This week will see the end of FC Isle of Man’s second season in the North West Counties Football League (NWCFL). It’s not been an easy one for the club on or off the pitch, especially when considering the successes of last season, but despite a number of challenges, the club ultimately achieved its minimum requirement of remaining in the NWCFL Premier Division.
One of those challenges came in November with a change in Team Management. Paul Jones, the brainchild of the club, was thrust into the manager’s hot seat charged with the task of achieving that minimum requirement. It was a challenge that was met with some aplomb by he and his team. Steve Burns sat down with Jones prior to the Bury AFC game last weekend to discuss Paul’s thoughts on how the season has been from his perspective and how he had adapted to the new role.
Prior to the club’s board asking Paul to take over the manager’s role until the end of the season, Jones had been key member of that same board and the Club’s Executive Committee. He admits that the circumstances were not good for anyone at the club at that time, and having to stand down from the Exec and focus on the football side of the club was initially tough and the responsibility weighed on him for some time.
“It wasn’t an easy situation”, he explains. “However, it was made a lot easier by the players in terms of how they welcomed me and the new coaches that came into work with us. Their attitude and mentality has been brilliant from day one, and I think they’ve thrived with the method of working that we introduced.
“Being honest though it’s only really been during the last few weeks that I can honestly say that I’ve started to enjoy it. From day one (of the club’s existence) I put a lot of pressure on myself to demonstrate the club’s vision and on what was possible, and for the last five months it’s been about leading a group of players at this level of football and taking them to the performance levels that I’ve been talking about for the last four years.
“I think it’s fair to say, that I’ve more often than not been the mouthpiece of the club since we started this project and I have consistently stated what I believe the players on the Isle of Man are capable of. For these last few months I’ve been the person tasked with delivering that. That generates a lot of pressure to try and ensure that it happens.
“There have been periods of doubt, I won’t lie, especially when we had that six-game losing streak (January through mid-February). You kind of start to doubt yourself and question what you’re doing and how you’re doing it. But, that’s a normal as part of the ongoing reflection process.
“Fortunately, I have had good people around me and we have kept focused. We kept trying to move forward, game after game, and we feel we have done that. We knew that things would turn around if we focused on the right things, which they have done. But now it’s not a just a case of maintaining where we are, it’s now about pushing on and going again. That’s ultimately why the club exists, to Be Better.”
Interestingly Paul believes the change of role has made his life a little bit easier.
“Focusing on the team is a different challenge to the role I had previously, to be honest”, he says. “It’s freed up a lot more of my time for my family and a lot more of my mind for my work. Don’t get me wrong it’s a challenging role and at times it’s not been easy for lots of different reasons, and not always because of what’s going on with the team. It’s usually everything that’s going around it. However, we’ve managed to keep our heads down and focus on what we’re doing and doing it in a way that we believe respects the players, the group, the club, and the reasons why the club was set up in the first place.
And that’s partly what it’s all about, isn’t it? It’s not just about winning on the pitch; it’s about doing things in what we (the club) believe is the best way possible. And we’ve started to feel like we’re getting closer to delivering that.”
That six-week nightmare to which Paul refers to seems a long time ago now and since mid-February the Ravens have been one of the form teams in the Premier Division. Since defeating Irlam at the Bowl on February 11, Jones chargers have won a further six matches, losing just two. It’s been series of results which meant that the victory at Longridge Town earlier this month resulted in the club confirming its league status with three games to spare.
In the aftermath of that Longridge game, Jones thanked his players for all their efforts but was keen to point out to them that; “we don’t really want to be celebrating staying in the league.” It really was a case of reaching that minimum requirement.
“Absolutely”, he states emphatically. “The club was created for lots of reasons, but one of them is because the player pathway is really strong on the island at the moment, and local players have long needed a club playing off island regularly to understand how good they can really be and to give them the experiences they needed to do that.
“So, after last season’s successes, then coming into this season with the squad of players we had available, we were thinking we’d be somewhere similar in the league to where West Didsbury & Chorlton (promoted alongside the Ravens last season) have been. That’s not us taking the division lightly, that’s because we believe in what the players are capable of.
