Altrincham's players reported back for pre-season training yesterday, and when the dust had settled on day one, manager Phil Parkinson sat down with press officer John Edwards to deliver his verdict on Alty's new training facility, the benefits of going full-time and the way his squad is shaping up. The boss tells it straight on how he sees Liam Brockbank and Aidan Roxburgh fitting in. Here's the interview in full.
Q: So much has been said about going full-time since the announcement was made. It’s all been anticipation so far, but here we are at the start of pre-season training - is this the moment when it really feels like the new era has finally dawned?
A: Yeah, absolutely. I woke up this morning with a spring in my step. I couldn’t wait to get out of bed and start the day. It’s like we have been planning and organising full-time for so long, and now it is actually here, it just feels amazing. I think that is the best word to sum it up. It feels absolutely amazing, knowing that not just me but everyone involved has built something and that, heading into the training ground this morning, you are walking into something you have built and developed and grown. I think that is THE most special thing for me. It has been a five-year project. When we first came in, we said we wanted to get the Academy up and running and ideally go full-time with that, and then try and do the same with the first team. The club certainly kept their side of the bargain in terms of matching our ambitions, and I would like to think we have come through on what we said we would do in terms of getting to the National League in the time frame that we did.
Q: First day back usually starts with weighing the players, etc. But you sat them down and gave them a crash course in the history of this club, including a Football Focus video from the BBC archives! What was the thinking there?
A: I just think it’s so important. I would do that sort of presentation with any group of new players to make them fully aware of what they are stepping into. In this instance, we are entering a new era. Things change significantly when you switch from part-time to full-time operations but expectations don’t, and they are the foundation, the basics, of how you should start any new project, so it is essential that you spell out clearly to the players what they are walking into. There will be lots of different presentations as we move forward, but I felt it was important to acquaint them at the outset with what we are and who we are and how we are going to operate. We will go on to show them footage of how we want to play, and the good moments we have had playing that way, and we will then layer that with individual roles and responsibilities in each position.
Q: But the accent in your pep talk was very much on the history of the club, wasn’t it?
A: Yeah, I’m big on that. To play well for a football team, you have to know about the club. If you invest in a football club, you get a lot more out of it when the team are successful. We all know the saying .. does it mean enough to the players, do they play for the badge, do they play for the club? Ultimately, players will play for themselves, but if you can get them to buy into the club, their team, I would challenge anyone to say that psychologically it does not make them buy into what you want them to do in training, when you are pushing them hard, or when the game isn’t quite going their way or they are substituted and they understand it’s not just about them, it’s about the club and the team moving forward. It’s not all plain sailing, but they understand about the greater good and appreciate the environment they are working in and what the fans expect and why the expectation is what it is. Anyone who does not understand Alty at all would not understand why fans expect us to win every week at this level because of what we have done in the past. The fact is, the league has massively changed compared to back in the day, when we played Runcorn and Leatherhead. Those would be the big teams back then, whereas now it’s Notts County, Stockport County, Chesterfield, Torquay and Grimsby, big Football League names. This division is full of them, and that is why we have done what we have done, because we want to survive and hopefully thrive at this level. To do that, we needed the transition from part-time to full-time. The club is steeped in part-time football and being so successful that way, but I would rather challenge and try to take us on to the next level than accept we are part-time little Alty. We are not that any more. We want to aim higher.
Q: It was also noticeable there was a lot of emphasis on the FA Cup and FA Trophy in your pep talk. You want the new lads to be aware of how relevant that is to the club as well, don’t you?
A: Yeah, I’m desperate to do better in the cups. We had a good run in the FA Cup, of course, when we reached the second round and ran Portsmouth so close down at Fratton Park. I still say that if we’d got through and gone further in the competition that season, we would not have got promotion, so everything happens for a reason. But it was a great run, and I would love more of that. I don’t think we have done well enough in those competitions, for a number of reasons, but ultimately we all know the fans absolutely love the FA Cup. That is why I wanted the players to understand what it means to our supporters and what it can mean to them as players if they deliver.
Q: As mentioned, you illustrated your message with an old Football Focus video from 1988 - how did you manage to unearth that?
A: I love my history. I have been here a long time now, and when I speak to fans, they tell me about the heritage and history of the club, so naturally it becomes an interest for me, and I find myself literally trawling through YouTube for all things Alty, and that’s how I come across things like the Football Focus footage. I would like to think that anyone going online now might see references to what we have created in recent seasons, but when you look back at links to the likes of John King and Jack Swindells, it is quite special to see what they did, how they did it and why they are held in such high esteem. It shows what we have got to do to be recognised in the same way. I think we have been very successful, but I don’t think we will be held in the same regard unless we win a trophy, like the FA Trophy, or do even better than the second round of the FA Cup and beat a League team along the way. Or, of course, make the play-offs in the National League and take that next step of promotion to the Football League. Listen, we know where we are right now, and we’re not at that point. If something like that happened, it would be magical and momentous, but we have got to be realistic. Everyone is very excited about full-time football at the moment, and rightly so, but why we have done this is to survive in this division to start with and then build year-on-year as a full-time operation. That way, we will go from little old Alty, surviving in the National League, to Alty the powerhouse, like we were years and years ago.
Q: Can you outline why pre-season is so important, and will all aspects of training work - planning, tactical, fitness - benefit equally from going full-time, or will one feel the benefit more than the others?
