Darren Acton is going back to where it all began… again. When AFC Telford United manager Gavin Cowan and interim chairman Andy Pryce held a fans forum on Twitter recently, one of the responses that had fans hitting the ‘like’ button was the news that Acton was re-joining the club’s coaching staff as goalkeeping coach, following his departure from Solihull Moors.
For Acton, it will be a third spell at Telford, the place where he began his career, making his debut as a 17-years old YTS trainee some thirty years ago, and his return means the Bucks once again have a goalkeeping coach on the coaching staff, for the first time since Darren left the club in October 2018.
The recognition that goalkeeping is a specialist position, and therefore warrants a specialist coach, is something Darren enthusiastically champions, as he explained:
“I spoke to Gav (Cowan) about it; when I was here before he said that he’d never really had a goalkeeping coach, but to me, a goalkeeping coach and a physio are the most important things you can have at a football club, but especially a goalkeeping coach. Going back to my day, I never had one, so I know how important a role it is in helping keepers to develop.”
My impression was that coaching the last line of defence isn’t simply about the technical and physical aspects, it’s also about the psychology of the position, something on which Darren readily agreed:
“Yeah, of course it is. It’s about making them believe that they’re a good keeper. I’ve always been a big believer in the saying that you work hard in training and you work hard in games, that the more work you put into training the better you’ll be in games, that’s something I always try to drum into keepers.”
“It’s about having that mentality, of wanting to win games. For me, it’s about clean sheets; that’s something I stress to not just my players, but to defenders as well. If you just do your job and keep a clean sheet then it’s happy days.”
With so many games under his belt in his semi-professional career, Darren is well aware of the ‘hero to zero’ nature of the position, something he impresses upon those who come under his wing:
“Your goalkeeper is obviously your last line of defence, and he’s the one that stops the ball going into the back of the net, but then there’s also the side of it where you can drop a clanger and be the one to cost your side games, so you have to try and get that mentality over to keepers as well. It’s not just ninety minutes, it’s a ninety-five-minute game these days, so you have to maintain that focus.”
Darren is also acutely aware of the unforgiving nature of the position, but revealed it hasn’t put off another young hopeful he works with, namely his son JJ:
“Your forwards might miss five or six chances but still put one away, so no-one questions you about the five or six; with a keeper, it’s one mistake and everyone is on your back! I think keeper is the worst position, for that kind of scrutiny. My lad is a keeper, and it’s not something where I’ve pushed him, to be fair. He just wanted to be a goalkeeper and he’s stuck to his guns. I said to him “are you sure you want to be a goalkeeper?” and he’s like “yeah dad, yeah dad”, so I’ve let him carry on and he’s developing well.”
“He’s 12, 13 in September, and he’s at the Villa academy as well. They send him homework, and things to do, but being a keeper myself I know the things to work on. Hopefully he’ll develop, but the main thing is that he’s enjoying it.”
I suggested to Darren that it might not be too long before another Acton will be playing in goal; after all, Darren himself was only around five years older than JJ is now when he made his Bucks debut, as he recalled:
“It’s thirty years ago now. I came (to the club) in 1990, I think, as a 16-year old. I can remember when I made my debut, even though I can’t remember the date; it was away at Gateshead on a Tuesday night, we lost 5-1 and the headline from that game has always stuck in my mind: “ACTON BATTERED BUT NOT TO BLAME”.
Darren’s debut, in the 1990-91 season, came because of injury to first-team keeper Steve Humphries, although I have to confess that neither he nor I could remember his surname, subsequently helped out on that score by friend and former Bucks photographer Tim Roberts. Humphries had been brought in with a view to taking over from a club legend, as Darren explained:
“Kevin Charlton was still there when I was there, but he was coming to the end of his playing career. I’m not sure whether he might not have moved on, but Steve got injured. He (Humphries) actually wrote me a letter; I’ll never forget that. Gerry Daly (manager) came up to me and said Steve’s given you this, wishing you all the best for your debut, and I shall always remember him doing that.”
One of my own earliest recollection of Darren playing in goal for Telford was in a pair of FA Cup ties against Stoke City in November 1991, and they are games that stick in the Acton memory too:
“I think I was eighteen at the time; I made my debut the year before, at 17, and I think it was the year after. I was in and around the first team and yeah, we played Stoke City; we actually played them the year before as well, and I was there then, I was on the YTS books.”
