Coaches Corner: Garry Wilson
In the latest of our Coaches Corner series, we spoke to former Hastings and Eastbourne Borough manager, Garry Wilson.
“We won the league and out of 39 league games I think we only lost one. I jokingly said, ‘I’ll get you in the Conference in 10 years.’ But that was a long way away.”
It was a light-hearted statement from Garry Wilson all those years ago. But a statement that wasn’t far from reality. The Scottish-born manager had already achieved success at the formerly named, Hastings Town, but the mark he was about to leave on Eastbourne Borough was a very big one indeed.
Garry is well-known for his tenure at Eastbourne Borough, but it’s only when you sit down and talk to him that you realise, beyond that, he has quite the story to tell. Starting on the tough streets of Glasgow as a young boy.
“I was brought up on the streets of Glasgow, I lived in high-rise flats, council flats, and all that the kids had there was football. My dad was also taking me to see Celtic from a young age for the big European games.
“I played on the streets, I played at school and ended up school team captain. There were some good players there that went and played professionally; Mo Johnston was one who many will know as the Glasgow player that swapped Celtic for Rangers. He also won The FA Cup as a player with Watford.
“I swapped areas in high school, we lived in quite a rough council estate area, so my mum moved us out to a bit more of a posher area!”
Garry tells us he “never got on well with football” at his new high school, but that didn’t stop him from turning a few heads whilst playing for a men’s social side as a 16-year-old.
“I got offered a trial at Campsie Black Watch who, at the time, were probably the best under-21 team in our area.
“They were a team a lot of players progressed through and I thought I’d go for a trial; I was only 17 but I got on really well and I think that’s because I’d been playing men’s football for a year.
“They took a liking to me straight away and I signed. I was a regular in that team for a good number of years and loved my football there under a really good manager called Gerry Marley who sadly passed away.
“From there I got a lot of trials, I’d come down to England for a couple, I had a trial with Celtic. It’s going back a long way, but they had a player called Danny McGrain at right-back and they needed a player to take his place.
“I was very flattered because he was my hero growing up, but I flopped at the trial because I was just so nervous at such a big club like that.”
In the end, Garry signed for Queens Park who, at the time, played at Scotland’s national stadium, Hampden Park which they also owned.
He notes playing against Celtic as a big highlight in his playing career but talking to him about his Scottish playing days leaves one burning question. How on earth did he end up on the south coast of England?
“I had the opportunity to come and play in England completely out the blue. A guy called Roy Miller, a coach at Hastings Town, who was also Scottish, was looking for some players.
“He wanted me to come down and scouted one or two other boys from Stranraer, and a couple as well from Hamilton Accies, so the four of us came down to play for Hastings Town.
“It was a big move for me, 500 miles away from home, but I thought I’d give it a go. I wasn’t enjoying my job either at the time, so I came down and played for Hastings.
“I didn’t even know where Hastings was! I’d heard of the Battle of Hastings, but I had to look at a map to see where it was. I remember saying to my parents I was going to go to Hastings, and they said, ‘You can’t go there it’s miles away!’”
It was a move, however, that was about to go very wrong.
“I played for a guy there called Peter Sillet, really enjoyed my time, but I then broke my leg, a real bad leg break against Witney Town, broke it in two places.
“I must have been on crutches for 15 months, the operation went wrong, disastrous, and it was a hard time. The other three boys went back to Scotland as well which was difficult for me, but I met my girlfriend who’s now my wife so decided to stay!
“I got news from the surgeons that I couldn’t play football again and my career was over. They said I’d be lucky if I walked again, talks of amputating my leg, so not playing football was the least of my worries but they got me walking again.
“It still left me scarred and I still have pain in that leg now and have problems with it. When I recovered, I felt a bit lost I thought, well I came all this way to play football, so it was a bit of a loose end.”
It was hard for Garry to see a route in football and coaching was something he had never considered. Little did he know this is exactly where his management journey would begin.
“I was still going down to Hastings and watching but then the reserve team manager, a guy called Kevin Barry, Gareth Barry’s uncle, he’s sadly passed away as well, but he asked if I’d help him in the reserves.
“I thought it’d be ideal to be fair and suited me to go and do that but then after two weeks, Kevin decided to go and move to Tenerife! I was only 25 at the time and it really threw me in the deep end.
