Born again Russ Eagle the perfect man for Handsworth’s new era

Handsworth manager Russ Eagle. Picture: Ken Allsebrook

Football managers are notorious for refusing to change their methods or admitting they are wrong. The list of bosses naturally thrown out of the Professional game for their out-dated methods is endless. 

Some do change. Ian Holloway after his departure from Leicester City in 2008, aside from looking after his chickens, spent his year’s sabbatical watching a lot of Roberto Martinez’s Swansea. So inspired by the Swans’ swashbuckling style of play, Holloway ripped up his coaching philosophy and developed a system which he utilised to guide Blackpool to the Premier League when he returned to football. 

Handsworth chief Russ Eagle is an example of a Non League boss who has had to reinvent himself, or at least go back to his roots as a manager determined to give 17-to-21-year-olds a proper chance to succeed in the Northern Counties East League and then potentially beyond.

The former Alfreton Town, Maltby Main, Parkgate boss won the NCEL Division One title in 2012 with Handsworth with a young side containing future star names such as Danny Patterson and Lee Hill. 

But a misconception from stint with Worksop Parramore that he is a manager who needs mega bucks to win matches, cast him out into the wilderness and the phone stopped ringing after a short spell at Shirebrook Town in 2016.

Becoming a youth team manager with Sheffield FC, and eventually first team assistant manager to Gavin Smith was just the enlightenment experience he needed.

Fifty-year-old Eagle was born again as manager and as such moulded himself into the perfect candidate for Handsworth last summer. The Ambers wanted to go back down the youthful side route and when they needed a new figurehead who believes in every word of their ethos. That was Eagle and to them he is more than a manager as his commitment to them is mind-blowing.

But to be where he is, it has taken a trip back to the classroom.

Russ Eagle watches his Handsworth youngsters last year. Picture: Ken Allsebrook

“Re-education is an understatement, the move back to the youth was an eye-opener for me,” Eagle tells Non League Yorkshire.

“When I was at Handsworth the first time it was an necessity to go down that (the youth) route because of where the club was and its ethos. The period in between when I was the Parramore manager, yes there was the money element and I probably lost my way a little bit.

“After Parramore, I went to Shirebrook and after leaving there I looked at myself and said ‘I need to change’ and look at different ways to be successful. I had to stop and say ‘you need to do something’. I think I changed when I went into take an under 16s at Sheffield FC and then an under 18s and 19s. 

“I had to look at it and say ‘there’s a different way to make that kid run through a brick wall’ than just shouting at him. You have to encourage him, you have to help him, coach him and I feel I have changed massively. Don’t get me wrong I’m still a nightmare on the touchline if things aren’t going our way, but that’s just because you want to win games of football.

“I was a manager who used to say ‘I know it all, nobody tells me how to manage or coach’. I thought I knew it all and my way was the best way and the only way.

“I went to watch young Matt Higgins at Maltby School. He’s 28-year-olds and he’s an A-Licence coach. At the time he was UEFA B. He’s not played at a level and he’s concentrated on coaching. He’s been at Barnsley and done the statistics for them. I watched him and went ‘oh my god, he’s got the same qualifications as me and I am miles behind him’.

“I pick up ideas and tips from watching other coaches. Luke Forgione is another one who I watched a lot as he was my assistant manager last year and I picked up things off him. He works at Barnsley College and he gave me another insight into how to go about things with younger players and what they need.

“For a 50-year-old manager, I am completely different to how I was when I started at Alfreton when I was 29. It has been ‘stop what you are doing, start again and learn’. If I hadn’t, I don’t think I would be managing now.”

Russ Eagle during his time in charge of Worksop Parramore

Eagle is the first to admit where he has gone wrong in his managerial career. But he is also aware of where Non League Football has made errors. One is on the youth development front.

“As a person, coach and a manager I believe I have changed when I started,” he says. 

“I was shouter and bawler and it probably stemmed from having a big budget because of the pressure. I had gone from winning a league with a young set of lads to being under pressure to replicate with a big budget.

“I thought to myself money has poisoned Non League and young lads don’t get an opportunity because they haven’t been around for long or they’re not a big name. Youth development has been stifled and it needs to change. I can stand up and say I’ve done that. 

“I also termed success differently. Success wasn’t winning a league, success was getting a young player in the first team. So I started viewing matches in a different light.

