in 2017/18 under his former Walsall teammate Gary Birch, and it was there that he would find the foundations he was looking for.

Taking over at the start of last October, he led the team to 2nd place in the Premier Division, with only goal difference (of eight) ultimately separating The Wood from champions Ilkeston Town. It paved the way for an opportunity two leagues higher to arrive last week, with Alvechurch, the Evo-Stik League South Premier Division Central play-off runners-up, coming calling.

Through the rough and the smooth of his first three years as a number one, the former Sunderland forward says the hunger for self-improvement and to better those he works with has not wavered.

“It’s what I do, it’s what I love, and if I failed at Redditch, I’d still go out there to improve myself. Anyone that knows, we were punching well above the playing budget that we had, so I really did well there.

“I don’t really want to speak about people there or people at Stratford, because we’re moving forward now, but I knew what job I’d done there. I was always told ‘choose the chairman, not the club.’

“I went into non-league and I was like ‘okay, I’m starting to see this already.’ I go to Stratford and the same thing, then I get Justin (Hodgin) at Walsall Wood and I was delighted with that, so that was brilliant and I’ve enjoyed my time there, I really have.”

With the support network he craved, the team spirit and Darren’s rapport with the players was memorably in evidence as he made a headline or two for scheduling a surprise friendly the day after their Christmas party in Dublin. Goalkeeper Lloyd Ransome, who has just joined him at Alvechurch, sent a Winston Churchill-inspired video response, in which he urged: ‘Revise your decision, Darren! Revise it gently, my son.’

Seeing the results come together during the season matters much, but when you add in the backdrop of kindred spirits dotted around the club, it makes for quite the winning formula, as Darren found.

“As well as Justin you’ve got George (Evangelou), a director there, who I had an unbelievable relationship with; top guy, really nice guy. Good people behind the scenes, and the players, I keep saying, the best players I’ve had.

“I wish them all the best next season and they’ve appointed a top guy in Mark Swann, who was there before.”

Off the back of a season which saw The Wood win 24 of their 38 league games, registering the best defensive record in the division by 12 goals, all intentions for Darren were to set about plotting a title win for 2019/20.

“Obviously the first thought (when Alvechurch approached) was that I was enjoying it at Walsall Wood; it was my first managerial job where I was allowed to manage. I had a very, very good chairman, who was backing me, and I had a really good relationship with him.

“So my first thought was we’d missed out on promotion by goal difference, and it was all geared for next season to win that league and have a good FA Vase run. Then the opportunity to jump two leagues came, and when I speak about chairmen, I’ve seen (Alvechurch’s) Richard Thorndike at a lot of games, spoken to him and he’s just come across as such a good guy.

“You speak to anyone and no one has a bad word to say about him. So it was always going to excite a lot of people and it shows by the people that went for the job.”

Having swapped Oak Park for Lye Meadow, the incoming Church chief has been swiftly on to shaping his squad. Along with securing some of Alvechurch’s team from last season, he has already brought some of his Walsall Wood players with him.

Winger John Atherton, the aforementioned Lloyd Ransome, defender Kyle Rowley and forward Javia Roberts have signed up, though Darren points out that he is loathe to take too many to his new club, out of respect for The Wood. The King of Cardiff in May 2001 as he swept home the extra-time winner for Walsall against Reading in a memorable Division Two play-off final, he also scored goals for Sunderland, Rotherham, Gillingham and Bristol City in the Championship/Division One.

Whether he was on target or not, what was always a sure bet was that the opposing backline would be stretched and hassled. Only when he was firmly in the veteran stages did he turn out in non-league, representing the likes of AFC Telford United and Tamworth.

Working with players several leagues down from where he made his name, the obvious assumption is that it would frustrate at times, managing players not especially accustomed to the standards he was previously surrounded by. In that aforementioned 2017 interview, he said he believed that ability levels in non-league are not all that different to those in Leagues 1 and 2, but the mentality and persistence is where the contrast comes.

