Derby County Football Club Women

“I Wish I had took a Picture of their Faces” Gibbo’s Memoirs Part 5

Today sees Part Five of our seven part insightful and humorous look behind the scenes, in which CEO Duncan Gibb or ‘Gibbo’ as he is affectionately known to club personnel and supporters alike, shares memories of his time at the club.

Today he talks about the appointment and his relationship with each of the clubs first team managers under his tenure.

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Looking back over your time at the club, can we first of all ask you about our relationship with each of the first team managers, starting with John Bennett?

JB was the first team manager when I initially joined the club and I like to think that we developed a strong and positive relationship from the very outset.  He’s an extremely likeable man, who has some great qualities, not least his ability to manage people, and it’s not a surprise to see him doing so well at Long Eaton United LFC.

JB could see where we were looking to take the club, and due to his commitments elsewhere he felt it only right that he step down at the end of the 13/14 season; however he made it clear that if those commitments ever changed and the moons aligned that he’d be keen to return.

John Bennett’s Time in charge of the Ewe Rams

They did, and he re-joined the club in 2016; however subsequent FA directives around the level of first team manager qualifications required for clubs with Tier 2 aspirations meant that he either had to step aside or we needed to identify a new management structure to meet compliance.

Both Sam (our then Technical Director) and myself were keen on the latter, as we very much wanted JB to remain; however after much thought he felt it best to make a clean break, putting the club before himself.

That pretty much sums him up, and as I said at the clubs end of season awards in 2018, were he to ever want to re-join the club in some capacity, then the door will always be open.

Jenny Sugarman in charge of DCLFC

Following on from John, the club made an external appointment in Jenny Sugarman?

John Griffiths our then Technical Director at the time led on the recruitment and it was an admirable and brave move to give the keys to a young, relatively inexperienced manager.

The thinking was that Jen would be able to develop under John’s guidance, and I was impressed with some very clear and quite stringent rules that she introduced at the outset around training commitments, because I’d personally felt that it might be a struggle with the characters we had within the squad.

She had a refreshing honesty in terms of self-analysis, whilst her commitment and work ethic were second to none; however things just didn’t work out. The conversation in which I had to call time on the appointment was hard, as I knew how badly she wanted and worked for success, and I was delighted to see her subsequently do well at Loughborough Foxes.

Stuart Wilson’s time in charge of DCLFC

Your first solo appointment was Stuart Wilson. How did that come about and how did things come to an end?

I’d first spoken to Stuart when he was looking to undertake some coaching time as part of his badges, and was impressed with both his record as a coach and the way in which he carried himself.

The club at the time was in real danger of being relegated, which given all that was going on off the pitch would have been nothing short of disastrous. Ash Abbey and Jack Bright had stepped up from the Reserves as Caretakers and had steadied the ship to a degree, and to be honest I was happy with the job that they were doing but we decided to go down the road with Stuart.

Stuart had won the league with both Coventry and Aston Villa and he was available. After three meetings, the final one in which he introduced me to his assistant Neil Wilson, we shook hands and he became my first managerial appointment at the club on the playing side of things.

In terms of the final meeting there’s two things that still make me laugh now.  Stu had told me during discussions leading up to it, that if he were to join the club, then Neil would be coming with him, as they had worked together successfully throughout his career.  When I finally got to meet Neil we were in the press lounge at Pride Park Stadium and Stu re-iterated that they were at their most effective as a pair. There was a gap between them and slap bang in the middle was a picture of Brian Clough and Peter Taylor, so I pointed at it and said “you mean a bit like those two?” We all had a good laugh at that!

The other one that sticks out is that all of this happened on the back of my having secured the return of Arsenal, and for Liverpool to also come down and play us in a couple of prestige friendlies. I’d not mentioned this to Stu in our discussions, so having just shook hands with the pair of them on joining the club, I said “Well chaps, I guess you’d like to know who your first three games in charge are against?” They nodded, saying that it would be useful, before I replied “Well next Wednesday you’ve got the current FA cup holders, Arsenal at home. On Sundays you’re away to Mackworth St Francis in the County Cup, and the following Wednesday you’re at home to reigning WSL champions, Liverpool!” I just wish I could have taken a picture of their faces!!

Once we’d got those games out of the way, they oversaw a quite unbelievable run of results that saw us not only quickly dismiss any relegation worries, but eventually end up securing a top half finish. Stu had only joined us at the end of January; however he was eventually shortlisted for the National League, Manager of the Year award at the FA Women’s awards at Wembley. Whilst he didn’t win it, the fact that he’d made the shortlist spoke volumes, and I was as delighted for him and Neil as I was for the club, that we walked away with the first of our ‘Club of the Year ‘awards that night. It was special evening that I’ll never forget.

