a true underdog story

How Ireland's new coach turned Kidderminster into 'the non-league Barcelona'

An in-depth look at the rise of John Eustace.

john eustace  (1)

GAINSBOROUGH TRINITY boss Dave Frecklington had not seen anything like it at the level he managed.

His side had just been beaten 3-0 by Kidderminster Harriers.

“Let’s not beat around it, what a side they are,” he told reporters. “We knew what they were all about but that was a different level in what we were up against.

“They are like a non-league Barcelona with the way they play. It doesn’t matter how you set up, we had to change formation three times to try to tackle it.

“In every position, they are really strong and my team can use it as a learning exercise as that is the level if you want to get promoted.”

John Eustace, who Stephen Kenny has just appointed as Ireland’s assistant boss in place of Anthony Barry, was the man overseeing this project.

roy-keane-4112000 Allsport / INPHO Referee Graham Poll steps between Manchester United captain Roy Keane and John Eustace of Coventry during a 2000 Premiership fixture. Allsport / INPHO / INPHO

It was a surprise, particularly when you consider that Eustace himself was by no means a flair player in his heydey.

Irish winger Mark Yeates, who spent two seasons playing alongside him at Watford, describes the Solihull native as a “no-nonsense” footballer.

“He was a really tough-tackling, strong, typical Championship midfielder. He had a goal in his locker as well, to be fair.

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“He did everything right, it was everything you’d want out of a skipper, a real-good professional.”

Yeates, Eustace and co came within a playoff final of reaching the Premier League, beating a Leicester team in the semi that famously had three future England internationals on the bench — Harry Kane, Jamie Vardy and Danny Drinkwater.

By then, though, Eustace was coming towards the end of his career, with injuries starting to take their toll.

“I think that’s probably where he started thinking: ‘Coaching might be the avenue to start looking at,’” recalls Yeates.

He still had time for a stint under Steve McClaren at Derby before being released by the Rams in 2015.

After a rumoured move to Rangers never materialised, he hung up his boots and was soon appointed Kidderminster manager in April 2016.

At the time, it was seen by some people associated with the club as very much a left-field decision.

“Everybody looked at it and thought: ‘Where has that come from?’” Shane Wilkinson, match reporter with Harriers Online, tells The42

“He had no managing or coaching experience. He was still looking to play six months ago. [We thought] ‘This is a massive risk.’”

Eustace was taking over a club at a low ebb. They had just been relegated from the National League and had been on “a steady decline for three or four years”.

kidderminster-harriers-chairman-colin-gordon Alamy Stock Photo Former Kidderminster Harriers chairman Colin Gordon. Alamy Stock Photo

Colin Gordon was Kidderminster’s owner at the time, having taken over the club the previous November.

The retired footballer previously had worked as an agent and represented Eustace for the majority of his career. He took control of Kidderminster after selling his company, KeySports Management.

“I wanted a young, hungry manager,” Gordon tells The42. “He is a role model to everybody who has ever been in a dressing room with him. Any player that’s ever played with John Eustace will tell you that he’s a proper man, a proper leader of men. If he talks, everybody listens.

“I employed him because of the person that I knew. I didn’t realise that he’d quickly become one of the best coaches I’d ever seen work after [Steve] McClaren, [Brendan] Rodgers and a lot of the top boys. I’ve seen them all work and this guy is special.”

Gordon continues: “The model at Kidderminster was to develop top young players and move them on. Our recruitment was through academies. You’re released by clubs [at a higher level] and then given a chance to go full-time with us, so first of all you’ve got to handle that these kids thought they were going to become top players and it didn’t work out. But then you’ve got to impart knowledge on them to help them bounce back and we did that particularly well because in the time since probably about 20 players have gone back into the league. John’s assistant Matt Gardiner has brilliant talent ID but John is a great galvaniser of young men.”

The task facing Eustace was not easy by any means. A number of senior players had to be let go on account of budgetary constraints owing to the club’s relegation.

But despite these problems, they got off to a superb start in the National League North.

“We won 6-1 away at Curzon Ashton and played some of the best football anyone has ever seen,” says Gordon. “So the fans bought into it straight away.

“Not too long into that, most managers were calling us ‘the non-league Barcelona’ because of the level of football we played, which was kind of unheard of at tier six where we were at. 

“And that was bravery. The one thing about John you’ve got to know is that he has no fear. He’s never going to be intimidated by a home or away crowd. And that’s why people trust and want to go with him.

“That’s why he was a natural captain at Watford, Coventry and Derby, that’s why players follow him in the dressing room, he doesn’t recognise fear. ‘I have a job to do. If I do it well, these people will cheer me. If I do it badly, they’ll boo, but I’ll still believe in the job I’m doing.’”

“It was football that hadn’t been seen by a Kidderminster side in years,” says Wilkinson. “It was front-foot, free-flowing, ambitious, attacking. 

“Some of the football was absolutely unbelievable, to the point where opposition fans and players were calling us ‘the non-league Barcelona’.

