Big interview: ‘I know I am good enough’ – Paul Hurst discusses his upbringing, football journey and why being blunt is best
- Credit: Archant
Paul Hurst takes charge of his first competitive Ipswich Town game on Saturday. STUART WATSON sat down with the new Blues boss to talk about his route to this point.
There’s little more than a week to go until the start of the new season. The team is due to face West Ham in the final warm-up friendly in little more than 24 hours. There’s plenty of transfer business to deal with.
“Thanks for agreeing to this,” I say to Paul Hurst. “I’m not sure how much time you’ve got...”
“I was told you’d need about 15 minutes or so,” he replies.
Almost an hour later and we’re done. Not bad for someone who started off by proclaiming ‘I don’t really class myself as a talker’.
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He’s open about his childhood and current family life. He exudes a strong self-belief and drive whilst always maintaining an air of humility. Most importantly of all, it never feels manufactured.
I begin by asking him about his reputation as someone who speaks his mind. There’s already been plenty of evidence of that since he was appointed Ipswich Town boss in May. Where does that come from?
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“I’m not sure, in all honesty,” he says. “Growing up I was quite quiet, and I still consider myself to be quiet, but I guess when it’s something that you’re really passionate about and things annoy you then it’s better to let people know that. They then have a choice to make.
“What I’ve been learning, the more I’ve been in this job, is that a lot of it is about being a leader rather than a manager. I think you’ve got to be willing to not shy away from situations. I find that’s the best way to deal with it.
“It took me a long time to get that voice in the dressing room as a pro.
“I think you’ve just got to be strong in your views and what you look for. But at the same time I think that I’m open-minded and listen to everyone’s point of view.
“My parents and my wife tell me that I’m stubborn. I don’t believe them! My wife is certainly stubborn, so we have no chance of getting on at times.
“I can remember silly arguments with friends and my missus where I get accused of being that person who is always the devil’s advocate. I’ll often say ‘I agree with you, but maybe they’re doing it for this reason’.
“I do believe how you are brought up shapes your values.”
Describing that upbringing in Sheffield, the former Rotherham United stalwart explains: “My mum (Margaret) is certainly quite a tough lady. I’ve got her to blame for my lack of height – she’s 4ft 11 and a half.
“My dad (Michael) never just allowed my brother and I to win; whether it were playing a game of pool, a board game, whatever. I think I now do that with my own son (Zach, 11) and daughter (Millie, 13) now.
“Look, we are all probably guilty of spoiling our children, but I 100% want them to understand the value of money and the value of earning things rather than everything just coming easy to them.
“At one stage both my parents, through no fault of their own, were out of work. They worked at the same place and it got shut down so they could build a supermarket on the site.
“We were brought up in a council house, which I’m not embarrassed about. It wasn’t a particularly rough estate or anything like that, but it certainly wasn’t a silver spoon environment. My dad took me to Hillsborough sometimes, but financially it wasn’t always viable.
“We didn’t miss out on things, but we understood the value of everything.”
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One thing Hurst has certainly always appreciated the value of is opportunity and being ready to take every one that comes his way.
He’s done that as a manager, climbing the ladder at Ilkeston Town, Boston United, Grimsby Town and Shrewsbury Town, but that mindset became ingrained in him long before that.
“Growing up I was always one of the best players in the team at junior level, as almost every professional is, but when you reach 15, 16 then suddenly all the best players are together and you have to find a way to stand out again and be willing to fight your corner,” he says.
“We joke about this, but height was always going to be an issue. I was a left-winger, but as soon as I reached the youth team we had three left-wingers and the manager came to me and said; ‘We need a left-back, are you willing to give that a go? Or it might be that you have to sit on the bench’. I told him ‘no, I’d rather play, I just want to be in the team’.
“Thankfully I picked it up, did pretty well at it and was able to have a career there (playing more than 450 times for Rotherham).
“But I’ve always felt, to a degree, that I’m fighting against the odds. I was probably one of the smallest players out there in terms of the defensive positions.
“One thing I’ve always had is a determination. I’m a big believer in the phrase ‘proving people wrong’. We’ve used that in the teams we’ve been in charge of. I say ‘we’ because I think (assistant) Chris (Doig) is very much on board with that too.
“That drive and determination has always been there for me and I think that can make up for a lot. I don’t profess to being the best player in the world, but I managed to play League Two, League One and the Championship. I could have only dreamed of that at one time.