We had high hopes for the following season; however as the season wore on there were increasing tensions coming to the fore within the changing room. That said, and despite some at times very heavy pressure from both within the club and in the stands from supporters, I felt that we owed it to Stuart and Neil to let them continue until such time as it was mathematically impossible for us to achieve our openly stated pre-season targets.

When that time came and I had break the news to them, I think they half expected it and I also think they appreciated the way that things had been gone about.

Trust me, parting company with a manager is not easy; however this one was particularly difficult on a personal level, as they’d been my appointment. Neil has unfortunately since passed away; however I’ll never forget what they did for the club in that first season, and nor should anyone else.

A while later, I was asked to provide a reference for Stuart by another club. I have no issue in saying that it was both a positive and an easy conversation to have.

Sam Griffiths took over in 2018, for what was her first managerial appointment. How did that come about and what is your take on her job to date?

Sam is of course well known to all at the club, and was the first team captain when I arrived.

Given her main job with the FA, I think managing the club at which she made her name was always something that at the back of her mind was a possibility; however her ACL injury back in the 2016/2017 season accelerated that becoming a reality.

If you wind the clock back to when I joined the club, It didn’t take me long to arrive at the conclusion that my own role and the ambitions that we had as a board were simply too time demanding to also oversee the day to day football side of things. That’s why we brought in John Griffiths as Technical Director and Dave Cholerton as Academy Director.

When John left to take up his role with England, we never really filled that void, due more to finding the right person than anything else. When Sam was forced to retire, she was a natural choice for the role, so was already heavily involved in that side of things when the FA invited clubs to bid for a place in the Women’s Championship in 2018. As we’ve already discussed, JB didn’t feel able to continue in the amended structure that we proposed to meet the FA’s criteria, so Sam became the obvious and natural choice.

The results of that appointment are there for all to see, with the club securing its highest ever league position in 2018/19 and being a place higher than that when the league was voided earlier this year. She’s achieved that on the back of strong recruitment and the setting of standards and expectations.

Current Boss Sam Griffiths

What is your relationship with her like?

I think it’s fair to say that as people we are very different; however I like to think that there’s a mutual respect and trust that has been built on nearly seven years of working together. In addition to that, you have two people that if you cut them in half they bleed black and white, which I definitely think helps.

For me the dynamics are very simple. My job is to provide her with the best possible hand in terms of finances, facilities and player support. Her job is to use the sum parts of that hand to recruit staff and players and to get results. How she does that is completely up to her and I will only provide an opinion if I’m asked for it.

If the hand that Sam is provided with is poor, then I’ve failed. If it’s strong and the results aren’t there, then Sam has failed. It’s as simple as that. Based on where the club is at, I would suggest that as things sit we’ve both succeeded, and it therefore works.

I’ve always said in both my main career and in my time in football, if you bestow the title ‘Manager’ on somebody, then you have an obligation to let them ‘manage’. I think Sam appreciates that I provide her with the tools and then pretty much leave her to things.

Jenny Simpson or ‘Bart’ as she is better known has been a part of the managerial structure throughout your time at the club.

I think it’s fair to say that Bart has now reached ‘Club Legend’ status, due to her time at the club and the roles that she has filled, and in my view it’s a well-deserved accolade.

Going back to your last question, it will come as little surprise to learn that I have said to each of our managers at the outset of their appointments “You select your own backroom team, and if that means that you don’t want any of those that we currently have in situ, then feel free to let them go and bring in your own people.”. That may sound harsh; however that is how it has to be in football, and certainly at this club where we are very open in terms of our targets and aspirations.

That Jenny Sugarman, Stuart Wilson, John Bennett when he returned and then Sam have all chosen to retain Bart, is in my view the best testament that can be paid to her.

You mention that you like your managers to manage and very much leave them to it. Given that you managed at a reasonable level yourself, how easy is that in reality?

I was never much of a player; however as you say I’ve managed to a reasonable level, with teams of mine playing (and losing!) against the likes of Michael Carrick, Michael Bridges and Jody Morris when they were youngsters; however that was 25+ years ago and things move on.

If Sam asks for my opinion, which to be fair she often does, I do this thing where I take off an imaginary hat called the CEO’s one and put on another one called The Supporters one, saying what I’m doing as I do it. Only once the supporters one is on do I feel comfortable in providing my views, as in my mind I’m simply one of the many supporters that come to our games, all of whom are entitled to an opinion.

Join us tomorrow for Part 6 of Gibbo’s Memoirs as he talks about the open culture of our ambitions.