Atkins Flying Under The Radar
Ask Matlock Town manager Mark Atkins to sum up his footballing career to date and his answer is like, well, a game of two halves.
“It’s been a fantastic career,” he begins. “But a career that’s really not been noticed that much.”
Joking apart, it actually says more than it first appears to.
Atkins is, of course, a Premiership winner whose quiet midfield efficiency helped Blackburn Rovers break the early domination that Manchester United had assumed over the transformed English top flight in the 1990s.
It was easy to be overlooked when your club, flush with the fabulous wealth of a fanatical owner, was breaking transfer records left, right and centre to bring in team mates such as Alan Shearer to be managed by some guy called Dalglish.
What is also easy to overlook is the fact that Atkins pre-dated the cash-flashing at EwoodPark. He not only survived a football revolution, he thrived on it.
Atkins was whisked away from his first club, Scunthorpe, where he made his first team debut at the age of just 15, to Lancashire for the princely sum of £35,000.
When he departed eight years later, he was a £1million player.
“At my first home game (at Ewood) there were 6,000 there,” he recalls.
“When I left Blackburn, the last home game I played in there were 33,000 there”
It was precisely 20 years ago that local steel magnate Jack Walker took over his beloved Rovers and instigated a dizzying rollercoaster ride all the way from their second tier base camp in the shadow of the Pennines to taste the rarefied air at the very summit of the game.
Financially at least, pre-Abramovich, Rovers were in a league of their own. They had the clout to bring in the best, no matter what the cost.
“Every Thursday, we seemed to be signing an international player,” quips Atkins.
Yet while the stars rolled in and the old guard made way, Atkins remained integral to the team.
“People would say ‘aren’t you worried that you are going to have to make way for these top players?’” Atkins recalls.
“That might always be in your head. But you have to have the confidence in your own ability, and I knew I did a good job for that team.”
In fact, Atkins did a good enough job for Dalglish to earn selection for almost all of the 42 games in the title-winning 1994-95 season, with added bonus of a six-goal return.
Dalglish’s arrival had been an inspirational moment for Atkins, and the fact that the Liverpool legend did not treat the multi-million pound acquisitions any more favourably than other squad members added to his appeal.
“It didn’t matter what we did, Kenny was the best player in training every day,” says Atkins.
“Monday to Friday, Kenny was like just another player. He would take the mickey out of players and would take it from them. There was a great team spirit and he was part of that.
“It wasn’t about how much they had paid for you or how much you getting a week. If you were doing what you were supposed to out on that pitch, then great. That’s what you were being paid to do.”
It’s telling as well that Atkins heaps praise on another potentially overlooked character in the Rovers cast, Ray Harford, labelling him as “best coach I’ve ever worked with.”
A small town club winning a Premiership title is something Atkins believes is unlikely to happen again, and although it is clearly the pinnacle of his playing career, the 1992 play-off final victory at Wembley which secured Rovers’ promotion to the top-flight, and saw Atkins named man-of-the-match, comes very close.
There was another significant milestone in 1996 when Atkins commanded a £1m transfer fee when he moved down the M6 to Wolves.
“These days, £1m just rolls off the tongue, doesn’t it,” he admits.
“To be fair, I was out of contract and they actually wanted £2m for me, which showed how far I’d come from being signed for £35,000. But I signed for Wolves for £1m and it was a big thing.
“It’s something you can tell your children. They might laugh at you and say ‘no, you weren’t’, and it doesn’t seem that much when people are going for £50m, but I was very proud of it.”
Fast forward to today and Atkins appears just at home preparing his Gladiators squad for a trip to Evo-Stik Premier League leaders Halifax as he might have been when getting ready to snuff out the threat of Ginola or Le Tissier.
He arrived in November 2008 to rescue a club mired in a relegation battle and succeeded.
Season two resulted in a seventh-placed finish and his third campaign is so far serving up a sniff of the play-offs for Town fans, who can not only savour the football but can do so in increasingly lavish surroundings with a shiny new main stand and a huge new social club (well, huge to those who remember the previous one).
Typically, he’s reluctant to take the credit.
“We’ve had a good group of players here since I took over who have really gone about their jobs in a very positive way, and have really taken to what I’ve been trying to say to them and to teach them. They are young lads who want to learn, which has been a bonus, and they have come on in leaps and bounds.
“To keep them up from relegation in that first season was a tough job, but we managed it. To finish seventh last season and to have another good season this time around is great.
“With the development work on the ground, we’ve had to stick to whatever budget we’ve had all season, so it’s been a fantastic achievement, not just for me but for the players because they’ve got to come in week in, week out and give a performance, which - mainly - they have done.”
“I really like it here,” he confirms. “I think there’s a good family atmosphere. The people in charge of the club have got the club at heart, which is the main thing. There’s no interference in who I sign or who I have to play. That’s all left to me, which is the only way it should be, so I’m really enjoying my time here.
“We’ve been concentrating mainly on getting the stand up, now it’s time we need to look at the team and say ‘How far do we really want to push it?’.
“It’s all set up for the next level above. Whether the club would be able to go into the Conference, and may be even go full-time, is a question I can’t really answer. That’s all part of the financial side of things, and you’re going to need more bodies through the gate every week to fund things like that.
“But at the level we’re at we’re definitely a top ten side. We have been last season and we definitely will be this season.”
As you might expect, management at this level is a part-time affair and Atkins’ main source of income is the plastering and dry-lining business he and his brother-in-law run.
It seems a far cry from the glamour of the Premier League, but Atkins, still just 42, is not short of further footballing dreams and admits he would consider the lure of a full-time post if one was offered.
However, he makes it clear that his life revolves first and foremost around his wife and four children, and he expresses no immediate desire to find his way back to the football league.
“I quite like the non-league system and the way you have to try and get the best out the players you’ve got,” he says.
“It’s tight on money, so you know what you’re playing with. You know when you go and try and sign a player there’s only a certain amount of money we can give people.
“But I’ve got to go with the attitude that people get to know you and the way you play football, and we play good football, and people know we are a good football club run in the right way.
“You put training sessions on and you could end up with eight players because of work and stuff like that, or you can come to a game and there’ll be people stuck in traffic. We’ve had it time and time again where 15 minutes before a game we’re still short of three players.
“So if you can handle things like that and get on with it, and still get the best out of your players, when you get up to full-time and you have players day in, day out and know what their capabilities are, it gets a lot easier.” “I can be out at least four times a week, looking at teams, looking at players, because I want to do the job properly,” he explains.
“I don’t think people understand that. They think in non-league you turn up on a Tuesday for a game, turn up for training on Thursday, and turn up again on Saturday and that it’s it.
“Well, my phone never stops ringing all day. If you want to get players in, you have to make a lot of phone calls because there are lot things that you’ve got to sort out. So it does really become a full-time job without being here at the club full-time.”
Maybe that behind-the-scenes graft just wouldn’t appeal to many of today’s high-rolling top-earners once they hang up their boots, even those who will never know how it feels to win the title, but Atkins seems more than content with his lot.
“I’ve really enjoyed my football career and I’m really enjoying what I do now,” he concludes. “Long may it continue.”