A: The biggest thing for me, going full-time, is that the planning is going to be much deeper and more thorough than when we were part-time. We had set structures and routines that were successful, distances for the lads to cover and sessions we would expect them to complete. Full-time, we are going to have everything in periods of two-week blocks. It will be a gradual process that will ensure the lads peak at the right time. Last year, the lads were flying in pre-season. I remember the game at Nantwich, and they were absolute dynamite, but that was midway through the pre-season programme. You might not see that straightaway this time, but I am hoping that by the end of the warm-up games, the lads will be fully functional, everyone fully fit and ready to go at their optimum, rather than being at that stage at the midway point. It’s very much about packing everything into two sessions when you are part-time, overloading them, and that’s not ideal. If we trained now like we used to every Tuesday and Thursday, the lads would be burned out before the season even began. This way is so much better. I think the way to describe it is we are giving ourselves the best possible opportunity to do well in this division. Last season, we worked exceptionally hard, but there were times when I felt absolutely helpless on the sideline, knowing that we maybe had a Wrexham on Saturday and a Stockport on Tuesday and we won’t have seen our lads in between, yet they are expected to go out and perform against that calibre of opposition. To me, that is not fair and not the way to give our players an even chance of going out and winning games. All that is changing now, I’m glad to say.
Q: How would you describe the facilities here at Egerton?
A: I would say that if I’m a player walking into this building, I can’t not feel inspired and motivated to go out and train the best I can. We’ve all had other jobs in the past, and if you walk into the workplace and it’s not what you were expecting, it can be demotivating. If you step into an environment that makes you feel empowered and enriched, you are going to give your best. You wouldn’t describe it as state-of-the-art, but we have made it our own, and I truly believe that. We have got a very good starting point for a new era for the club, and we are very lucky the club were able to source this for us. We’ve got everything under one roof, which is absolutely ideal. There are multiple grass pitches, a brand new 4G pitch, multiple goals, which is so important for what we want to do in training, and a garage space that we have converted into a gym. That shows how much we have done ourselves. We had a blank canvas and have made it our own. The players will own it and look after it. We will be caretakers for the building. No-one will look after us; we will look after ourselves. Hopefully, that sort of mentality will feed through to when we are on the pitch and we will see the fruits of our labours in the results we put together as the season unfolds.
Q: How pleased are you with the way the squad is taking shape?
A: I’m absolutely delighted. That is one of the most exciting things for me, I truly believe this squad has got levels in it. That doesn’t mean we are going to get promoted this season, but what it does mean is the future of Altrincham is very bright. It is in good hands with these players and, whatever happens, we have got a young, hungry, talented squad who I feel can really make a few waves this season.
Q: The two young lads, Liam Brockbank and Aidan Roxburgh - are they ones very much for the future or can they challenge for a starting place rightaway?
A: Well, Liam is my starting left-back, so there’s your answer! He is someone I have watched many times. I have had many reference checks on him. It’s very rare to see this, but he is a player who the opposition would set a team up to try and stop him attacking. He can be a Joel Senior type of player for us. He is a very talented, hungry, energetic player, and he has moved over here as well to help the settling in process, so we are very lucky to have him, and I can only see good things happening with him.
Q: And how about Aidan?
A: With Aidy, we have got Ross Barrows on the right, and Ross will be our starting right-back. Aidy is one we really like, after seeing him last season. He has bags of potential. He is a late bloomer, so he has to earn his stripes, as has Liam, but he could be that dark horse who comes out of nowhere and gets himself into the team. It will be really interesting to see how he develops over the course of the pre-season period.
Q: Can you say anything about whether there will be any more signings?
A: Yeah, certainly. There will be a number of triallists coming in. There will be five coming in tomorrow (Tuesday). They will get a week or two, and then decisions will have to be made. There are only a couple of slots left, unless someone starts screaming out at me that we must take them on, and then I would have to speak to the board and see what could be done. At the moment, I’m really happy with things. There’s probably one, potentially two more coming in, but that’s all. It’s not going to be a big squad next season. It’s going to be 18, with the addition of the young lads we have brought up from the Academy, who are not going to be playing in the first team just yet unless they do unbelievably well pre-season. So, 18 vying for places. We’ve had to do that for budgetary reasons, more than anything, but I really feel we have a really tight-knit group who are young, hungry and talented and proven at the level they have played at. They have been successful and have suffered very few injuries between them, so I’m happy and confident about them taking us into this new era.
Q: Can you specify the areas you are still looking to strengthen?
A: Obviously one of the front positions, either a winger or forward. Unless something screams out at me in midfield or defence, I would say we are there or thereabouts in those areas. If I had to start the season now without any further additions, I would be happy.
Q: Finally, the Academy has only been going a couple of years, yet here we are with six homegrown youngsters graduating to the senior squad. That’s a great achievement, isn’t it?
A: It is, but it’s full credit to the boys themselves for making the most of the opportunity. If the Academy win their league again next season, we may have even more coming through. It just shows we are putting money where our mouth is, in terms of backing our judgement with these young lads, and we are going to help them progress their careers, whether it be with Altrincham or elsewhere. That is the way forward for us. Can we produce our own players? I think, once we have nailed that and got it right, it is going to save, as well as make, the club a lot of money, and we will have lads who have come through the system and know what the club is about and how we play. They will be steeped in the club - so maybe I won’t have to do any more of those pep talks!