“It’s always about me being the best I can be. If we were doing weights I knew I couldn’t lift more than the big centre-half, but pound-for-pound could I be stronger than him? You’ve got to try and over-achieve. That’s what I believe.
“I never like to lose. And I never want to become comfortable about losing. I would make a scenario up for whoever I was playing against, be they an 18-year-old debutant or someone with pedigree, so that I’d go into a game with a few nerves but a determination for them not to get the better of me. A big part of it was the fear of being embarrassed by him.
“I talk to the players about hating losing more than they like winning. Some people in psychology might not think that’s the right way, but it’s what works for me.”
And now the process of proving himself starts all over again.
“I know the question will be ‘can he manage in the Championship?’” says Hurst.
“I know I can. That’s not being big-headed, I don’t mean it in that sense, it’s just that I know I can.
“Whether it works or not I don’t know. There are lots of things here that will make it difficult and will be extremely difficult to change.
“But I don’t think a lot changes in terms of the basic principles of the job. There are lots of really good managers who won’t get this opportunity I’ve got and there will be people that do get opportunities that aren’t good managers.
“My chances of being top of the league compared to Frank Lampard’s chances (at Derby) of being top of the league are different. Does that make him a better manager? I don’t believe so. He might be. We’ll see.”
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A lot can change in six months.
In the summer of 2008, age 34, Hurst realised his long association with boyhood club Rotherham United was coming to an end.
He could have stayed on for another year. Instead, he chose to sign for Derbyshire-based Northern Premier League club Ilkeston Town on a part-time playing contract and start planning for the future.
He’d just graduated from Staffordshire University with a degree in Professional Sports Writing and Broadcasting. He had been doing some work for Rotherham’s Community Sports Trust as Participation Officer. He started dabbling in a bit of teaching too.
None of it, however, was really scratching the competitive football itch.
“I did one morning a week at a primary school doing two lessons, I lectured at a college in Doncaster one day a week and started being a teaching assistant,” he explains.
“Some of the jobs I did, I quite enjoyed them. Whether I did them long enough to really start to not like them is a debate, I suppose.
“I was still very much playing in my first season at Ilkeston and I still very much saw that as my main job, maybe stupidly, but that’s what I saw it as.
“Then the manager left halfway through that season, myself and another lad, Rob Scott, got the job and we got promoted. That’s where it all started.”
It was, Hurst admits, his only realistic route to the dug-out.
“As a young pro, I was very interested in the tactical side of the game and formations,” explains the 43-year-old.
“Then I went through a stage, middle of my career, where I got to a point where I didn’t feel I was learning too much.
“And I also started to think it just wouldn’t be something that would come about. I fully understand I haven’t got a name like, to use two current examples, Steven Gerrard and Frank Lampard. People weren’t going to go ‘let’s give Paul Hurst a job’.”
Reflecting on those early steps as a boss, he says: “Initially it was difficult. We weren’t sure how long it would last and I was still a team-mate to the players. Even when I went to Grimsby, my first full-time job, there were a couple of lads there who I’d played with, by coincidence, and that didn’t feel quite right to me.
“But the longer you do something, the more confidence you get.”
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It’s the little things.
Hurst had come to greet me personally in reception. Usually the manager’s PA or a press officer ushers you through.
Mind you, his route to this point means he has become accustomed to being hands on.
“I’ve enjoyed my time at every club I’ve been at,” he says. “There has been different learning experiences. The higher up you go you tend to get more support, more help, but a lot of it is the same principles.
“You just might not be the person who has to do everything. In the early days I was still playing, but I was doing all the warm-ups, doing the set-plays... I still do the set-plays now when I know a lot of managers who don’t.”
Asked what the most menial tasks he used to do during his time in non-league, he replies: “Just the basics, which is not that menial, but carting equipment around, setting it up and putting it away.
“But I’d always been one, as a player, who did my bit in that respect. When you get back from an away game, grab a bag of balls or kit off the coach and bring it in rather than just jumping in your car and driving off.
“I want people to respect other people that they’re working with. I want people to respect the career that they’ve got because, let’s be honest, a high percentage of the population would give their right arm to come in and do what they’re doing on a day-to-day basis.
“That includes myself and the staff. We get in here and we moan and groan sometimes, as we all do in our work at times, but you’ve got to enjoy it.
