Having a very ruthless side is a major reason why Boston United manager Craig Elliott has got to where he stands today.
As arguably the most successful Non League Football manager of the last ten years, Elliott will celebrate an incredible sixth promotion in a decade if his Boston side beat Altincham in the National North play-off final.
Victory would also complete an amazing and meteoric rise from managing Kellingley Welfare in Division One of the West Yorkshire League to the top flight of Non League Football.
To be where he is currently, in the National North, he’s in a class of his own as there are no parallels of other managers who have achieved similar feats in such a short space of time.
His very large contacts book (and ever-loyal water bottle!) have been hailed before as a key part of the early successes when he got Kellingley up and then dragged Glasshoughton Welfare out of the doldrums and led them to a previously unthinkable promotion in 2012.
That season he left no stone unturned in search of glory and as someone who has had his sights set on managing in the Football League for years, he never allowed anyone to get in the way of his dream.
Throughout his managerial career, at Glasshoughton, Ossett Town, Shaw Lane Aquaforce and Boston, there has never ever been space for sentiment.
Luke Smith, his left-back during Glasshoughton’s fabled 2012 promotion, can speak with first hand knowledge of how ruthless Elliott can be.
With just over two months to go of the season, Glasshoughton were losing 2-0 to Hallam at half-time and Smith and Kyle Cook were brutally hauled off. Carl Fothergill pulled a goal back, but they still lost and Elliott decided to swing his axe.
Smith survived, just. He only played a few times more for Welfare and he was an unused substitute during the fairytale promotion-winning final day win at Emley,
Former Ossett Albion left-back Cook, and centre-half Craig Marsh, both very experienced Non League players at this stage, weren’t so lucky, they were never involved again for Glasshoughton.
“For some reason I was playing left-midfield and Kyle Cook was playing left-back behind me and the (Hallam) right winger ripped me and Cooky to pieces,” says Smith, the former Brigg Town, Bridlington Town and Glasshoughton left-back who is now player/coach at Central Midlands League outfit Retford United.
“You think ‘ooh two decent players at this level and they’ve had their a***s tore off’. Craig just dragged off us at half-time.
“He didn’t say anything privately to us. He basically just went ‘you’re off and you’re off, get in the showers’. I only played a few more of the last ten or so games of the season.
“It was ‘that’s it’, no explanation given. It is only when you reflect back and realise that it was that game ‘I was s**t’.
“I’d played NPL One two seasons previously and I’d also played in the NPL Prem and at Ponte and to be fair to Craig he wasn’t too shy of who you are and where you played. If he didn’t think you pulling your weight you were out.
“I remember your Fothergill’s and Darrell Young and the other strikers; if they weren’t scoring one week, someone else was in the next week. Back then someone like Fothergill could score every week in any team he was in.
“Craig had the attitude that he wanted to be a manager at a higher level and he would do whatever it took to get promoted that season.”
With his eyes set on his first major promotion, Elliott literally took no prisoners.
From the Welfare squad which started the 2011/12 campaign, only Smith, Darrell Young, Andy Seed, Alex Booth, Jack Nodder, Jason Bentley, Josh Corbett, Liam Radford, Fothergill and Paul Sykes survived to the end.
Among those who were either cut loose or left of their own accord included Liam Tuck, Rian Sykes, Luke Forgione, Lee Stratford, Paul Banton and goalkeeper Sam Dobbs. Even Nodder, who 12 months earlier had been his star young player, was dropped and later replaced quite bizarrely by his uncle Paul Nodder, who according to some was in early 40s.
Elliott even released one player whose father confronted him at training to demand that his son was given a starting spot. That bizarre incident, quite funny told fully, happened deep into the promotion battle and just how desperate he was to succeed is under-lined in the late season recruitment.
Dual-registered Dom Riordan helped out, as did Grant Darley. Goalkeeper Ben Saynor came from Scarborough and former York City right-back Anthony Lloyd joined.
