Not all successful football managers are ushered in to top clubs without any prior experience.
In fact, some of the household names of the English Football League have had to start at the bottom and build their reputation the hard way. Neil Warnock, Nigel Clough, Russell Slade and Chris Wilder are now all part of the furniture in the EFL but that isn’t the only thing they have in common. Another, is that they’ve all spent time managing in Non-League football, the lower reaches of the footballing pyramid.
Today, I’m gonna list three men who currently manage sides below Football League Two who I expect to make the transition from Non-League to Football League in no more than 5 years.
Matt Jansen is currently in charge at National League North side, Chorley FC. He took over the managerial reigns in the summer of 2015 from outgoing manager, Gary Flitcroft. Flitcroft had led Chorley to the brink of three promotions and a place in Non Leagues top division, all in the space of 4 years, so Jansen had very big shoes to fill.
Chorley are far from a club with bucket loads of cash and in a division which boasts ex league clubs such as Stockport County and Kidderminster Harriers, as well as clubs with a quid or two to throw around, like AFC Fylde and Salford City, it’s not the easiest of places to get success.
However in his first season in football management, he guided his side to a very respectable 8th place, just 7 points off the play-offs. Despite losing key figure, Darren Stephenson, to National League side Tranmere Rovers, Jansen managed to put together a brilliant unit of players and as we enter 2017, he has his side sitting in 3rd place.
Matt has a win percentage of 47.76% over the 67 games he’s had in charge and whether or not Chorley maintain the pace their currently at, I fully expect clubs from higher divisions to be looking at him in the near future.
A man who found himself in charge of 3 different sides in the year of 2016 and he fully deserved each move he got. Liam MacDonald is the current boss at National League side Solihull Moors, a position he has held since November of last year. He was chosen as the replacement for the highly thought of Marcus Bignot, who has made his own way into the EFL after being employed by League Two side Grimsby Town.
MacDonald is only 31 years of age and took his first steps into management when he took over at Southern League Premier outfit Redditch United for the 13/14 season. They had narrowly escaped relegation the previous season, as there wasn’t a lot to work with financially, so a 10th place finish in his first season was fantastic. Liam and Redditch then built on that and found themselves ending his second season in charge in 6th position, one place outside the play-offs. The side was making great sides and as the 15/16 season culminated, the side finished in 2nd place. A play-off semi final with local rivals Leamington proved one stepping stone too far, though, as they crashed out on penalty kicks.
All of MacDonalds hard work had not gone unnoticed. Hednesford Town, recently relegated from the National League North, had parted ways with Frank Sinclair and a massive rebuilding job was needed. They clearly viewed Liam MacDonald as the ideal candidate for this and the lure was enough as he left Redditch United for Hednesford. He had signed a number of players and had got the team playing fantastically, with them sitting in a play-off spot early on, which Hednesford fans didn’t expect.
With Hednesford sat in 4th place, Solihull Moors came knocking, as again, his hard work had not gone unnoticed. National League football was too good of an offer to turn down and now Liam MacDonald finds himself in charge of his third club in less than 12 months.
Survival will be dubbed success for Moors this season and I fully expect them to achieve that under Liams guidance. I advise you all to keep tabs on this young man, as it will not be long before he gets his chance in the EFL.
Last, but by no means least, is Danny Cowley. Danny is in charge at National League leaders Lincoln City and looks set to guide them back into the Football League.
Danny, an Essex lad, started his managerial career at then Essex Senior League side Concord Rangers at the beginning of the 2007/08 season. He hit the ground running as at the end of his inaugural season, he lead the club to the league title, which saw them promoted to the Isthmian League Division One North for the first time in the clubs history. Not only that, but they managed an Essex Senior League Cup final appearance, which they eventually lost, as well as a run in the FA Vase which culminated in the quarter final. Concord managed to reach the play-off final in their debut season in the First Division, however just lost out on promotion after losing on spot kicks. Unsurprisingly, they were many people’s over achievers of the season. Promotion wasn’t far away as the season after, 2009/10, they won the play-off final and climbed to the third tier of Non-League football, again, for the first time in history. After a few seasons stagnated, the play-offs again saw Cowley guide his Concord side to a third promotion, this time to the National League South. A 9th place finish was achieved during their first season in Non-Leagues second tier during the 13/14 season, but that was then topped a season later, as Concord climbed to the dizzy heights of 7th.
All of Danny Cowleys hard work was eventually reward as National League side Braintree Town came knocking and Cowley made the step up. His first and only season in charge was a major success, as he guided Town to a 3rd place finish, qualifying them for the play-offs. The play-offs had been lucky to Danny in the past, but not this time. Despite a 1-0 win over Grimsby Town in the first leg of their semi final, Grimsby ran out 2-1 winners after extra time and ended the Football League dream for Braintree Town.
The remarkable season that Cowley and Braintree had was bound to attract attention and in the summer of 2016, Danny Cowley was appointed first team manager of National League divisional rivals Lincoln City.
As mentioned before, The Imps are currently top of the Non-League tree and look strong to see off the job. If they do or even if they fail, there’s no doubt in my mind Danny Cowley will be one of the next managers from Non-League given their chance to show their skills in the English Football League.