‘It would be a dream to manage some of the clubs I’ve played for, Ipswich included’ - Ex-striker Armstrong on his time at Town and new career in management
PUBLISHED: 06:00 27 June 2020 | UPDATED: 11:14 28 June 2020
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Most caretaker managers in English football are likely to feel landed in it to some extent; it’s the nature of being a caretaker boss. But for former Ipswich town striker Alun Armstrong, he hadn’t even planned on entering management when he agreed to meet the chairman of Blyth Spartans back in the summer of 2016! Richard Woodall spoke to him...
From the outside - and prior to the Covid-19 outbreak and its effect on football - Alun Armstrong’s managerial career (firstly at Blyth Spartans and now as Darlington manager), looked like quite a smooth journey. But speaking to the former Ipswich striker, it’s obvious the dugout wasn’t his intended trajectory when he hung his boots up as a player more than 12 years ago. But like many in football management, he has found it’s not a decision he regrets.
“I took on the Blyth Spartans job on a Monday evening. The team had a game against their rivals Spennymoor Town just two days later. Management was completely dropped on me really - I only went to talk about being assistant until the end of the season. But the manager called me on the way over and said he had resigned and told the chairman I would take over.”
How did he deal with it?
“Well like any manager, I just got the players together for the short time I had, and then it was straight into the game!”
For Armstrong, there was the extra motivation of coming up against former Blue Tommy Miller – assistant manager at Spennymoor Town. “At the time, Spennymoor were flying, so drawing 0-0 wasn’t a bad result. I think I’d had one training session with the players - absolutely no time at all to get your ideas across.”
Ipswich fans will fondly recall George Burley paying Middlesbrough under £1m for Armstrong in December 2000. The popular Geordie – who came up through the youth ranks at boyhood club Newcastle but left for Stockport County when Magpies boss Kevin Keegan dispensed with the Reserves – is still mostly remembered by fans old enough for scoring the winner against Inter Milan – one of the great and more recent European nights at Portman Road.
“In the lead up to that move, I was pulled in by ‘Boro boss Bryan Robson after a game against West Ham, and told about Ipswich’s offer. He said it was up to me. “When I first signed for Middlesbrough, it was great, but they just kept adding new players – and strikers particularly. We had Alen Boksic, Joseph-Désiré Job, Hamilton Ricard, and Marco Branca – it was ridiculous. And that was just strikers – don’t forget ‘Boro also had Paul Gascoigne and Paul Merson (the latter he admits is the best player he’s played with) and then later added Juninho too. I just couldn’t get in the team – so it was a great move to make for me.”
Armstrong admitted a degree of surprise when joining Ipswich; the club were then positioned 5th in the Premier League (the place they would finish), and already had Marcus Stewart, James Scowcroft, David Johnson and Richard Naylor in the striking department.
“When I arrived, I just ended up wondering how I would get in the side” he admits. It was a move which might not have happened though.
“I drove down to Ipswich from the North-East to meet George Burley - it took seven hours and was a horrific journey. When I turned the car off, I said to myself ‘No, this is miles away, I’m not moving here.’ But as soon as I spoke to George, my mind was made up. Finances didn’t really come into it, it was about what George could do for me and what kind of team he had, and where they were heading. I played against most of the players and so knew a lot of them. Colin Suggett – who was then a member of George Burley’s scouting team– he had been my youth team coach at Newcastle too so was another familiar face.
“Being from Tyneside, the obvious connection was Bobby Robson. Everyone in Newcastle knew all about Ipswich, believe you me. People always talked about what a great family club it was and how the crowd were great. And you got that feeling too when you arrived. Initially it was tough moving down as the wife and kids didn’t settle, and ended up moving back to Newcastle. But then we found a lovely place in Tattingstone, and as I say, we never wanted to leave.”
Armstrong admits he joined Town during a special period in their recent history.
“At that time, all the players at Ipswich were just top drawer – one of the best groups of players I’ve played with.”
His first goals arrived when he came off the bench to score twice in a 3-1 home win over Southampton. “If you’re a striker and you score early on after a transfer, your confidence does take off,” he said. “I developed a really good understanding with Marcus Stewart, both on the pitch and off it. That season – the 2000-2001 season – everyone just worked so hard for one another. We were willing to die for our teammates – that was how it was.”
And so to the Inter Milan game – and Armstrong’s winner.
“The European games at Ipswich were really special. When the draw was made and we were facing Inter Milan – well, that was a team with names like Vieri, Ronaldo, Zanetti, Toldo. It was quite scary as they were such a top, top, team. I remember thinking we might stand a chance for the home game as they had left behind a couple of big name players.”
For Alun, the build-up to it wasn’t the best. Laid low with a bug, the plan was he wouldn’t even be on the bench. But thanks to a late decision, that (and fate) changed.
“That goal will probably live with me forever” he said. “People obviously remember me for that, but I liked to think they remember I scored a few more too! But, hey, what a great night!
Goals in the return leg at the San Siro, plus against Southampton, Spurs, Liverpool, Everton, Aston Villa, and two against his previous club Middlesbrough would follow. And the following season, he hit a brace in a 5-0 demolition of Sunderland at Portman Road – a fond result for a Newcastle fan. In 59 starts, 19 goals came his way for the Blues.
“I probably had the most enjoyable time of my career at Ipswich – and that first season was truly special. I felt my link up play with Stewy was one of the best partnerships I had. Because of the quality of that Ipswich side, it was easy to play in.