Assistants Simon Houghton and Daz Smith were crucial too and whilst they brought players such as Smith, Lee Bennett, Bentley earlier in the season, they drafted in Steve Bennett, who would score one of the greatest goals in the club’s history with the last minute winner at Emley.
“If someone wasn’t pulling their weight, they were out and someone else was fetched in,” says Smith.
“I can remember at one stage of the season when we were doing well, but he wasn’t happy and he fetched four new players in literally overnight.”
Glasshoughton actually looked out of the promotion race with four games to go. They had to play champions-elect Handsworth twice, along with Grimsby Borough and Emley.
The second automatic promotion spot was their only shot of promotion and they also had to hope Worksop Parramore lost at least two of their final four matches. Parramore went one better by losing two and drawing one and with Welfare winning all four, Elliott and his men went up up. Parramore followed them in third when Handsworth were demoted for failing ground grading regulations.
“Craig had no hesitation in making ruthless decisions,” says Phil Riding, Elliott’s chairman at Glasshoughton over his two-year tenure.
“He was single-minded and he knew his objectives and at any club he has been at his motto has been; ‘you need to do a job for me and if not, you won’t be here long and I’ll get someone to replace you’.
“That’s what he has done to a successful level. For every player he’s moved on, he’s always brought in a better standard of player.
“(With Glasshoughton) he started out (in 2010) with a group of players from Kellingley and the local area and every player he brought in took the standard up. That’s hard to do in Non League with very little money.”
Within weeks of guiding Glasshoughton up, Elliott was on the boat to the Northern Premier League as he was appointed manager of Ossett Town.
With Ossett he did what he has always did, continually improve the playing squad and when jumped ship to Shaw Lane Aquaforce in February 2014, over nearly two years he had turned a struggling team into a play-offs challenging side. Solid runs in the FA Cup and FA Trophy were also enjoyed.
People thought he was insane to drop down two Divisions to take over at NCEL Division One side Shaw Lane. But with the ambition and wealth of the Ducks he saw it as the perfect chance to realise his dreams.
Shaw Lane represented an opportunity to make a real name for himself and plant himself higher up the ladder.
He duly delivered, under huge pressure and expectation. He guided Shaw Lane to three promotions in four years and delivered a televised FA Cup first round appearance in 2017. He also won plaudits for how he handled the tragic passing of his player Dan Wilkinson in September 2016. It was a traumatic period, but Elliott and his players paid tribute to Dan by winning the NPL Division One South title.
But looking over the four years at Shaw Lane, just like at Glasshoughton and Ossett, being ruthless was a cornerstone of the success.
It is also a myth that he had a major turnover of players during his Shaw Lane years. Yes, he did regularly sign players, but the squad that started his three full seasons with Shaw Lane were largely intact by the end. It was more fringe players who came and went.
In the case of the 2015 NCEL Premier Division title-winning season, only Steve Istead, Anton Foster, Andrew Fox and James Cotterill signed during the campaign and went straight into the team as regulars. The bulk of the signings were made to ensure he had enough bodies to cope with the congested end of season fixture schedule.
“People get the monk on about how many players he goes through, but at the end of the day it is a job and everyone has a gaffer to answer if you’re not doing your job,” 2015 title winner Shane Kelsey said in his recent Non League Journey interview.
“It is like having a bit of equipment, it is nothing personal. If it doesn’t work you don’t persevere with it or you’ll end up out. I think how he manages is good. The proof is in the pudding, look at his success.
“You know where they are with him because if you’re not performing you’re out…Although Craig went through a lot of players (in the 2014/15 season), if you look at the actual starting elevens from the beginning of the season to the end, generally it was the same side with a few changes here and there. The bits around the outside seemed to change a lot and I think Craig does it to keep people on their toes. You then find out who wants to step up to the mark and who can keep their place.”
Even Joe Thornton, one of the few loveable rogues Elliott has tolerated during his managerial career, agrees his old manager’s methods are the correct one.
Thornton, now the Handsworth assistant manager, had some bizarre ding-dongs with the Boston boss which may be useful to BBC sitcom writers, but Elliott still signed him three times at Shaw Lane.
