In Hugo Steckelmacher’s third of his profiles on great English managing prospects in the Football League, he looks at the playing and managerial career of ex-Newcastle and Portsmouth faithful Mark Stimson, now manager of Gillingham F.C.
Although in many ways unspectacular, much can be learnt about the character of Mark Stimson from his much-travelled playing career. Hailing from Plaistow, East London (strangely a place that holds a fair few memories for this writer), Stimson linked up with Tottenham as a trainee, and signed professional terms at White Hart Lane at the age of seventeen.
However, Stimson’s time at Spurs thereafter was short-lived, and he made just two appearances for the Lilywhites. When leaving White Hart Lane, Stimson was faced with a situation with which the vast majority of Premiership trainees are confronted — how to rebuild one’s career after rejection at the top level?
Having gained some league experience on loan at Leyton Orient and Gillingham whilst still on Spurs’ books, Stimson then opted to join a careworn Newcastle United side that had just been relegated back to the Second Division. Stimson made over 80 performances for The Magpies in his four years at the club, always giving his all despite never cutting the most popular figure on Tyneside, and ironically departed St James’ the season before Newcastle would make the leap back into the First Division (by this time, the newly formed Premier League).
In the 1992-3 season, Stimson completed a loan transfer to Portsmouth, who missed out on promotion to the Premier League by virtue of having scored one less goal than West Ham United. The move was made permanent at the end of that heart-breaking campaign, and Stimson spent three solid and unspectacular years at 1st Division Pompey before once more seeking pastures new.
5 loan appearances at Barnet were followed by a move to Second and then Third Division Southend United, where Stimson continued his trend of playing steadily for clubs rocked by either financial or footballing crisis, or both. After another three years at Southend, Stimson spent a frustrating season at Leyton Orient before a move to non-league Canvey Island reignited his love for the game, and introduced him to coaching. Stimson is frank and genuine about his love for football, and his desire to perform to the best of his abilities irrespective of the league level — one gets the impression that he would give the proverbial 110% even in a Sunday-league run-out. When quizzed about this drop-down, Stimson was firm in his response:
“I wanted to tell people that I wasn’t just carrying on playing to have an easy time. I was determined to do it properly. So when I was selected for my country, it showed people that I still meant business!”
Indeed, it was at Canvey Island that Stimson would cross paths with Steve Tilson, who has now gone on to resurrect the fortunes of former club Southend United, and about whom another article shall soon be dedicated. From Canvey Island, Stimson remained in Essex, moving this time to Grays Athletic, for whom he first worked as a player-coach, before feeling his way into management.
Following his descent into non-league football, Stimson would become one of the great spokespeople for the amateur game, an advocatory role that crystallized in his call-up to the National Game XI in 2001, a squad about which many a fan will readily admit to being in the dark. Unlike many former league professionals who would have seen such a squad as beneath them, Stimson reacted with pride to being convoked to represent his nation at the pinnacle of non-League level. Stimson also helped out on the coaching side, a role which he would be keen to pick up again in the future.
Stimson’s words in an interview with the FA perfectly convey his senses of duty and pride to and of his country: “To be picked to play for your country is great recognition, no matter what level you are playing at […] It is a great honour to be involved and everything is run so professionally by the FA. The players are treated in exactly the same way as the Beckhams and the Owens are in the full England squad, with excellent training facilities provided and so on.”
Stimson’s first managerial role would come as player-manager of Grays Athletic in 2003, at the age of just 36. When he took over from previous incumbent Craig Edwards, the club was hovering nervously above the relegation spots in the Isthmian Premier. After staving off the threat of relegation, a top six finish in the following season gained Grays a place in the first ever season of the Conference South.
Preaching a game based on discipline and quick passing, Stimson’s Grays Athletic were runaway champions of the nascent Conference South in 2004, winning the league by 23 points and scoring a staggering 118 goals in the process. 2004 also saw Grays and Stimson win their first FA Trophy in front of more than 8000 supporters, the final win coming over minnows Hucknall Town, also led by a young player-manager in the guise of Dean Barrick. Grays’ run to the cup final included the scalps of a number of Conference sides, such as Altrincham (who were on the back of 14-match unbeaten run) and Exeter City, who had drawn with Manchester United at Old Trafford just weeks before. It was a trophy with which Stimson, and the New Rec, would make quite an acquaintance.
