Big Interview: Hoppers' new head coach Paul Arnold
A big surprise; kind of a '˜little strange'; certainly an eye opener.
Paul Arnold can understand why many people have found his decision to quit as head coach of Fylde, in favour of a move to neighbours Preston Grasshoppers, more than a little hard to fathom.
Switching directly between keen rivals – no matter what the sport – is always seen as a bold and brave move.
However, Arnold’s defection to Lightfoot Lane comes at a time when the chasm between the clubs has widened significantly.
The 36-year-old’s parting gift to Fylde – a club he has served with distinction as both a player, and latterly as coach for the past two years, since 2010 – was to secure their status for another year in the National League One.
While the Claret, Gold and Whites can look forward to another year in the division directly below the Championship, Arnold heads to a club still reeling from relegation after finishing rock bottom of National League Two North.
Dropping down a couple of divisions would not appear to be the wisest of career moves for any aspiring young coach.
However, Arnold believes heading to Lightfoot Green has come at the perfect time for him.
He is ready for a fresh challenge and is convinced it will not be long before Hoppers are moving back in the right direction.
Making the switch also suits him on a personal level as the extra travelling commitments involved at the higher level was causing a strain on his home life.
“It kind of looks like a bit of a strange move leaving Fylde as coach,” said Arnold, who has featured in more than 400 games across the Championship and National League One in a long playing career.
“I have been at Fylde for the past seven years and have made a lot of great memories and friends at the club.
“It’s a drop down in levels as far as the coaching side of it goes.
“But once I sat down with the people at Preston and had a good chat about the way they want the club to go and the vision that they have, it’s a really exciting challenge for me.
“It’s a great club and I am just looking forward to getting started.
“I made sure my departure from Fylde was done right though.
“I spoke to Fylde and announced to them that I was leaving before Preston even approached me.
“The travelling with Fylde was getting hard.
“I have a young family and going down to London every other weekend was becoming a bit of a drag.
“Being a little bit closer to home was one of the reasons why I decided to come to Preston. Hoppers is a little bit closer to home than Fylde, but it was really the away travel which was becoming a slog.
“I just felt it was the right time for me to move to Hoppers and have a fresh challenge.”
Arnold, who replaces Garth Dew at Lightfoot Green, believes the experience he has gained with Fylde will be a huge benefit for his new club.
He took control at the Woodlands Memorial Ground in 2015 – his tenure coinciding with a slight downturn in fortunes for the club, for various reasons, after they had enjoyed a wonderful period in their history.
Winning promotion in 2011 under Mark Nelson – with Arnold in the team – preceded three top-four finishes in the following four years as they pushed for promotion to the Championship.
During that time they were able to attract some stellar names to the club, including legendary former World Cup winner Jason Robinson, while ex-England coach Brian Ashton joined the coaching staff
However, the past two years have been difficult as the retirement of a number of seasoned campaigners has meant the club has had to rely on youth.
Last season was a particular struggle, but Arnold managed to stave off the threat of relegation – something he is immensely proud of.
“I am proud of what I was able to accomplish as coach at Fylde,” he said.
“It was difficult time because when I came to the club seven years ago as a player, there were a lot of very experienced players at the club.
“At the time a lot of players had moved back to live in the area who had all played Premiership or Championship rugby.
“We had a great team and went up in 2011 and did well in the National League One.
“Slowly those lads started to retire and get older – the sands of time started to catch up.
“The division also got stronger and so I kind of knew when I took over that I didn’t have the same quality in terms of players.
“I had to develop a lot of the players from the second team and the younger lads.
“It’s something that I am really pleased about.
“We brought a lot of young lads through to the Fylde first team and who are still in the first team now.
“They will go on to have good careers and that is something which I want to get right at Hoppers.
“The club has a massive junior section which is very successful, but I think the transfer rate of lads from the junior teams to the first team is not quite as good as we would like. That is something which I would like to put right.”
While that is very much for the future, Arnold knows his immediate concern over the coming months is to re-galvanise the club so that they will be a force to be reckoned with next season.
Already he has stamped his authority on the job by making a number of new signings – including the high-profile capture of former Newcastle Falcons star James Fitzpatrick, who will also act as one of his assistant coaches.
Donny Sutherland and John Young have also joined his backroom staff and a couple more additions to the playing squad are imminent.
“There’s no hiding away from it – we need to bounce back straight away,” said Arnold, who has represented England Counties on several occasions.
“This club needs to be in the National League Two North and pushing for promotion from that division.
“We want to get promoted first time. That’s what I will be saying to the players when we get together for the first time.
“Last season was a difficult one for the club, but the slate will be wiped clean for everybody and we will look to move forward next season.
“It’s not going to be an easy division to get out of.
“You’ve got clubs like Rossendale, Harrogate and Hull – these are clubs who are going to spend big to get promoted themselves.”
As a coach who is keen to employ an expansive style of rugby, Arnold is looking forward to seeing his teams perform on Hopper’s newly installed state-of-the-art artificial pitch at Lightfoot Green.
“Everybody knows that I like to play an expansive, free-flowing game,” he said.
“I think the pitch is perfect and we know that for 13 games during the season, we will be playing on a perfect surface.
“So that’s a great positive for me. It also means no dirty kit for 10-months of training – that’s always a bonus.”