“People say it now about Liverpool, if you were a neutral you’d go and watch a Liverpool game. If you were going to watch a game in the non-league, you were going to watch a John Eustace Kidderminster Harriers side.

“When they were purring, they were purring. We scored six goals in three separate games that season.”

Wilkinson adds: “It was obvious from the profile of the player that he was bringing in, there was a real clear philosophy — we’re going to play on the floor, front-foot attacking and we’re going to play our way to promotion.

“It was a fluid 4-3-3 [formation]. You could say it was a 4-5-1. You could say it was a 4-3-2-1 depending on how you looked at it. But some of the football was very wing-based. He liked his full-backs to get forward, and having the flair players in behind as well.”

21st-january-2012-npower-championship-football-birmingham-city-vs-watford-mark-yeates-of-watford-photographer-paul-robertsoneuptopalamy Alamy Stock Photo Mark Yeates played alongside Eustace at Watford. Alamy Stock Photo

Yeates was similarly impressed when he came up against Eustace’s side in an FA Cup tie, playing for a Blackpool team that were three divisions above Kidderminster at the time.

“They played total soccer. They were absolutely brilliant on the day for a non-league side.

“The way he set his team up was a little bit surprising to how I remembered how he played. That’s no disrespect, he obviously has his philosophy. He liked to play out from the back with open, attacking football.”

Despite the entertainment levels regularly being high, Wilkinson says there were also elements of Eustace’s approach that frustrated fans.

“We’d be outbattled. If it was a physical team, there were questions about whether we could stand up to it. If the side were sitting behind the ball, were we really able to break them down? 

“One of the quotes that he came out with was: ‘We have plan A and our plan B is that we do plan A better.’ You can imagine if that comes out after a defeat, it would rile a few fans up. But I think a lot of people forgot that he was coming from such a high level — he was an excellent midfielder. Over 400 games [primarily] in the Premier League and Championship.

“His standards were high. He’s got an idea about how to play the game. So maybe that gap between what we were used to seeing and what he was used to being a part of, maybe that came into it.”

Eustace quickly gained a reputation for being unflappable. Some fans felt the approach was too rigid at times, but he consistently ignored the outside noise and stuck to his principles.

“One of the big things that did annoy a lot of Harriers fans were his corner kicks. At corner kicks, every player would be back — we wouldn’t leave somebody forward, which I can only tell you in the two years he was there, every game, it would annoy quite a lot of the fans because we’ve not got that out ball. But anyone who has got the knowledge and the contacts in the game that he has, there was obviously a reason for it.”

Wilkinson also got a sense there was tension between manager and owner, citing one incident after a game he witnessed: “I heard [Gordon] absolutely berating John for a tactical switch he’d done to get us back into the game.”

Asked whether he often argued with Eustace, Gordon says: “All the time. But we had that relationship where we can say what we think. He’s one of these people that will sleep on it, think about it and say: ‘Right, no malice, no afters, no problems with the relationship. Things were said, you’re done, you move on.’ But we would have a go. We’re both fiery characters.

“When he was with me, it was his first job. The John Eustace he is now has been at QPR three years, seeing up close the Championship and all the other people from a coaching perspective. He’s a different person altogether. Because with us, it was: ‘Look, we’ll play this way because we want to showcase the best talent. We’ll win a lot but we might lose a few.’ With QPR now, if you’ve got to go a little bit longer or be more direct or press a bit higher, he’s more pragmatic. He will coach per the occasion rather than to the overall philosophy.”

stephen-kenny-and-john-eustace James Crombie / INPHO Manager Stephen Kenny and assistant coach John Eustace pictured in training during the week. James Crombie / INPHO / INPHO

Eustace, therefore, comes across as the type of character who certainly wouldn’t be afraid to challenge Kenny or any of the Irish players if necessary.

“It’s interesting because he’s now working with the Charlie Austins and the Stefan Johansens, players of that magnitude at QPR,” says Gordon. “They’re the ones that buy into it the most. He’s not one of these guys that will pick on the weakest link in the group, he’ll pick on the strongest link and good senior professionals appreciate that.

“It’s easy to pick the young kid out who’s not doing so well in training or the game. He’s not that person. It doesn’t matter who you are. If you deserve to have a kick up the arse, you’ll get a kick up the arse. If you deserve to have an arm around the shoulder, you’ll have an arm around the shoulder.

“He’s not afraid of conflict, but he won’t court it. He’s not afraid of problems. But sometimes the biggest problems in football clubs are the people who feel like they have nothing to lose and feel like they are above reproach. He doesn’t see it that way. If you’re in the 1 to 11 and you’ve got a job to do, you’re not doing your job, you’ll be told about it.

“He won’t be screaming and shouting: ‘You must do this.’ It will be: ‘Look, you’ve not done that properly.’ And what he does particularly well at QPR with the Ebere Ezes, the people at that level, he will spend hours with them, one to one, going over their clips. And going through the work with them to help them develop and get better.”

