If we were to take a vote on who was the best manager across the top eight levels of English League football this season, who would be on the shortlist? Pep Guardiola, perhaps, who has dropped only two points? Jose Mourinho, with the same points tally but who spent marginally less over the summer- seventy one million less, in truth, although whether that can be classed as a disadvantage when he still burned through almost one hundred and fifty million pounds, who knows? Or we could look lower. Perhaps at Paul Hurst at Shrewsbury Town who has drawn two matches, or at Glenn Driver at Leiston who has drawn three.
Guardiola would probably be the logical answer. Yet he and Mourinho are joined in the ‘only dropped two points club’ by only one manager – a manager who, until Tuesday night when Grays Athletic grabbed a seventy-ninth-minute equaliser, was the proud holder of a one hundred per cent league record. That manager is also unique in that he’s now been managing the same club for eight years- eight years that have seen one promotion, two relegations, four play-off campaigns and- last weekend- an FA Cup tie in front of two and a half thousand people. It’s certainly never boring on Bridge Avenue.
So, earlier this week we caught up with Jimmy McFarlane of AFC Hornchurch, to ask how it felt to be as good as Pep Guardiola!
Well I expect he’s much happier than me as I don’t get his wages! But it’s going well. We were almost good enough last year, but not quite, so we sat down in the summer to work out what we were lacking. We didn’t concede many goals- our keeper, Sam Mott, is for me the best in the league- but we felt that we’d relied far too much on one person knocking them in at the other end. We needed to spread the scoring burden throughout the team. So with that in mind we brought in Bradley Warner, Theo Fairweather-Johnson, balanced our squad to keep those who knew where the net was, and the result has been better than expected.
So far this season you’ve scored twenty nine goals, and ten different players have been on the scoresheet. So that was exactly what you were hoping for?
Absolutely. Our last league match, for example, was at Norwich United. We kept a clean sheet, scored two goals, and they both came from defenders- Kenzer Lee and Nathan Cooper. Indeed, they were the second goals of the season for both of them. This year, as you said, the goals are coming from all areas, so we don’t have to rely on one striker to constantly put the ball away.
Are you happy with your squad, then? You did seem to have a very good summer in terms of retention and recruitment.
Very happy. But it isn’t difficult to retain players here. It’s such a nice club that once people are here they only tend to leave if their circumstances change or they don’t fit into my plans. We look after them well, so they feel part of what we’re doing. The difficulty was that we were looking for extra goalscorers and the competition was fierce because every other club was doing the same, but once we get people, they stay.
You lost for the only time this season on Saturday, in the FA Cup at Hereford FC. They are a club climbing back up the pyramid and attracting great support. What was it like for your players to turn out in front of two and a half thousand fans?
It was fantastic, but I think the occasion got to some of them. We are a very young side- our back four, for example, averages out at around 22- and I think that for the first fifteen or twenty minutes some of the team were overawed. And the noise- when they scored it was like watching Match of the Day! But Hereford are a club playing vastly below their level. I’m disappointed about the result, but it was a brilliant experience for young lads just starting out on their career in the Non-League game.
How did they react to the result? They can’t be used to losing.
They were a bit subdued on the coach on the way home, but not for long. We talked about the match straight after it had finished, cleared the air about what went right and wrong, and we put it to bed. We knew we had a massive game against Grays Athletic on Tuesday night, and our ambition is entirely around promotion. They’re a great bunch of lads and I’m confident that they’ll bounce straight back.
You were missing three players against Hereford- Alex Bentley, Tobi Joseph and George Purcell. Do you think that, had they been available, the result might have been different?
Perhaps. We particularly missed Tobi and George because we had so many chances in the first half that we didn’t take. The second half we made an error to go one-nil down, and then after that we never really looked like getting back in the game.
Jimmy McFarlane, AFC Hornchurch
I’m taking nothing away from Hereford, they were very, very good. Actually, they were good both on and off the field; the stewards, the staff, the supporters and the management team all treated us fabulously well. They were very courteous, and magnanimous in victory. I’d like to see them get back to where they belong- a minimum of National League, perhaps League Two. And I think they can do it.
How did you react to losing that game, then? Last year in an interview you described yourself as the ‘world’s worst loser.’ Is that still the case?
