Big Interview: Ex-PNE midfielder Simon Davey
It will take something '˜big' to entice Simon Davey back to England and away from his '˜American dream'.
The former Preston midfielder emigrated to the States five years ago after being offered the opportunity to coach soccer to American schoolchildren.
It was quite a change in direction for the 46-year-old Welshman, who had spent the previous 25 years – by and large – involved at the sharp end of the English professional game as both a player and manager.
He is currently the Director of Coaching of the Southern Soccer Academy – working alongside former PNE goalkeeper and assistant manager Kelham O’Hanlon – based in the City of Atlanta.
The academy provides grassroots coaching sessions for thousands of youngsters – aged from eight to 18 – who are hoping to earn a college scholarship, if not a career in the professional game either in the US or abroad.
With a Green Card in his back pocket and his three daughters Chloe, Sophie and Jordan settled either in work or at university, former Barnsley boss Davey is loving life Stateside.
He admits he does not envisage a time when he will return to these shores on a permanent basis, unless a really great job offer – such as the opportunity to manage North End – came his way.
“The right job would always pull somebody back,” Davey said.
“I am settled out here – the lifestyle is fantastic.
“For example, last weekend I was in Orlando with a team at Disney.
“I go to Las Vegas, I go to California – it just is a different way of life.
“To tempt me back, it would have to be a great job.
“If I ever got the chance to manage Preston – that would definitely be one that would tug the heartstrings. I have a big affinity with the club.
“But look, Simon Grayson is doing a great job at Preston.
“He got the club promoted and challenging in the Championship.
“I am always looking out for North End’s results.
“They are creeping back up the leagues, especially from the days when I was there as a player.
“They are back in the Championship now and Simon has been a real bonus for them.
“I came up against Simon a few times when he was manager of Blackpool and I was at Barnsley.
“I always had a good relationship with him – our teams used to have some battles.
“He’s had a great career as a player and manager – and still is.”
In many respects Davey’s career in the US means his coaching career has come full circle.
After retiring from playing at the relatively young age of 27 due to a back injury, the former Swansea and Carlisle United midfielder focused on gaining his coaching badges.
He was offered a job by then PNE boss David Moyes – a former team-mate of his at Deepdale – to take control of the Lilywhites’ youth academy set-up.
He went on to help players such as Andrew Lonergan, Michael Keane and Alan McCormack graduate to the first team.
He was then head-hunted by Barnsley and took control of the Tykes’ academy.
However, his career took an unexpected turn when he was asked to take control of first-team affairs at Oakwell after the sacking of Andy Ritchie in 2006.
By then a UEFA pro licence qualified coach, Davey managed to turn things around for the Yorkshiremen as they staved off the threat of relegation.
Working with perhaps the smallest budget in the Championship, Davey performed a minor miracle as Barnsley remained in the second tier throughout his three-year tenure.
There were also some memorable moments, including a famous run to the FA Cup semi-final in 2008, which included shock victories over Liverpool and Chelsea along the way.
“When I was running the academies at both Preston and Barnsley, I never really envisaged becoming a first-team manager,” Davey revealed.
“I think what you do is get ingrained in your environment and absorbed into your role.
“You always want to do better and get the next coaching qualification.
“You always want to develop the best players that you can.
“Did I have a desire to be a first-team manager? I just think I wanted to be the best coach I could be.
“But there are forks in the road which turn your life a different way.
“I left Preston when Billy Davies was the manager and landed the role with the academy at Barnsley.
“It was somebody else’s misfortune which gave me the opportunity to become the first team manager there.
“Andy Ritchie had got the club promoted from League One but ended up having a tough start to life in the Championship.
“Due to my experience of playing, coaching and my qualifications, I was thrust into a caretaker role.
“I was probably the only one there – what with my coaching education – who was able to take on the role. It was only supposed to be for three or four games.
“Fortunately, I won my first two matches against West Bromwich and Charlton.
“Then we played Leeds United away.
“That was kind of make-or-break period as to whether I would get the job or not.
“I ended up getting the job and finished up lasting three years in the Championship and getting to an FA Cup semi-final.”
Davey is proud of what he achieved in his three-year stint at Barnsley.
But he admits being a first-team boss is hugely demanding and, at times, a thankless task.
“When you get a manager’s job , there is a lot of politics which goes on in the background which the supporters don’t see or wouldn’t even imagine,” Davey said.
“My remit every year would always be to stay out of the bottom three.
“I had the lowest budget at Barnsley and if the club was out of the bottom three, it was a success. But for the supporters, that is never explained to them by the ownership.
“The owners would always say, ‘We want to get to the Premier League or we want the play-offs’.
“But financially we could never do that.
“I had to scout players from all over the world – players who were totally off the radar.
“I was bringing players in from places like Peru, Argentina, Brazil, Portugal.
“The Board were never going to come out and say, ‘Look we haven’t got much money; the target is to stay in the division’.
“Supporters don’t like that – they want to see their club challenging for the Premier League.
“So I think there is always a cycle with managers.
“Barnsley had me for three years – I think I was the longest-serving manager there in 15 years. But they decided to make a change and Mark Robins came in.”
Davey later went on to have short stints in charge of both Darlington and Hereford – positions he now regrets taking.
And he revealed his experiences in first-team management were probably the main reason why he decided to try his luck in the US.
“It’s probably the reason why I ended up moving to America,” he said.
“I could not fathom why owners would not come out and say, ‘Look this is where we are at, this is our budget, this is what we want to achieve and this is the man who is going to do it’.
“They do not protect their managers. They tell you what you need to achieve, but when you do that they don’t transfer that into the media and so you become a target of your own supporters when you don’t get in the play-offs or the top half of the table.”
In the US, Davey is enjoying doing what he loves the most – being out on the training pitch trying to improve young footballers.
“It was a bit of a culture shock at the beginning, but this is something that I enjoy,” he said.
“I enjoy developing players and working with players.
“You don’t get scrutinised on a daily basis with regards to results, like I was in my previous roles in football back in England
“It’s more based on the long-term plan, which in America, is about getting players into college and college scholarships.
“It’s more of a plan over five or 10 years rather than two or three games, which is what the game is like in England.
“I still get the professional element out here because the club we run out here is affiliated to Chelsea.
“We get access to Chelsea – they send staff over to us and we also go across to England – observing the things they do at their academy.”
The seeds of Davey’s career out in the US were first sowed when he was manager of Barnsley.
“I was asked to become a speaker at the National Football Conference convention, which attracts more than 10,000 coaches every year,” he said.
“They asked me to speak and talk about how a club like Barnsley managed to beat Liverpool and Chelsea in the FA Cup.
“I did some presentations, which led on to me doing some consultancy work, which I did outside of the managerial calendar.
“I would come out to America for maybe two or three weeks during the summer and during international breaks.
“That led me to become the coaching director for the Disney Soccer Academy.
“We would have players like Craig Bellamy, Paul Robinson, Chris Samba and Aaron Hughes coming out to work with the young players on the Disney facility.
“I would do that for two weeks at a time and it eventually led me to gaining contacts and receiving job offers.
“So it was basically from doing that kind of consultancy work and my experience back in England that got me this job opportunity in Atlanta.
“It was the right time for me to make the move over here.
“My girls had just finished their A-Levels and GCSEs so it was a good time for them to come to America and become integrated in the college system.”