Development, Winning & Finding Balance: Chris Hargreaves
In the latest instalment of Managing in the Modern Game, a series of interviews looking at specific elements of football management through the eyes of those involved, Dean Eldredge of Oporto Sports Management speaks to Bristol Rovers academy manager and former Torquay United boss and Bournemouth first-team coach Chris Hargreaves about balancing his coaching and media commitments, the importance of player development at academy level and the challenges faced by the National League this season…
Chris, talk us through your current roles at Bristol Rovers and working with BT Sport, and how you manage those commitments…
With my role at Rovers, I’m running the academy as well as coaching the U18s and U23s, helping our players with their pathway in to the first-team, or their first step on the ladder to senior football. We are also trying to be sustainable as a club, developing players who can eventually offer us a return on our investment in them, by hopefully reaching the Premier League. We have a responsibility to do the best by the club, but also by our players, by consulting them and their families about their futures.
Working at Bristol Rovers is all-consuming and very rewarding, but I have an obsession for the game and I enjoy working with BT Sport. I thrive on the live aspect, speaking about talented players hoping to reach the Football League, loan players gaining experience, or players coming to the end of their career aiming for more success. It’s given me a good database of talent that I’ve watched first-hand, and I think the coverage we’ve given is a very good product and BT do a superb job.
You’ve coached across various age groups and also worked as a manager for Torquay United at National League level. What do you see as the main differences between being part of the staff and being a manager?
I think it’s responsibility, that’s the key. I noticed a big difference from being assistant manager at Rovers recently, to my current role as academy manager. A lot of hard work goes on at academy level, unseen in many cases, often with coaches doing it for the love of the game and hoping to help young players to develop and progress.
At first-team level it’s the cut-and-thrust, dugout mentality, where winning is everything, and that’s something I thrive on and many others do too. From being a first-team coach at Bournemouth, to manager of Torquay United and then assistant at Rovers, it’s in my blood. Those quick-fire decisions you have to take, having to outwit a team, an opposing manager, the tactical side, that’s why I do it and why I love the challenge.
Player development is obviously key to your work, having helped to either scout or coach and nurture the likes of Ollie Watkins, Matt Grimes and Matt Ritchie to name a few. How are you aiming to transfer that ethos to Bristol Rovers?
It comes down to the consistency of your actions on the training ground during the week, ending with a good performance in a game environment. If you can follow the right processes and avoid placing too much pressure on yourself, you can create the right atmosphere for success. That’s how we worked at Bournemouth, with meticulous routines in training, and then sticking to a gameplan on a matchday.
We aim to help players to not get too carried away, to stay level-headed, never too low and never too high. That calmness can then be carried on to the pitch with them and hopefully manifests in their performance. It’s difficult as a player not to be emotional or self-critical, but to show calmness in your personality is an important trait to have, along with humility, determination and drive.
Whilst player development and transition in to the first team is paramount at U18s and U23s level, you also want to cultivate a winning mentality. What is your management style and how do you work to create success?
I think it’s crucial to create a winning mindset, but to also understand why you lose, and how you change that next time. Player development has to be the priority within the academy, but when you reach the first-team it is simply win at all costs for all football clubs. There’s a clear line between academy and first-team, and once you step in to the other environment more is asked of you to win as you are on a professional contract and supporters are paying money to come and watch and support you. At academy level you can help, nurture and develop the psychology to prepare a player for that next step, that’s the reality of it.
My own style is that I’m determined. If you give me everything, I’ll give you everything back. That’s always been my mentality. I place trust in players, and I’ve never been afraid to play young players. I was a player myself, so I understand the ups and downs. If you can create an environment where players are not afraid, they give their all and pull in the same direction, you are more than likely going to be successful.
As an expert voice for the National League, what are the main challenges faced by clubs at that level given the effects of the pandemic, and what can fans expect from the division this season?
Financially, clubs at this level have been put under immense pressure. The support packages have been there to try and help, but they haven’t worked for all clubs, despite the best intentions. I think smaller squads will be the preferred option for most clubs, certainly for owners. You can turn that in to a positive though, during my time as a player at Brentford, we used the same players pretty much week in, week out. That side narrowly missed out on promotion to the Championship, but made it the next season, even though some of us had moved on. It will mean competition for places is huge, but it can create a tight-knit unity within the squad. Factors such as preactivation, prehabilitation and general fitness will be even more important now, with players needing to be available for selection.
The National League is a very different place now. There’s no hiding place at this level. There is ambition for the majority of the clubs, with some big names competing. I see it as the fifth level of the league, like a League 3 to be honest. The professionalism is there and I think we can look forward to an exciting season.
What are your own objectives for the future? Would you like to manage at first-team level again?
I don’t think there’s any secret that I want to manage again, and that’s where I see myself in the long-term. What I would say, is that at the moment I have a very important and rewarding role at Bristol Rovers, that challenges me every day. I’m very privileged to work for such a great club and I know the responsibility I have on my shoulders to help the club continue to progress and develop.
I’ve got the desire to achieve in this role, but one day I want to test myself as a manager again. It can be very powerful when you are working within a club, with the owners, senior staff, management and players all pulling together to achieve a common aim. I’m sure that one day I’ll be able to help to make that happen.
Wherever Chris Hargreaves has worked, at whatever level or age group, on TV, or in the dugout, he has undoubtedly established himself as an asset to his employers. Bristol Rovers are reaping the benefits of his thorough approach, with talented young players being nurtured in to first-team football, or sold to generate vital revenue at a critical time for a lower league club.
His charismatic style as an expert voice for BT Sport’s National League coverage has won Chris many admirers, and whilst it is a role he relishes, it is working with players and being a manager that is his true calling. Balancing his commitments in a demanding industry is testament to his ability to lead, communicate and manage successfully.
For more information on Dean Eldredge and Oporto Sports Management, please visit www.oportosports.com and follow them on Twitter @DeanEldredge and @OportoSports
2009-2012 Exeter City, U14-U16 Manager
Helped to develop 10 players through to first-team level, with eight now playing in the EFL and two playing in the Premier League
2012-2014 AFC Bournemouth, First-team coach
Promoted to the Championship
2014-2015 Torquay United, Manager
Win rate of 42%, reached the FA Trophy semi-final, in the top six until Christmas when budget was halved
2016-2018 Bristol Rovers, Development Squad Manager
Central League winners 2017-2018, with seven players representing the first-team and win rate of 54%
2019-2020 Bristol Rovers, Assistant Manager
Win rate of 42%, took over four points adrift of safety in 22nd position, survived relegation finishing in 15th position
UEFA Pro Licence
LMA Diploma in Football Management
FA Youth Modules
Currently enrolled on a Masters degree with Portsmouth University in conjunction with the Premier League
Managerial highlight to-date
I can’t look too far past the three experiences I’ve had that have been seminal moments in my coaching career; managing Torquay United at one of the most difficult times in the club’s history has given me a strength and resolve that still helps me today, because I know from those experiences what I need to do, despite it being a difficult time, surviving at Bristol Rovers when myself and Graham Coughlan took over with us five points adrift against the odds was a notable achievement, and promotion to the Championship during my coaching role at Bournemouth, working with Eddie Howe and Jason Tindall, which was a tremendous experience for me. I’ve learned from these moments and I’m stronger for them. I’m now looking to the future.
Image: Lesly Juarez on Unsplash