Climbing the coaching ladder

Gareth Walker sees a shift in attitude towards bosses outside the top flight

This season in Super League, half of the head coaches will have been in charge of a Championship or League 1 club during their careers.

What was once seen as a closed door now appears to be viewed as enhancing CVs, with more and more coaches seeing the value in taking charge of a team at the lower levels.

Towards the start of the summer era it was a jump hardly anybody made.

Ian Millward was a rarity when St Helens took him from Leigh to St Helens in 1999, while Neil Kelly had to earn his own shot at Super League by taking Widnes there via promotion after years of over-achievement with Dewsbury.

Daryl Powell had five years of remarkable consistency at Featherstone before being handed his Super League chance, but that move came at a time that seemed to signal a switch in attitude.

This year Powell is one of six bosses that have taken charge of a team outside the top flight in this country.

Richard Agar’s coaching education started in the amateur game with Featherstone Lions, before being appointed at York City Knights, where he impressed sufficiently to be targeted by Hull FC. Initially an assistant, Agar is now in his third Super League head coaching role at Leeds.

Similarly, Ian Watson had been player coach at Swinton Lions when he was handed a chance to become number two at Salford, where he progressed to take the reins and lead the club to two major finals before leaving for Huddersfield.

Tony Smith was appointed at Huddersfield as a Super League coach, but when the club suffered relegation, he stuck with them in 2002 and guided them straight back up with a dominant campaign.

The quartet will be joined by two men at the helm of Super League teams for the first time in 2021.

John Duffy has certainly served his apprenticeship in the second tier, coaching at Swinton, Featherstone and then Leigh, who he leads back into the top flight this year for his first shot at the top table.

Richard Marshall’s learning curve has been even longer, working as an assistant at trophy-winning Warrington and St Helens, either side of five impressive years steering Halifax in the Championship.

At his first Super League media day in charge of Salford Red Devils last week, Marshall was asked about the importance of that time with Fax.

“We’re just the same as players – you wouldn’t throw a player into the first grade without a couple of reserve team games or some academy games,” Marshall said.

“It’s a great learning ground and journey in the Championship.

“The teams are quality. In the middle eights competition a few years back it pitted Halifax against Leeds and Warrington and teams like that, so I have that experience of those bigger games.

“As a coach you want to coach at the highest level and coach teams to finals.

“I think I’ve had a really good grounding as a coach and there are some really good coaches now in the Championship.

“People say that Salford took a punt on me, but I’m experienced in the field and am certainly ready for the challenge.”

Marshall’s reference to the current coaches in the second tier begs an obvious question – who will be next?

York’s James Ford was heavily linked with Hull KR before they appointed Smith, while many would like to see how Sylvain Houles’ swashbuckling style would translate to Super League.

The likes of Lee Greenwood and Stuart Littler have both been building their reputations with clubs perhaps less fashionable than some.

Danny Ward has already been there of course, managing the unlikely feat of enhancing his reputation despite relegation, while James Webster started life superbly at Wakefield, and who could rule John Kear out of one final shot at the top flight at some stage?

And will Mark Aston – twice a Championship Grand Final winner remember – ever get his chance among the elite?

At least now it seems as though generally, increased recognition is being given to what it takes to coach at this level, which is fully deserved.

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