“We had Jim Magilton, whose quality of passing was just ridiculous. Martijn Refuser too – his deliveries were a different class, and Stewy’s movement great to work off. And what’s more, Mark Venus was probably the only centre-half I had seen taking free kicks and corners. What a left peg he had!
“You could see back then that the likes of Veno and Jim were guaranteed to go into management or coaching. Mogga too. Certainly I wasn’t interested in the idea back then. I actually spoke to Stewy recently as he’s the assistant manager at Walsall and we played them earlier this season in the FA Cup first round. Like myself, I couldn’t imagine he would ever have wanted to go into management!”
The story the following year is one everyone knows. Relegation.
“I think the second season it was the UEFA Cup which hurt us. I remember one game we were playing in Europe on the Thursday night with a game against Manchester United at the weekend. United refused to change the game to a Sunday. So that season was tough.
“For me personally, a few injuries caught up with me, and after George left I never really got the opportunities again under Joe Royle.
“I never wanted to leave Ipswich – I loved it there - and still felt I had a lot to offer. We lived in Tattingstone, and in the end it was a struggle to get my wife to leave Suffolk too.”
Speaking of his departure, he said: “I think different managers have different styles. My exit could have been handled differently. I remember asking Joe if I was still in his plans, and he said “you are” but I wasn’t and didn’t play. I couldn’t understand it. But if you don’t fit into a manager’s plan, you have to respect that in the end.
“But when I joined the club, as I say, what George and his team brought to the table – that was special. The belief it gave the players was incredible. We honestly felt we could beat anyone.”
But these fantastic memories are also distant. Life now sees him managing National League North side Darlington FC, just six points away from the play offs before the season was halted. And family life is busy too. His 23-year-old son Luke is a player at Salford, while another son, 17-year-old Rhys, is a midfielder on Darlington’s books. Armstrong has nine children in total – eight sons and a girl – so time is a rare commodity.
The 45-year-old only took over at ‘Darlo’ in the summer after his successful tenure at Blyth Spartans.
After an unplanned entry to football management in the Northern Premier League (Level 7), Armstrong soon had the Spartans flying. His first season in charge of the Green Army saw him guide them to the league title and subsequently achieve National League North status.
“We smashed the league really” Armstrong said, “and we won it by 14 points, scoring 114 goals and collecting 101 points. The secret was we couldn’t stop scoring.”
“At Blyth then I had my son Luke; I sort of played him in a similar role to what I played at Ipswich, while the other forward player Dan Maguire, he played the Marcus Stewart role with his movement. They scored more than 50 goals between them – so it must have worked!
“I think the expectancy at Darlington is different – it’s a bigger club and a fan owned club too. They essentially raise their own money. When we were missing out on £20,000 in gate receipts because of this covid-19 virus, the fans set themselves a target of raising the money. People just dig into their pockets. It’s incredible – I’ve never seen anything like it.”
In addition to the board of the club, there is a fans’ board too.
Even when Armstrong didn’t see himself becoming a manager, his interest in the game still had him coaching at Middlesbrough’s academy.
And despite claims about football’s constantly evolving nature, he doesn’t see game hugely differently to how he did as a player.
“For me, football hasn’t changed. Okay the odd rule has, but it’s about getting the best out of your players, and that’s what I seek to do. When I was player, I had an interest in the game where I would sit and watch how manager did things.
“What is different is the man-management side of it. You have to work out an individual approach for each player. And my managerial style – well I’m definitely not a shouter or screamer. I’ve seen that kind of style when I was a player, and you realise people just switch off. It doesn’t work.”
How does he set his teams up to play, and how does his player career affect his coaching?
“I never encourage my teams to lump it! I have had actually received stick for overplaying believe it or not, but that’s just me. It’s always the way I’ve wanted to play football and the clubs I’ve been at have played that way. I never try to draw games – I want to win and play forward as much as we can. My style is possession based but with a purpose. It sounds like everyone else I guess, but you have to have the right players to do it.”
Armstrong’s assistant at Darlington is the former Sunderland full-back Darren Holloway – the pair played together at Darlington. “We’ve both seen different sides of the game and so the combination works well. He focuses on the defensive side and myself on the offensive.”
Darlington are part-time and only get to train twice a week. With demanding jobs filling up the players’ lives between 9am and 5pm, training has to be tailored differently to clubs where players report every day.
“I’ve got huge respect for the players” said Armstrong. “They do an unbelievable job of looking after themselves. Some will be in a factory working all day – and I’m expecting peak performance at training or at a game on a Tuesday. You have to be realistic!
“Having said that, our training focuses a lot on transition. You’ll find the lower you go down the football pyramid, the higher the turnover of the ball. You keep possession a lot less, and so at Thursday training we will work on the high press, winning the ball back, and supporting teammates to do that.”
Without wanting to plan too much in football, he is open to what may lie ahead and how his career path might develop.
“I had a three-year plan when I arrived at Darlington – at the moment it’s just stabilising the club. But we want to try and have a go and get up to the National league.
“I’m honest too – I have aspirations. You want to be at the top in any field, but it takes time and especially so in football management. Of course it would be a dream to manage some of the other clubs I’ve played for – Ipswich included. At the moment though the focus is 100 per cent on the Darlington job.
“I think the way football is at this level is in some ways harder because of the gaps between games. If you come off a bad game on the Saturday, you don’t have training until Tuesday to work things out. That’s three or four days of champing at the bit.”
His chosen profession brings him no regrets. “Actually I think my record has been ok so far - winning promotion that first season and progressing with Blyth before moving onto Darlington.
“For me, everything is either family or football. Having said that, football is all the time – you’re always dealing with something. But I wouldn’t half miss it if I wasn’t involved!”
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