Steve Harper interviews… From crease to touchline

Ex-Newcastle United goalkeeper Steve Harper talks to Steve Harmison about his recent transformation from international cricketer to manager of Ashington AFC

Steve Harmison’s cricket debut against India in 2002 marked the start of an impressive international career that included 58 One Day Internationals, 63 Test matches and 226 Test wickets. Highlights included a career-best seven for 12 in the West Indies and the incredible match-winning dismissal of Michael Kasprowicz when Australia needed only a boundary to win the Test in the epic Ashes series of 2005.

But now the ‘Ashington Express’ has swapped bowling hostile 90mph bouncers at some of the world’s best batsmen in the ultimate cauldron of a white-hot Ashes series for standing at the Woodhorn Lane touchline as boss of the ‘Colliers’, Northern League Division One side Ashington AFC.

I thought my own journey from the Northern League to Champions’ League was fairly unique but, as of February 2015, 37-year-old Harmison has gone full circle, returning to manage the club he played for as a boy – when he wasn’t playing cricket, of course!

I caught up with him to find out more.

What made you decide to go into football management?

As a senior player in a cricket dressing room you’re almost part of the management anyway. On the field, you are part of a decision-making unit which changes every ball. It’s something I experienced throughout my cricketing career from a young age.

During my 20 years at Durham County Cricket Club I was probably a senior player for 70 per cent of the time. As senior players moved on, I became more involved in field-setting, plans for batsmen and different opposition; you create your own managerial style within that.

Being on the sidelines as manager of a football club I’m having to pick apart an opposition but it isn’t overly different to being a front-line fast bowler in that respect.

Why Ashington?

I played at the club up until I was 18 years old, and I regularly trained there in the winters as well as at Newcastle United. Football has always been in my life and the manager role came about at the right time for me.

How’s it gone so far?

It’s been good. Last season we were fourth bottom when we took over and in the remaining 15 games, we got to mid-table. This season has been a bit hit and miss as it’s difficult to attract players to Ashington; both geographically and financially.

We’re moving forward as a club but it’s a challenge to get players to drive past ten or 12 other clubs to play for Ashington, for a similar financial gain to what they would get closer to home.

A lot of the players in our league are based between the Tyne and the Tees and it takes a big commitment for a player to travel to Northumberland two nights a week and on a Saturday, too.

What aims were in place at the outset? And do you feel you are achieving them?

Initially, the aim was to keep the team in the league and to improve week in, week out. We’re mid-table at the moment with three games in hand. Long term, I’d like to see us – with the club structure and the players we have – in the top six in a couple of years; with the ultimate aim of winning the league.

Describe your management style.

I’m pretty relaxed with everything in life and my management is no different. I’ve always been of the mindset that if there’s a problem, then it’s just a case of finding the solution.

Even with your brothers in the squad?

I got the job on the Sunday and my brother James was my first signing on the Monday. He’s been a solid performer at this level for 15 years including winning trophies when he was at Bedlington, so he has the respect of the group. Early on in my tenure, I had a very honest meeting with the whole group in the dressing room and told a couple of ex-professionals that they were there on reputation rather than performances and encouraged them to move on and play somewhere else. This left everyone in a state of shock in the dressing room until James broke the ice perfectly by saying, “if he tries to peddle me, I’ll tell me Mam!”.

My other brother, Ben, has been a bonus, too. He came to fill in for James while he had an operation and scored on his debut as a makeshift striker; he hasn’t looked back. So I know what I’m getting from at least those two players every week.

Does it fill the void left by retiring from cricket in 2013?

Nothing will ever replace playing cricket in front of a crowd, whether it be 1000 at the Riverside or 95,000 at the Melbourne Cricket Ground on Boxing Day. It’ll never get any better than playing for England … but I can look back with no regrets and I love what I’m doing now.

Finally, I don’t suppose you need a 40-year-old, slightly greying centre forward who knows where the goal is?

No!

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