“I found that very daunting, walking in the changing rooms, talking to some guys that were older than me. I also hadn’t had much coaching experience, but I ended up putting a fantastic side together.
“We won the Sussex Intermediate Cup, we won the league, and a few other trophies locally. It was a really successful team I was managing for a couple of years.”
If he thought that was daunting, he was about to be really thrown in the deep end when an opportunity arose with the first-team.
“Eventually the first-team manager got released at Hastings and I was asked to become joint-manager with Dean White. I felt I was a bit young, so I accepted with Dean that he’d be manager and I’d be his assistant.
“It was a good experience for me because Dean was an experienced guy. It was good learning curve and then Dean decided to leave, and I took over as first-team manager.
“We did ok, I think it was the Doc Martins Premier League at the time, I think we won the Doc Martins League Cup, we won the Sussex Senior Cup In 1996, beating Crawley.”
Management is far from sunshine and roses at times, and the young Garry Wilson was about to experience the tough scenarios you can find yourself in as a manager.
“It was a good standard of football at the time, and I had done well. But then Mark Gardiner came in as the owner, at the time he was the biggest Lottery winner winning like £22 million. I think he put money originally into St. Leonards Stamco but fell out with them so bought Hastings.
“It was his first stint in football, and it was all a bit strange, he sacked me after two or three months I think. I’d been there ten years as player, captain, reserves manager, first-team assistant manager, first-team manager. Then he decided to sack me because I lost an FA Trophy game and he found out the final would have been at Wembley.
“He put in the papers at the time, and this always comes up, that it was on a ‘gut feeling’, and I was angry at the time because I’d come a long way just for someone to come along who doesn’t know me or the club and sack me.”
He probably didn’t see it that way at the time, but it may well have been a blessing in disguise for Garry, who found the club that was to be the making of him.
“I went and helped Andy Thompson at St. Leonards Stamco for six months, which I really enjoyed. Then a job at Langney Sports came up.
“I’d never watched them, I think we might have played them once, but I went over to see them, and I was so impressed with the setup. I think that was 1999 I went for the interview and I had the bit between my teeth because I wanted to prove Mark Gardiner wrong.
“I think they were two or three divisions below Hastings, but they were the ideal club. Not massive amounts of money but a lovely social club, lovely little ground, I think it was just an open field then with fencing around it.
“Attendances weren’t huge, cup games maybe, but league games it was under 100 people. It wasn’t a great start; I think it might have been 10-12 games before we won a game.
“But they weren’t my players, and it was halfway through a season; I just had to see that season out. Nick Greenwood was there as coach who I didn’t know, but I kept him on, and we really clicked.
“I took quite a bit of the training to start with because I wanted to up the tempo and things like that. We saw the season out, managed a few wins and it gave us a clean sheet to start with that summer.”
Garry had a clear vision of what he wanted to achieve at the club and had big goals too. He and Nick spent no time messing about that summer and built the initial spine of the squad.
“I brought in a couple of the Hastings boys and Nick was manager of the Sussex County side at the time, so we identified a few players from there, and some of the local boys.
“We had big goals we wanted to achieve; I didn’t know whether it was possible, but I just wanted to be successful. That was the start of the story; we got promoted as Langney Sports, but we started venturing out to other teams and no one knew where we were from.
“No one had heard of Langney, so the club decided to change the name to Eastbourne Borough which was more beneficial for sponsorship and it also got the Eastbourne Borough Council behind us.
“We never had a big budget, but we had a strategy of targeting the best local players around. Between Nick and me we went and watched numerous games, spoke to people, and just went searching for the best local talent.
“We took Ben Austin from Eastbourne Town and he’s now our first-team coach here at Borough. There was Matt Crabb from Eastbourne United and his brother Nathan. Andy Atkin from Eastbourne United as well, just local players that gave us a real spine in the team.”
It was a very natural, smooth transition that Garry took from player to coach but it’s far from a route he saw himself going down.
“I’d never ever seen myself as a coach and going forward I was definitely more of a manager than a coach. I have coached but I like the management side of finding players and looking for players, developing players, making players feel good about themselves.
“I think all the managers I played under in Scotland had a big influence on me and they worked you really hard. They were real hard taskmasters, especially a guy called Eddie Hunter at Queens Park.
“He was a bit off the wall, a bit mad, but all these guys in Scotland and their hard-working methods I would take bits from.”
