Stuart Watkiss left Mansfield Town by mutual consent on December 2 2002, almost 11 months after taking the reins at Field Mill. Stuart had been appointed at the beginning of the year - January 9 - following Billy Dearden's move to Notts County. Dearden's assistant since the summer of the previous year, Watkiss had arrived at Mansfield in July 1996, signed on a free transfer from Hereford, and played until May 1999 when he was put in charge of the club's youth team.
Stuart's playing career began with his hometown club, Wolves, when he was signed from the youth team in 1984. After making just two appearances for the senior side at Molinuex, the central defender was taken on a non-contract basis by Crewe. He failed to make an impact at Gresty Road however and moved into non-league football. His return to the professional ranks came in 1993, with Walsall, who signed him from Midlands Alliance side Rushall Olympic. After making 60 appearances for The Saddlers, Stuart moved on to Hereford and, five months later, to Mansfield.
Watkiss joined the Stags on a free transfer from Hereford United in the summer of 1996, down to boss Andy King's ‘enthusiasm' – When King was sacked the following season, Watkiss became ‘Skip' – as he captained the club following Steve Parkin's elevation to his caretaker role
As the PFA rep at the club, he was called into public action when wages were not paid, fighting for his players needs – but he obviously made an impression of on the Chairman, as when he was forced to retire through injury he became the club's youth team coach – the change was happening, as the man himself noted saying;
“When I was a player, I would always sit in the dressing room at half time and wonder what the manager was ranting on about. I couldn't understand why they got so hot under the collar but, since I took over the running of the youth team, I am beginning to realise. Some people say you turn into your parents, well I am turning into all of the managers I ever had. It is sometimes difficult to get your point across to players without shouting. I think I've only lost it once or twice but you do find yourself tearing your hair out sometimes. It's so frustrating when you've asked them to do something on the pitch and they do not do it."
By June 1999, manager Steve Parkin resigned and, after a false start with Tony Ford (who subsequently left to join Parkin at Rochdale), Watkiss was overlooked as Billy Dearden's number two, with the job going to Mark Kearney. He didn't react, instead focussing on his beloved youth team, who by now were fast gaining a reputation for success. Two years later assistant manager Mark Kearney left to join Northampton Town giving Watkiss the opportunity he so wanted. Dearden explained his decision saying:
"I gave the position a lot of thought and have decided that Stuart is the best man for the job. He is a young coach who could go a long way in the game. He is at the right age to work with me, and it is a huge reward for him. He has done an excellent job with the youth team and it was a huge wrench to take him away from the youth team."
By New Year 2002, the club were third in Division 3, but following an expected defeat away to Leicester in Third round of the FA Cup, Billy Dearden stunned Mansfield Town by announcing his resignation to take over at Notts County. Watkiss told Mansfield 103.2, when he heard that Billy Dearden was off to take over at Notts County that he was:
“Shocked and sad. I've worked with Billy now for 2 and a half years, the last six months very closely, and I've got an awful lot to be grateful to Billy Dearden for and I'm sorry to see him go."
Just three days later, when he was appointed manager, Chairman Keith Haslam explained:
“I wanted to make sure there was continuity and that there was a minimum of disruption. Stuart has been a great influence since moving up to the first team and it would really be silly to change things too much at the moment. He has been very positive since he took up coaching over the last three or four years but needed a bit more experience. I think Bill has given him that experience and hopefully he can take it on from there. He is a young talented coach, not too much different from Steve Parkin in his type of character. He is very down to earth, knows this level, and ambitious to progress."
Watkiss for his part said
"It is a big step up but I do have faith in my ability as a football coach. This gives me a great opportunity to further and advance my career; it's just come a bit sooner than everyone anticipated. Having managed many of these players in the youth and reserve teams, I know their capabilities and personalities very well which puts me in a great position."
His immediate aim was to keep up the good work his predecessor had done at the club. With The Stags in a strong position, in the top three of the division, the new boss was hopeful that he could achieve promotion in his first few months at the helm. Despite strong competition from Cheltenham Town, who looked as though they might snatch the third promotion spot behind Plymouth and Luton, Mansfield secured their place in Division Two with a 2-0 win over Carlisle on the final day of the season as Cheltenham lost to the Third Division champions. Watkiss admitted after that match, that much of the credit for Mansfield's success had to go to their former manager, saying:
"Myself and Neil Richardson (assistant manager) will take all the plaudits but there are a lot of other people who deserve credit for this, not least Bill Dearden, and I was delighted to see he kept Notts County up as well. These fans have been starved of success for a long time and to see their faces at the final whistle made all the highs and lows of the season worthwhile."
Unfortunately for Stuart and his assistant, there were no real highs the following season as the Stags failed to come to terms with life in Division Two. A 4-2 defeat to Port Vale proved to be the final game for the management team as Mansfield were left three points adrift at the bottom of the table, having conceded 53 goals in 20 league games.
On the 30th November 2004, almost 2 years after his departure from Mansfield, Watkiss agreed an 18-month deal with Kidderminster to become their new boss, taking over from Jan Molby's second failed attempt at the club. It was labelled ‘the worst job in football' – with the club rooted to the foot of the table some six points adrift from the rest with just half of the season to go. He was not fazed saying, when talking to the PFA website;
“When I arrived we were six points from safety - seven if you count the goal difference. Not one of the other 91 league clubs would swap places with us. It would be very easy to look at the league table and get depressed. However, if you put a different spin on it then all we needed to do was get five more points than Cambridge and seven more than Shrewsbury in 27 games. It doesn't matter what else happens because if we do that then we will be okay. If you look at it like that then it isn't such a daunting task.
He also had some tough words for the team that he had inherited saying that:
“As far as I am concerned, the season starts today. I can't promise that we'll be a Real Madrid, but we will be well-organised and we'll play football the right way. The least I expect from the players is 100% and anybody who doesn't give me that won't be here very long”
So on he goes, in trying to make his way in the thankless task of making a success of football management in the lower leagues – he is part of the football blood needed to keep this wonderful game of ours alive – and he is certainly at the beginning of his personal journey – history will judge whether this is the start of the turnaround in football's toughest job.