It is a sign of Notts County’s recent transformation that their self-assured manager cannot get into his own team. At 35, Kevin Nolan is younger than some of his squad members but the former Premier League midfielder, who is registered to play, knows the side sitting top of League Two are doing pretty well without him. “At the minute I’m not in physical condition to play, that’s my excuse, but I don’t think I’d get in the team even if I was,” he says with a grin.
Sitting in his office, Nolan reflects on a remarkable year. Notts County were in a state of “intensive care” according to the owner, Alan Hardy, when he bought the club in January. They were in serious debt, under a transfer embargo and in danger of slipping out of the Football League for the first time, having lost 10 league games in a row. Hardy’s first move was to appoint the inexperienced Nolan; he wanted an instant impact and he certainly got one.
The former Bolton, Newcastle and West Ham man dragged the team up off their knees, winning 10 of his 21 league games to finish 16th. “There was so much when we came in which was just not right,” he says. “We didn’t have a training ground. The lads were getting changed here and then driving 20 or 30 minutes and having to come back to get showered. The pitch had not been touched for six or seven years. Changing all that has given players the belief to go: ‘Oh wow, this is an environment I want to thrive in.’”
This season was supposed to be about consolidation in League Two, yet with each victory the goalposts are shifting. Promotion seems a realistic target and it is hard not to be taken in by the ambitions of owner and manager. Hardy believes Notts County should be as big as the club over the river, Nottingham Forest, and has set his sights on the Championship. But he also knows success will bring attention and has promised not to stand in Nolan’s way should a bigger club come calling.
“I want to manage at the top level,” Nolan says. “I want to be part of big European nights, something I wasn’t able to do as a player, being in the Champions League. It’s so difficult now, especially for English managers. We don’t get the opportunities as much now as we did, so for me it’s just about making sure I learn my trade here. I’ve got to make sure that I pick my path right, but at this moment in time I can’t think of a better place to be.”
It has not been entirely smooth for Nolan since leaving West Ham two years ago, and he struggled with the sudden exit from the game. “Every day you wake up wondering: ‘What’s the next thing for me?’ You can see why people end up in divorce and depressed and not in a good place. For me there’s a lot more to be done in that sense of looking after players. I was out of the game and that’s why I work so hard now: some nights I’m still here at nine o’clock because I don’t want to leave any stone unturned. I feel if I ever lose this job I know that I gave it my all.”
It was after five months out of the game that Nolan became player‑manager at Leyton Orient, having been encouraged to take the plunge by Sam Allardyce, his old mentor at Bolton and West Ham. Despite an upturn in results, his relationship with Orient’s controversial then owner Francesco Becchetti quickly broke down. “He should have just managed the team himself,” a suddenly sincere Nolan says after a puff of his cheeks, as if recounting a harrowing tale. “Employing all the people he did was a disservice to football and a disservice to Leyton Orient. He wanted to tell you who’s best to play, who should have played, who shouldn’t play and ultimately that’s what cost me my job because I didn’t agree with what he wanted.”
Even so, Nolan has no regrets on taking a role that readied him for the challenge at Notts County. He has built a hard-working team around the Premier League experience of Alan Smith, Shola Ameobi and Jon Stead. His detailed coaching methods have been compared to those of Tony Pulis, which Nolan sees as a huge compliment, and inevitably he has also been likened to Allardyce – and like both of them, Nolan has received criticism over a direct style of play.
“It’s quite funny because when Sam gave his ultimate survival guide [for Premier League managers] on Sky Sports, I got a lot of cheeky texts saying: ‘It’s the Kevin Nolan bible!’ Everyone thinks I’m just a rigid 4-4-2 manager but I just like to stick to what I feel is best for the player. We have a system we all know but we can quite easily change to a three, or to a diamond four, because we work on it. I’m not just a straightforward: ‘This is me, I believe in it and I haven’t got a plan B, plan C.’ I feel that I have got that and whether I need to use it any time this season, time will tell.
“I don’t feel that I have a [particular tactical] philosophy. My first and foremost is getting a set of … I don’t like to call them rules … but a guidance of what’s expected when you walk into Notts County, what’s expected of you as a player: discipline, respect, togetherness.”
He says his door is always open and speaks about his relationship with the defender Matt Tootle, who recently revealed personal challenges with mental health in a radio interview. “It’s absolutely fantastic what he’s done to raise awareness because there is a lot of people holding back and think that it’s a weakness and it’s not. The weakness is hiding it. You’ve got to try and bring it out so people can help you. When he comes in we can talk and we can try and put him at ease or try and get him back up if he’s feeling down. It’s such a high‑pressure job. No matter if you’re playing with 3,000 people going to watch it every week, it’s pressure on you.”
It is easy to forget Nolan is, technically, a player-manager on what he describes as his apprenticeship. He has not chosen an easy route to the top but believes aspiring coaches in the Football League can reach the biggest jobs in the business. “If we stop believing then it won’t happen. As a young English manager we’ve got to believe that there’s still room for us at the top level.”
For now Nolan’s focus is Notts County, and with Hardy’s backing he is thriving as he continues to learn his trade on the sideline. “Maybe you’ll see me in that black and white shirt one day, but hopefully not,” he says. “That’s a last resort.”
The Guardian Sport