Former Boro and Ipswich Town star Armstrong relishing life in the Spartans dugout
Following in the footsteps of a manager that has helped a club achieve great things is an unenviable task for any person willing to take on the challenge.
Throw in the fact that the manager taking on the challenge is in his first managerial role in senior football, then the task appears even more daunting.
Not that former Middlesbrough and Ipswich Town striker Alun Armstrong is showing any signs of shirking away from the challenge.
It’s now five months since Armstrong left Middlesbrough’s academy to step into the dugout at Evo-Stik Northern Premier League club Blyth Spartans.
In doing so he replaced outgoing manager Tom Wade, the man that spent four years with Spartans helping the club back on to its feet after a humilating relegation from the Conference North in 2012.
With the club languishing in the lower reaches of the Evo-Stik Northern Premier League Wade was appointed as successor to Paddy Atkinson in March 2013.
After leading the club away from the relegation zone that season, he went on to lead Spartans to successive play-off challenges, a Northumberland Senior Cup Final triumph and, memorably, the Third Round of the FA Cup in 2015.
There was some surprise when Wade left the club in September 2016. At the time they were sat in second place in the table after winning six of their nine league games.
The fact that Armstrong, a managerial novice, was selected to take his place.
Any scepticism of the appointment has now been wiped away, with Armstrong’s side producing some pretty impressive statistics over the past five months.
Of their twenty eight games since Armstrong’s managerial debut, the Spartans have won eighteen, losing only four games in that time.
As a player Armstrong scored goals for the likes of Stockport County and Ipswich Town, scoring home and away against Inter Milan for the latter.
So perhaps it shouldn’t be a surprised that his Spartans side have scored seventy seven goals in those twenty eight games, an average of just under three goals a game.
They currently sit top of the Evo-Stik Northern Premier League table, twelve points ahead of second placed Whitby Town.
It’s safe to say that Armstrong is relishing new career as a manager.
An easy career move, I suggest.
Far from it, he says.
“It’s never easy, never easy. Far from it because the standard is so high and our own expectations are too.
“It’s full credit to the players. It took a while to get them into the sort of side we wanted but they are getting there.
“Although I believe we are capable of a lot more to be honest.
“The lads are taking on board everything we have told them, we have changed a few faces.
“But you can see the work-rate that they are putting in and that is why they are winning games. It’s sheer work-rate and they are following it up by scoring goal upon goal upon goal.
“I know what we have going forward, we have a lot of quality, but we were aware we were conceding goals too.
“We did a lot of work on that, both myself, Darren (assistant manager Darren Holloway) and Hooksy (coach Neal Hooks).
“Not just with the back four but the whole side, we are a unit now.
“I can’t fault them, they just take everything on board”
The nuculus of the Spartans side still contains players from the club’s FA Cup run in 2015.
Mecurial winger Robbie Dale, striker Dan Maguire and centre back Ryan Hutchinson all remain key components of the Spartans lineup.
The likes of defenders Nathan Buddle and Jordan Watson and winger Jarrett Rivers (left) all left the club in the year after the cup run, but all returned to Croft Park.
Armstrong, who began his playing career at Newcastle United’s academy, has put his own stamp on the side too.
A change of system and key loan signings like Newcastle United U23 goalkeeper Paul Woolston and Carlisle United defender David Atkinson have added to an already impressed Spartans squad.
Atkinson is now a permanent member of the squad, joining the club after his release from the Cumbrians.
The squad looks settled and at ease with each other.
Since New Years Day their form has been near-perfect.
Nine games played, nine wins, thirty three goals scored and just six conceded.
A novice at Evo-Stik NPL level, Armstrong admits that his players have surprised him over the past five months, as they seek a return to step two of the non-league pyramid.
“They have all surprised me. I didn’t know much about this level, I am the first to admit that.
“When I came into this level I thought the kids I had worked with in the Under-23s at Middlesbrough could step in here easily.
“They couldn’t, simple as that, they couldn’t.
“It’s physically more demanding, technically it’s very good and tactically they just wouldn’t be ready for it.
“These lads have been there and done it, they know the league, they know what it takes.
“They have day jobs, they all do, but here, we class them as senior pros because that is the mentality they have.
“They know what they are doing, and as long as they keep the work-rate up we will be fine”
The change from working in an academy to senior football is a somewhat challenging one.
Many players have been found out in the ultra-competitive Evo-Stik Northern Premier League.
Spartans have found that themselves, with a number of former Premier League academy players struggling to come to terms with life at Croft Park.
As a manager, Armstrong has had no such issues, with the demands of senior football bringing a return of the attitude that served him so well during his fourteen year playing career.
“It is different being a manager here because in the academy it’s all about development of players” revealed the forty one year old.
“Yes, I want my players here to progress and improve, but on top of that you want to win games on a Saturday or a midweek.
“That is the outlook I was used to in my playing career, I played football to win.
“In an academy, yes you want to win, but it’s more about development.
“Here you have to win and develop and we have that blend quite nice”
That blend has helped the Spartans live up to their pre-season tag as title contenders.
With just fifteen league games remaining, promotion back to the National League North is becoming a strong possibility.
However, the likes of Whitby Town, Workington, Rushall Olympic and Saturday’s opponents Stourbridge will have something to say about that.
The challenge, I suggest, is one that Armstrong is enjoying.
He agrees, and reveals that the challenge of winning games at a high level is the closing thing he has come to experiencing the feelings he had during his playing career.
He said “I am enjoying it, but it’s a funny kind of enjoyment.
“It’s the closest thing I have experienced to playing again.
“All I am interested in is getting the three points in every games, that is all that matters to me.
“Yes, you want to play well but winning is all that matters.
“I think everybody at the club, the supporters, the committee, can see we are doing well.
“It’s positive football but we can mix it up. We have that blend where we can play the short, passing game or we can go long.
“I am really enjoying but I know things can turn. That’s football, so we have to keep working hard to make sure that we work through it.
“I have belief in this squad, and I am still working to strengthen it, but I believe in this players and they know how to win games”
With the business end of the season now approaching Spartans find themselves in a similar situation to the one they were in twelve months ago.
Just as they do now, the club were sat top of the Evo-Stik Northern Premier League table, with a big points advantage over their promotion rivals.
However, defeats against the likes of Halesowen Town and Sutton Coldfield Town, coupled with an outstanding run of form from Darlington saw the Quakers overhaul Spartans and clinch the league title in the final week of the season.
Spartans were condemned to the play-offs and were beaten in an epic semi-final, with Workington inflicting a 4-3 defeat on the Northumbrian outfit at Croft Park.
That disappointment is now driving Spartans on, with Armstrong ready to let them know if their standards drop between now and the end of the season.
“That determination to make up for last season is in there, it would have to be, I would certainly feel it if I was here then.
“But they are working hard to put things right, you can sense that in them.
“I had a go at them at half time on Saturday against Hednesford Town to be honest with you.
“The standards slipped and that isn’t good enough. We were two goals up, we were cruising, and we gave away a soft goal to let them back in.
“I had a right go at them and we let them know that we expected the standards to get back to the levels we demand in the second half.
“To be fair they took it on board.
“You can’t fault the second half, they were outstanding, everything was done in the right way.
“It’s a pleasure to watch. We are getting good results and now we just need to focus on ourselves and getting the results we need”
Getting the results they need is something that Alun Armstrong is finding a happy habit in his first senior managerial role.
Interview: Mark Carruthers (@marknldaily)
Images: Bill Broadley (Blyth Spartans) / Reuters Media