Ultimately, for all his good work there, Kidderminster did not get promoted during Eustace’s two seasons in charge. They finished second and fourth, losing out in the playoffs on both occasions.

As a club that had just been relegated, Wilkinson says many fans expected the team to go straight back up and so his reign was regarded by some as “a failure”. However, his tenure is now generally viewed in a more positive light with the benefit of hindsight.

“104 games in charge, 56 wins, just over 50%. That’s success in anybody’s book really. The only thing he did wrong, if you can level criticism at him in a league where there are two promotion places, it’s that he didn’t get us promoted. But if that’s going to be your barometer of success, then every year, 22 out of the 24 teams in this league fail miserably.

“History looks kindly on it now because for a few years he established us at the top of the National League North.”

Gordon, similarly, feels Eustace’s time at the club should be remembered fondly.

“The first season was magnificent. We should have got promoted. We were a little bit naive. The second season I didn’t support him properly. We started the season light on players and that was my fault. But he still managed to get us comfortably into the playoffs and still managed to play the style of football that we were renowned for.

“But had he been more experienced, he probably would have told me where to get off a little bit.

“And the first year, Fylde got promoted on a budget that was three times ours. Success is relative to the amount of money you spend. In that instance, we were probably 10 or 15 places up the league higher than we probably should have been.

“And it was no surprise to me that more recently, he had the opportunity to go to Swansea. He couldn’t take it because of a family situation but he is regarded very highly in the game.”

steve-mcclaren-manager-of-qpr-during-the-sky-bet-championship-match-at-the-bramall-lane-stadium-sheffield-picture-date-12th-january-2019-picture-credit-should-read-simon-bellissportimage-via-pa Alamy Stock Photo Eustace was brought to QPR by Steve McClaren. Alamy Stock Photo

Wilkinson says there was a sense of understanding among fans when it was announced at the end of the second season that Eustace was leaving Kidderminster to reunite with his former manager.

“Steve McClaren at QPR looked at him and said ‘you’ll be a cracking number two for me’. Nobody is going to stay at a sixth-tier side when they can be part of the staff under a former England manager, that’s just not going to happen.”

“He asked me whether he should stay or go,” adds Gordon. “I said: ‘For what you are, you’ve got to go and work with senior professionals.’ So with my relationship with Steve McClaren, it was a perfect fit. Steve wanted an assistant and John was his captain at Derby.”

And while Eustace’s reputation has grown in the intervening years, Kidderminster have largely struggled, with subsequent managers failing to match his impact.

“This season is the closest we’ve come to promotion since John,” explains Wilkinson. “It will be the first time we make the playoffs hopefully since then.

“It was only last season that we started to reverse that trend back upwards. So if you take a spell of 10 years, the only real upward trend was there with John between 2016 and 2018.”

Gordon, who sold Kidderminster towards the end of 2019, agrees that the club could not build on the momentum that they had generated following Eustace’s spell there.

“Do you know why? Because no one could match his work ethic. He was in at seven in the morning, left at seven at night. He opens the gates at QPR some mornings and he lives 150 miles away. So he leaves at four in the morning. His work ethic is beyond anything I’ve ever seen. Other people couldn’t work to that level. Managers coming in, wanting to go home at the same time as the players, are you kidding me? But when you’ve seen top people work, you know what top people are and John is top.”

And is that level of obsessiveness essential to being an elite manager or coach?

“Without question. I don’t know a top manager now that doesn’t live, eat and breathe football. In the old days, I know David Moyes when he was at Preston and Everton would [attend] his games and go to two other games a week. It’s the modern thing now that managers don’t do that. But I know a Pep Guardiola would be looking at film from around the world until two or three in the morning. They are obsessed. But there are a lot of former players that go into management and basically just see it as an extension of their football career. So at one o’clock, it’s: ‘Oh, I’m going home now. I’ll pick the kids up from school. I’ve got a normal life like I had when I was a player.’ Well, that ain’t the way it is. 

“[At Kidderminster] John had to develop and learn to be better out of possession because we were renowned for being in possession. He knew what he had to learn and he’s still learning every day. John will watch film from Bolivia’s first division if he felt there was a coach there that he should know more about and he still does that now. He’s an avid reader, an avid gatherer of information.

“Fair credit to Stephen Kenny for knowing who he is because John is a very quiet person. He doesn’t court publicity. He doesn’t shout from the rooftops.”

Gordon adds that Eustace will be a manager “soon enough” and believes it won’t be at international level because he needs to “see the fruits of his labour every weekend”.

“His knowledge of the game is exceptional, but I don’t know how you’d describe it, he has no ego.

“The top managers have faults, huge faults, John’s got none. He genuinely will get anybody to follow him to the end of the earth because they trust him. John’s humility and ability to have people trust in him is the thing that stands him out from most people. That I [initially] thought was his strength alone to be a top manager, but then he just happens to be one of the best coaches I’ve seen work.”

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