United’s director of football David Holdsworth was the guest speaker at Tuesday night’s United for Business meeting which was held in the Legends Bar ahead of kick off at the Port Vale game.
The second United for Business get together of the season, members used the opportunity to get to know more about David, his appointment as a club director and his aims as he gets his teeth into what he described as ‘an interesting challenge.’
Here is a summary of the questions asked and topics discussed at the meeting, in question and answer format ...
Can you tell us a bit about your career and can you recall your debut at Watford?
My debut was an exciting one for me because I marked a gentleman called Andy Gray, who some of you might remember. He went on to be a pundit on Sky TV. It was a game at the Hawthorns, and we had a player called Mark Morris who got injured in the first or second game of the season, which fortunately for me meant there was a space to be filled. We won the game 1-0 and it was a great night.
My second game put me up against Ian Wright and Mark Bright, who were with Crystal Palace, and we won that one 2-0, so I had a heck of an introduction. We went on to have a really good season and it was lucky for me that I got to be part of it at a fairly early age. I captained them when I was still only 19, which was a real honour for me, and I was the kind of person who just wanted to be loyal to a club. I was very loyal to Watford because I could have left on numerous occasions. I went on to play over 350 games for them and I really enjoyed my time there.
The time does come to move on and there was a man called Howard Kendall who, it turned out, had tried to sign me a few times. On the day that it was finally supposed to happen I picked up a cruciate ligament injury and that put my career on hold for about 13 months.
Subsequently, about three years later, he was manager at Sheffield United and when I walked through the door he told me that he’d been trying to sign me for about 10 years. He was a great manager and an absolute gentleman. It was a real pleasure to play for him and it was sad news when he passed away.
Trevor Francis then took me to Birmingham City and he was another really lovely man. I’ve been lucky enough to play for four really good managers, in terms of stature. Graham Taylor was like a dad to me, he brought me through from a young age, and I was a bit of a naughty boy to be honest. He had no problem smacking me round the head and he left a real legacy at that club.
Things changed at Birmingham when Steve Bruce came in because I didn’t really get on with him. We get on fine now, but things like that happen in football, and in life. I worked with my brother and Sam Allardyce for six months at Bolton, which was great fun, and it meant that I got to see my twin more than I had for many years before or since. It’s an industry that keeps you busy and takes you apart at times.
The next thing was when I got a phone call from a very weird but likeable man called Brooks Mileson. He came to meet me in London and I thought I was being set up for some kind of TV prank. He walked through the door and I was convinced that Jeremy Beadle was going to spring out on me. But, you know what, he sat with me for three hours and he told me that he’d bought Gretna. I didn’t even know where it was, but he told me what he wanted to do and where he wanted to take it.
I wrote him an eight-page synopsis for a football club and we had further dialogue, where we went through it brick by brick, from bottom to top. We went into great detail and it was just a case of helping him as much as possible. We did over 200 flights up and down the country over the course of a year or 18 months or so, and all I can say is that I never had a bad day in any of the four years I was with him.
We were very successful and I enjoyed working for them. It was a place where I learned a lot about stuff behind the scenes and I was able to use it as a stepping stone. We became extremely close, he was my little boy’s godfather, and I’ve got stories about him I probably can’t repeat!
It was a great journey with promotion after promotion and a cup final. On the day of the Scottish Cup Final I asked what he was going to do, and he said right away that he was going in with the fans. He ended up buying loads of people fish and chips and he had myself and my wife there as dignitaries on the day. That was a huge honour for me. We had a private conversation when he told me about his situation, and that it was time to leave, and we shook hands and had a cuddle. He left me with some great memories.
From there I managed Ilkeston, and we got promoted, and I then moved to Mansfield. That was a relegation battle and a very interesting place. They’d just dropped into the Conference and it looked like they were about to drop another level again. The fans were really unhappy, there was no money, but I managed to get them up the table. Winning games was enjoyable but with the other part, off the field, things were horrendous. A new chairman came in and he pretty much wanted to pick the team. I had enough of that, and that was when I walked out.
