Bristol Rovers academy manager, as well as a pundit on BT Sport’s National League coverage, Chris Hargreaves is one of the countless many to be affected by the current football season shutdown. It’s an unwelcome (and stupendously surreal) break from the game that has shaped so much of the well-remembered former midfield man’s life, though he decided some time ago he wouldn’t be defined by or wholly reliant on the sport.
Torquay United skipper as the Gulls sealed a return to the Football League at Wembley against Cambridge United in 2009, it was he who set them on their way in sweetly-struck fashion. It is also almost five years since the end of the managerial spell at the club that would ultimately cut him deeply, but now he tells without a shred of hesitation how he wants his next shot at life as a number one.
In this in-depth conversation, there’s a load more from his 21-year playing adventures – from local club Grimsby Town, to upsetting the apple cart with Brentford under a young manager named Martin Allen. “They came in with their ghetto blasters like they owned the place,” commentator Ian Darke told the Sky Sports viewers as the Bees arrived at Sheffield Wednesday for their 2005 League One play-off semi.
The ex-Northampton Town and Plymouth Argyle man went through the mill (and back round again) to get out there in the action in those days, but if you can’t spend most of the week hung upside down to be fit for the next game, can you really call yourself committed?!
We’ve been taken away from normal circumstances at the moment, but how have you been finding the balance and enjoying your work at Bristol Rovers and for BT Sport in recent times?
Yeah, well of course I enjoy it. Anyone who’s in football should enjoy it, we’re fortunate people to be in the game. Obviously it’s tough at times, with the ups and downs of the game and the uncertainty, but having taken over with Graham Coughlan last season – when Darrell (Clarke) unfortunately got the sack, we took over – we were five points adrift and kept the club up, which was a great achievement. So in the summer, there were a few conversations, and I think Graham felt that we were sort of too similar, so it transpired that I took the job of academy manager. That was a big change, in the fact that I’d gone from a first-team changing room and a dugout, to essentially running an academy, heavily admin-based, which is it nowadays. The one bonus was I was able to carry on doing BT Sport, which I love.
I always associate you first and foremost with what you did in the Football League, but you were promoted from non-league twice in the latter part of your career. How strong is that sense of connection to non-league for you?
Oh, huge. I was gonna finish playing at 35/36, and just so happened to bump into Paul Buckle and have a chat with him about having an adventure down at Torquay. I was thinking about retiring because I had a soccer school in Northampton, and we had a nice sort of life there, good group of friends etc. but we weighed it up and said we’d go for it. It was an opportunity to move to Exeter, as it was, great to bring the children up there, and it sounds odd but I was able to relax when I played. I didn’t feel the pressure playing for the clubs I played for, because I was a bit older; it was a sort of bonus couple of years really. We lost in the play-offs twice, got to Wembley in the FA Trophy and got promoted twice, so in that three-and-a-half years with Torquay and Oxford, it was incredible really to have that fortune. I started working for Setanta, who were then covering the league, and it was just a great opportunity to promote the league and the effort that goes into players’ professionalism, because it’s looked on a lot of time as Sunday league, not non-league, but it couldn’t be further from it. You get really, really professional set-ups, you get towns that are desperate to get back in the Football League, and the whole communities are based around that football club. It’s also a huge springboard for any number of players from Premier League, Championship, League One, League Two to relaunch their careers, or get some real-life football experience.
— Oxford United FC (at 🏠) (@OUFCOfficial) May 16, 2014
I would restructure it as well and say more go up and more go down, because if you don’t do that in this country, clubs are lost forever. The Halifaxes of this world, the Darlingtons, and I’ve experienced it and I know how much pain it is. Like the Championship, it’s the hardest league to get out of, so I think perceptions are changing, and I think the coverage that BT have given it has helped. It’s brilliant for those players playing in it, because you get more publicity than you would in League One or Two sometimes. The FA and the Premier League need to step in, because a lot of players are given a chance in the National League. For example, I persuaded (Maidenhead United boss) Alan Devonshire to take Alfie Kilgour on loan; he was one of my Under-21s. He was the best player and he got that experience playing for Al in a tough league, came back, and now he’s a regular in League One. They need to recognise that, the FA and the Prem, because they’ve got the money, and we want clubs to survive. You’ve got local businessman trying their best with limited money to try and keep clubs afloat, and it’s tough.
