Advertiser sports editor Mark Duffy meets the men in charge at Ilkeston FC.
IF there is such a thing as a match made in heaven when it comes to football circles then Kevin Wilson and Dave Mantle would probably be it.
A manager with a fine level of experience, great track record and who wishes to take a club as high as possible, and a chairman who is willing to sit back and let him do it but with the business mind and supportive hand there should it ever be required.
What’s more, as I sit with the duo in Wilson’s office at Ilkeston FC’s New Manor Ground, the excellent and relaxed rapport between the two is also evident as they continue to revel in the club’s promotion-winning season.
And yet my previous visit to the very same office some 18 months previously had been such a different experience.
Ilkeston Town had just been liquidated by the High Court, Wilson was left with a busy academy to run but with no idea whether it would survive or not, and football fans across the Erewash Valley were left dumbfounded by what had just happened.
“It was a tough time,” said Wilson, a former Northern Ireland international and star player with the likes of Chelsea, Derby County and Ipswich.
“We had 30-odd kids here whose place was suddenly under threat and initially it was hard to see how things would move on.”
That’s where Mantle came in. With his company, SR Education, already involved in running the academy, he could see first hand what was at stake and showed a desire to put things right.
He said: “I’ve always been involved in football, having played and managed in the Central Midlands League, trained as a PE Teacher and then spent six years under Jim Smith and Steve McClaren running Derby’s academy.
“Kevin and I met when he approached SR Education for funding for Ilkeston’s academy, in particular the education side of it, and we got on well as soon as we met.
“Then within months of that meeting we found ourselves in a different situation as the club went bust just after we’d started. So the primary concern from my point of view was more for the welfare of the young players than for the club itself, as we had 30 kids for whom we needed to make sure that scheme carried on.
“We had to deal with the liquidators and see whether it would be viable for us to take over. There was always the situation where had another owner won the bid then they’d have had to agree to the academy being retained.
“But once we discussed and saw the sense in it, we went for it and I always felt we were going to get it.”
And so it was that the first seeds were sown and Ilkeston FC rose from the ashes.
Wilson and coach Darren Caskey were tied down on three-year, full-time contracts – something Mantle said was pivotal to him taking over – and the academy went on to flourish by winning a league and cup double.
And despite Mantle having to adapt somewhat to his new role as a chairman, his passion for the club quickly grew.
“I was uncomfortable with it. Even being called ‘chairman’ was bizarre to me as I don’t really want any kind of limelight like that as people who know me will tell you,” he said.
“But I quickly became very passionate about the club and now it means as much to me as anything.”
The next step was to get the ‘new Robins’ into a league, with step four the desired option but one which many thought would be too much to ask from a Football Association already cautious following the previous club’s liquidation.
But ultimately, with an impressive business plan in place and a strong vision to go with it, step four was exactly where Ilkeston were allowed to play.
“This is as low as me and Darren have been,” said Wilson.
“But we were hoping it would be step four even though it initially upset a few people who didn’t realise what was on offer here.
“In the end they’re probably disappointed we went up given the amount of fans we were taking to games!”
Mantle added: “We went to Wembley to put our case to the FA and they were always going to be impressed by the detail and professionalism we could show them we had with regard to the academy.”
With a good level of football secured it was then about Mantle and Wilson getting together and setting reasonable targets given the considerable playing and coaching resources, as well as relative budget, at their disposal.
“It was basically a five-year plan to get back to where we were in the Conference North,” said Wilson.
“Within that, we had a two-year target to be promoted from Division One South, so already we’re working ahead of schedule.
“A lot of football clubs don’t have a long-term plan at the moment. It was the fact that Ilkeston had that which persuaded me to stay on.
“From our point of view it was then about developing players and to try and promoted as soon as we could.”
Mantle added: “Staff stability was key too, particularly trying to keep Kevin and Darren here on a three-year contract.
“That meant there was a mutual commitment to a project. I actually think that had Kevin and Darren moved on initially then I probably wouldn’t have made a move to buy the club, because I felt they were so central to the future which has proved to be the case.
“I’m not naive and I know things can happen that might change that, but we’re happy at the moment and it’s my job to keep it that way and move things on.”
Key to the entire club’s future will be youth. Keen to bring in players with experience at professional clubs’ academies, Wilson raided his contacts book and acted on what he’d seen during endless days of scouting in the previous nine months.
With those young players being seen as an investment as much as quality additions to the squad, Mantle was happy to go along with it from a business point of view given wage demands weren’t too high, and although it took a while to fine tune the team, Wilson was eventually happy with what he produced.
He said; “The goalkeeping position has been a real pain this year which is an area where I felt I’ve let myself down, but ultimately we got it right because we got promoted.
“Keepers that came in did well but they’re all young and learning their trade. We may look at a long-term loan next season as the young professionals who came in last year did very well, there were probably just too many of them.
“But bringing in youngsters will be how we operate. It’s not about journeymen who come here for the money because the budget is the budget and we’re not going to go above it.
“Sometimes I’ve had to put the question to Dave if it’s needed to be an extra £25 here and there, but we’ve pretty well stuck to it.
“We even had the success story of Tyrell Waite earning a move to Notts County. We expect more youngsters to make that kind of move which will in turn be a big financial boost to ourselves.”
Mantle said: “There were times where we’d had a couple of bad performances and Kevin brought someone in who he thought would make a difference and it worked. We found where we needed to be when it mattered and I’m now hopeful most of the squad will stay.”
With promotion secured attention now turns to life in the Evo-Stik Premier Division.
Tougher opponents and longer journeys to some away games will be new factors for the Robins to deal with, but the success of their first season has given Wilson cause for great optimism both on and off the pitch.
He added: “We’re on the map now. A lot of people know about us and we’re even a great role model for a lot of non-league clubs and some professional clubs given the way we run from the academy upwards.
“It’s not beyond its means, the gate money provides the revenue and it’s run as a business and not as a ‘do it now, worry afterwards’ type organisation.
“We’re content to wait for the success and do it the right way.”
Questions from the supporters
The Advertiser asked Ilkeston FC’s fans if they had any questions for Kevin Wilson and Dave Mantle. Here is a selection.
What do they think of the support the club has had over the season?: (from Lil’ Rich)
KW: “It’s been incredible. They’ve been like a 12th man throughout and I really hope that will continue as we move forward, even if things aren’t going as well on the pitch.”
Are admission prices going up next season and by how much?: (from Bob)
DM: Prices will inevitably have to rise and we’ll be sitting down soon to discuss this.
How do we propose to maintain and even increase the excellent home attendances: (from Numbers Man)
DM: We’re keen to work on making the whole matchday experience better, particularly for families. That will factor in a number of different ideas and continue to show we offer great value for money compared to watching matches at a higher level.
How did the first season measure up against the five-year plan and what would be realistic objectives for next season?: (from Red Devil David)
KW: “Obviously we’re ahead of schedule but what promotion has done this year is take the pressure off a little for next season. But that’s not to say we’ll rest on our laurels at all. Promotion is once again very much a target one way or another, but as with last season we’ll be learning as we go along.”
What were the club’s biggest fears about what and where things might not have worked out: (from Jon)
KW: We went into things very open-minded and without too much fear. There was very little pressure but we had a plan and fortunately it fell into place very nicely.
Does Mr Wilson have any plans to grow back the rather fine moustache from his playing days?: (From Alison Wall)
KW: It was a good idea at the time...