by Stuart Hammonds
Adam Murray the footballer is someone this correspondent has known for more than a decade, since his days in Carlisle United’s 2004-05 Conference promotion-winning midfield. But this is our first meeting since he became Mansfield Town manager a year ago next week.
Should I call him “Muzza or Gaffer”? I jokingly ask.
With a nod to his recent press conference, in which he criticised The FLP’s report on his side’s impressive draw at Portsmouth and offered to bring in his seven-year-old son Harley to be interviewed about children’s TV characters the next time we called, he replies: “Call me SpongeBob!”
It is typical Murray: a light-hearted quip to ease any potential tension, but totally appropriate as he goes on to explain how he’s gone from Premiership player and England U21 prospect at 17, via the Priory Clinic for alcohol treatment at 22, ten different clubs, more than 500 appearances, three promotions from the Conference and loan spells at Worskop Town and Rainworth Miners’ Welfare during 2013-14 – to finally being the Football League’s youngest manager at 33.
How seven years ago, when the man in the opposition dugout yesterday at Northampton took over at Oxford and reinstated the out-of-favour captain to engine room and armband, he started to soak up any information he could get.
It was preparing him for making up for the lack of a top-level career he believes he should have had after making his debut for Derby in 1998.
“I didn’t make it at the level I should have as a player through my own fault,” says Murray, now 34. “So, since Chris Wilder came into Oxford, and I thought ‘Yeah, you’re top drawer – I like you’, I’ve been obsessed with coaching and different ideas.
“I said to myself that when I got the chance, I was going to be the best at it that I can be.
“I messed up on this side of it, so I’m going to do all I can to make sure I make it on that side.
“I always made gung-ho decisions as a player. If I was out of the team, I wanted a move because I was impatient to try to get back up. I never looked at the bigger picture.
“I’ve experienced most things in life that any of my players will, so I have tools I can use to be more measured in my thought process on this side of it.”
Now he’s switched sides, Murray – still ‘Muzza’ to the Mansfield lads he skippered – is certainly measuring up well.
Initially reluctant to extend his caretaker spell, he drew on the notes he’d been making since those Non-League days under Wilder when chairman John Radford called him to “have a chat with the board” after they’d finished interviewing those who’d applied to succeed Paul Cox last year.
“We’d had good results while I was caretaker, but I was playing well at the time and felt fitter than I had ever been,” he says. “It was a risk because my name as a coach could have been tarnished before I’d even started.
“I was in my tracksuit at a reserve game when John rang, but I dashed home, put my suit on, printed all my notes off that I’d been collating over those years and had a good chat with them.
“I made a presentation and said that, if I do things the way I want it to be done – and it was a case of ‘We need to do all the basics as a football club right’ – I think I can take it forward.
“Games went on and it was…like being in hell! I’ve never known anything like it. I knew it was going to be tough, but I didn’t know how tough.”
Having previously been Cox’s player-assistant, he rejected advice to take an older head as his own No.2 and kept the ex-manager’s coaches, Richard Cooper and Micky Moore. He describes the pair as “brilliant” and “as hungry as I am for coaching”.
Murray played for the likes of Jim Smith, Steve McClaren and Paul Ince. As well as calling yesterday’s opponent, Wilder, he regularly uses his old Derby coach, Steve Round, as a sounding board, but explains: “My biggest thing was that I wanted to fail or succeed and learn all the lessons, by doing it myself.
“Last season was the best learning curve I could have had. If we’d gone down, I’d have been out of a job before I’d even started.
“The year before, I’d been out of favour with Paul and had gone out on loan to Worksop and Rainworth. It was surreal because I was supposed to be his assistant but I wasn’t in his plans.
“The opportunity was there for me to leave the club, but I woke up the morning I was supposed to come in and sign my papers, and I just said to my missus, Lyndsey, ‘I can’t do this, it doesn’t feel right – even if I have to go with my begging bowl and say ‘Look, I can affect this team for you. Give me half a chance and I can show you I can still do it’.
“To be fair to Paul, we shook hands, I came back in and we stayed up. Twelve months on as manager, I couldn’t let us go down because it would be game over, and I put that pressure on myself.”
Despite losing nine of their last 11 matches, Mansfield finished seven points clear of the dotted relegation line, below which were Cheltenham and Tranmere, who the Stags beat 1-0 to virtually guarantee survival with three weeks to go.
“Going into that one I felt sick, couldn’t sleep,” says Murray. “You know that your decisions are life and death in that situation, not just for yourself but everyone at the club.
“Lyndsey would say to me ‘You’ve got to switch off or you’re going to kill yourself’.
“It was literally waking up in the middle of the night, sitting up and making a note of things because I knew I’d forget it in the morning. Bang, bang, bang and I’d try to get back to sleep, but you can’t.”
When the summer came and contracts were up, Murray brought in 14 new players to play a different style of football than the direct approach that had served Cox well for three years.
“We were machines and we’d played one way – a successful way – for a long time to get out of the Conference,” he says. “We had a decent first season up, but things had just caught up with us and we needed to reinvent it.”
As a creative midfield player, and a Field Mill crowd favourite over three spells, there was only going to be one way.
“We aren’t saying we are going to play Total Football, like the Dutch used to, because we are in League Two,” says Murray.
“But what we have done is say to the lads ‘Here’s a structure and, within that, these are ideas that we are going to use and we are going to play. At times, your positions will change, but your options don’t – so if left-back Mal Benning ends up as ten, trying to volley in another spectacular goal, midfielder Chris Clements might end up at three, but he’s still the same passing option’. And because of that it flows.
“I’ve got Nicky Hunt, who played in the Premier League at right-back for hundreds of games. We are putting new ideas into him and he’s going ‘Brilliant!’
“A big part of the recruitment was to get people in who could play the way I wanted to play, but we need people who could also do the other side, because it is League Two. I look for marginal gains, the extra one per cent that certain people and things will give us.
“I also needed to look at the dressing room and know that they were good people and had good morals. Little things like knowing they were family men. Like when we signed Nicky, he came to look at the ground and he brought his mum and dad and his daughter. I thought ‘You’re perfect for me’.”
Not surprising, being a father of four himself. Indeed, while Mansfield have been enveloping themselves between the likes of Portsmouth and Plymouth in the play-off places, the latest addition to the Murray family – two-week-old Remi – has given dad the chance to work even more.
“It’s worked out good because I don’t need a lot of sleep,” says Murray, who also has daughters Jolie (11) and Myley (5). “I go on a maximum of five hours so it works for me.
“When the little un needs his feed in the night, I’ll get up and set the laptop up so I’m logged on to Wyscout watching our next opponents while I’m giving him his bottle. It’s brilliant.
“The only issue I’ve got, and I know it’s part of being a parent and you have to get the balance, but I like being at work at seven o’clock. I like to get in and plan.
“I like to be the first one in so I know the changing rooms are clean and everything’s in place. At the start of the season, I was cutting the grass on the training pitch because I wanted to make sure it was spot on.
“But at the moment I’m having to do the school run with my oldest, who’s just started senior school.
“I have to drop her off literally when the school opens at 8am and she goes mad because she’s on her own. She says ‘Dad, no-one’s here until quarter to nine’. I’m like: ‘Just go in the classroom and have your breakfast’.
“I’m not getting into work now until half-eight, which isn’t bad, but it’s not ideal – although, on the days we change training to 3pm to replicate a matchday, it’s fine.”
The timing of his appointment might not have been ideal either, but Murray the sponge is happy squeezing out the ideas he’s soaked up to make his Stags shine.
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