Various clubs with significance to you, but is there a most complete time in your playing career that stands out to you, for overall happiness?
Well I was very honoured to play for all the clubs, and to captain some of them. I’d have liked to have stayed at Brentford, but the travelling was killing me; obviously Richmond and surrounding areas is expensive, so I was travelling from Northampton. I suppose had I not have had to do that driving every day; sometimes four or five-hour commute, it sort of wrecked my body, which was a deciding factor. When we narrowly missed out on getting to the Championship, I just said to Martin (Allen) ‘I can’t do it any more.’ It’s one of those where you half want to get back because you’ve got a young family, you can’t afford to stay over, so it sort of forced the move. That would have been nice, to stay there and finish the job. I also had a really good time at Northampton and connection with the fans, as I have at all the clubs I’ve been at. Some clubs it goes better for you, but I think if you show the fans that you’re willing to put a shift in, then you immediately get a bit of a connection with them. I think that’s worked for me at the clubs I’ve had.
That season at Brentford (2004/05), was it an ‘us against the world’ mentality under Martin Allen, and why do you think it worked? Obviously it must have done for you, because you played with a torn calf for him against Hartlepool.
Oh God, it was torn as well. I was having hyperbaric treatment. I’ve done a bit of work with the MS Centre in Exeter, they’ve got a hyperbaric chamber, so it helps a lot of people with MS. it was hilarious really, because I’m going down in this chamber with people that are really suffering, and I’m moaning about my torn calf. They were all in stitches saying ‘come on, get a grip. What a pampered footballer.’ It was just to try and get fit for the games, but that was what you did for Martin, he had that sort of motivational hold over you. We came very close, I think maybe should have done something different against Wednesday in the play-offs. I wasn’t right for that one, I’d had a double hernia / groin repair about three or four weeks before, so I was absolutely racing to get back, and I was absolutely in agony in that week leading up to that game. I’d had jabs, I’d taken painkillers, I could hardly move, it was like I was the Tin Man running.
The season was brilliant, though. To be honest, he recruited so well. We had some really good players; John Salako, Deon Burton, Jay Tabb, Sam Sodje, Stephen Hunt. He had lads that went on and furthered their careers, and then two old timers in midfield – me and Stewie Talbot! It was just a brilliant time and he was great at getting the PR machine going, whether it be jumping in the local river and getting the lads to take the picture of it, all sorts of different things. We were sponsored by an airline at the time and because we’d done well in the FA Cup, we went to Abu Dhabi at Christmas, and he gave it the shout at the airport, he said ‘right lads, staff are in cattle class, you boys are in first class, that’s the way we do it, it’s all about you.’ Obviously had a good break there, just about to get on the flight back thinking ‘oh brilliant, first class again,’ and he said ‘no, no, staff are in there, you’ve got to know who’s boss.’ Just that sort of message, he was very good at.
We had it at Grimsby when I was a real young lad. You play for Grimsby, you’re the back of beyond, you can’t get anywhere, so most people have to live there and it creates that camaraderie. It’s hilarious to think back that as a first team, we were all piling on the mini-bus, putting all the nets in there to take to a local park somewhere and put onto goals. These are all first-team players – Garry Birtles, Keith Alexander – travelling round Grimsby to try and find a pitch, and we got two promotions, two seasons running.
— Chris Hargreaves (@CHargreaves1) December 1, 2017
You had players in that Brentford team like Deon Burton and Marcus Gayle who’d been to a World Cup, John Salako who played for England, the likes of yourself and Stewart Talbot with the careers and promotions you’d had. Did everyone completely buy into Martin’s approach that year, or were there some who were unsure of it?
No, of course, and any manager would say the same, every player’s not gonna love you. I went to an LMA masterclass with Gareth Southgate and Steve Holland the other day, and Gareth Southgate said the same, because if you’re not in the team, you’re not gonna necessarily dislike your manager, but you’re not gonna be getting on like a house on fire. Of course there were players who would not buy into it as much as others, but the proof’s in the pudding, and for an unfancied club, we got very close to getting to the Championship. That’s what Martin’s like, he can be a Marmite character, but you don’t stay in the game for as long as he has, as a player and a manager, without knowing something, or being capable of motivating or creating teams. Any manager in the world, whether you’re Martin Allen or Pep Guardiola, not all the players will like you all of the time.