The following season would see Grays taking to the thitherto untrodden bounds of the Conference like a fish to water. A very consistent season, replete with attacking quality, saw Grays finish in 3rd position, qualifying for the playoffs and glimpsing the paradise of league football. Unfortunately for Stimson, Athletic fell at the first hurdle, losing to Halifax in the semi-finals. This disappointment was eased, however, by the club bouncing back to retain the FA Trophy courtesy a 2-0 triumph over a Woking side that contained Stimson’s former Spurs team-mate Stuart Nethercott. The victory at Upton Park, nearby to Stimson’s hometown, was achieved thanks to two goals late in the first-half and an excellent performance from former Woking goalkeeper Ashley Bayes.
Stimson shocked Grays fans by quitting the Blues just two days after completing that second successive FA Trophy success. Having been responsible for the most successful period of the club’s 116-year history, Stimson cited his dream of managing of in the football league as the reason for his departure, as well as displaying a large measure of humility when attributing his personal success to the efforts of his players and the good faith of his chairman:
“I’ve told the players that I’ve only been able to do this because of what they have done for me […] Ideally I will get the chance to move into league football […] Hopefully an opportunity will come up and I will be able to take it because I can’t live without football. If I didn’t get anything I would go back to academy coaching or start up a soccer school”.
“I’ve got so much to thank Micky Woodward for. Without him none of this would have been possible and I need to bump into another man like him”.
Despite being approached by two league clubs, a move to league football did not materialise for Stimson at that juncture, and he eventually moved on to Stevenage Borough, a club with greater resources famous for its run to the fourth round of the FA Cup in 1998, as well as for having supplied a number of league players over the years. Although he once again failed to make that giant leap into league football with ‘Boro — the club finished eighth, just short of the play-off places, thanks largely to a very disappointing start to the season — Stimson was a popular figure at the club, and made a series of excellent signings.
Stimson’s league “failings” were again redeemed through cup success, a trophy run that included an emotional semi-final tie against former club Grays Athletic, who had endured a turbulent campaign, fielding more than 50 players, before the appointment of Justin Edinburgh, with whom Stimson had played at Spurs and Portsmouth, as their fourth manager of the season. After winning the first leg 1-0, ‘Boro looked favourites to progress, but a mammoth second-leg was only settled in extra-time, goals from Luke Oliver and Steve Morison giving Stevenage a 3-1 aggregate victory. Grays would go on to finish the season in 19th position, and have struggled to recover from the body-blow of Stimson’s departure.
This triumph gave Stevenage Borough and their fans an appearance in the first ever competitive match to be held at the New Wembley, a game which attracted an FA Trophy record attendance of 53,262, including more than 20,000 Stevenage fans. Success for ‘Boro was achieved in dramatic circumstances. After Kidderminster had taken a two goal lead thanks to a James Constable double, Stevenage soared back to produce a “Roy of the Rovers” storyline. Having managed to keep the score at 2-0 up until halftime, Stimson must have delivered the team-talk of his lifetime and his team were soon back in it. One of Stimson’s signings, Mitchell Cole, got a goal back for ‘Boro almost immediately with a superb finish, before Stimson introduced pacy forward Mark Dobson. This substitution proved inspired as it was from Dobson’s feet that the equalizer would come, a neat finish from an Adam Miller through ball. The comeback was finally completed two minutes from a time courtesy of a goal from none other than Steve Morison, a 35th goal of the season for the man who scored in every round of ‘Boro’s triumphant run, earning himself a financial bonus in the process! Meanwhile for Stimson this meant a place in the record books, as he became the first manager ever to win the FA Trophy on three consecutive occasions.
Despite rumours of his departure, Stimson remained at Broadhall Way over the summer of 2007, strengthening his squad with a series of astute signings. His continued links with Tottenham — Stimson had already pulled such strings when signing the likes of Stewart Lewis — helped Stimson pull off a coup by capturing former-Barnet striker Ollie Allen, son of the great Clive Allen, though the young striker has since been loaned to Crawley Town. Stimson followed this up by signing Tes Bramble, brother of Titus, a man with bags of league experience, as well as being less error-prone than his beleaguered brother.
