After a fairly mixed middle part of the season (that nonetheless saw Aldershot remain in the playoff places), it was time to bring the 23/24 season to a close, starting with a trip to Leyton Orient. Orient were in their first season back in League One after an absence of a few years, and they were one place behind Aldershot in the standings. Like Aldershot, they were seriously defying expectations.
We were crushed 5-2, thus ending an eight-game run of no defeats in very abrupt fashion. This latest defeat let me to decide to return to the more defensive, controlled mentality from previous seasons – we were leaking too many goals as things stood. Unfortunately we still lost away to Plymouth, who were languishing in 23rd place, only one place off the bottom.
We weren’t scoring goals, and we were conceding too many, and it felt this was the case regardless of tactics, so I thought ‘sod it’, if were to fail, we might as well fail fighting, and switched back to the attacking philosophy. We hosted Bristol Rovers, and would face Wigan at home shortly afterwards, with the games coming thick and fast.
We were hammered by Rovers, 6-3. It was a torrid, horrible display, and I seriously thought about quitting the club, there and then. I decided that if we lost to Wigan, especially if we lost badly, I would quit, for it was rapidly becoming clear to me that I could take this team no further with the players available.
A 5-0 defeat broke the camel’s back. I quit, annoyed that I could not guide Aldershot through their next steps, and irritated by the manner of their collapse. Had I failed as a manager? Two consecutive promotions and keeping the team in League One, their highest ever position, would suggest no, but recent form, with some utterly terrible performances… I had to take some responsibility for that.
So did the players. They’d been brilliant in the first part of the season, and just utterly dropped off their game in the second. Managers tend to get the flack, but the players bear responsibilities too, and I was not happy with the performances of the team. They looked spent, unable or unwilling to even try, with the second-half collapse against Wigan summing up a poor attitude.
There were early options. Stevenage(!) were looking for a new boss. I won’t deny that this was tempting. Championship Peterborough were also on the lookout. In the end though, I felt it best to wait, perhaps until the end of the season, The media asked me on my thoughts about leaving Aldershot – I was candid, acknowledging I’d grown fond of the club and that I loved the fans, who had grown to be fond of me. There was no escaping the reality though – I was not going to be able to take them any further.
I took a decision on the game to add the Scottish leagues, broadening my horizons, so to speak. Would this yield any interesting results? Time would tell. The press kept asking me questions – I’d resigned, and they were asking if I was concerned how this would be perceived. They also asked if I’d consider dropping down a league or two to manage a club. I kept all my options open, as was prudent. Aldershot replaced me with Neil Cox, formerly a player with clubs like Middlesbrough, Bolton and Watford, and manager of Scunthorpe for a few years. I’d be keeping an eye on their progress.
A crazy thing happened. Arsenal sacked their manager, Roberto Martinez. I threw my hat into the ring, fully aware I had little chance of actually getting the job, but it was an opportunity worth having a go at. Their fan association was actually vaguely intrigued… a hopeful sign?
Alas, Arsenal declined to offer an interview, stating that part of the reason was my reluctance to play attacking football… had they seen the first half of the season?!
I decided to take a chance and apply for the role of Nottingham Forest manager. The Championship club were struggling but they had a rich history and would be a unique, fresh challenge. Unlike Arsenal, they were willing to at least see me in a face-to-face interview! The media caught wind of this after I’d had the meeting (they must have been watching me), and pressed me on my interview, to which I refused to say anything. It was better to wait and see right? In another move, I applied for the newly-vacated West Ham position. Amazingly, the Premier League club agreed to talk to me!
If this were real life, moving from Aldershot to West Ham would be far easier, from a family perspective, than uprooting my loved ones and going all the way to Nottingham. However, in football travel is to be expected. The question was – who would offer me what? I checked in on my old club and with 42 games gone, they were secure in League One for another season, so that was all good. Meanwhile, Notts Forest appointed someone else… I really thought I had a shot at that one.
I proved unsuccessful with West Ham as well. Championship Crystal Palace sacked their manager and I pounced. I had nothing to lose. Their fans regarded me as a leading candidate! In an hilarious twist, I applied for the role of Chelsea manager following Frank Lampard’s resignation, though I held out very little hope of being seriously considered for that role.
In the end it wouldn’t matter. Palace offered me the job of manager, with a wage of £15,000 per week… well, it would be rude not to.
The first aim would be to prepare new tactics and training ideas and get the players playing in a manner that would get results. I would ditch my Aldershot ideas, which were appropriate for a smaller club but not for a club with the players and resources of Palace.
As we were now into the end-of-season period, I was seeing through the final deals/workings of the previous administration, before I would begin to put my own stamp on things. There was work to do, but this was the fresh start, the new opportunity, the big moment, and I was determined to prove myself.