“People say he signs all these players, but he never let it get to him,” said Thornton in his Non League Journey interview.
“He was never fazed by a challenge and he never changed his approach. It is a ruthless approach, but it is the correct approach. If that I take anything away (from playing under Elliott), it is that if you are going to manage, do it right.”
Smith cites Elliott’s ability to form a good management team as another key aspect of his success.
Former Darlington player Paul Mattison assisted in the first season (2010/11) at Glasshoughton, along with Elliott’s own dad Ged, who previously managed Pontefract and Glasshoughton in the 1990s.
Houghton and Smith were his comrades in the second season. Smith, who was like the Lurpak butter in a sandwich in the way he helped keep strong team spirit in Elliott’s side, followed him to Ossett Town and Shaw Lane where Elliott also drafted people such as Sean Regan, Lee Morris, Gary Devenport (fitness coach), Richard Lawrence (goalkeeping coach) and John Reed to assist at various points.
“What I’d say about Craig is that he’s good at getting the right people around him at the right time,” Smith says.
“He got Simon and Daz in (at Glasshoughton) and they brought in their contacts to get a strong squad together. He had Simon as a strong character and Daz was like a link between the staff and the players. We know what Daz is like, he lights up any room he’s in.
“Daz went with him right through to Boston and now since he’s left him he’s got John McDermott and Lee Stratford. Lee Stratford is a very similar character to Daz as he’s bouncing and joyful and another who can light a room up in two minutes.
“So even though Craig has the ruthless streak in him, he’s always got the good cop and bad cop scenario.”
McDermott, Stratford and Lawrence, along with the trusty water bottle will be at his side for what will be his greatest moment if he guides a previously unfancied Boston side to promotion.
Some may be shocked if he does become a National League manager, others won’t.
“He was always very professional, very organised, he knew what he wanted, he knew his goals, says Luke Danville, the Hemsworth Miners Welfare joint manager who was Elliott’s club captain for a year at Shaw Lane in the first 12 months.
“He had a great knowledge of players and you’ve seen that through his recruitment. I always thought he’d go higher an you could tell he had aspirations to go higher.
“I didn’t know how high and how quickly that would happen, but I knew he’d get Shaw Lane up the leagues.
“Unfortunately it didn’t work out between him and me, but that’s doesn’t mean you lose respect for somebody or appreciate their achievements.
“If I dropped on him in Town, I’d buy him a beer and there would no animosity.”
Smith was part of the Sheffield United coaching staff as a first team masseur during the Nigel Adkins and Nigel Clough eras and he would not be surprised if Elliott eventually manages in the Football League.
“When you look at other people who have gone in who have not had the professional footballer background, I can’t see why not,” he says.
“Then again, if Boston get on a roll with a new ground and decent backing, he might go straight through with them.
“He definitely wants to get there. He’s been linked with places like Grimsby in the past and why not? No disrespect to Ian Holloway because he’s done a decent job, but why not jump off the merry-go-round of managers and go for someone like Craig.
“You only have to look at Chris Wilder on a bigger scale who went from League One to the Premier League (Sheffield United) after cutting his teeth at Alfreton, why can’t Craig do it.
“(In 2012) I thought he had the potential to go higher, but not as quick as he did.
“I know Ossett was local, but to jump from Glasshoughton into Ossett (two leagues higher) back then was a big jump and you take your hat off to him for he’s done since.
“I can’t think of anyone who has gone from the second Division of the West Yorkshire League to the verge of the National League in the space of ten years.
“There was a determination in him to go higher and anybody like myself who is going into the management now, you have to use him as an inspiration.
“He’s a good role model and from working in professional football I would say he is the nearest character I’ve seen with his ruthlessness to what Football League managers are like.”
Even if he does miss out on promotion, history tells us Elliott will make the Boston side even stronger next season – in a brand new stadium as well. No promotion this afternoon will be only a brief delay on the incredible journey if Elliott has anything to do with it.
We can’t speak for everyone, but a substantial amount of people from West and South Yorkshire will be rooting for Craig and Boston today.
Good Luck Craig!
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