We talk about high points but was there a more difficult spell in your career that stands out?
Oh yeah, so many. Loads of people will say the same, and I only look back with what I didn’t do, not what I did do, and that’s the truth. I’m annoyed at perhaps decisions I made when I was younger, too rash, too impetuous. It’s not that I was the first off the training ground, I probably wasn’t, I was probably the last off still, but my era wasn’t that of today’s nurturing and coaches. It was train, get down the pub, get down the pub again, and it was day after day. So I look back and think that could have been different, and also, I went through a period where I had a horrendous back problem for about two years. I couldn’t sit on the sofa at home, I was always lay on the floor or bloody hanging upside down like a bat on these inversion racks! Everything to try and play on a Saturday, having injections, so there’s all of the injury side where you’re fighting to stay fit, because you need to earn the appearance money and the bonuses.
Then there was relegation, which was horrendous. I’ve been through it a couple of times and it’s tough. I stood on the steps of Wembley as a player and held the cup aloft as a Torquay player, then the season I took over, we were five or six points adrift, and a couple of weeks into it I was gonna resign, because I knew it wasn’t right. The owner at the time said ‘I’m really sorry Chris, but I’m pulling the money out, my family don’t wanna do it any more,’ and it was a hammer blow to me personally. No training ground, no money; I think with one of them you’ve got half a chance. Even though we won some of the last games, it wasn’t enough, and that was a massive blow to me. I’d worked hard to become hopefully a very good coach, as first-team coach at Bournemouth, we’d been promoted to the Championship, and I spoke to Eddie (Howe) and Jase (Tindall) about taking it, and they were very sort of cautious. I just wanted to be my own man and do it.
— AFC Bournemouth (@afcbournemouth) January 6, 2014
I went to the Northampton interview but they were taking their time and not giving an answer, so I went to Torquay, and it was wrong club, wrong time, for everybody, I think. So that hurt, I can honestly tell you it hurt bad, and for any coach or manager in the game, it takes a long time to recover, because it’s tough to get the jobs. You get that sort of, not that fear, but it hurts, and that’s why I was pleased to banish those demons when we stayed up last year (at Bristol Rovers).
You’ve made a huge amount of headway as a coach, but what are your feelings on managing again? Some unique circumstances but did the Torquay experience put you off wanting to go back into it in the end?
No, I’ve been close a couple of times in the last year to taking a job. I’m ready, I want to go into a place where we’re all together as a club – fans, owner, board – we’re all fighting to go in the same direction, we want to play an attractive brand of football, and also have a Plan B for whatever league we’re in. I’m absolutely committed to doing it and being a success, because I think I’ve got the tools to do it. It’s just getting that opportunity and making sure that you do your due diligence as well and not jumping at jobs because you feel you have to. I think once you get that club where you’re all together, you can be really formidable, so that’s the plan.
Adapting to life after playing, how did you find it initially, and how have you found it since?
Well, it’s tough, there’s no doubt about it. Let’s not mess about, you do earn above-average money no matter what level you play at, but more often than not, the family are having to move with you, you’re renting in a lot of circumstances, it’s short-term contracts, so you don’t accrue a massive amount of money. So at the end of your career, you can’t nip down the golf course and say ‘right, that’s it, I’m retired,’ you’ve got to earn. For most players, there’s a hundred-foot brick wall in front of you and you’ve got to somehow get over it. I was coaching and I went into the media, because that’s what I wanted to do, to do the punditry and to write, which I still do, but ultimately, you’ve got to earn money.
— Chris Hargreaves (@CHargreaves1) November 23, 2019
I stepped out of the football comfort zone when the Torquay thing happened and I was put on gardening leave, because I went in one day and they said they were sacking the assistant manager, the goalkeeping coach and dropping the academy, and I was taking a 25 percent pay cut, so I phoned the LMA and they said ‘leave the building,’ but essentially, I was walking away from a job. I thought then ‘right, I need to do something with my life where I’m not relying on football.’ Very difficult to do if, like me, you left school at 17, no degree-level education, but what I did was because I knew a few people in the industry, I shadowed healthcare professionals, went to London to meet a few people in the NHS, and I ended up nailing a job which was minimum degree-level entry as a medical sales rep. I didn’t tell anyone, I was still scouting for Rovers, still doing BT Sport, but I was earning money doing that as a job, because I had to provide for my family. If you can prove you can present, prove you know a subject matter, and be confident in front of people – you’re talking about surgeons, doctors, nurses – then I was proud that I managed to do that, because I proved to myself that I could earn money in the ‘real world’. I left after a year because Darrell Clarke at Rovers asked me to do the 21s and I wanted to get back into football because I love it, but it’s a lesson to anybody that you can do it. I know that a lot of people really struggle when they come to the end of their careers, but if you put your mind to something, you can achieve a lot.