My wife has actually been looking forward to me coming home this season, and she’s not used to that! But yes, I’m a terrible loser. I have a friend who is in his eighties and still a goalkeeping coach, and he’s always told me that I let defeats have too much impact on the rest of my life, but how do you change how you feel? I am what I am. I have improved a little, but I don’t like losing at anything. I even cheat at scrabble!
You played more than a thousand games before you became a manager. Was losing just as bad then?
It was probably almost as bad. The difference is, though, that as a player you have the chance to get out onto the pitch and fix the problem. As a manager you can prepare the players, train them, but once they cross that white line you can’t fix it. I tell the players that if things are going wrong they need to take control, as sometimes if they wait until half time the game will be gone. Last year, for example, we were away to Maldon & Tiptree, they ran us ragged for forty five minutes and by half time we were three-nil down. The game was over. What could I do?
I was probably happier as a player than as a manager. If you win as a player you’ve nothing else to worry about. As a manager, even if you win you’ve got to worry about injury, illness, the next set of opponents, you’re never free of football related stress. I get on the coach after a good win and I’m sitting there writing notes about what we might need to do differently in the next game, planning, whilst the players are having a laugh and joke behind me.
Promotion, relegations, more play-off campaigns than anyone except perhaps Dulwich Hamlet- your stress levels must have gone through the roof over the last nine years! What were the best- and worst- moments?
The best moment was undoubtedly the play-off victory over Lowestoft Town in May 2012. They were the favourites to win the league all season, big budget, and they brought so much support. It went right to the wire, we won in the one hundred and sixteenth minute. The lows…relegation is awful.
Has there ever been a moment when you’ve just thought, ‘I don’t want to do this anymore?’
Every time we lose! Yes, there have been a few. Last year when we didn’t get through the play-offs I thought perhaps it might be time to step aside, and I spoke to my wife and people at the club, and they all asked me, “What would you do with your time?” And they were right. You go through highs and lows, but the first day back at pre-season I thought, “what on earth was I thinking? How could I want to be away from this?”
Football at this level is like a drug. We’ve got so many people in Non-League who are absolutely in love with the game. It’s a personal experience at this level- even as a supporter you go to the game with your friends, stand together, and afterwards you can go to the bar and talk to the bloke who scored the winning goal. If you’re involved with a club then you’re important, you’d be missed if you weren’t there. You don’t get that at professional level.
On Sunday you’ve got an FA Trophy match at Thamesmead Town. Given how focused you are on promotion, is that just a distraction?
Not at all. It’s important, every game is. We’ve got into a winning habit and we need to keep that habit. If you start losing it puts negativity into your head- victories breed confidence and, although I’m not daft enough to believe we’ll win every game, that doesn’t stop me from wanting to win all of them! Thamesmead are a different side this year from last and have strengthened. We’ll be putting our strongest side out and wanting to win.
On 15th October your Supporters Association are holding their ‘Ornchurch Festival- a beer festival with live music- at the stadium. Last year the same event paid for a stand refurbishment and new signage. How important is such an event, and indeed the supporter involvement, to the club?
Massive. I went to the festival last year- my wife probably wasn’t best pleased as I was a bit worse for wear afterwards- and it was superb. We had such a good day, and I’m sure the next festival will be just as good.
We’re only a small club when compared with perhaps your Billericay and Chelmsford City, but it doesn’t mean that our supporters work any less hard- they’re always doing something to help the club, raise funds or raise its profile. A few years ago they walked all the way to Maidstone for an away game to raise funds for charity, for example. Their work pays for things we couldn’t otherwise afford.
We all pull together here. In the summer we were all together at the ground, painting and cleaning and weeding- we can’t afford to employ people, we just have to muck in. Fans, directors, chairman, manager and fans working alongside each other. It’s a community club, we all care about each other, and it’s a pleasure to be part of it.
Can your players go to the festival?
Only if they drink tea! But everybody else should go. It’ll be a great day out.
Jimmy McFarlane is unlikely to ever be quite as successful as Pep Guardiola. His side might not even be able to keep up with their noisy neighbours at Billericay. But if they can maintain a reasonable amount of their form you’d have to think that they’ll be amongst the chief contenders for promotion- and after two seasons of play-off heartbreak, you’d have to be rather heartless to begrudge them the opportunity.
There’s another reason why you might want the Urchins to be successful, too. It’s the only way that Mrs McFarlane is likely to get any peace, and perhaps be given the chance to occasionally win a game of scrabble!
Images courtesy of AFC Hornchurch and TGS Photo