“People may say ‘well you’ve spent…’. I probably have, but when you look at it, I’ve probably had more youth players in my squads in the last ten or eleven years than anyone locally or around a little bit further.

“Anyone who follows where I have been and what I have done. I won the league at Handsworth with a young side and I’ve been at a few clubs where they have been on their backside and I’ve gone in and kept them up and gone onto make the team better, i.e. Parkgate, Maltby Main, Shirebrook, places like that.

“But I think I will be tarred with the big budgets brush from those two years as Worksop Parramore manager, but that’s literally the only two seasons where I’ve had a big budget.”

Handsworth celebrate winning the NCEL Division One title unaware that the FA are going to relegate them because of ground grading regulations

Eagle’s crowning achievement of his long managerial career is Handsworth’s 2012 Division One and President’s Cup triumphs. Scott Bates scored twice as the Ambers’ beat Worksop Parramore in the winner takes all clash on the final day of the 2011/12 campaign to win the title. 

But because of ground grading regulations, instead of getting promoted, Handsworth found themselves relegated back to the Sheffield & Hallamshire County Senior League. Olivers Mount was deemed unfit for NCEL football. It is the reason why the club’s first team remains in exile in Worksop still to this day.

Days after the triumph, heart-broken Eagle, who was unaware of the decision until a day or so after the title triumph, had to break the news to his players and they put on one last performance with the dramatic 4-3 victory over Barton Town to lift the President’s Cup.

“I look back on my first spell in a strange way as it is probably one of the hardest periods of football I’ve had and most successful,” Eagle says.

“In the first year we finished fourth and reached the League Cup semi-final. We kicked on and won the Division One title and President’s Cup in the second season and in the middle of winning both, the club was told it was going to be relegated.

“We won the league at Worksop Parramore on the Saturday and on the Tuesday we went to Winterton for the final against Barton.

“I got the lads in the changing rooms and said ‘we’ve won what we’ve won, but unfortunately it stops there’. People were in tears. We had young lads who had become men over 38 weeks. It is the hardest thing I have ever done.

“In that changing room we had people like Lee Hill, Scott Bates and Danny Patterson who has gone on and won another double (with Worksop Town).

“I think the average age was 19-years-and-six-months. We also had Sam Smith, Richard Tootle, both then 18 or 19. So we had people who had gone onto have great Non League careers.

“So we massively overachieved. It shows what you can get. You don’t have to spend thousands. We won that league on near enough fresh air. I imagine those players spend more on a football card now than what I gave them to play.

“The Alan Hansen quote ‘you can’t win anything with kids’ was more-or-less said to me a lot and it is like a revolving door as I’ve had it since coming back to Handsworth. I’ve had ‘they won’t be good enough’ and ‘you’ll need 20 men and one or two young ‘un’s’.”

Clearly the first spell revokes many happy memories for anyone involved with Handsworth, but don’t kid yourself that they why brought Eagle back to Olivers Mount just to reminisce. Even Eagle agrees that his re-birth at Sheffield FC was the main catalyst. 

“100% it must have played a part because John Ward and Steve Holmes are no mugs,” he says.

”They know the area, the local players, the young players who come through the club.

“My under 18s and 19s at Sheffield FC are one of the few teams who have gone to Handsworth and beaten them in a 12-year period. They must have looked at that and said ‘how’s he done that without changing’. 

“With Sheffield FC, I took four players from our scholarships/under 19s to the first team and they are now regular players. Alex Wonham, Ehsan Mohammed, Alfie Eagle, Sam Penney. Fair play to Gav Smith because he agreed, but I said to him that we needed to take a chance on them and he’s had success with them. I take my hat off to him, Chris Dolby and Richard Timms for investing in the youth section.

“I’ll carry on down that road for as long as I keep managing. I think if you give the young lads a chance, they’d surprising talent out there that the pro clubs miss.

“But hand-on-heart John and Steve must have said ‘yes it is the right time for him to come back because he has re-learned his trade and he has gone down the road we want to go down’. 

“They weren’t looking for someone who wanted a massive budget. They wanted someone who would work with young players, knew the local young player scene and wasn’t particularly bothered about the budget. I fitted what they wanted. When I got the call, by the time they had said ‘do you want meet’, I’d already said yes.”

It is also not surprising that Eagle wanted to return when you also consider the new 3G pitch as well as the club’s renowned player pathway which has enabled countless players to prosper in the men’s game at various levels.