“I remember watching the game, with players like Martin Myers in the team, and I remember saying “I want to be involved in games like this”, and the following year I was.”
“In the first year we drew 0-0 at the Buck’s Head and then lost 1-0 at Stoke, the next year it was reversed; we drew 0-0 at Stoke and beat them at the Buck’s Head (2-1). I saw a video of the highlights of that the other day, of Ian Benbow scoring the winner. It was nice to see, things like the old ground, it brought back a lot of memories, of people who aren’t there now.”
It’s clear that Darren is looking forwards to his second ‘homecoming’, and whilst the focus is clearly on the future, it’s evident that Telford holds many good memories for the former shot-stopper, and especially the people involved at the club. Darren made special mention of former groundsman Bob Turner, of Shirley Finnegan who worked in the club offices, her husband Pat and daughter Clare, who Darren is still in touch with and who went on to work in football administration at a number of professional clubs, including Carlisle United and Notts County.
“Bob was my hero; I remember doing the groundsman’s work with him, and he’d let us go on the tractor! There are others, people whose faces I remember but whose names I forget” he said. I reminded Darren that it’s perhaps not surprising to forget a name or two from thirty years ago, to which he replied “You’re making me sound old now!”
Mention of the ‘old’ Buck’s Head made me think of the changes that Darren has seen at the club over the years, something he readily agreed with:
“Oh yeah, there’ve been massive changes. It’s been lovely to see what’s been done with the ground; I think for the moment that Telford are in the wrong division for the ground they’ve got.”
Alluding to manager Gavin Cowan’s ambitions for the club, Darren continued:
“I think that’s why Gav is so dedicated to getting the club up, and I think he’s brought me in for my experience. Obviously, we’re really good friends as well, so it’s not just on the field, it’s off the field as well.”
I knew from speaking with Gavin last season that part of the reason the goalkeeping coach’s role was left vacant was the manager’s need to find someone for the role whom he could trust, and I put it to Darren that clearly that level of trust exists between them, having worked together in the past. When his situation changed at Solihull Moors, I imagined Gavin must have been in touch with him fairly promptly:
“Yes, he was to be fair. I wasn’t surprised, I knew he would probably give me a call, because that’s how close we are. When I was at Solihull we always kept in contact, saw how each other was getting on and spoke about different things, but that’s just me and Gav; we’ve always kept a close connection with each other, and that’s why I think we’re good for each other.”
Darren also feels that Gavin possesses the qualities to succeed, as he explained:
“I think he’s got that mentality to go higher, whether that’s with Telford or elsewhere, but hopefully with Telford. I believe in him. Wherever he and I have been, we’ve achieved something, as coaches or as players, whether it’s been an FA Cup run or winning the league, we’ve always had that mentality of winning, and I think that’s why we connect.”
That connection also gives the pair a solid foundation for healthy disagreement, as Darren was keen to emphasise:
“If I don’t agree with what he does then I’ll tell him, but I think that’s down to the respect we have for each other. If someone’s been in football, then I think Gav will respect them; he has a lot of respect for a lot of people in the game and I think that’s why he’ll get on in football. He’s a good manager, but he’s also a good coach; he can coach as well.”
We turned from the present day back to the past for a while, to discuss Darren’s career after he left Telford, and his next club was to be Burton Albion, now an EFL League One team but back then a Conference team:
“Yeah, I went to Burton Albion, with Nick Goodwin coming in the opposite direction, I think, if I remember rightly. The transfer went to a tribunal, and there was a fee involved, and although I can’t remember which way it went, I know Burton were very happy, so it must have been in their favour!” he laughed.
“It was when George Foster was manager (at Telford), and he was keen on the other keeper so I went in the opposite direction to Burton, and I think I played 176 games for them. They’re obviously a club that’s really gone on from where they were; I remember when Ben Robinson (chairman) came in, he turned around and said he was going to take them into the Football League, and he kept his promise to them. They’ve done a fantastic job; what the chairman has done is unbelievable, so fair play to them.”
Darren’s non-league tour of the Midlands then took him south, to Worcestershire, but his season at Kidderminster Harriers, “another fantastic club”, was one beset by injuries, limiting Darren’s first-team involvement. The following close season saw him swap being a Harrier for a notable and successful spell in ‘sheep’s clothing’, as a Lamb at Tamworth, the town in which he still lives.
