From Manchester United to Market Drayton: Shaun Harrad on his footballing life en route to Ilkeston Town
When it comes to giving centre-halves a tough time, Shaun Harrad has mixed it with the best of them.
From grappling with Manchester United’s Gerard Pique at Old Trafford, to terrorising many of the defenders to have graced League One, League Two and the National League in recent years, Harrad has provided goals wherever he’s been and made an honest career out of the game he loves.
Now, as not only player-assistant manager at Ilkeston Town but also in overseeing his own coaching school, he is handing down what he’s learned throughout his time in the game whilst still competing, and scoring, to great effect.
Indeed, his return to the East Midlands has seen his career complete a full circle, given his early years growing up in Nottingham.
“I grew up in West Bridgford and played football for both Nottingham Forest and Notts County’s teams when I was a kid,” said Harrad, who turns 35 in December.
“In the end, I got a professional deal with Notts County and playing full-time in my home city was a real honour.
“I needed men’s football initially and I had good loan spells at Gresley and Tamworth, and although I had to be patient for my breakthrough at Notts I was then involved in and around the first team for two or three years.”
Having eventually struggled to remain in the first team picture at Meadow Lane, it would then be a chance meeting with one of his idols, Nigel Clough, that would propel Harrad into the spotlight.
He said: “We were training over at Derby County’s 3G facility one winter and Nigel Clough was there with his Burton team.
“He actually approached me just to say hello - I couldn’t believe he even knew who I was - and after that, the rest is history.
“He was the best manager I ever worked for and we had lots of success at Burton in what ended up being six years there for me.”
That success included the Brewers, then playing in what is now the National League, earning a run to the third round of the FA Cup where they drew 0-0 at home to Manchester United before being beaten at Old Trafford in the replay, with Harrad featuring prominently against a United side including the likes of Pique, Rio Ferdinand, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer and Ryan Giggs.
Promotion to the Football League would eventually follow shortly after Clough’s departure to Derby County, Harrad going on to be the club’s top scorer in their first season in League Two and also scoring both goals in a shock FA Cup win over Middlesbrough in 2011.
“It was midway through our second season in League Two that I had the chance to move on as Northampton Town came in for me,” said Harrad.
“It was a great chance for me to go to a big club at that level and at what seemed the right time.
“I got a three-year deal there and things started well, but then a couple of months in the manager Ian Sampson was sacked, and his replacement Gary Johnson had different ideas as to what he wanted and I ended up going out on loan.”
Spells with Bury, Rotherham United and Cheltenham Town followed, Harrad’s time with Cheltenham in particular proving fruitful as he helped them to the play-offs, and the loan spells also seeing him play League One football for the first time.
Harrad said: “The problem was that I never really settled anywhere and not long after I’d been told I could move on from Northampton, I ruptured my ankle ligaments.
“That posed a problem because the transfer deadline was close and Bury wanted me, but I ended up rushing my rehab and pretty much came straight out of a cast and played for them straight away as I don’t think their manager had realised what had gone on with my injury.
“In retrospect, I regret not giving the injury more time to recover.
“But I was still young back then and perhaps in terms of decision-making and the advice I was given, things weren’t done as well as they could have been.”
After eventually leaving Bury, Harrad trained with Clough at Sheffield United, where he was now boss, just to help gain fitness.
“I put a call in to Shaun Derry at Notts County and ended up signing a short-term deal,” said Harrad.
“I was the fittest I’d ever been and scored a few goals, helped get us up to third in the league and they gave me an extended contract, but then I found myself out of the team despite playing so well for no reason other than them wanting to change personnel.”
County’s form dropped and Harrad soon found himself seeking another move, with his first boss at Notts County, Gary Mills, taking Harrad to Wrexham in the Conference.
Harrad said: “It was good to be playing for an ambitious club in front of big crowds again and I enjoyed it.
“I then joined my former colleague Kevin Nicholson at Torquay and helped them move from the bottom end of the Conference to safety which helped me get my hunger and mojo back.”
As Harrad’s career edged towards the years that some would put in the ‘twilight’ category, he realised life after football would soon need some consideration, although his chosen avenue still ended up being in the game he loves.
“Contract offers were drying up and I decided to look at coaching youngsters, wanting to give something back to the community in South Nottingham where I’d grown up,” he said.
“I didn’t see myself as a coach until I’d tried it and I really enjoyed it, passing my knowledge on to kids of school age, both boys and girls.”
While this was going on, Harrad had secured a move to Matlock Town, assisting then manager Dave Hoole while playing and scoring regularly for the Gladiators in the Northern Premier League.
An injury saw him eventually sidelined and upon his return he was loaned to Grantham, before then heading to Basford United.
“I scored for Grantham against Basford and they told me they wanted to sign me,” said Harrad.
“I enjoyed it there and got on really well with everyone, but then the management team left, much to the surprise of everyone, and so did I soon afterwards.”
Part of that management team, Mark Clifford, would soon end up as boss at Ilkeston and, having stayed in touch with Harrad, he put a call in not long after being appointed at the New Manor Ground in July.
Recruiting Harrad to become part of the Ilkeston Town coaching staff was quite a coup for the Robins, with Clifford seeing an opportunity not only to tap into his coaching abilities garnered from years of experience in the professional game, but also see if he could bag a goal or two as Ilkeston adjusted to life at step four of the non-league pyramid.
Both scenarios have proved key to the progress made by Clifford’s men so far.
Harrad said: “It was a no-brainer to come here and I’ve never looked back.
“It’s a work in progress but we’ve started well and are high up in the league but there’s much to improve on, we know that.
“The fans have been incredible and are such a big help to the team - their support is a different class and showing their appreciation goes a long way.”
And as for how long Harrad thinks he can provide the goods on the playing side?
“I hadn’t played in seven months before coming here but I’m finding my feet and fitness wise I feel good and my recovery times are fine," he said.
“I’m not as quick I used to be but if I can make an impact and affect a game positively then I’ll keep playing.
“If I’d been told 15 years ago that at 34 I’d still be playing, scoring and loving it, I’d have taken it all day long.
“It’s a pleasure to still be doing it at such a great club and I look forward to every game.”