He’s not even just the first team manager either.

“Handsworth is in my blood, from the first time I went down there,” he said.

“You know when you see something that is building, it is like a little seed and I could see that the club could go places. The facilities are unbelievable now with the 3G pitch and the constant changes. I don’t think we’re a million miles away from returning to Oliver’s Mount as a first team. But more importantly the club will be sustainable until the end of time because of the 3G pitch.

“It was and still is the club in the area for progression for youth players because of the player pathway. I don’t see another club within a 50 or 60 mile radius which has a platform and pathway for kids. There isn’t one. I haven’t had anyone at another club say to me ‘we do the same’. The nearest one I’ve seen is Ilkeston.

“We have enough players to fill sides from under 7s up to under 16s and then two under 18s, under 19s, under 21s, reserve team and first team and everyone who starts out at under 7s has a realistic chance of playing for the first team.

“When young lads come to watch the first team, they can say ‘he’s played for Handsworth since whatever age’ and their mum and dad can say ‘that could be you in five years’ time when you get to 16 or 17, you’ll be playing for this club on this pitch’.

“Some clubs have under 19s teams for the sake of it because their first team manager isn’t interested. At Handsworth we’re involved in all teams. I even managed one of our under 18s team all of last season alongside managing the first team. I went all over the place on a Sunday morning.

“I’m not the only manager out there in Non League who will get involved with the younger sides. There’s a lot more now who will give their time up to work with other age groups. But there is a lot of managers who say ‘no, I’ve got a first team and that’s it’. I used to be like that.

“I even ran an under ten’s session one week and for me it gives me a massive knowledge of what’s out there and makes everyone feel part of the club.”

Eagle talks to his Handsworth players before the first game of last season. Picture: Ken Allsebrook.

His first season back in the Handsworth dugout in the NCEL was tough, but understandable given his and the club’s commitment to play youth footballers. But he expects the hard yards to pay dividends when restrictions are lifted and Non League football resumes and he and his new assistant Joe Thornton head back to the touchline. 

“The club wanted a. use young players and b. replicate the togetherness and continuity from what we had when we won the league,” he says. 

“That meant building from within and not pulling in from the outside. What we found as the season unfolded was that we did need to bring one or two in, That’s a bit more experience and I will bring in four or five experienced players for next season.

“But the nucleus of my squad will be the 17-to-21-year-old lads I had last season. From playing kids, they’ve now had nearly a full season playing men’s football and they have come on as players.

“Hopefully we’ll get a full season with them and those lads will have 40 or 50 appearances at NCEL Premier football before they are 18 or 19-year-old. That only bodes well for them individually and us as a club.

“We won’t be the only club going down the youth route. I think they’ll have to. We’re at a stage where a £150 player last year won’t get that money. He’ll be looking at £80, maybe £60 and they’re going to have accept that. If they don’t, it will hopefully give the younger lads the opportunity to show what they can do.”

If you have enjoyed this interview and the Non League Journey interview series, please watch the video at the bottom of the page and consider making a donation to the not-for-profit organisation NLY Community Sport which provides sport for children and adults with disabilities and learning difficulties. CLICK HERE to visit the JustGiving page.

NLY Community Sport, run by James Grayson and Connor Rollinson, has always had combatting social isolation at the top of our objectives when running our Disability Football teams so when the green light to return is given, our work will play an important role in reintroducing our players, who have disabilities and learning difficulties, back into society.

We have six teams, a mixture of Junior and Adult teams – Nostell MW DFC, Pontefract Pirates, Selby Disability Football Club and the South Yorkshire Superheroes (Barnsley) – across Yorkshire.

Like most organisations, we have been affected financially by the Coronavirus and we have incurred losses which we cannot recover. We have not been hit as badly as other organisations, but we do need raise £2000 to put us back at the level we were at in mid-March and enable us to make a difference once again to our players’ lives in the future, without having financial worries. As each day goes on, a substantial number of our players become further isolated so we need to be ‘ready for action’ when restrictions are lifted.

Any amount raised above £2000 will be put towards new projects (when the world returns to normal) designed to further benefit people with disabilities and learning difficulties. You can learn more about the organisation HERE and on our Facebook page.

Watch the video below to see highlights from our three years as an organisation. The video was produced for our players at the end of March to remind them of good memories from the last three years.

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