His time at the Staffordshire club clearly left a positive impression, as Darren recently made it into the final sixteen of a Twitter-based poll whose aim has been to find the club’s all-time best player, and his time at the Lambs was clearly mint, as the saying goes:
“In the four years I was at Tamworth, we survived relegation in the first, then in the second we finished second in the league, missing out on the last day of the season when we didn’t get the result we should have at Folkestone. Kettering went on to win it, but the following season we won the league and also reached the FA Trophy final.”
“I still see a lot of the supporters and have a good connection with them, and I always look out for their results, the same as I do for Telford, and for Burton, pretty much every club I’ve been at. I think I gave them all good service, to be fair, but with living here (in Tamworth) I get lots of people calling out to me still, “alright Darren!”, and it’s a great club, it’s another one which should be higher than where it is. I had some great memories there, I loved every minute of it, and with winning the league and the Trophy final I achieved things there that I’d always wanted to do in non-league.”
The Lambs were looking good for a possible return to the Vanarama National League North in 2019/10, handily placed in the Southern League Premier Central division, but the impact of Covid-19 and the subsequent decision to make all leagues at Steps 3-7 null and void has pulled the rug from under their feet, a decision Darren admits has left him feeling “gutted for them, but we’re all in the same boat, aren’t we? We just have to get on with it.”
From Staffordshire, Darren headed to Warwickshire and the longest stay with any club of his playing career, at Nuneaton Borough:
“I think it was eight years, and I played over 340 games there, something like 346, actually.”
That number tallied with the figure I had written down, and Darren’s clear knowledge of his own playing record suggests to me a man who took a great pride in how many games he played.
“I never forget my games!” he laughed, before continuing:
“I had eight great years there. We had ups and downs; we got relegated, had to move ground (from Manor Park to Liberty Way), and at one point it looked like the club was going under. A chairman came in, Ian Neale, who did fantastically for the club. He asked me to stay, I said “I’ll go away and think about it” and I decided to stay, and we won promotion through the play-offs, but before that we had our FA Cup run.”
It was a memorable journey for Nuneaton, one which eventually pitched ‘The Boro’ against their namesakes Middlesbrough in the third round, and a game that featured on BBC’s ‘Match of the Day’, giving the Nuneaton players time in the spotlight and thrusting a well-known Telford name into the national spotlight; not Darren, but a team-mate and former Telford player:
“We drew 1-1 with Middlesbrough at home, thanks to Gez Murphy, who scored a last-minute equaliser from a penalty. On the stats and everything we were the far better team on the day, believe it or not, but then we went up to Middlesbrough for the replay and lost 5-2. That was a fantastic night as well; on a Tuesday night we had five and a half thousand Nuneaton fans there, and I know I keep saying it but they are another club that should be higher than where they are. I wished we were all in the top division together, because it would be a fantastic league.”
His time at Nuneaton brought him towards the end of his playing career, with loan spells at Brackley Town, Chasetown and Bolehall Swifts to come, but I wondered if coaching had already begun to figure in Darren’s future planning at that point?
“It had, to be fair. I’d done my (coaching) badges, then I went to Brackley where I bumped into Marcus (Bignot), who was there together with me. We obviously spoke about it, and then I went out to Chasetown for a bit, on loan, as I was still at Nuneaton. Marcus phoned me up and said “will you come to Solihull Moors, as player-coach?” It was a no-brainer, really, so I went there with Marcus and then obviously we got promotion (as champions of National League North in 2016). I only played a handful of games, I was more on the coaching side, which I enjoyed a lot, and then Marcus asked me if I’d work with the girls as well.”
By “the girls”, Darren is referring to Birmingham City Ladies, a step in his career I’d been unaware of. The dual role, with both the Ladies and the Moors, meant Darren was exceptionally busy, but rewarding, as he explained:
“We won the league (Moors), and the Ladies won the FA Cup as well, and also reached the Champion’s League semi-final; we lost that 1-0, but the whole thing was a great experience. We travelled to Italy, places like that, and I really enjoyed it, so I’ve had success in coaching as well.”