A slow start to the 2007-8 campaign was soon put to bed and ‘Boro embarked upon a seven-match unbeaten run in which the club went agonizingly close to setting a new record for consecutive clean sheets in the Conference, racking up seven before a 2-1 home defeat to Cambridge United. However, ‘Boro continued to climb the table and found themselves in 3rd position following a 4-2 defeat to Torquay United, when Mark Stimson resigned following an approach for his services by Gillingham chairman Paul Scally.
Stimson’s record at ‘Boro stands up to close scrutiny, and his good work has been carried on in excellent fashion by ex-England Under-21 boss Peter Taylor, another manager whose pedigree deserves league football. For Stimson, however, the opportunity to manage at league level was too good to turn down, and after a legal battle and a protracted set of negotiations — during which time Gillingham continued to slide towards the basement of league football — Stimson finally made the move to The Gills on the 1st of November 2007.
Any doubts about Stimson’s appointment were soon entombed after he led the Gills to consecutive draws with high-flyers Swansea and Doncaster. However, Stimson has not had things all his own way at the KRBS Priestfield Stadium: whilst a promising start and solid home form (excepting the disappointing defeat to Port Vale, Gillingham had gone unbeaten at home, and had easily dispatched the likes of Nottingham Forest and Hartlepool) gave cause for optimism, Gillingham have now embarked on a seven match winless streak that has seen them drop back into the relegation zone. Gillingham were blitzed 4-0 away at mid-table Northampton today (16th February).
However, with games in hand over their immediate rivals, a deficit of home fixtures to play, as well as a number of players to come back from injury, Gills fans can be confident of survival in League One this season. And in the eloquent and knowledgeable Mark Stimson, they are in able hands. As his previous chairman at Grays once said,
Woodward — “I would say to any League Chairman, contact Mark Stimson because he’s one hell of a manager. Mark will take his next club to a new level. His footballing knowledge is second to none and the way he plays the game is different gravy”
A thought compounded by a Gillingham fan on Vitalfootball:
“He gets his teams playing good football and that he has an eye for a talented player – things that are desperately needed at Priestfield after four seasons of disappointment.”
Style of Play
Stimson’s philosophy can be summed up in the following quotations:
On being appointed manager of Gillingham, he said: “Discipline is a serious thing for me in football. I have got a family with three children but football is my main buzz and it is a passion I have got and I really do enjoy winning football matches. “I try and do that in a certain way with a certain style of football I like to play. My beliefs are to play football on the floor with a lot of movement, but that requires superior fitness levels — that is something we are going to ask the players to take on board. They are going to have to be super fit and if they can play the ball on the floor that will be even better.”
On winning the FA Trophy with Grays for a second year running, he remarked:
“All I can say is I am proud of this club and I’m proud of a side who have been willing to play the game the way I have wanted them to play it. There were times this season when they might have lost faith, but they never did. They have earned their reward today.”
Gills chairman Paul Scally is a staunch believer in Stimson’s qualities, citing both his style of play and his discipline when stating that “[Mark will] bring a whole different type of football to the club. In many ways it will be back to basics. Mark has enjoyed some good times and we naturally want the good times to return here to The KRBS Priestfield Stadium. We want the team to play well, score some goals and win football matches.”, before going on to remark that pundits and coaches had been unanimous in their praise for his new manager:
“I haven’t heard a bad word said about him. Managers at a very senior level have said they believe he is a fantastic coach and a great manager and he is going to go on and do very well. I suppose really that’s what persuaded me to wait and be patient.”
However, it remains to be seen whether Stimson can apply such tactics to a relegation dogfight in League One, although we can be sure as hell that he will give it his best shot.
One of Stimson’s most salient features as a manager has been his eye for talent, aligned with a faith in the ability of lower-league players, when properly coached, to excel at higher levels. Stimson totally revolutionized his squads at Grays Athletic and Stevenage Borough on a shoestring budget, and a number of his former charges now earn their bread in the Championship and League One.
A list of particularly notable purchases must start with the name of Steve Morison — the non-league international got a hat-trick in just his second game for the club and has since been scouted by teams at as high as Championship level — ; Leroy Griffiths, who notched up 26 goals in Grays’ promotion-winning season; Mitchell Cole, whose career was rejuvenated to such an extent by Stimson that he eventually earned another move into league football, as well as finishing top scorer in the Home Nations National XI Championships; Aaron McLean, a living legend at Peterborough, having scored in a club record seven consecutive games for the Posh; Michael Kightly, the silky-skilful midfielder who made both goals and won the man of the match award in Grays’ first FA Trophy Final triumph, and is now a regular at Wolverhampton Wanderers; Glenn Poole, signed from Thurrock but now a regular starter for Brentford; and, heading up this “special list”, Romani Freddy Eastwood, also of Wolves, who scored 37 league and cup goals for Grays in Stimson’s first season at the club, and has been linked with a number of Premiership clubs.