This was something we wanted to delve deep into with Garry. In regard to football, he was born into that hard-working, strong disciplined mentality and it’s something he felt strongly about in regard to his management.
“I think in non-league down here, especially at Langney Sports when I went there, I just felt the teams really lacked discipline. I was shocked at the lack of discipline and lack of professionalism and it was right through the club.
“I had to make a lot of harsh changes when I went there but it was the only way they were ever going to be successful. A lot of it never went down too well because I mean they were really good boys, but too social rather than wanting to be successful on the pitch.
“There was a big drinking culture after games, smoking, and it all had to stop, I had to make huge changes which took a while to implement but it was worthwhile.
“It was just a case of upping the tempo, bringing in a certain type of player, I brought in one boy who was just to set the standard at training. I spoke to him and said, ‘They might think you’re a bit of an idiot! But I need you to do what you do so other people follow.’
“One or two would get left behind but it was really interesting to see it all evolve over the months and years and really see our mentality get instilled.
“The methods are very different now; I don’t think they run sessions as long as ours were! We’d have players out until 10:30pm at night and they used to moan about that, but we needed them working harder.
“I think it’s interesting how sessions are done now, and you obviously have more sciences in the game, which is great, and I’d love to have been involved in that stuff today, it’s fascinating to me.”
Borough have had a number of quality players over the years including Yemi Odubade, who signed for Oxford in League Two at the time. Mickey Demetriou who has gone on to have a solid professional career. Then also a number of loans including Ashley Barnes, Steve Cook and Carl Jenkinson.
The key thing for Garry, however, was keeping a core group of players together that wanted to play for him.
“Not making too many changes to our squad was the key. Darren Baker played in the County League with Langney Sports before I got there and went all the way with us to the Conference Premier.
“It amazes me that some of these players never got big moves, I really don’t know why. Maybe some saw it as a locked shop, and nobody could get near them and we never really lost many players to other non-league clubs.
“We protected these players and worked with them, but some of them should have got bigger moves. They could have got more money elsewhere, but I think when you’re successful people want to be part of that, and we had a continuation of that.
“I think it shows as well that all these boys that went on a journey with us, still meet up as a group, people like Matt Smart, Jay Lovett, Ben Austin, Matt Crabb, they all meet up now with their girlfriends and stuff which I think is great."
One thing to quickly touch on with Garry was his record in the Sussex Senior Challenge Cup which saw him win three out of five finals.
“I was in the final of the Senior Cup a number of times, won it the first time with Hastings of course, against Crawley, which was supposed to be at the old Goldstone ground, but I think that was the year the goals got nicked and it got wrecked.
“So, we played that game at Worthing, had a big crowd in, won 1-0 and Danny Simmonds I believe scored the winner. Good player Danny, I took him from Brighton to Hastings, he made over 300 appearances for them and then I signed him for Borough.
“But the Senior Cup was great for us, as I say, we got to the final a number of times and won it twice with Borough, beat Lewes 2-1 at Priory Lane and beat Brighton in extra-time, 1-0, in 2009.”
When in the Conference South, Eastbourne Borough developed a tasty rivalry with Lewes, both of whom were competing at the top of the league.
“It was fantastic competition to have with Lewes over the years. Steve King always spoke of us having a bigger budget, which I mean, I saw the figures when I went to manage Lewes and I can say that isn’t the case.
“But it was fantastic competition. That year they won the league, and we went up as runners-up, they had such a fantastic side. We went unbeaten all the way up to New Year’s Day and played Lewes at Priory Lane in front of about 3,000.
“They beat us, but I’ll always remember the quality of that game, it was a really good rivalry and we had some real good games between us. Sometimes we beat them, sometimes they beat us, and we went up together, but they obviously really struggled that first year.”
It was clear to see how Garry achieved the success he did at Borough. The group of players he put together worked hard and to go from the County League to the Conference Premier, as it was at the time, is a remarkable achievement. Garry, however, knew it couldn’t last.
“It was never sustainable for us to be there. We never beat a conference football club when we played them in an FA Trophy game or FA Cup game, so it was quite daunting going into a competition with sides you’ve never really beaten before.
“Our first game of the season we actually went to Stevenage and beat them 3-0 so that gave us confidence and we had a really good first year finishing thirteenth.
“But as the years went on, it got really difficult. We should have gone 3 or 4 days training a week because more and more teams at that level were becoming full-time and the travelling got too much.
