16 Jul 2014


Club promotion, 28 matches without defeat and peer recognition. It’s hard to imagine a better start to a management career. Sue McKellar talks to Russ Wilcox about his remarkable first six months in charge.

On 29 March 2014, Russ Wilcox led Scunthorpe United to its 24th game without defeat, breaking the record for an unbeaten run at the start of a managerial tenure, which had stood since 1889. The run ended on his 29th game, which ironically despite the loss also sealed the club’s promotion to Sky Bet League One.

Given that Wilcox only took the manager’s job last December, his achievements this season are all the more astounding, something recognised by his fellow managers when they voted him Sky Bet League Two Manager of the Year and the LMA when they presented him with a Special Merit Award at the Annual Awards dinner.

Wilcox accepted his first full management position after a 15- year coaching and management apprenticeship, which covered all four professional divisions. Most of this was at Scunthorpe, where he had also spent a fair part of his 18-year playing career. After initially becoming player-assistant manager to Brian Laws in 1999 and then assistant manager, he followed Laws when he took up managerial posts at Sheffield Wednesday and then Burnley. Wilcox assisted Lee Bradbury at Bournemouth before coming full circle back to Scunthorpe in 2012 to work alongside Laws once again.

When Laws lost his job in November 2013, Wilcox took over as caretaker and was perhaps the obvious choice as his replacement. But, despite his 15 years of watching and learning, he was still an unknown quantity in a leadership role. When Scunthorpe’s chairman granted him the opportunity he had been waiting for, he could never have imagined just how well the decision would pay off.


You worked your way up to management through various assistant and caretaker positions, including at Scunthorpe. Did that help you become the successful manager you are today?

Yes, without a doubt. I’ve gained some invaluable insight and experience along the way and that has probably helped the side as a whole and influenced what we’ve been able to achieve this season.

It has been a long apprenticeship, but an enjoyable one. I have done all of my coaching badges, including my UEFA Pro Licence and the LMA’s Diploma in Football Management course (now accredited by Liverpool University and based at St George’s Park). When you spend many years as a second in command, you are watching and learning, observing things that you’d implement if you became a manager and also things you might do differently. It’s important that when the opportunity arises to manage that you feel ready. I know I am ready now; I’ve probably felt ready for the last couple of years.


Was your transition into management as easy as it appeared to be?

It was the difference in the man-management side of things that I found most marked when I became a manager.  When you’re second in command you are often the go-between, communicating messages between the manager and the players, and you tend to cajole people into doing what you want. The manager’s role comes with much more responsibility – you have to handle situations and people and your word is final.

Everyone is different, so you have to manage them as individuals as well as the group collectively. While we have a group debrief after a game, I also speak to the players individually, which I believe is really important.


How influential has your knowledge of Scunthorpe’s culture, processes, team and fans been on your success?

Having first-hand knowledge of the club has certainly helped my transition into management. I spent nine years here before going off to work at other clubs, so I know it inside-out. When I came back I saw a change in the club, because I had left on a high and came back when it was at a low point. The fans had been through a tough three years and when I got the opportunity to manage the club naturally it was my goal to turn that around. The fans have been massively supportive and influential throughout the campaign.

I’m very conscious of who I am as an individual and my understanding of the club’s culture. Of course, you need a little bit of luck on the way, but I also believe that you earn much of that luck through hard work and by you and the players working towards common aims. As well as a great group of players, success requires hard work and togetherness, and that is central to my approach.


Have you sought to make gradual changes and did you know from the start where you would make improvements?

My initial remit from the chairman was to take charge for two games and I think that actually helped me. I went into the role of caretaker manager fairly relaxed, even though I didn’t know what the future held. I tried to instil self-confidence and self-belief in the players, giving them more ownership and responsibility on the pitch and they embraced that. We won those two games and then the third and things moved quickly after that.

Once I was appointed permanently I was able to make further adjustments as I felt necessary.


I understand the players put your success partly down to you being the same as a manager as you were a coach.

That is probably true. I didn’t want to change my personality or be something I’m not, and I wanted to be open and honest with the players. You have to be yourself or the players will see through it. People talk about a manager having to keep his players at arm’s length, but I don’t see it as a problem for a manager to have a good working relationship with his players. The bond I had with them as assistant manager has remained.

There are times, of course, when you have to be constructively critical with players and I am comfortable with that. Thankfully, over the past season I haven’t had to show my harder side too often, but that hasn’t always been the case. They certainly saw the other side of me when we played Accrington Stanley away and were 2-0 down at half time. That was a key moment early on in my management career, because the players realised that I am more than prepared to deal with such situations and make strong decisions when necessary.


How do you feel about beating that 126-year-old record for an unbeaten run at the start of a managerial career?

It was difficult to think about it during the season because our focus was totally on promotion. It was only after the season had finished and I had picked up my awards at the LMA Annual Awards dinner that I was able to absorb our achievements properly. Aside from being instrumental in earning us promotion to Sky Bet League One, the run undoubtedly brought so much positivity to the club. I am immensely proud of the achievement of the group of players and the club as a whole. It’s been an amazing year, and I look back with so much pride to know I’ve achieved promotion as a player, assistant manager and manager at the same football club.


How did you stop the players from becoming complacent?

It’s important that everyone remains grounded and you want your players to be respectful of the opposition, but not to fear them. I say ‘be confident, but don’t be arrogant’ because there’s a fine line between the two. It was my job to keep the players level-headed and give them a little jolt now and again if I felt the intensity of their training or their performance was lacking.

However, I must say that as a group of players they have managed themselves very well. I have some experienced players who have played at a higher level, players hungry for success and individuals who have been at Scunthorpe for several years and who after experiencing darker times with the club have been really excited to embrace and enjoy this season.


Did it add to the pressure that people expected you to keep on winning?

I think we were very good at taking the pressure off the players during the 28-match unbeaten run. During our team meetings we would look at the upcoming opposition, but we always made sure that the final focus was on us and how we would play. We knew we were good enough to win every game at that level; there was real belief in the group. The players didn’t approach any of the 28 games assuming they would win, but they knew they had a real opportunity each time. Even when we didn’t play our very best, the group mentality remained resolute and we were hard to beat.


You seem a very calm character. Do you think that filters through to the players?

I think so, yes. There’s a saying that ‘attitude reflects leadership’ and as the leader of the group it is important that I portray what I want from them. I want the players to be excited about coming into training every day, knowing that they’re coming to a good working environment, one that is relaxed but with a clear hard-work ethic.

The key to our 28-game unbeaten run has undoubtedly been hard work, on the training ground and on every matchday. We have some quality players, but so do many football teams. Without a hardworking mentality, however, you will never be successful.

Dedication to the team is also vital though. When I was a player, it was always about the team and I knew that sometimes you had to sacrifice yourself a little bit for the good of the group. I’ve seen this approach filter through to the players this season and when I hear them using phrases like ‘game management’ and saying ‘it’s about the group’ in interviews it is great to hear. We all now understand that if we work hard enough for each other we can achieve great things.