“When you win as a manager everyone wants to be your friend and when you lose it’s the loneliest job in the world” – Hakan Hayrettin, Maidstone United manager
Football managers operate in a trade which is prone to immediate judgement in a society where perception trumps reality.
Dynastic managers are few and far between. They are disposable commodities in a ruthless industry which hires and fires with impunity.
In the 2018-19 season, 44 of the 92 managers in top four leagues lost their job. The merry-go-round was in full swing in the non-leagues, too.
The Gaffer, the latest in BT Sport’s award-winning series of feature-length documentaries, offers an intimate and compelling insight into the life of five National League managers in and out of the dugout.
Starring Harrogate Town’s Simon Weaver, Bromley-born Neil Smith managing his hometown club, lower league legend John Still and his mentee Hakan Hayrettin at Maidstone United, Eastleigh’s Ben Strevens in his first season as a manager, and Craig Hignett at Hartlepool United, the film provides an extraordinary fly-on-the wall account of life in charge of non-league clubs.
Away from the glare (and the riches) bestowed upon Premier League clubs, but not immune from fierce scrutiny levelled by hardened and knowledgeable fan bases, these multi-skilled managers are fighting for survival on and off the pitch.
Local boy Smith or ‘Smudge’ to his friends, family and players manages Bromley but he also nurtures relationships with the local community.
The affable 47-year-old who cleaned Gary Lineker’s boots when he was an apprentice at Tottenham became manager of his hometown club when he was promoted from the coaching staff in 2016.
Smith, who prepares for home matches with his coaching staff in the ladies’ changing room (the only vacant room at Bromley’s Hayes Lane on match days), is a proponent of player-to-fan interaction in a game where elite players are media managed to the nth degree.
He visits schools, organises Q&A sessions and is as disarmingly candid with primary school children about Bromley’s heart-breaking penalty shootout defeat to Brackley Town in the FA Trophy final as he is with the sponsors caters to before every home match.
If Smith is a throwback, Still is a legend. The 69-year-old Head of Football at Maidstone United retired at the end of 2018 after 42 years in management, but returned to club he won the National League with in 1989 in January 2019.
Awarded the LMA’s special achievement award to recognise 40 years in the dugout, Still oversees the football operation at Maidstone while mentee Hayrettin coaches the first team.
Uncompromising yet effective, Still yearns for Terry Hurlocks (a former Millwall midfielder and one of the most intimidating enforcers of his generation) in a game played by men who you’d want your daughter to marry.
Still’s influence on Hayrettin’s career is palpable (Hayrettin stepped down as Braintree Town manager to join Still at Maidstone), but the award for the closest bond between manager and official goes to Harrogate Town’s Simon Weaver, whose father is the owner and chairman.
Weaver, who became manager of the North Yorkshire club two years before dad’s takeover in 2009, like his fellow managers, works in an environment brimming with charlatans and backstabbers.
The straight-talking Merseysider was sacked by Hartlepool in 2017 before being reappointed a year later.
Hardened by a 21-year playing career that begun in the 1980s, Hignett laments the perceived loss of resilience in modern players. “I think we breed some soft characters, where in the past people have to grow up fast,” said the veteran of 13 professional clubs.
At the other end of the scale is Eastleigh boss Ben Strevens who was appointed in 2018 aged 38.
Kicked out of the players’ WhatsApp group after becoming manager of the club where he finished his player career, Strevens lead a play-off charge in his first year in the hot seat.
During a tumultuous first season which culminated in thrilling fashion, Strevens’ wife admitted she was ‘riddled with anxiety’ every Saturday.
Through revealing interviews and unrivalled access, The Gaffer reveals that there is more that unifies non-league managers than divides them.
The Gaffer’s producer and director Ben Lowe said: “Being a football manager is such an extraordinary job, so I think it takes extraordinary strength of character to be one – at any level of the game.
“I wanted to celebrate this in a documentary, with true access to their worlds both in and out of the dugout and driven by their personalities, to show ultimately it’s the man that makes the manager.
“What impressed me the most was their honesty and sense of humour, which shine through the film. Many managers in professional football are painfully media-trained and like to play cliché bingo, but I purposely wanted to feature gaffers who trusted I was making the documentary for the right reasons and this unfiltered insight is what I'm most proud of.
“I've forever been fascinated by football managers. The pressure is relentless and it can be a brutal experience, with a lot of supporters forgetting they are also human beings. What unites them is their ambition and bravery, knowing the likelihood of ‘failure’ is so high.”
If you like The Gaffer, you’ll love:
State of Play: Based on the book by acclaimed author Michael Calvin, State of Play explores the human side of a game that creates international sporting legends.
No Hunger in Paradise: This BT Sport Film explores the academy system and the pressures and pitfalls that prevent young players from making it as a professional footballer.