“At this moment, I’m just really pleased that the players are starting to show what they’re capable of. It’s taken a lot of hard work from a lot of people, none more so than the players themselves. It’s nice to see them competing with the teams at the sharp end of the division week in and week out.
“We did have a little bit of a sing song after the Longridge game because we’d confirmed safety and because there was an awful lot of pressure on the players to do so. But it was more relief than a celebration.
“We shouldn’t really be celebrating staying up. We’re aiming to be better than that, and that’s what all the work is about and has been about from day one.”
The Longridge victory certainly lifted the pressure on Paul and his players, and with the last three games of the season coming against three clubs who were vying for the league title and one play-off position it was important that the players could perform with some element of freedom. This was demonstrated in their domination of second place Avro and the thrilling 3-2 win over Bury AFC over which Jones presided following this interview.
“Having the possible relegation shackles removed (after Longridge) I think meant we’re a little more relaxed and probably enjoying it with less pressure (to gain a result)”, says Jones. “That makes the result easier to achieve because the focus can be on the process and performance. It’s meant the players can enjoy the experience and the occasion, but also use these games as a great opportunity to improve their performance levels in these sorts of situations ahead of next season.
The team has been impacted by a number of injuries to a number of senior players this season, but this provided opportunities to some of the island’s younger players. Opportunities that perhaps they wouldn’t necessarily have been able to take but for the misfortune of others. However, players such as Kyle Watson and Tiernan Garvey largely became mainstays in the team in the weeks prior to Christmas. While Tom Shimmin, Tom Creer and Lewis Roberts also played vital roles for the team when called upon. Jones is quick to recognise the impact they’ve had and is impressed that they have taken to this level of football so well and so quickly.
“The young players have been amazing”, he says. “Take Lewis Roberts who played against Longridge for example and scored the first goal. He’s got the best goal to game ratio in the club (said with accompanying mischievous grin – Lewis has two goals in three games). He’s not played much, but every time he comes on, he contributes.
“Ben Wilkinson, has been sensational. His first call up was due to Ricey getting injured in the warm up prior to the Vauxhall Motors game in January. Considering he was thrown in at the deep end with no experience at this level of football he was superb. Similar to when he returned recently from injury to sit on the bench against Avro and had to replace the injured Quirk.
“The young players have got lots of potential. They’ve probably played more than anybody expected this year through necessity, but also because they’ve done really, really well.
“They’ve shown they’re capable. There’s a lot more to come from them, and I think our role as developers, coaches and managers is to help them to get the best out of themselves.
“Some of them are disappointed they’re not playing more regularly than others, but it isn’t necessarily the right thing to keep putting them in (to the team) all of the time. They’ve still got a long way to go, as they are just scratching the surface of their potential, so they need to be patient.
“Also, there’s another batch of 15-17 year olds that are coming through on the island that we would be wise to find a way to integrate into the group so as they don’t get left behind. The future’s looks really bright, but that brightness will only become reality if we keep pushing performance levels forward as a club.”
Anyone who has followed the Ravens since its inception cannot have failed to recognise the vision that Paul wishes for the club, likewise the standards he demands of himself and what he would like to see across the club. As mentioned at the outset, Paul was quick to state that the welcome he received when he took over the role in November helped him transition back into team management (let’s not forget he has coached and played key roles in the academy systems of Leeds United, Rangers and Norwich City as well as being IOMFA Manager as recently as 2019). So how did the players initially react to his demands?
“I don’t think they have seen that yet (demanding of standards)”, he laughs. “Well maybe not as much as you know that I can be. A lot of the first ten weeks or so was about building confidence and helping the young players understand a little bit more about what their roles were.
“We had to play a lot of young players in the first 12 games through various different circumstances. They were excellent, but it’s taken a little while for them to really click in terms of what’s required and where they need to be on the pitch in order to give themselves a fighting chance in a game without having to chase the game from minute one.
“I feel like they’re starting to click, but for me, that’s just the beginning of the process. That’s just the basics of football. There’s so much more to come (from the young players) to not only maintain this current form but hopefully build on it.
