Neal Ardley – My time at Notts County
Neal Ardley is a man that has experienced it all, or quite a bit. Recognising his talent from a child and his father bring his greatest source of inspiration, motivation and support to playing with the Crazy Gang at Wimbledon before managing the club in a period where they achieved promotion up to the heights of League One. He was appointed Notts County gaffer in November 2018 and noticed how great the challenge ahead would be after a few weeks on the training ground, now that his former employers have reached the National League Play-off Semis I translated his interview with myself for @DDLMPod into words.
You were appointed County manager when it seemed like the club were experiencing a negative spiral of events on and off the pitch. However, do you have any regrets about your first season and how did you look at the transfer window in terms of what was needed and how you were going to achieve those goals?
I’ve got loads of regrets about the first few months, obviously the main regret was that it culminated in relegation. As manager, although I only had a few months in charge of the 2018/19 campaign, you have to take responsibility for what’s happened.
Before I came in I looked at the squad on paper and it seemed like a good group of lads to turn around the forms of and manage but after a few weeks on the training ground their flaws became apparent.
As I came in just before the January transfer window, I had some games where I could see what we needed and see who or who weren’t up for the challenge ahead. Our greatest problem was that we had a lot of unfit and overpaid players. I’d say that some of them were there for the money and their relationship with the fans had become quite poisonous, rightly so.
Before each and every game I’d make a point of being highly positive and making sure my coaching staff were too but some of the players looked like they didn’t want to play, you could see it in their faces as they were so used to failure.
When I was looking at the transfer window, we were told that we would only be able to operate on a cost effective basis and when you look at the work that we did do the club were about a thousand pound better off due to our strategy. However, attracting players was a problem as you could see it wasn’t a happy club which certainly wasn’t helped by the owner doing something on Twitter which caused a bit of a stir so I had to use all of the contacts that I had.
I think we ended up doing well to bring in the likes of Michael Doyle and Craig Mackail-Smith but elsewhere we had to go quite young which maybe meant we were lacking experience and professionalism in some areas of the pitch. It was sad that a high turnaround of players was needed though, especially in January.
You needed to change around a mentality with a fairly new group of players in a very short space of time.
The mentality around the camp was something that needed changing.
However, we thought if we ‘littered’ the team with new faces that the fans would be able to get behind them a little bit more and in turn change the atmosphere around the club as they hadn’t been here when the club was sinking. I think we did well to take it to the final day, especially when Macclesfield had put together a good patch of form. However, I do believe that although I take full responsibility for it .. Notts deserved to go down.
Could you tell pretty soon on the size of the challenge in hand?
Yeah. It was harder than I probably thought it was going to be when I originally took on the job.
In the summer that Notts were relegated there was a change in ownership as Chris and Alex Reedtz took over. Did you see positive behaviours in the way they operated on and off pitch matters during their time working with you and how important is a successful manager and owner relationship in football?
They were a massive breath of fresh air as the atmosphere around the club was horrendous. They came in during a whirlwind few months and had never been involved with a football club before.
We ‘rushed’ them and got on their case to sign a few players as we were lacking in depth and quality. Some of the men that we did recruit were struggling for match fitness and they came in quite late in terms of the campaign’s starting date and the pre-season plans that we had in place.
We were well behind but they both came in with a fantastic and strong mindframe and had a ‘lets do it’ attitude to things. Invariably we were always going to start slowly but we managed to make it to a Play off final which was a pretty remarkable achievement considering the shape of the club going into the campaign.
They were incredibly supportive owners and played a big part in any of our successes.
Although you’re not at the club anymore, do you think they’re the correct men to take County back into the Football League?
Yeah, they’re brilliant. They’re calm, not too emotional about results, have an unbelievable demeanor and undertake their roles with plenty of data and analysis.
I think they’ll get it right, obviously and understandably I’m disappointed that I’m not there still but yeah I do think they’ll be successful. I hope they are.
Your first and sole full campaign was disrupted by the COVID outbreak, the period of time where training and matches couldn’t take place without punishment and supporters not being allowed into stadiums when the games were being played again. What was it like to not have fans cheering on their beloved team and do you think that you maybe could’ve coped a slight bit better in the final and the surrounding time to achieve promotion?
As a coach and a manager I don’t think that I could’ve done much more as we got the preparation spot on.
I think, on the day of the final, too many of the players froze. From my perspective, that was very frustrating.
You could argue that I got things tactically wrong etc but I don’t think that was the case as had the players performed how they had trained all week then we would’ve given ourselves a much better chance of winning the game. It’s what pressure finals do to you, though and that’s why strange results happen sometimes.
I feel like I posed the question in a way which sounded like I was asking if you could’ve done much more on a personal note. However, I was wondering if the team would have adapted to a time of COVID protocols etc much better as it may have been much easier if fans were in the stadium.
I feel like if the season hadn’t been cut short due to the Pandemic that it would’ve been different as I felt we were on a roll of successful results and positivity. We’d just beat Barrow who had just lost their main striker, I’m not saying that they would’ve fallen but it felt like we would’ve been able to give them much better competition for the top spot.
However, it wasn’t to be.
I feel that if you’d have asked fans to give their thoughts on things at the start of the season then they would’ve just been happy to have a club. Thus, to go one game away from automatic promotion when only one club has managed to bounce back straight away following a relegation from the Football League in 17 years was pretty remarkable.
It was quite a lengthy stop of time wasn’t it between the postponement of the season and the final.
Yeah, it was. March to August.
This does add another dimension to my team selection for the game at Wembley as I know there would’ve been frustrations and confusions at who I had started. However, players came back from the lockdown as either a shadow of themselves or as a brighter and happier man and I could see that.
There were also a few who had let themselves down as they came back in a real bad mental and physical state, I won’t name them.
I wanted to touch on one player in particular as I watched some games whilst you were manager and he caught my eye. Enzio Boldeiwjn. What was he like as a player and as a man?
Yeah, he’s a talented boy and a bright head-smart man.
Some may argue, as they do about many wingers in the lower divisions, that he could be lazy and doesn’t get into games as much as you’d want him to. However, he is your typical winger and provides a great spark when you pass him the ball.
He can make things happen, he can tear defenders apart. He’s a great character, someone who I’ve really enjoyed working with and he’s done well with the club since his arrival a few years ago.
It was announced in March, after somewhat of a mixed campaign, that you would be leaving the club. Although it’s still a relatively raw subject, what were your thoughts on your dismissal and what are your current thoughts about County as a club?
Obviously, I’m going to have to be slightly wary of what I say here. I’m naturally disappointed as I thought I should’ve been given until the summer at least before any such decision was made as I aimed to reach the targets that we’d set. We’d lost a bit of confidence. We’d lost Callum Roberts and Wes Thomas, the latter due to COVID and we’d lost Chris Dennis in the previous summer. I was trying to navigate ourselves through the course of the campaign with a different team, a team that lacked a great source of goals and a team that lacked some of the great characters that I’d previously worked with at Notts. We were having to dig in to get the results, scrapping and battling to hang in there knowing that once we got into the Play Offs that it’s anyone’s game. I was disappointed that a chance of reaching promotion was taken away from me and I thought we maybe could’ve done more to get a higher level of quality across the team. Moving on to pastures new, they’ve appointed a new manager and they’ll see what he’s capable of doing this season before working with him across the course of the summer window.
‘There are a lot of the people at the club who I care about deeply, thus I want to wish them the best of success and I do hope that they go up’.
Notts County manager between 2018 and 2021.
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