“We never had the budget to compete when the money was all going on travel, coaches, hotels which meant the football budget was really, really low compared to other teams.
“I actually offered my resignation in the second or third year there, after we’d lost 6-0 at home to Gateshead. They had just come into the league and gone full-time, and we were nowhere near their level.
“They refused my resignation and told me to think about it. I really should have gone at that point because we were fighting a losing battle.
“The second season there we just stayed up on the last game of the season against Oxford. We had them at home, had to win, and we beat them 1-0. I think Chris Wilder was actually their manager then, but they were in the playoffs, so I think they rested a few.
“I thought that was the nail in the coffin for us, it was a fantastic day to stay up, but I knew the third year was going to be a difficult one.”
Borough were relegated in their third season in the Conference Premier, but Garry continued once again as manager. It was, however, a story coming to its inevitable end.
“We obviously went down eventually, and I stayed with the club, but we made a bit of a mistake in sticking with players that were tired and weary, we should’ve maybe had a bit of a clear-out and started afresh.
“We thought as managers we owed it to those players, and over the years I was very loyal to those that were good to me.
“The club ended up sacking us quite low down in the Conference South, and I’m sure we’d have stayed up that year. The club were just a bit panicky because we’d always been up there.
“It was a sad way to end it because I do think we had more than enough to stay up that year but as I say, they just got a bit panicky and it’s fair enough.
“I knew 100% I’d taken the club as far as I could, I knew that a year before I went. When you reach that level, you have to be prepared to step up and go full-time because you can’t be travelling away to Liverpool on a Saturday, get home early hours Sunday then travel to Manchester on a Tuesday night.”
Garry has nothing but the best memories from his time at Borough and is happy to see a number of his players, including Jay Lovett and Ben Austin, now coaching themselves.
He still felt he had the desire to stay in management though, with more still to give.
“I felt I needed a break from management, but I did do a year working as a scout for the Scottish national side, that was really enjoyable. One of my friends was a national team scout with Craig Levein, a guy called Mick Oliver.
“He phoned me up and asked me to help out so I was going into academies in the South East looking for players that could come and play for the Scottish youth sides.
“It was a really enjoyable experience; I was going to some Premier League games as well and doing reports on players for them, so it was really good.
“It became quite lonely though and although it was a good period of time I wanted to get back coaching. That’s when Danny Bloor asked me to come down to Eastbourne Town.
“I helped Danny for six months there, lovely people, lovely club, then the Lewes job came up, so I went for that and asked Danny to come in as assistant and also Dean Lightwood as goalkeeping coach who’s now at Crawley.
“I then brough Matt Crabb in as player/coach, took Ben Austin as a player, Jay Lovett as a player. We had a fantastic first year, did really well but second year, we made some wrong signings, made some mistakes and that came to an end.”
Garry had another couple of years out of management before heading back to Hastings who were now known as United rather than Town. He spent a season there, narrowly missing out on the playoffs but again stepped away to focus on family life with his son playing in America.
Today, Garry is back at Priory Lane where he is a director of the club, a role he describes as a go between for current Eastbourne Borough manager, Danny Bloor, and the board.
Before we wrapped up a fascinating conversation on Garry’s career, he reflected on his journey as a whole.
“Looking back on my time I suppose my biggest challenges were in the Conference Premier but if I knew then what I knew now, I’d have pushed the club a lot further in going full-time.
“I think I’ve enjoyed my journey and in England I was the longest serving manager after Alex Ferguson and Arsene Wenger. I must have done something right to stay that long!
“I can look back with great memories of achieving something that was very difficult to do, going from County League to the Conference Premier.
“I’d have loved to of had bigger runs in FA Cups and things like that; we got to the first round proper a number of times, but I’d have liked to of gone a bit further.
“I’m happy for the success I’ve had in the Sussex Senior Cup, winning three and managing in five finals overall. It was great to be the first manager at the Amex stadium, that was nice as well.”
Lastly, Garry offered advice for aspiring coaches in Sussex: “I was quite shy when I started, never thought I could manage to the level that I managed at. Sometimes it’s just put yourself in there, take yourself out of your comfort zone.
“I was out of my comfort zone at Hastings, totally out of it. You have to go through that to succeed, so don’t be afraid and don’t be afraid to ask for help.
“I’m always willing to give young coaches support and help because sometimes that’s all they need. Get good people to support you, especially in management, people you trust, you need a good team.”
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