“That’s why today against Bury and next week weekend’s Wythenshawe game are such big tests, because as soon as they stop following the process and they stop being in the right places relative to their teammates, then gaps open up and the whole team struggles.
“For next season, whatever happens, their game understanding is hopefully a little bit higher than it was been previously.”
For their part the players, to a man, seem to have embraced Jones’ and his staff’s methods.
“They’ve really brought into everything that we’ve done”, he says. “We had a meeting when we first took over and we had a meeting after six games, which allowed the players to give feedback, and I believe that we’ve implemented some of the things that they wanted to help them get better. We need to make sure they feel like we are helping them to deliver that.
“We made a few tweaks after six games, which ultimately didn’t really show on the pitch, because we didn’t win any points over the next six games. But performance levels were improving, players were getting better at looking at performance levels in the process rather than getting fixated on whether we won a game or not. I think that’s been a real success this year in not getting too carried away with results and really starting to focus more on how we perform and whether we’re delivering in our roles, whether it’s the manager, the coaches, or the players.
“The players were craving more information, they were craving more time and development, and we’ve certainly put that into them. We believe we’ve met, and perhaps exceeded the players’ expectations in terms of what they felt they needed in order to perform at this level.
“For me, this is just the minimum and foundations that and we need to build on, hopefully, as a club over the years ahead.”
So as we’ve already stated, Paul’s appointment as manager is only to the end of this season, thus his current tenure ends this Saturday with the final fixture of the season against high flying Wythenshawe Town. There is no guarantee that Paul will be appointed manager on a full-time basis. The FC Isle of Man board, in line with the club constitution, opened up ‘expressions of interest’ to all interested parties at the start of March. However, Paul is hopeful of being appointed on a full time basis.
“I’ve applied for the job”, he explains. And I have followed the process as outlined by the club. At this stage (pre-Bury AFC) I am eagerly awaiting to find out what the next stage of the process is.
And if still at the helm next season, you will not be surprised what Paul’s expectations will be for the team?
“I think we’ve got to go back to why the club was started”, he states. “We believed in the Isle of Man, we believed in the island’s football players, we believed in our community, and that if we could all get together it could be very powerful. Obviously not every decision’s going to keep everybody in our (football) community happy, but I hope that we can generally work towards the same common goal, which is providing opportunities and developing the Island’s players as well as developing the coaching and developing football in general on the island. The higher the level FC Isle of Man plays, then the higher the level local football will be.
“We’ve had a really good grounding at this level of football. We’ve perhaps not met our performance goals as a club that we went into the season with. Some might say, they were unrealistic goals, but I don’t think they were. The players, as we can see, are showing they’re good enough to play at this level.
“I guess next season is about pushing at least for the play-off positions as the number of teams vying for promotion places will change next year. The top team goes up as per this season, but there will be four play-off berths next season. So, I think we’ve got to be aiming somewhere close to that next year whilst also acknowledging we need to make sure the gap between the young players coming through and the first team is not too big.
“So that’s a really tight rope to tread. To have a team that can perform and get close to being promoted whilst at the same time making sure that young players are involved and getting experiences and opportunities, so should the club get promoted in the next year or two, we’ve got a group of players that are ready to perform at an even higher level.
“I think with a fair wind, which we haven’t had this season for lots of reasons, the playing group are capable of finishing in the top five. Whether that happens or not is we’ll have to wait and see. Some of it is outside of our control, but I think there’s a lot we can do to make that more likely.
“Obviously the players don’t get paid (to play) for us. This is the only way they can play at this level of football. But in order for them to value playing for the club over and above the community goodwill that they generate, we need to make sure we’re developing them, and that’s where our work has to be.
“We’re not going to bring players over from England. We’ve got the playing groups that we’ve got. And that’s the exciting bit. As coaches, how good can we be to develop our players and develop the group over multiple seasons in order to get us to the next step and beyond?
“We don’t have the luxury of buying people in. That’s the one thing about professional football that does wind me up and has done for years, is that managers will just go and bring another player in rather than working with the players they’ve got and making them better.
“We have some committed and talented players within our community already, so we must be amazing at developing footballers and people. That is the key to this football club.”