By Chris Dunlavy
IN the jubilant moments following Grimsby’s promotion to the Football League in May, Paul Hurst stood on the Wembley turf and let rip.
“It’s only a minority, but we’ve had our doubters,” said the Mariners boss. “There’ll be a lot of them on the bandwagon tonight and wrongly so. I hope the ones who’ve been with us have a great night, but let’s not kid ourselves. Some have have been out of order throughout the season.”
Amid the sun-dappled celebrations, it was an extraordinary outburst, especially given that much of the criticism had centred on Hurst’s perceived lack of passion.
Yet, according to Guy Branston, who spent five years playing alongside Hurst at Rotherham, the 41-year-old’s belligerent riposte was typical of a man who never shirked a battle – verbal or physical.
“Excuse the language, but Paul was always a tenacious little f****r,” said the former central defender. “He’ll stand toe to toe with anyone. Nothing scares him.
“How long was he at Rotherham – 15 years? He played so many games for them it was ridiculous. But he wasn’t your stereotypical ‘keep your mouth shut, don’t upset anyone’ type.
“If he needed to get in someone’s face he would. If he wanted to make a point, nothing stood in his way.
“And, whenever he had an opinion or an argument, it was always well thought out and from the heart. You couldn’t help but respect him.”
Tenacity and aggression were always essential to a player who measured just 5ft 5in yet spent his playing days as a lower league left-back.
“People always talked about Hursty’s size, but he was as strong as an ox,” added Branston.
“He was always in the gym, building up his strength and working out ways to get round the flaws in his game.” Born in Sheffield, Hurst joined Rotherham from school, where friends remember him as a quiet lad who rarely bragged about his footballing prowess.
Initially a winger, he was reluctantly pushed backwards by coach and club legend John Breckin, himself a former Millers left-back. The move earned Hurst a full-time contract and a debut under Phil Henson in 1993.
Back then, he was just another kid off the production line. Fifteen years later, he’d clocked up 497 appearances, 19 more than Breckin and just nine short of all-time record holder Danny Williams.
Along the way, he collected a player of the year award and two promotions, both during a glorious seven-year stint under Ronnie Moore.
Moore, now manager of Eastleigh, remembers the first time he clapped eyes on ‘Little Hursty’, concerned that the diminutive defender in the outsize shorts would be targeted by opponents.
“When I looked at Hursty, I saw somebody who’d get done at the back post,” recalls the 63-year-old. “But John Breckin, my assistant, said ‘Don’t worry about his size gaffer. He’s bright, he’s clever and he doesn’t get done by anybody’.
“Sure enough, I used to watch these big 6ft 2in lumps isolate him on the back post, thinking they’d be able to overpower him.
“But he just used his body back. He’d make it look like the big man was leaning all over him when it was actually Hursty backing in and stopping the fella getting a clear run. He was very clever and he won us so many free-kicks.”
According to Branston, Hurst’s authoritative dressing room mien and forthright opinions marked him out as a shoo-in for management. Moore, though, was less convinced.
“I was actually amazed he went down that road,” said Moore. “He wasn’t the loudest or the most inquisitive.
“Normally, the lads with an eye on coaching go away and do their badges early. They’re always asking questions, asking to take sessions or working with the kids. If Hursty was doing that, I didn’t see it.”
Yet, within a year of retirement, Hurst and his old Rotherham pal, Rob Scott, were in joint-charge of Ilkeston.
Supplementing his income with jobs as a support assistant at Rawmarsh Sports College and participation officer at Rotherham, Hurst sealed promotion with Scott to Conference North in their first season. A year later, they repeated the trick with Boston.
“Everyone who plays for him gives 100 per cent,” said Simon Weaver, now manager of Harrogate Town. “I saw it when I played under him at Ilkeston and, watching his teams, I can tell that’s been the case ever since.”
Success at Grimsby has come at a cost. In 2013, Scott –always the fiery yin to Hurst’s more introspective yang – was sacked after squaring up to supporters after a match at Nuneaton.
Hurst stayed put and the relationship suffered.
In October 2014, Scott took to twitter to denounce his old pal’s credentials and said he “wouldn’t want him in the trenches”.
Scott’s exit also left Hurst to face the understandable frustration engendered by three successive play-off defeats. Criticism was a constant companion. Defeat to Forest Green in May could have spelled curtains, but having survived to guide the Mariners into the League, the only way is up for Hurst, says Branston.
“I’m a big believer in him,” said the 37-year-old, who spent last season as director of football at Notts County.
“I did everything I could to try and get him to Notts last season.
“He’ll always fall down in some people’s eyes because he’s come through Non-League. But where else was he going to start?
“Big names always get the big jobs. They get it easy. Paul has done it the hard way and now he’s reaping his rewards. I think he’s going to be a top, top manager.”