Wilcox: Burnley disappointment motivated me for world record
THE best successes come after disappointments, a wise man once said. Russ Wilcox would testify to that.
Burnley’s assistant manager during one of their most difficult periods in recent times, now Wilcox is a world record breaking manager.
It is two months since he achieved that status, as boss of Scunthorpe United, and he still cannot quite believe it.
No-one in the history of football has had such a long unbeaten start to their reign as manager.
“I think if someone had said we’d go 28 games unbeaten and break a world record, people would have laughed,” he admits.
“Andre Villas-Boas had the record before me, so that’s not a bad person to beat.
“It hasn’t really sunk in yet and it probably won’t sink in until I’m in my rocking chair.
“Maybe I will take the record with me, because it might be a long time before anyone beats it.”
Wilcox’s appointment as Scunthorpe manager in December came almost by accident, after initially being asked to step in as caretaker following the Glanford Park exit of Brian Laws.
The 50-year-old had been Laws’ long-serving assistant during the manager’s two spells at Scunthorpe as well as at Sheffield Wednesday and at Burnley.
Life was not easy for the duo at Turf Moor.
Taking over after the turmoil of Owen Coyle’s departure to Bolton Wanderers midway through the Clarets’ 2009/10 Premier League campaign, they could not prevent relegation.
“People asked me whether I enjoyed the Premier League and I said to be honest probably not, because you don’t enjoy getting beat every week,” Wilcox said.
“I think it would have been really difficult for anyone to follow Owen Coyle at Burnley in the Premier League.
“It’s such a tough league. You would look at our team sometimes and think, ‘Would they get on the opposition’s bench?’. Sometimes you thought maybe not.
“You get players on board by winning games, that’s how they buy into what you want to do, and when you’re losing every week it’s hard.
“We didn’t try to change too much early on from how Owen did things, but unfortunately results didn’t go our way.
“Our first game was at Old Trafford, which wasn’t an easy game to start with. We did really well for an hour, it was 0-0, and then Berbatov and Rooney scored.
“There was another game against Liverpool too where we played really well and ended up losing 4-0.
“It was difficult, but it was also a great experience to work as a number two at that level and go to places like Old Trafford and the Emirates.”
If relegation was disappointing, harder still was to follow as Laws was sacked and Wilcox immediately followed him out of the door, four months into the next season.
Ironically, it was Scunthorpe who dealt the final blow to the pair, winning 2-0 at Turf Moor just after Christmas.
“It was really disappointing,” he reflects.
“I know we dropped into the Championship but we had a good home record that season, we beat Forest on the opening day, we beat Bolton in the cup and we beat Hull 4-0.
“Then we won at Barnsley for the first time in about 76 years I think and we thought things were okay again, but two days later we were out of a job.
“It was hard to take, particularly as we were only two points outside the play-offs with two games in hand.
“It hurts everybody when something like that happens, but setbacks drive you on and make you more determined.”
Burnley’s first-team coach at the time, Stuart Gray, has also gone on to success as a manager – impressively guiding Sheffield Wednesday away from relegation trouble last season.
Wilcox had a spell as assistant to Lee Bradbury at Bournemouth, before linking up with Laws again as they returned to Scunthorpe late in 2012.
Again things were not straight-forward at first. The Iron dropped out of League One and Laws was sacked in November 2013, following a home loss to Accrington Stanley and an FA Cup defeat to local rivals Grimsby Town, now in non-league.
Scunthorpe sat 12th in the League Two table at that point, but under Wilcox they never looked back.
“It was a really difficult period because I wanted to do well just as much when I was number two as when I was number one,” he says of Laws’ exit.
“The chairman asked me to take the team for two games. He said he’d be bringing in a new manager but maybe the new person would keep me on as number two.
“I just wanted to do a professional job and do as well as I could. I felt I was ready for it, I’d had 15 years as a number two.
“Fortunately I left the chairman with no choice!”
Results in Wilcox’s five games in temporary charge saw him handed the job on a permanent basis.
“We won the first three, and four of the first five,” he said.
“After that you thought it would be nice to get the run to double figures.
“Then when you got to 10 the Scunthorpe club record was 19 and you thought, ‘Well that’s only nine games away’.
“We equalled that record and broke that, and it was only before the 24th match that someone said you could break a world record and I thought ‘Wow’.”
In February, Scunthorpe had come from 2-0 down at half time to win 3-2 at Accrington Stanley.
“That was an important night in our season,” Wilcox said.
“It was a fantastic second half performance and showed how determined the players were to get promoted.
“I’m very proud to be their manager.”
Has that lightning start to his reign set the bar rather high?
“That is my concern now!” he laughed.
Bizarrely, Wilcox’s world record breaking run actually came to an end on the club’s happiest day of the season. Scunthorpe lost at Exeter, but Fleetwood’s failure to win elsewhere confirmed their promotion back to League One.
“It was a really strange day,” he says.
“At the end of the game we were just stood there waiting for the Fleetwood result.
“There was no point doing the debrief until we knew, then the news came through.
“There was no need to have a go at the players after that, because we’d got promotion!”
They narrowly missed out on the League Two title on the last day to a Chesterfield side managed by former Burnley midfielder Paul Cook, but do have the rare distinction of actually having gone up with more draws than wins. Scunthorpe finished the season with 20 victories, 21 draws and only five defeats.
Wilcox’s feats during the campaign earned him not one but two honours at the LMA’s awards dinner in May – the League Two manager of the year and a special merit award.
He received the award from Sir Alex Ferguson – even if the legendary former Manchester United manager’s glowing congratulatory speech did contain one crucial mistake.
“Fantastic research by Sir Alex but my name’s Russ, not Bruce!” Wilcox joked on stage.
Burnley boss Sean Dyche surprisingly missed out on the Championship manager of the year award to Leicester’s Nigel Pearson that night.
Wilcox knows the size of the task ahead of Dyche in the Premier League, but he will not be offering him any advice.
“I don’t think Sean needs any advice from me, I think it might be me asking Sean for some advice,” he says.
“He is doing a great job there. They need to get the recruitment right but I’m sure Sean knows exactly what he’s doing.
“I watched a couple of their games on television last season and they were outstanding.
“I’m really pleased to see them back in the Premier League. I wish them well.”