Of the very many, who are some of the standout characters from your time in the game who come to mind? Whether it’s the ones you could count on to brighten up a dressing room, the ones who would maybe take things a step (or ten) further with stuff!
There’s so many. When Garry Birtles signed for Grimsby, he was a big character, and there were lots of them there. At Hull, obviously Dean Windass, well he was like Gazza, he was crazy, but funny and committed and a really good player. Again, divided opinion, but did the business on the pitch. Steve Moran at Hull as well, who’d been at Southampton. I think a changing room is that sort of special area before a game where you’re free and you can relax and have a laugh. I know it sounds crazy and you think it’s a real pressurised area, but I was relieved when I got to that ground on a Saturday morning. With the family, it’s crazy on a Saturday morning with three children running around, but once you get in that changing room, you can have a bit of a laugh with the lads. At Torquay, we had a camaraderie there where it was a bit of a ‘Crazy Gang’ mentality. When we signed Tim Sills, he came in with these Gola trainers…and I just had to set fire to them straight away! So Sillsy’s running back to the changing room because he can see the smoke and he senses something, but I had to do it, and the crazy thing was they wouldn’t burn. They were smoking and smouldering and he managed to dampen them down – he wore them all season after that! It was the same at Grimsby where we used to share the team bath – imagine that now – we used to put a full bottle of Fairy liquid in and it was just bubbles filling the whole changing room. Then on someone’s birthday, all their stuff would be up on the floodlights, so you’d be running starkers to try and get your gear. Unbelievable times really. Paul McGregor at Plymouth, wow, tattoo on his arm saying ‘music saves’. I lost his cat on the top of a roof once. I looked after his house and he said ‘whatever you do, don’t let the cat on the roof.’ I knew I had to open that door! Next thing, the cat’s shot onto the roof of this town house, and me and my wife were up there, just having a drink, and it’s jumped about five foot onto the next roof. We were there for about three hours with a tin of tuna trying to coax it back in. In the end, it jumped back over and I nearly strangled it trying to get it through the door! You have all these football people that you have massive friendships with, and then you don’t see them for years on end, and that’s the game. When you meet up, it’s like you were back then.
Either earlier in your career, or as we speak now, what are some of the other interests/endeavours you’ve had alongside football?
I love working for Rovers. It’s a brilliant club, brilliant people, it’s got a great mentality about it; working-class people, hard-working players. We wanna be successful there and I wanna work as hard as I can for that club, in whatever capacity, but everyone knows I do want to manage eventually. I want to leave the academy in a good place and I want to manage, but for a load of different reasons, I also renovate houses. I’m sometimes racing to do BT Sport at Barrow or somewhere, and then on a Sunday I’ll get back and I’ll be sanding floors and learning all this sort of trade so that I’ll be able to eventually perhaps build my own house, but in the meantime, it’s a way of making money to provide for your family.
Finally, you mentioned the benefit of hindsight with regard to some of the decisions you made as a player, What advice would you give to Chris Hargreaves at 19/20, or anyone in that period of their life or career today?
I’d say give it absolutely everything, on and off the pitch, to give yourself the best possible chance, and don’t be rash. There’s a book called Legacy and it talks about going with your gut, and I think yeah, it’s good advice, but sometimes a bit dangerous. I think you’ve got to be consistent – your training, your nutrition, your circle of friends – to give yourself the best possible chance, and it’s about that. You’re not chasing an extra bit of money, you’re chasing achievement. I’d say to any player starting out, don’t think about the dollars straight away, and the watches and the cars. Think about when you’ll look back, ‘how many games did I play? Did I get promoted? Did I captain a club?’ Now, we’re so obsessed in society with instant fame and fortune, and it makes it so unrealistic to so many people, because it’s not the norm, is it? So I think it’s about setting yourself little targets to get to, and then you’ll be able to look back and think ‘fair play, I did that.’
Interview by @chris_brookes