Arsenal academy? I was there for a week as a kid – but Steve Sidwell and Rohan Ricketts never let me touch the ball
PUBLISHED: 17:12 30 November 2017 | UPDATED: 17:12 30 November 2017
Danny Loo Photography 2017
Read Layth Yousif’s in-depth feature on Darren Sarll – a rising managerial star north of London – who trained at Arsenal’s academy as a youngster and who took former Gunners starlet Kaylen Hinds on loan last term.
It’s the eyes that grab you. Blazing and passionate, burning brightly with dreams fuelled by a tough working-class childhood on a council estate.
Stevenage boss Darren Sarll is holding court at the beating heart of the club – the impressive training ground at Bragbury End.
Surveying its manicured pitches, eyes darting while he talks, looking for anything out of place, he notices a player walking in after an intense session. ‘You stayed out there for extra training?’ he bellows.
‘Yes boss’ his man replies, perhaps in expectation of a mild nod of acknowledgment at the extra work he has put in.
Quick as a flash 34-year-old Sarll replies ‘Well, that’ll make up for you slacking at the end of training the other day.’
He’s only joking of course and the player and he continue their bantering, evidence of the high spirit in the camp, despite one league win in eight.
But the scene is instructive for it reveals the high standards Sarll demands.
The Letchworth-reared Sarll – who dryly says he had an ‘exciting time’ growing up on the tough Jackmans estate in the early 80s left school in Baldock at 16 before playing for the youth sides of Watford, Ipswich, Luton, Arsenal.
Those eyes stop darting and fix me with a glare that has reduced players to quivering wrecks, before a wry smile reveals itself.
“I was only there a week. Do you know why it was only a week?
“Because Steve Sidwell and Rohan Ricketts never let me touch the ball for five days.”
He enjoyed his time at homely Watford and in Suffolk. With the current discussion about old hands and jobs for the boys at the top level of English football Sarll might come across as a Sgt Major type but he is so much more than that. He embraces sports science and in-depth analysis hidden underneath a tough exterior the lower leagues demand from their leaders.
Normally footballers start coaching at the end of their career but at 17 it became Sarll’s job. He’s coached from U3s/U4s to U9’s/U10s, centre of excellence’s, girls and women’s football, senior football – he simply coached everyone and everywhere he could to gain experience – and because he loved it.
“My last club was Ipswich was when I was 16. I got released at 16. I went to college and played for Hitchin in what would now be the Conference South. I had great times with good players and good people who have stayed close to me.
“But I never really enjoyed it as much as I did taking my coaching badges. By the time I was 17/18 I had three out of my four coaching badges including my UEFA B.”
But Sarll’s endearing honesty means he is very open about his failing as a youth player.
“Let’s get one thing straight. As an athlete I was awful. I was horrendous.
“I did my best to try and get around the pitch as my head said ‘be athletic and aggressive and chase’ – but bless my backside my legs never really had the fast-twitch fibres to catch the ball – which is why I used to catch people instead.
“That was the story throughout my playing career.”
But he was always a deep thinker about the game. How many young teenagers would opt for coaching over playing, a discussion over tactics over football computer games?
By the tender age of 22 he got his A licence and met up with a good friend, Dave Bass - who used to play for Reading and Stevenage as well as Scunthorpe and Reading.
Sarll takes up the story. “We had one conversation and I retired there and then.
“I thought I can try and be an average player for the next ten years or an outstanding young football coach. I chose coaching.
“I have thought about the coaching side for as far as I can remember.
‘I’ve had 17 years of coaching – some professionals haven’t even started coaching at the age of 34.
“So I’ve been doing this for 17 years already. I thoroughly enjoy it. I had no desire to be a player I always had a desire to make coaching my trade and my job.
“I was taking my own coaching sessions at 13. I was a wonderful talker if I may say so. I stood out only through my voice.
“I was very aggressive. I was ok technically but I didn’t really have the athleticism to get myself in positions to get myself in positions where I could showcase any technical ability I did have.
“But I was happy being an aggressive, intimidating leader – and that stood me in good stead in semi-professional football – where you had to show those characteristics anyway.”
Semi-professional football. Derided by many but a tough finishing school for those with ambitions to make it into the professional game.
Former Arsenal starlet Kaylen Hinds – who spent time on loan with Sarll at Stevenage – told this correspondent in a wide-ranging interview he learned more playing against Hitchin Town for Kwame Ampadu’s under 18’s side in a tough match at Top Field two years ago than a whole season playing for the Gunners under 23 side.
Hinds, who was full of praise for Sarll and his coaching during his time at the Lamex last term – before Arsenal sold him to Bundelsiga side Wolfsburg for £2 million in the summer – also said he learned from playing against ‘battle-hardened men’ in League Two.