“Because I’d rather be doing this job than, with due respect to anybody, be stacking shelves or serving at McDonald’s. I enjoy it – especially with the weather being the way it is at the minute. It’s better to be out there than being stuck in an office. I’ll take that all day.”
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He grew up a big Sheffield Wednesday fan. He played more than 450 games for Rotherham. And he’s already got more than 500 matches as a manager under his belt (with an impressive 50% win ratio).
“I’ve seen it from most sides,” said Hurst. “I did my fair share of supporting, I went to watch Wednesday in a cup semi-final at Villa Park, so I do understand when fans get upset about performances.
“But I will always stick up for players. One thing I detest is hearing fans moaning about what players earn. It’s not their fault. Whatever job you do, if someone offers you ten, 20 times what you currently earn, how many people are going to turn around and say ‘I don’t think I’m worth that’?
“Don’t get me wrong, I don’t like it when I hear players demanding certain money. I want people here that realise that money is purely a by-product of what you do.
“Yes, you want to be valued. There’s no point saying ‘I’m happy earning X’ when realistically you feel you should be earning ‘Y’ in the business that we’re in.
“At the same time I don’t want it to be their driving motivator. I want people to be upset about not being in the team. I don’t want people to be happy sat rotting away and not doing what they are supposed to love.”
He adds: “There have been one or two things already here that have made me smile because the money has changed from where I’ve come from.
“Look, this is certainly not a dig at the players. It’s just little things. I don’t know, maybe you are going overnight. I’m used to lads bunking up together. I think here there’s been a thing where quite a few of the lads like to have their own room.
“That’s at their cost, it’s not anything that the club subsidises, but where I come from there’s no chance of that happening! The lads are more likely to say ‘let’s get a room between four of us’!”
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The life of a football manager is pressurised and uncertain. And finding a good work-life balance is not easy.
“I think it’s extremely difficult to switch off,” said Hurst. “And this year was particularly hard.
“I lost in the play-off final (with Shrewsbury), which had its own hurt to deal with for me. My wife (Melanie) didn’t go to the game.
“Then we were straight on holiday and I think she found it difficult because obviously the situation changed for me. I was trying to get everything sorted. I think both her and the kids, to be honest, felt I didn’t switch off enough.
“There were certainly days where I was only thinking about work. It’s difficult. I think sometimes she gets sick of me saying ‘let’s not make too firm plans because it’s football’.
“She’s probably right, you can’t live your life like that all the time, but at the same time there has to be a bit of being sensible and not getting too far ahead.”
He adds: “She doesn’t like football, which I’m delighted about. I know some people think it’s great when their wife comes to the game and they can talk about it afterwards. I can’t think of anything worse.
“The last thing I want to do is go home and for her to say ‘what’s the left-back doing?’ and ‘he should have scored’. That would absolutely tip me over the edge.
“That helps me get away from work, to a degree, but you’re always still going through it all in your own head.”
Hurst’s young family have always stayed living in Sheffield as he’s moved from club-to-club and will continue to do so.
“It’s come at a difficult time in terms of the children’s ages,” he explains. “My son is due to go to a comprehensive school which we spent a bit of time choosing.
“They’ll be down here for a few weeks soon and will keep coming down at weekends and school holidays. In some ways it’s nice for them – a little holiday break.”
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Hurst makes no excuses for liking what he likes.
Cold sandwiches, no; hot sandwiches, yes. It’s a piece of trivial information I gleaned as he discussed match-day catering arrangements with another member of staff prior to this interview starting.
He notices my raised eyebrows. “I’m a weird eater,” he says, with an unapologetic shrug of the shoulders.
One thing he certainly doesn’t like, even if it’s on a sub-conscious level, are players operating in a comfort zone.
He has never stopped challenging himself. And he wants to be surrounded by people who feel the same.
“I class myself as someone who is just very blunt,” he says. “The type of people I want to work with are those that, when I tell them they are not doing their job, that they are not working hard enough and that they are letting the team down, I want that to hurt them.
“Gone are the days where someone would launch a tea cup across the room followed by a few sandwiches (not that he’s eating any) and whatever else. I’ve kicked something in the dressing room once, which I regretted, because it hurt.
“There’s no point effing and blinding and screaming at them. One; you can only do that so many times, in my opinion. Two; it’s not really me, so it would be false and people would see through that.
“I think you have to manage how you feel comfortable. Me being blunt, whether they like it or not, that’s just what I’m seeing.
“When I say things I hope it hurts their pride a little bit to hopefully get a reaction, whether that’s second half, in training or the next game.”
