01 Mar 2012
MARK YATES: WINNING POST IN SIGHT
Think sport, think Cheltenham and the instant image is of Arkle, Best Mate or Kauto Star thundering up the final straight, amid frenzied acclaim, to seize Gold Cup glory. Once a year, enthusiastic race goers the world over flock to the otherwise peaceful spa town in the centre of the rolling Cotswold hills to sample the noisy thrill of one of the sport’s iconic races.
But in an area where the sport of kings sits comfortably alongside other attractions like its Regency architecture and love of the arts, the beautiful game is again quietly having a voice.
The reawakening of football interest at The Abbey Business Stadium, home of Cheltenham Town FC, has much to do with the drive and enthusiasm of one of the game’s emerging managers. Mark Yates, 42, has steered the npower League Two club into a promotion position and is clearly relishing the challenge of helping them progress in tandem with his own career.
He said: “I don’t see myself being the England manager or walking into Old Trafford but there is no harm in having the drive to get you as far as possible in the game. My reasons for becoming a No. 1 in the first place were because I was up for the challenge and wanted to know if I could handle everything that went with the job.
“I was working under Steve Cotterill and Dave Kevan at Burnley more than six years ago, learning my trade as a coach when Kidderminster Harriers asked if I would be interested in having a chat about the manager’s job there. It would have been easy to have stayed put and carried on at a club where I was very happy but I really fancied having a crack on my own.
“I was grateful for the opportunity Steve had given me but I felt it was the right time to move on and test myself. I think I am a strong and driven person and at some stage I was always going to give it a shot.”
Birmingham-born Yates had four years at Kidderminster, competing with better off clubs like Stevenage, Rushden & Diamonds and Cambridge United. Money was tight but he was able to appoint an assistant in Neil Howarth, who has been by his side ever since, and the managerial pair set off on an enjoyable - and largely successful - journey. At Kidderminster they reached the FA Trophy Final of 2007 and twice finished just outside of the play-offs.
Yates added: “Neil and I have known each other for many years and we live 400 yards apart in the same Worcestershire village so naturally we see a lot of each other. It’s not just at work either because there are a couple of pubs in the village! I don’t know whether living so close is a good thing or not but it works for us and that’s all that matters.
“I trust him. He’s a good coach and he has his say. He doesn’t just give me the answers I want to hear but I’ve always encouraged my staff to have an opinion. Ultimately, however, it’s me who has to make the decisions.”
It was just before Christmas in 2009 when Cheltenham, a club where he had made nearly 300 appearances as a midfielder in the Nineties and helped claim a place in the Football League and win the Nationwide Division Three Playoff Final, offered him his first League job. His father helped him stump up the cash that enabled Cheltenham to pay Kidderminster the compensation to facilitate the move but although he knew it was right for him, the immediate prospects were not enticing.
Cheltenham were facing a tough battle for Football League survival but survive they did - and that provided the foundations for the promotion effort that is now unfolding two years on.
He recalls: “It was vital that we didn’t drop back into the Conference but we stayed up, not by very much, and were able to sit down at the end of the season and plan for something better. Unfortunately I went into my first full season with a reduction in the budget and it was a case of borrowing players for almost nothing and trying to get through on thin resources.
“But the housekeeping was good, the chairman Paul Baker and his Board were superb and thanks to their enthusiasm and support we were able to sit down again at the end of last season and have more scope for improving things. I’m working with genuine people and it says much about the chairman and Board that in talks we’ve had about a new contract they have said how keen they are to repay my dad for the money he put in to get me here in the first place.
“Thanks to their efforts and investment from a fan who lives abroad, we were able to keep the good players we had and strengthen. We were able to bring in Luke Summerfield, who has been brilliant, and Darryl Duffy, who is our leading scorer. We were also able to attract talented youngsters on loan who were hungry to learn and develop their games.
“I also got a lot of help about planning and preparation from Alan Rapley, who I had met when he was a tutor at the Warwick Business School when I was doing my A licence. Alan was superb at making me think about the way I was getting my ideas across to the players and I still speak to him now on a regular basis.
“So we went into this season a lot stronger and having done so well over the last seven months or so, there is no disguising the fact that our aim is to try and go up. We are enjoying it at the moment, even though it can give you sleepless nights, but we know there will be twists and turns. We will drop points but it is how we react to those moments that will go a long way to deciding where we end up.
“We have a lot of respect for the sides around us and it’s important to stay grounded. We don’t get too low when we lose and we don’t get too high when we win. As a manager you have to believe in yourself... believe in what you are doing. I’ve had a lot of players working under me over the last six years and I hope they’ve enjoyed the way we’ve gone about things, coming in to work hard with a smile on their face and striving to make themselves better players. But I can honestly say that I’ve never been involved with a group who get on so well together, and I’m sure that helps.”
Cheltenham’s record reveals that it’s a philosophy that has produced dividends so far this season as they head into their own final straight, with the winning post tantalisingly in sight.