Sarll shares his experiences, saying: “I never found I was bullied or intimidated in those circles by older players because I was quite an intense character.
“I came under quite intense scrutiny from senior players – Richard Wilmot who was a goalkeeper for Stevenage [His son now plays for the club]. And the manager of Hitchin gave me an education in how to talk to older players.
“I was very serious about my football. I had no right to but even then I had a standard I felt like things should be at. I never had a problem calling out older players.
“I had respect but I wasn’t bothered about pointing things out if I felt it was to raise standards or for the good of the team.
I never had any problem in venting an opinion – and this is the arrogance of me I was normally right. It did get me in a lot of bother. I got taught a lot of serious lessons in terms of how to address a manager and senior players – who wouldn’t take too kindly to a 16-year-old kid pointing things out to them.”
But what does he do to relax? He watches football he replies. Ok, what music does he like? He thinks, before offering ‘Ed Sheeran. He’s alright’. I groan.
“Alright. Oasis. I love Oasis. Big fan. Now that was proper music.”
Fast forward a decade and Sarll is now manager of a League Two side – one with big plans and an ambition that matches his.
Sarll has taken time out of his busy schedule in plotting a way to beat David Flitcroft’s Swindon Town – but Saturday’s match is just a small stepping stone in a far larger plan for this club owned by local businessman Phil Wallace.
Work is set to begin on a new North Stand which will boost capacity as well as income, and a young, hungry – and talented – side is being assembled at the Lamex under the 34-year-old’s astute guidance.
Sarll – who has performed creditably since inheriting the precarious position that former Spurs star Teddy Sheringham left them in after being sacked the morning after the transfer window slammed shut on February 1, 2016 – is enjoying life at this humble League Two club with a big heart and ambitious plans.
“I’ve been unbelievably fortunate. I had the opportunity to be caretaker manager – and the little bit of luck you sometimes need because I had an unbelievable chairman and board that said, in a really bad spell, ‘No, Darren, we want you to be manager – you need to turn around these results and have a little bit of help.’
“Then, to have the foresight to appoint Glenn Roeder [as managerial advisor]. It was a touch of class and hopefully our partnership will be something with real longevity, and we’ll be able to look back in five years time and say ‘wow, what a stroke of genius that was’.
“To have that opportunity, luck and support is great. Everyday is a learning experience and his knowledge is endless.”
Sarll who describes himself as an ‘aggressive gentleman’ is a big fan of the FA Cup.
“There’s nothing better than the magic of the FA Cup” he roars, as you feel yourself being drawn in by his infectious enthusiasm for our game.
Although they have only picked up one league win in eight they have already dispatched Nantwich Town 5-0 in the first round of the FA Cup, along with an impressive 3-1 victory over Brighton U21s in the Checkatrade Trophy.
“I’m an old romantic when it comes to the FA Cup. So is Glenn [Roeder] who talks about it all the time. He led his side out at Wembley in 1982 [QPR against Spurs}. I’m still of that generation when the FA Cup means everything.
“I don’t know if it means the same to the elite level of footballers in this country. “Certainly if they come from abroad.
“This generation of players have seen the FA Cup devalued by the importance of the Champions League and the Premier League – but for people like me I love the magic of the FA Cup – there really is nothing better.
“I’m really looking forward to Saturday and the fact it’s called an FA Cup game gives it that little edge that hopefully will be the turning point for us.”
Boro have a proud pedigree when it comes to England’s premier domestic cup, having played Everton, Spurs and Newcastle over the last seven years – as well as the never-to-be-forgotten two fixtures against Kenny Dalglish’s Newcastle side two decades ago.
He said: “It’s a really big game. It’s a big game for Swindon too. For our players it’s the opportunity to go and play on a real top stage in the very next round.
“Swindon will be a tough game and we had a tough game at their place earlier in the season with a 3-2 loss.
“We didn’t play that well but the game was still close.
“We’re really happy being at the Lamex – the backing from our fans has been terrific.”
The 34-year-old boss – hailed by former England captain Tony Adams earlier this season as a rising managerial star – has seen his side put on creditable performances against league leaders Notts County and 1987 FA Cup winners and now fallen giants Coventry City.
Sarll adds that while he has the opportunity as a young English boss he’ll grab the chance to try and improve the club through hard work, saying passionately: “Everyone from the tea ladies and the kit men, to the manager and the press officer work so hard – but we do it because love the football club and the people we work with.
“We have a really emotional interest in making sure we come out the other side better with greater product, a brand of football and a lovely environment to watch game.
“The project we are doing with the North Stand is the same thing, we are doing because we want better for our team.”
If Stevenage win through to the FA Cup third round where Premier League giants Arsenal roam, their hard work – and so much more than that phrase professionals use to camouflage the real work they do – will have certainly helped Oasis-loving Sarll’s dreams to go ‘Supersonic’.
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