BIG INTERVIEW: Keith Curle opens up on his Cobblers ambition, and how Chris Wilder is showing the way

"Ultimately, I am here because I need a promotion on my CV."

Friday, 26th April 2019, 6:15 pm
Updated Friday, 26th April 2019, 6:18 pm
Cobblers boss Keith Curle

The words of Cobblers boss Keith Curle as he approaches the end of his first season in charge at the PTS Academy Stadium.

I say season, but it has actually only been three-quarters of a campaign as he took over with 10 matches played in Sky Bet League Two, and with the Cobblers looking down the barrel of a relegation battle.

Well used to firefighting, Curle came in and got the Cobblers listing ship back on an even keel and at least heading in the right direction again, if not quite powering on at full speed.

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Chris Wilder and Alan Knill

That in itself was no mean feat as he inherited a mix-and-match and imbalanced squad, put together by the previous five managers in a spell of a little more than two years.

The Cobblers squad at Curle's disposal for Saturday's final home clash of the season against Yeovil Town, still includes players signed by Chris Wilder, Rob Page, Justin Edinburgh, Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink and Dean Austin, as well as a few loanees brought in by Curle himself.

But things seem much more organised and controlled than they may have been at times since Wilder left to manage Sheffield United back in May 2016.

It is not perfect by any means.

Keith Curle's Mansfield team lost on penalties to Huddersfield Town in the 2004 division three play-off final

The football has at times been drab, especially at home, selection has been something of a guessing game for supporters, with players picked and then discarded for seemingly no reason, and results have been inconsistent - but the Cobblers are safe.

Town go into the final two games of the season a whopping 19 points above the second-from-bottom Glovers, and Curle has been able to turn one eye towards preparing for next season for a couple of months now, which can only be good for the future.

He now admits that this is where the hard work really starts, where he can really start to stamp his authority, his philosophy, his playing style and his character on the team and the club as a whole.

But there is no question Curle has done the job he was hired to do, just as he did previously at Mansfield Town, as he did at Notts County, as he did at Carlisle United.

Keith Curle following Mansfield's play-off final defeat to Huddersfield

Now he wants to go at least one step further, starting with that elusive first managerial promotion.

He came closest in 2004 when guiding Mansfield to the division three play-off final, seeing off the Cobblers in the semis, but the Stags lost to Huddersfield Town on penalties, and Curle has never got as close again, although he did guide Carlisle to the play-offs a couple of years ago.

It is something the Cobblers boss wants to put right, and he believes he is now at a club that will allow him to do just that.

"Ultimately, I am here because I need a promotion on my CV," said Curle this week, sitting in the west stand at the PTS following Thursday morning's training session.

Keith Curle

"I can go into football clubs, I can turn football clubs around, but ultimately then I need the backing from the football club.

"If you are halting a slide, and getting an upward curve, then I need a promotion and that is why I came to this football club.

"This club in my opinion has the foundations in place to be in the next division up, but the football department needs focus, needs direction, and needs a promotion.

"If you put a promotion on your CV, you then need to get into the next division where you need to lay the foundation and put the building blocks in to get out of the next division.

"That can be done, if you look recently at Burton and what they did.

"They had the run from non-League, league two, league one and championship, and that was all built on a solid foundation.

Keith Curle

"I think this football club has that solid foundation, and all it needs now is a couple of transfer windows to create and evolve a footballing department that can entertain the supporters, but win games too.

"Luton Town are another example.

"They have a style of play, a system of play, and they have a very, very good youth system in place, whereby players are brought up embedded in that culture of how they want to play.

"People will have got fed up with me when I first came in, talking about foundations and pillars being put in place.

"But when they are in place, that is how you get success.

"People will continue to get fed up of me repeating it, but they do need to be in place, because if they are not you either become a yo-yo club or you end up operating in the wrong end of a division that you should be dominating."

It's not just clubs such as Burton and Luton that can be held up as an example of what can be achieved when it comes to management.

Curle is one of an army of coaches and managers who have spent years working their socks off in the lower leagues of English football.

The chances of them ever being offered the chance to manage in the Premier League, or even the championship, seem to be shortening with every passing season, and with every foreign billionaire investor that takes over a club.

It used to be that, just like players, managers did the hard yards and apprenticeships in the lower leagues before being given a chance to show what they can do at a top club.

That does still occasionally happen, but it's no longer the norm.

The trend now is for clubs to go for big-name managers, who are often foreign, or big-name ex-players, and the bread and butter British managers don't get a look in.

It seems that the only way a young British manager can get a job in the Premier League nowadays is to take a club there themselves, as Eddie Howe did at Bournemouth, how formere Town defender Sean Dyche did at Burnley, and how former Cobblers boss Wilder is on the brink of doing with Sheffield United.

Since leaving Town following that stunning title success of 2016, Wilder has guided the Blades to the league one title, and with two games of the season left they sit second in the championship, effectively one win away from clinching promotion to the top flight of English football.

Yep, it is odds-on that Wilder and his assistant Alan Knill will be rubbing shoulders with and pitting their wits against the likes of Pep Guardliola, Jurgen Klopp, Mauricio Pochettino , Unai Emery and Rafa Benitez next season.

Now sitting in the same managerial hot seat that Wilder vacated less than three years ago, Curle, who is 55, four years older than the Sheffield United boss, says what Wilder has done has to be an inspiration to him and every other ambitious manager in the championship and leagues one and two.

Curle agrees that 'statistically' the Wilder path to the premier league is probably now the only way for managers like him to realise any top flight dream they have, and he is full of admiration for the job Wilder has done, and the path he has taken.

"Chris is a manager that has gone the route of non-League to League, and has gone up the pyramid," said Curle of the former Halifax, Oxford United and Cobblers boss.

"He has a formula, he knows how to get results, and he knows how to develop and create teams, and also build teams which is an important thing.

"His recruitment since he has been at Sheffield United has been very good, and I think his recruitment here when he was at Northampton was very good.

"Arguably, people might have said that his style of play was not always pleasing on the eye, but he got results, and I think that is very important the lower you are, it's about gaining points.

"That is something I understand from when I first came into this football club."

And Curle is hoping he can now have a similar impact at the Cobblers that Wilder did when he left Oxford to make the switch to Sixfields in January, 2014.

"I have a philosophy of how I want the game played, and how I would like to see the game played, but what you need to do is gain points, create that culture, and it does take a little bit of time to do that," he said.

"It does take a few transfer windows to get the final picture, and the final jigsaw put together.

"Then you can play the entertaining, free-flowing, attacking football that wins you games."

Curle has been pleased with the progress of the team under his charge this season, although he knows quality has to be added to the squad in certain areas.

"It is all about fine margins," he said.

"If you have a look at the division, we have been very competitive in a lot of games and at times we have just needed that little bit more quality in key areas.

"When it comes to work-rate, application, attitude and facing challenges we have been very good, and I don't think we have come unstuck many times throughout the season in terms of being outplayed by an opposition.

"We have been competitive in games, had good organisation, good shape, good discipline.

"The thing about this division is that it's not a bit of brilliance that is the difference, it is normally a lapse in concentration or a poor option taken by players in our own defending third."

Keith Curle out on the training pitch