Style of play, recruitment and journey to this point – the lowdown on new Ipswich boss Paul Hurst
- Credit: Archant
Ipswich Town have today announced Paul Hurst as their new manager on a three-year contract. STUART WATSON takes a look at his journey to this point and the football philosophy he’ll bring to Portman Road.
The Sheffield-born left-sided defender became a legend at Rotherham, making almost 500 appearances during a 15-year spell (93-08) that included promotions from the fourth to the second-tier and subsequent period of stability at that level.
He ended his career with a brief loan spell at Burton and, in 2008, graduated from Staffordshire University with a degree in professional sports writing and broadcasting alongside former pros such as Chris Iwelumo and Scott Minto.
Starting at the bottom
Initially he was part of a management partnership alongside fellow former Millers defender Rob Scott.
The duo started out at Northern Premier League side Ilkeston Town, taking over in January 2009 and masterminding a late surge up the table which ultimately ended in promotion via the play-offs.
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With the Derbyshire side in a perilous financial position, Hurst and Scott moved to Boston United that summer and repeated their previous season’s success. Again, there was a promotion from the Northern Premier League via the play-offs along with two cup triumphs.
Grimsby Town had been relegated out of the Football League for the first time in almost 100 years. By the following March, after a mid-season slump, they turned to Hurst and Scott. An 11th-place finish was salvaged.
Ipswich fans can relate to what followed over the next five-and-a-half years. Three times in a row the Mariners lost in the play-offs – twice in the semis and once in the final after finishes of 4th, 4th and 3rd – before finally triumphing at Wembley against Forest Green Rovers in 2015/16.
Taming of the Shrews
A few eyebrows were raised when, little more than two months into the following campaign, Hurst – by now a stand alone boss – left the club he had spent so long getting in League Two to join a Shrewsbury side rock-bottom of League One. The Shropshire outfit had just two wins to their name and were six points adrift of safety with almost a third of the campaign gone.
By January, they were out of the drop zone. They eventually ended up in 18th as rivals Port Vale went down.
If that had been remarkable, then what followed was a minor miracle. Salop occupied a top-two spot for almost five months of the campaign just gone before eventually being pipped to automatic promotion by big-budget Wigan and Blackburn.
A marathon 62-game season – which included taking West Ham to an FA Cup third round replay and a Checkatrade Trophy Final defeat to Lincoln – ultimately ended in disappointment with a 2-1 extra-time defeat to Rotherham in the Play-Off Final at Wembley last Sunday.
Organised, disciplined and hard-working are buzz words, but Hurst is quick to say that’s a base to play football from. He always stresses that he wants his side to play on the front foot – both home and away.
When taking over at Shrewsbury he said: “They’d had a lot of changes in the previous 15 games in looking to find something that worked. I knew from speaking to them that they were not sure what they would be doing from game to game because they were changing for the opposition. I think it was a relief for them to get the message that this is us and this is what we do.”
Later he said: “A message we talked about before the game was effort and how that’s an absolute minimum, but we can play as well. If it was just a long ball game today I think we’d have come out second best, we tried to get it down and pass it which I thought we did well at times.
“What I want to promise is a team that’ll give everything until the final whistle.”
Front foot football
He’s generally favoured a 4-2-3-1 / 4-3-3 system this season, with Jon Nolan at the tip of a midfield three and wingers Alex Rodman and Shaun Whalley in support of a lone striker – either Carlton Morris or Stefan Payne. At times it has resembled more of a 4-1-4-1. Previously, he’d been a 4-4-2 man.
Tactically flexibility and bold early substitutions often feature – as shown at Wembley on Sunday when a second striker was introduced early in the second half.
On subs: “We were a goal down the other night (at Northampton) and within 10 minutes of the second half we changed shape and put two up front, going three at the back. It wasn’t in desperation but we thought ‘if we lose two or three-nil, we’ve still lost, why not? We went really positive.
On flexibility: “What I’ve got with this group is players that are quite intelligent, players who can play quite a few positions, who can play slightly different roles and I’d be relatively comfortable playing any kind of shape with them.”
On positivity: “I look at Liverpool against Man City and Liverpool showed the best way to go about stopping a team playing. In this game, you have joy from giving it a go. That’s what we did on the day (when taking West Ham to a replay). We were on the front foot.
“I don’t have any different tactics home or away, you’re trying to win matches wherever you are.”
Beating a budget
Hurst, much like Mick McCarthy did, has got around a restricted budget by focussing on character when it comes to recruitment. At Shrewsbury, players reaching their peak years were signed from non-league (many having been previously released by big clubs), while youngsters arrived on loan from clubs higher up the pyramid. All had a clear hunger.
“The squad I inherited was on the experienced side, shall we say, and there were a few of them who had played higher up for so-called bigger clubs,” he explained. “Now, I think there is a lot more appreciation of what it means to be playing for Shrewsbury Town.
“Thankfully, success is not just to do with the money that you spend, it is about the work on the training ground and getting value for money when you do spend. We have perhaps brought in a different type of player to the ones that other clubs at our level would target.”
He added: “If someone has not had anything before, it is new and fresh and they want to seize the opportunity.
“It was not a set target of ‘oh, I’ve got to get in so many lads who played non-league’. I’ve said it a few times that in the Conference, you get to see a lot of good players and understand there is the talent there at the level.
“I think people who have never worked there or don’t take in many games can be very critical and don’t give it any respect.
“I have seen that side. It doesn’t faze me particularly where players have come from. I am looking for good players and good characters. I don’t rule anyone out but we do our homework to see what they are like as people as well.”
Assistant boss Chris Doig said: “We’re big on relationships with players. The gaffer’s big on the environment created at a football club. We want players to work hard and be demanding, but also enjoy themselves.
“That’s how we feel you get the best out of players and certainly in my three years of being an assistant it’s gone that way.”
Genuine pessimist or clever motivator?
“I describe myself as a realist,” he says. “Others say I am a pessimist. People would definitely say I see a glass as half empty.”
When asked last season if he was surprised by his team’s flying start, his reply was deadpan: “No... I’m majorly surprised.”
Expectations are always managed. Thoughts on that 4-0 win? “It is unusual for us to score that many – I doubt it’ll happen again.”
Even in the midst of the promotion push, much like Claudio Ranieri did during Leicester’s fairytale season, he kept talking about the points tally needed to stay safe.
Players have become accustomed to hearing their manager say that they will probably lose this week or declaring that they are not that good.
“Once they get to know me it is fine but some of the new players do take a bit of time to get my sense of humour,” he explains. “Even some of the staff are surprised by what comes out of my mouth.”
On the prospect of one day being a Premier League manager, he’s joked: “I would probably have to grow a lot bigger ego to manage there.”
Little and large
Assistant Chris Doig has been with Hurst for three years now and arrives at Portman Road as part of the package.
The Scot – who stands nearly a foot taller than his boss – played as a centre-back for both Nottingham Forest and Northampton Town, alongside Town skipper Luke Chambers at the latter.
He can be similarly self-deprecating. When speaking about midfielder Jon Nolan this season he joked: “He’s miserable, moody and never smiles – his interviews are like pulling teeth...he’s pretty much like me!”