Of the Vanarama National League’s young managers, Danny Searle’s coaching experience stands especially strong, even though this is his maiden full season as a first-team boss. He believes attractive play can bear fruit amid the harsh land of this division, but while toiling away to help push Aldershot Town up the table, he wants to ensure no facet of the club is forgotten.
Much has changed at Aldershot in the six years since the Shots were last a League club, and even since their National League play-off appearance just 17 months ago. For a club who hosted Manchester United in round four of the League Cup almost exactly eight years ago, it had seemed they were set for the sixth tier in 2019/20. Safe to say, a relegation reprieve after Gateshead’s demotion wasn’t at all unwelcome.
Sights have been set on something of a new start down at the EBB Stadium (The Recreation Ground). Gary Waddock’s second managerial tenure drew to a close at the end of last season, with Danny Searle the man chosen to help the Shots spark again.
A vastly experienced coach at clubs like West Ham United and Chelsea, the 41-year-old was Braintree Town boss earlier this year, stepping up in late-January from assistant and delivering a number of impressive results in a dark season for the Iron.
Although the Shots are fervently looking to relinquish their current relegation-zone residence (sitting 21st of 24 on goal difference), the opening 15 games have seen them enjoy wins at Woking, Ebbsfleet and Stockport, with a home success over Wrexham.
Two months into the season, and just shy of five since his appointment, has anything surprised the gaffer thus far?
“We knew it was gonna be tough, because it’s a tough league. I think when you look at the league table, there’s not masses of difference between most of the clubs; it’s an odd goal here or there.
“That wasn’t a surprise, but I think the pleasant surprise for me was the level of fanbase at Aldershot and how big a club it actually is. There’s some great people there, so that was nice, but from a football perspective, it hasn’t really been a surprise.
“It’s been difficult with not knowing what league we were in, and then having to recruit pretty much a whole entire new squad to deal with one or the other. We feel from a squad perspective, although the points might not say so at the minute, we feel like we’re in a good place.”
It would be foolhardy in the extreme for any manager to see results as inconsequential, and with more than 15 years coaching at professional clubs, Danny knows well the game’s unerring sense of immediacy at senior level. Nevertheless, there is an argument to say that leaving a lasting impression encompasses more than just a good win percentage.
“I’ve always been strong on making a club, a club,” Danny explained. “So, from top to bottom and bottom to top, everyone’s on the same page; the academy, the foundation, the community work that gets done.”
“It all kind of interlinks with what the first team are doing. Without all the other facets of the club, the first team just ends up becoming a team, rather than a club.
“For example, the FA Youth Cup on Monday night with our boys, the whole first-team squad was there, and staff, to make sure we’re supporting them just as much as they would support us on a match day. We all went out for a Nando’s, so it’s quite a tight-knit group.
“We’re trying to really bring that family feel to it. I’m massive on youth development, hence people will probably notice the age of the squad that we’ve got.
“I want to help develop young players and I think that they can more than handle themselves in this league, given the opportunity. It takes time because you’ve got to balance up your philosophy with trying to get points on the board, but we’re starting to play the style of football that I want to bring to the club. “Hopefully once we get that cherry on the cake, that finisher in the squad, then we’ll start moving up the table.”
Shortly after this conversation, in came forward Mo Bettamer, following his exit from Barnet. The 26-year-old was a player Danny worked with at Braintree during his time as assistant, with Bettamer joining Barnet not long after his brace at Salford City caught the eye in a 2-2 draw last October.
Danny would become manager (initially interim) three months later, as Hakan Hayrettin, the former Iron boss brought back following Brad Quinton’s departure, left to link up with John Still at Maidstone United. With Braintree rock-bottom and nine adrift of safety, Danny would preside over six victories in his 16 games, beating play-off winners Salford and finalists AFC Fylde, as well as holding champions Leyton Orient.
Although a return to the National League South had long seemed inevitable, chairman Lee Harding told how ‘some of the results and performances will live long in the memory,’ as Danny stepped down in May. The erstwhile gaffer reflects on his introduction to life as a number one in the National League.
“I will forever be grateful for the opportunity I was given at Braintree; there’s really good football people there. It taught me loads, because Braintree are an astute club, they work within a tight budget to make sure that the club’s safe, and with that comes challenges, because they’re not going to just throw money at every problem that comes up.
“You have to work hard to try and be resourceful and do things differently, and it stood me in great stead. It’s given me a platform to understand a little bit more about the league, the players and the types of things you need to do on a daily basis to make sure you can compete, but also off the field, looking at what’s going on behind the scenes.
“I was heavily involved in that and I’d like to think that, to a certain degree, I left a little bit of a legacy there with some of the community work that we tried to bring together. It was a great grounding, to be honest.”
With his first shot at transferring his know-how into leading a first team coming in the midst of a very steep uphill relegation fight, there was little time to hesitate on a plan of action. At Braintree and now at Aldershot, Danny considers the degree to which he has had to adapt his long-held coaching ideals, in search of quick results in the ruthless National League.
“My core philosophy will always be my philosophy. Yes we’ve had to adapt, because no disrespect to the players at this level, but sometimes some of the things that I would want from say an Under-23 at a Premier League club, the lads aren’t capable of doing.
“That’s a rarity, because there’s some very, very good players at this level, plus these players have had different groundings with managers at different types of levels. They’ve got, I wouldn’t say a fixed mindset, but they’ve got a mindset on how they believe the game should be played.
“That’s why the recruitment’s been important and bringing people in that want to buy into what you’re trying to do. It doesn’t always work, and some of the results will show that, but long-term, I genuinely believe that it will.
“People told me you can’t play football in this league, and I beg to differ. We did it at Braintree and we got some success, and I believe we’ll get success at Aldershot.”