Stimson’s faith in non-league players has resulted in the arrival of eight non-leaguers to Priestfield since his appointment as manager, including five from his previous club Stevenage Borough, in the shape of Adam Miller, John Nutter, Stuart Thurgood, Dennis Oli and Stuart Lewis, as well as young hot-shot and Canada Under-20 international Simeon Jackson, signed for £150,000 from Rushden & Diamonds. Whilst only time will tell whether this octet have the quality to make the double step up, midfielder Mark Bentley, who climbed the same rungs as a player, feels that their work ethic and enthusiasm will prove vital in giving the club a lift.
A clear pattern emerges when studying Stimson’s signings. Aside from the truth he deposits in non-league players, Stimson also seems especially attracted to Essex and London, a pool from which the majority of his signings have been drawn. Stimson makes constant use of his links with Tottenham Hotspur to sign former Spurs academicians, including Stuart Lewis, whom the gaffer has tipped for a big future. Stimson’s signings are nearly always youthful — of that “special list”, all are still under 25 — and looking to rebuild their careers in the same way that Stimson himself had to do on numerous occasions.
Half Juande Ramos — a sober disciplinarian who believes strongly in fitness — half Stuart Pearce (the managerial variety who never has a bad word to say to the press), Stimson is many things at any one time: approachable, demanding, frank, down-to-earth, ruthless — see the omission of Leroy Griffiths from Grays’ first FA Trophy-winning side following the player’s dispute with the club over a new contract — loyal and ambitious. Stimson seems to have an innate knack for supplying players with confidence, and each and every bit of his media interaction — from interviews, to the information he supplies to the Gillingham website before and after every game — is suffused with a refreshing joie de vivre and as pure a love of football as can be found. As Adam Miller testified whilst still at Grays:
“There are a few things that you have to consider when you are talking about a new contract but it is really about the basics: if you look at the set-up, how the majority of the fans are to me, how well I feel that I’ve played this year, and the main factor in why I have played so well is the gaffer. He has brought the best out of me, he has great confidence in me and for me to progress as a player as well as a person, I think he is a major factor.”
Stimson also places a high value on youth, and did much to nurture the career of young strikers George Boyd and Gary Hooper respectively. The former left the club in January 2007 for a Conference-record fee of £260,000. Since his departure, “White Pele”, as he has been affectionately known, has 13 goals in 46 appearances for Darren Ferguson’s ambitious Peterborough United. Meanwhile, the latter, a former Spurs trainee utilised by Stimson at the age of just 16, earned a move to League One outfit Southend United, managed by — you guessed it — Steve Tilson. Stimson’s willingness to use youth players recently caught the attention of the mass media when he gave a debut to Luke Freeman, then aged just 15 years and 233 days, in the FA Cup tie against Barnet, just 9 days into his job at the KPBS Priestfield Stadium, making Freeman the youngest player ever to feature in the famous competition.
Despite a love for both London and Essex that is evident in the decisions Stimson has made, Stimson has made clear his commitment to pursuing his love-affair with the beautiful game, having played for teams based in London, Newcastle, Southend, Portsmouth, and in almost every major division except the Premiership. However, unerringly ambitious, having experienced life in the “big time”, Stimson confesses to a “burning sensation inside me to get back there as a manager, or take a team as near as that as possible”. Correspondingly, Stimson demands a great deal from his players, on and off the pitch, as he does and always has done from himself: a communiqué written before the postponed game against Luton saw the throwing down of the gauntlet in a quotation that encapsulates Stimson’s determination, forward-thinking and will to win:
“it is about who wants the ball? Go and be the player that wants the ball, get away from your market and make things happen. For me, we’ll learn a lot over the next three or four games about players who can take this club forward because it is the ones that won’t shy away from the football”.
Therein we can find a blasphemy of which Stimson can never be found guilty: that of shying away from football.