I made the move to Lincoln, who were in a similar place to Mansfield when I got there, and that was a really tough job. Some of the contract situations they were in were strange and that came down to doing things the wrong way in recruiting players. We stayed up and I managed to save them quite a lot of money in the end. I did that by getting players in who had a bit of spirit and by changing the style of what we needed to do. In any relegation battle you have to stand up to it and be firm, so that’s what we did.
From there I got myself qualified in Sports Science and Nutrition, which meant more time in the classroom than I’d ever done before, even at school. Next from that is the move to Carlisle and I am absolutely delighted to be here.
How did the connection with Carlisle United come about?
I knew a lot about the club anyway because Brooks was a staunch Carlisle fan. I lived in Carlisle when I was at Gretna and it’s just a pleasure to be here. I was contacted this time round by the board to help them to recruit a new manager. There were certain aspects of it which had been addressed, and others which hadn’t been addressed, but I was delighted when I got the call to see if I could come and help.
We sat down and discussed what we were looking for and what situation they were in at the time, which was the biggest thing. In terms of the profile and what the club needed, John [Sheridan] really stood out, because of his experience. It was certainly rather late in appointing a manager, and that’s why we felt we needed a winner.
Dealing with the other part of it, the club have had a great go at it in the past two or three years, but it hasn’t worked out. Unfortunately you have to pick those pieces up, so we have to be very pragmatic and clinical in terms of decision making. We want to make sure this is a successful club but also that it’s not in trouble. The most important thing is that a club shouldn’t be putting itself in a bad position.
Did you know John Sheridan or have a connection with him before that process started?
I played in a couple of testimonial games with him, and I had a few beers with him with a mutual friend called Chris Waddle. So, no, not really. When we did the interviews he really stood out and you could see that he was the right person. There were a few good, young managers we saw who I think will go on to good things if they get the backing, but I think John’s experience was the most important factor for us. He’s someone who knows this division and who knows the players, and he can deal with the expectations.
What does a director of football do?
It’s 24 hours a day at the moment. I’ve overseen all of the contracts that have gone through, because we’ve got to be careful with what we give out. When clubs at certain levels give out contracts that are somewhat out of balance with the quality of the player, you don’t get what you’ve paid for. Unfortunately that has been the case, there’s no hiding place there.
We’ve got to get value for money and we’ve got to have the DNA inside this football club that’s says if you’re going onto that field of play you’ve got to have an identity and an affinity to this club. John picks the players, by the way, I don’t get involved in that one little bit. But there won’t be a player who comes through the door and rips us off – no chance, it won’t happen.
It is a transition, which means it’s a tough time, but I like to deal with things like this. The important thing recruitment wise is that we get players who play with pride and, when you’re interviewing the player – and they don’t like being interviewed, believe me – you want to know what he’s about. You want to know what type of person he is. I’ve interviewed thousands of players and you can tell straight away.
Dealing with the agents is the hardest part. When an agent tells you he wants his fee and you tell him to get lost, they don’t like that. If someone has done a good job then you respect that and he gets paid for it. We won’t put ourselves in a position where we’ve overpaid anybody. John and his staff are a pleasure to be around. There are good days and bad days, but that’s the same at any club.
The youth side of the club is really important to me. I brought good young players through at Gretna and one of my suggestions was that the club moved on to form an academy. I ended up heading that up and we had some good staff and people there.
We need to look after and protect our young players and we need to have a pathway for them. At the moment we’re a couple of players down in terms of numbers, but John has already shown that he isn’t scared to include them. That’s a real pleasure for the kids when they get to travel with the first team, so if we can identify one or two to come through in the next couple of years that will be a good step. We need to get the coaching right and hopefully we’ll get a DNA inside the football club which means the young lads will know what they’re doing when they get to first team level.
We'll have more from David Holdsworth later today as he talks more about the job in hand at Brunton Park.
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