He is only on the first rungs of his management career, but Cambridge United’s Shaun Derry has already demonstrated personal skills that some of us take years to master.
Experience is like gold dust for anyone in the early stages of their career and every success, failure and disappointment, however fresh and raw it feels, provides a valuable opportunity to learn. Crucially for managers starting out it is often the mental skills required for success in the profession that are least prepared and these need time and practice to build and grow. There’s nothing quite like the school of hard knocks to thicken the skin and help you develop the resilience and steely determination required to fulfil your ambitions.
As first jobs go Derry’s was a baptism of fire: faced with a fierce battle to avoid relegation, which he achieved, winning six of the season’s last nine games. Despite his efforts, however, Derry was replaced after only 18 months. It’s the kind of setback that is becoming par for the course in football management, especially for those taking their first steps in the profession, but that doesn’t make the cross any easier to bear. Yet, here, Derry seems wise beyond his years – pragmatic, devoid of bitterness and wholly forward in his thinking.
“I’m full of admiration and respect for Notts County; after all, it was the club that gave me my chance as a professional footballer and the opportunity to manage,” he says. “The job was a tough one and I experienced many of the highs and lows that management can throw at you, so it was fantastic preparation for my career to come. Overall, there were more highs than lows and I walked away from it very proud of what I had achieved; I felt that when I left the club it was in a better position than when I joined.”
As someone who tries to take the positives from every situation, Derry viewed his departure not as a setback but as the next step on his management journey, and one that was inevitable at some point. “It happens to the best of us, so I didn’t allow it to affect me too much,” he says. “I remember driving home from the club that day and thinking that it wasn’t a door shutting, but another one opening.”
Derry also managed to maintain some perspective on the situation, another core personal trait that even the most experienced managers may struggle with amidst the pressure, ambition and passion of the job.
“As I had given the job at Notts County my absolute all, my family had been put to one side to a certain degree,” he says. “As soon as I left the club, therefore, I vowed to spend some quality time with them away from the football environment, so we spent a fantastic month fulfilling a long-held ambition to travel around California. It gave me time to think about my career and my ambitions and get some real perspective on things.”
The next step
When he became manager of Cambridge United in November 2015, Derry joined a cohort of new young managers making their mark on League Two, in which the average age of managers is only 43, the lowest of the four English leagues. “I hope that as a growing number of British managers are given a chance in the profession, especially in the Sky Bet Championship and the Barclays Premier League, those average ages will come down further,” he says. “When I look around me I see many like-minded, driven young people who really want to be given the opportunity to grow and learn and we all aspire to reach as high in the profession as we possibly can.”
As someone who is highly self-driven, Derry says to be able to manage against people with a similar drive and ambition is very powerful, not least because managing in League Two is tough. “It’s perhaps harder to manage at this level than in the higher leagues, because as you’re working with fewer staff you have to spend even more time on a host of things other than leadership. You’re the psychologist, a father figure, and so on, so your talent and responsibilities have to be spread across the board.”
How someone copes with the early days in a job can be critical to their ongoing success and there may be a minefield of relationship issues, strategic cross-purposes and expectations to navigate. But Derry has acquitted himself well since joining the League Two side. Was the experience he gained at Notts County important in enabling him to hit the ground running?
“Without doubt,” says Derry. “In particular, I had worked religiously at Notts County on developing my own managerial style and when I took the Cambridge United job I really understood what that was.”
He knew also how important it would be to galvanise his new team and to score some early wins, which he achieved in his third game at the helm.
“Once you’ve got that first win under your belt you all gain in confidence and feel a lot of excitement about what is to come,” he says. “Achieving that win early in my tenure at Cambridge also gave me the confidence I needed to stamp my authority on the club.”
Derry is fortunate to have inherited a great support staff at the club, and among them a set of skills that were different to those he’d found at Notts County, enabling him to further learn and add to his own. “The group of staff here have the kinds of characteristics that I like to work with,” he adds, “so the transition has been pretty seamless and I feel confident and comfortable in my new surroundings.”
But of all the lessons he’s taken to Cambridge United from his time at Notts County one stands out more than most – the importance of dealing with disappointment. How well you do that, he says, has a huge impact on your ability to lead. “On a Monday morning people are looking to you for leadership, so you can’t dwell on a poor result or leave issues to fester until later in the week,” he says. “You can’t allow your disappointment in a result or performance to define the week, as that can be very detrimental to the players and the wider team.”
Success depends on how you react and respond in the face of adversity, he adds. “So, on Monday morning you need to speak with clarity of purpose and set the vision for the week ahead, because there’s another opportunity just around the corner. Everyone around you needs guidance and direction and they need stability to be able to perform to the best of their abilities.”
Respect and autonomy
Mutual trust is also a key feature of Derry’s style and ethos as a manager – trust in his support staff and in his playing team. As a player Derry was comfortable in the role of team captain and he thrived on the leadership and sense of responsibility. He was also a natural communicator, comfortable in speaking on behalf of the team, helping them to understand what was expected of them and how they could achieve that.
“I always placed strong value on the relationship between the captain and the manager and I had strong relationships with the managers I played under. I was their voice in the dressing room and as such I needed to respect what their wishes were,” he says.
Unsurprisingly, he now places special importance on the captaincy role and on trusting the players under their wing.
“Generally, I don’t go into the dressing room as a manager, because I believe it’s the players’ domain,” he says. “As a player, my managers afforded me and my team trust to run the dressing room as we saw fit and this was something I was keen to do here at Cambridge United. I want to have four or five like-minded people in the dressing room – people whose ambitions match mine and who I’m happy to represent me – and then give them ownership of what they want to achieve, within the guidelines I have set.”
The mutual trust and respect that Derry has with his support staff is equally vital, not least with his assistant managers, Greg Abbott at Notts County and Joe Dunne at Cambridge United, with whom he is also studying the LMA Diploma in Football Management.
“Having been able to draw on the experience of two men who have managed themselves has been invaluable,” says Derry.
“Since I embarked on this journey I have experienced many things, but every day I’m still learning. I want to immerse myself in knowledge, have experienced professionals around me and be able to speak to and learn from people with backgrounds and skills that contrast with my own.”
For Derry, each position is more than a job; each club is a learning environment. “Importantly, I want it to be the sort of learning culture that takes everybody forward, because together we’re constantly changing our behaviours, beliefs and abilities.”