Darren also spoke at the time of learning to put himself in his players’ place a lot more, and trying to understand their perspective and what had led them to make a particular decision, in games or otherwise. In the near-two years since, how does he feel he has changed or refined his approach?

“I look at how I was at Redditch, and that’s only two or three years ago, and I cringe. My intentions weren’t bad, but sometimes, it’s too much for certain players.

“I think the biggest thing that’s happened for me is my man-management skills and putting yourself in that position. Getting that team spirit, on the pitch, off the pitch, players that can manage the team, so you’re not the only voice.

“At Alvechurch, we have a massive job on our hands after what Ian Long’s just done. Unbelievable what he’s done, so, looking forward to it.”

Photo: Redditch United

Although still a young manager at 42, today’s up-and-coming players are emerging at a time – in society and football – that is markedly different from what he experienced as a bright local talent at Aston Villa.  A player-coach at Solihull Moors under Marcus Bignot, as well as taking Redditch United’s academy while managing the first team, he describes how he has found ‘bridging the gap’ in that sense.

“It comes down to man-management again, and some players have ambitions to be professional footballers, and some don’t. I think if you deliver it in the right way, most times you’ll get the right reaction.

“Some don’t want to be better; they’re just happy at the level they’re at. You can’t change everyone’s way of thinking.

“So it might be ‘I know you don’t want to be a professional footballer, but can you help Thomas or Mark be better?’ It’s just working hard to understand their mentality and delivering the message in the right way.

“If you’re shouting and bawling at them, it might work for some, but not everyone.”

He also feels the depth of his non-league knowledge base has improved tenfold in recent years.

“The biggest thing is I now know non-league, and recruitment is massive. I know a lot of players now and I get a lot of calls and I make a lot of calls, so I’m looking at a whole host of players.

“I have to be patient, I can’t bring everyone in, and they need to be the right type.”

In any organisation, the standards come from those in charge. Having made his professional debut under Brian Little, Mick McCarthy and Ronnie Moore were just a couple of the managers Darren played his football under during his career.

The natural way for any player moving into management is to try and apply the best traits and characteristics of those they worked under, but inspiration is there to be found in various forms and in countless walks of life. So where does Darren look to for additional imagination fuel from one week to the next?

“I’ve been lucky because I’ve been single for six or seven years now. Now, that’s not advertising myself at all!

“But what I mean is, I can go and do what I want to do. Spending my time going to games, watching YouTube, Netflix, Amazon; watching anything and everything to be better.

“It’s funny because, there’s people I used to watch, and I’d think ‘that was good,’ but then you find yourself trying to be that person. You find yourself getting carried away and caught up by it, so it’s just about finding what you can take from it to add to your own knowledge of the game.

“You start trying to be like Pep Guardiola and you can find yourself 4-0 down after 25 minutes! So I just look for what I can do to improve.

“I’m a geek when it comes to football.”

In a game where many will say there are precious few true friends, what has always been apparent with Darren is that a bond exists with certain ex-teammates and fellow figures in the sport. Whether it is Michael Johnson (who recently steered Guyana to their first CONCACAF Gold Cup), ex-Tranmere Rovers man Reuben Hazell (Darren’s best friend and former teammate/assistant), one-time Premier League marksman Jason Roberts (now director of development at CONCACAF), or whoever else, the sense of willing each other to thrive in their respective endeavours has consistently shone through.

He confirms just how much it enthuses and pushes him on.

“Massive. Unbelievably so, and I’m glad you’ve brought that up, because I look at people like Darren Moore, Jason Roberts, Michael Johnson, Kevin Betsy – Reuben (Hazell)’s not following his football at the moment but he’s doing massively well with his Lazy Lunch business – it inspires the hell out of me.

“It inspires me because what I want to do is be better, and be better, and I look at what they’re doing and I’m like ‘I’ve got to keep working,’ so for me, it’s massive, it really is.”

Interview/article by @chris_brookes

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