Marcus Bignot’s departure from Solihull, for a short stay at Grimsby Town, signalled Darren also being available, and he joined the Bucks coaching staff under Gavin Cowan two summers ago, in 2018, only to return to the Moors in October of the same year. As Darren explained, the chance to go back to Damson Park wasn’t one he was able to refuse:
“It was an opportunity to go back into full-time again, so it was one I wanted to do, because I hadn’t done anything like that for a long time. Tim Flowers (then Moors manager) phoned me up and just said “Would you consider coming back, because I know that you and Gav are good friends?” The first thing I said was “let me speak to Gav first”, because I wasn’t going to go behind Gav’s back, I’m not like that. We sat down, we spoke, and then we had a few little hugs; he said “look, it’s a no-brainer, although obviously I’d really like to keep you here.” I get on really well with Tim Flowers as well, who wanted me to go there and coach the keepers, but me and Gav always said that at some point we’d be back together.”
I put it to Darren that as a former Premier League goalkeeper himself, and a title-winning one at that, the opportunity to work with Tim Flowers must have been a significant factor for him, and a real vote of confidence in his coaching abilities?
“I’m going to let you into a little secret now” said Darren, “Tim was actually my hero as a keeper, so it was an honour; to work with someone like that, who’d won the Premiership and done so much in football, it was a great opportunity, and I think Gav respected me for that. It wasn’t just him either; it was Gary Whild, who I have a lot of respect for, and James Quinn, a Northern Ireland international with over 50 caps, it was good for me as well, to be involved with the likes of them and to have their experience rub off on me. I think it’s made me a better coach, and I owe Tim, Gaz and Quinny a lot for that.”
Solihull’s decision to part company with Flowers in January this year meant that ultimately, Darren’s time at the Moors would eventually be curtailed too, however:
“Yes, unfortunately it came to an end, the chairman wanted something different, but that’s football. I’m not really sure what the reason was, but I had a fantastic time with those people. Tim still phones me up from time to time, and he’s happy for me that I’ve come back to Telford.”
Darren’s positive mindset won’t let him see that Moors decision as a negative either, and although not boastful, it’s clear Darren believes in his own abilities, as does Gavin Cowan:
“I always say that when you leave a club it gives you an opportunity to go on and achieve something better; as one door closes another one opens, and I’m a big believer in that. At every club I’ve been at as a coach we’ve achieved something, so I must have something in me that influences people. Gav said to me “I’ve got to get in early before someone else comes in for you!”
Looking ahead to the point when the Bucks are able to retake the field of play, I asked Darren if he and Gavin had already had any discussions about next season and possible recruitment:
“Yeah, we have. You’ve got your talkers, your organisers, you’ve got the ones who don’t talk, and you’ve got to get that connection between the keeper and the defenders, so yeah, I’ve been having a look around, getting a list together, and we’ll get together and talk about it. In that respect the spare time has helped. We’ve got a few keepers in mind, but obviously they are currently with other clubs, but the plan will be to get someone in who can play 40+ games in the season.”
Darren also feels that helping to keep the back door closed should enhance the Bucks chances, as he’s been impressed by what he’s seen of the team:
“Going forward, I’ve watched a few games and the style of play is unbelievable, really, but when it comes to defending that’s where they’ve maybe struggled a bit. I think where I can come into that is that you’ll see me on the touchline, working with the keepers and the defenders, but the same goes for Jamie (Haynes) and with Trains (Phil Trainer); we’ve got a good coaching staff, I enjoyed working with them previously and we’ve all got a lot to give.”
I suggested to Darren that the current suspension of football activities could be the longest period he and many others have ever had from the game, given that the close season seems to last only a matter of weeks. As those who are on the administration and management side of the game know only too well, even the close season isn’t a break as such, but Darren has accepted the decision philosophically:
“It’s about people’s health. What the government are doing is spot on, you’ve got to think of people’s health, so if they decide to scrap it (the 2019/20 season) then I’m all for it. I feel for teams like Liverpool, and Barrow in the Conference, but that’s life; hopefully they’ll sort it out, but they’re taking a long time about it.”
“I know financially it will hit some clubs, but hopefully we can get around it and get back to normal. I feel for people; it’s people’s Saturday afternoons, and people are thinking “what do I do now?” We’ve had a longer break now than we normally do, even if we were to go back in June that would be three months, so when it goes start again everyone will be itching for it and raring to go.”
Whilst the return to normality could take a while longer yet, when the game does return the role of supporting the Bucks’ keepers will be in safe hands…