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Some things will stay the same. Some things are changing.
The furniture in the manager’s office up at Playford Road has been rearranged ever so slightly for the latest incumbent.
The circular table for group discussion has been shifted across to accommodate a new desk especially for assistant Chris Doig, but the main man’s desk still faces towards the door.
It meant Hurst could flag down a passing staff member and request they send a few of the youth team lads his way.
When they arrive he invites them to ask if I would like drink. “And don’t forget to ask the young lady too,” he reminds them, gesturing towards photographer Sarah Lucy Brown.
That culture of politeness and respect was a cornerstone of the Mick McCarthy era.
“One thing I would say, with Mick, is that he is a very straight forward man,” said the new Blues boss. “I don’t know him particularly well, but that’s pretty obvious, and I think he has left a squad here with lots of good characters.
“There are no real egos, which is great for me. But at the same time have I really got people who are really desperate to push themselves? I’ve got some.
“I think some are finding it difficult and they’ve got to step up. Now we have to ask ourselves are they actually capable of stepping up or are they just not quite what we are after?
“That’s what we’ve got to try and change over time, whether it’s changing their mentality or changing the personnel.”
Hurst continues: “I had a conversation with the Under-23s about understanding the opportunities that are in front of you. Some of these lads now are playing at Championship level. Can some go on and play in the Premier League?
“Or are they happy just thinking ‘oh, I’m at Ipswich Town’? I said to them; ‘Just because you’ve got an Ipswich Town tracksuit on, and you’re coming to work at Ipswich Town, it means nothing. As far as I’m concerned, you’re not an Ipswich Town player yet. Don’t kid yourself that you are. You’ve got to earn that right.
“That was part of the reason behind the squad photo. Some people might have thought they were going to be on that squad photo. They haven’t earnt the right. You’ve got to earn the right. That’s what we’re trying to get.”
With the likes of Barry Cotter, Ben Morris and Ben Folami notable omissions from said photo, Hurst continued: “I want those lads hungry to push and think ‘I should be on your team photo’. If in six months time we need to organise another squad photo, because him, him and him should be on, then we’ll do that.
“That’s what I’m after. Sometimes young players, not just here but everywhere, are rewarded far too quickly. They get above themselves about where they are. We’ve got lads that are in our squad, but they are not what I would call Championship players yet.”
Hurst has persuaded owner Marcus Evans to finance a costly new gym at the training ground. Outside the wall which new signings pose in front of has been given a much-needed lick of new paint. On the internal walls, a few motivational phrases have been embossed.
“I don’t know if you saw the one as you came in,” says Hurst. “It’s about appreciating what you do for your work, understanding what got you here and not losing your love for it.
“Yes, the players may not like us at times, but we will push them and they’ll get the rewards. If that means we end up getting bids for players and they move on then we’ve done our job. We’ve made them better. It might not even be making them better technically, but making them better mentally. We want to make them want to push on.
“I’m a big believer that a lot of this game is between your ears. There are a lot of players at similar levels. The difference is having that drive and willingness. Two people can have the same ability, but the one who is prepared to work that little bit harder will surpass the other. Hard work will always beat talent.”
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A hunger to continually self-improve.
That was the recurring theme when speaking to those that knew Hurst best following his appointment as Ipswich Town boss earlier this summer. It was the recurring theme of this interview.
“I never shy away from stating my ambition,” said Hurst. “I haven’t come here to think ‘oh, that’s me now, I’ve made it, I’ve got to the Championship, I’m happy now and if I work my way back down the leagues then great’.
“I’m not naïve. That might well happen. But I haven’t come here just to be happy in the job and thinking ‘I’m earning a bit more money now’. That doesn’t really interest me that side.
“It’s about wanting to do well. I want to try and make this a good football club for everybody. There are loads of things I would love to do, but there are restrictions and things also take time. But I want to try to put a stamp on the club and make it as good as it can be.
“It’s got a very proud history. I can’t, realistically, give Ipswich the best times that they’ve ever had. In my previous job (Shrewsbury) we weren’t too far away from having the best time in the club’s history. Here that’s almost mission impossible.
“Certainly though I hope to bring some good times and put smiles on people’s faces and just have them feel they are part of the football club and can connect with a team they want to support.
“There will be times where the scoreline doesn’t go our way, but if maybe 42 times out of 46 the fans see a team that has given everything then I think people can accept that.”