Paul Hurst: The man leading League One’s early pacesetters

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Slight of stature – five feet five inches to be precise – and quietly spoken, on first meeting few would probably expect Paul Hurst to be a football manager.

But if one thing should be noted with Hurst it is to not judge upon first thoughts, for there is a lot more than meets the eye.

With size becoming an ever-increasing commodity within modern football there is a high chance that, had he experienced his time coming through football’s ranks twenty years later, the Sheffield-born defender would have fallen foul of a line bestowed upon children all across England – ‘he’s too small to make it’.

It is perhaps more of a shock that he was not victim to that throwaway line when he did begin his career, a fresh-faced left-back coming through Rotherham United’s ranks during the early 1990s, a time when English football was all about physical slog-fests on muddy pitches as opposed to the more aesthetically satisfying match-ups witnessed today, played out on pristine pitches trimmed to within an inch of their life.

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Scratch beneath the surface and you will find a man worried not by his frame, full of steel – quite an apt characteristic given his city of birth – determination and grit, quite possibly to prove a point to those who cared not to judge him on ability, but on first glance.

Having made his Millers debut in 1993, managers and players alike expressed their worries over Hurst’s ability to cope with the physical nature of the game upon his introduction to ‘men’s football’. His position left him vulnerable to being beaten in the air at the back-post by centre-forwards, many of whom at that time prided themselves on their strength and aerial ability and whose eyes would surely have lit up at the prospect of facing the diminutive Yorkshireman in a one-to-one heading situation. Again, he proved them wrong.

A deep thinker of the game – a trait he has very much carried forward into his management career – Hurst ensured that whilst players may have a vertical advantage over him, they would not be allowed to shrug him off without a challenge, spending many hours in the gym to work on the physical facet he could control and ensuring that he was as robust as he could be.

497 appearances, two promotions and one player of the year award later, it is fair to say that Hurst had the last laugh.

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Not content with only defying the critics on the field, the 42-year-old has since gone on to enjoy a successful career in the dugout – and nobody can say he has done it the easy way.

Starting at Ilkeston Town in 2008 in the Northern Premier League alongside former teammate Rob Scott – the pair ‘joint-managers’, as opposed to the traditional manager and assistant combination – they secured promotion to the Conference North in their only season in Derbyshire and were soon headhunted by Boston United.

A second season in management, a second successive promotion to the sixth level of English football for the pair; United were guided out of the division via the play-offs at the duo’s first attempt.

The juxtaposing styles of messrs Hurst and Scott were reaping their rewards: Hurst the quieter good-cop to Scott’s bolder, bullish bad-cop. But make no mistake, if Hurst should be required to put his foot down and be assertive then this is a role not alien to him. Whilst he may not be in your face, he certainly will not shy away from confrontation if required.

Having secured Boston’s position in the second tier of non-league they were again on the move soon after, resigning from York Street to step into the top position at Grimsby Town, tasked with leading the Lincolnshire side’s quest to regain their Football League status.

Two seasons of deemed failure – anything short of promotion was viewed as short of expectations by the Blundell Park faithful – and tensions boiled over for one half of the management partnership: the ever-fiery Scott having a blazing row with a section of supporters and being sacked for gross misconduct. The reigns were now left in the hands of the ice-cool Hurst.

Both of the succeeding campaigns saw progression, but ultimately did not deliver the prize of a place back in the hallowed 92. A play-off semi-final loss to Newport preceded a play-off final defeat to Bristol Rovers, their third fall at that stage of the season in as many years. For some sections of fans, time was beginning to run thin.

Criticism of Hurst and his team were heightened from then on due to a sixth season in non-league – and fifth under Hurst – with aspects of the Mariners’ faithful vocal in their displeasure at varying aspects of his style, from tactics on the pitch to interview style off it. Finally however, their time came. A 3-1 Wembley victory over Forest Green Rovers saw them promoted – and led to Hurst’s most uncharacteristic moment during his six years in the hotseat.

At the moment Nathan Arnold secured the win with an injury-time third, a crack showed in the otherwise cool exterior. Hurst ran down the touchline, ear-cupped. A message to those who doubted him.

Despite a positive start to life back in League Two, when Shrewsbury Town came calling in October 2016 all felt that it was the right time for parties to split. Always one to relish a challenge, the task of keeping the Shrews in the third tier when five points adrift at the bottom proved too good, and tempted Hurst to relocate down to Montgomery Waters Meadow alongside assistant Chris Doig.

And so, as has been the theme throughout his career, the tenacious full-back achieved success against the odds. A side seemingly sleepwalking towards relegation was turned around, given a kick up the backside, and injected with the hard-work, spirit and sheer never-say-die attitude that runs through Hurst’s veins. He kept them up with a game to spare.

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Now, almost a year on and having had the opportunity to truly stamp his authority on the squad, his side sit three points clear at the summit of the division, shadowing over relative giants such as Wigan Athletic, Blackburn Rovers and Portsmouth.

Shrewsbury may not be the most attractive prospect on the eye (Although some of the early-season football served up has been extremely impressive), yet you cannot question the effort they will give you no matter what. Almost a carbon-copy of their manager.

Whilst Hurst refuses to get carried away – it is of course extremely early in the season, with a multitude of possibilities still able to occur – there is a whiff of optimism in the Shropshire air, one not smelt in the area for a long, long time.

It would be a stunning achievement if they could continue their near-flawless start and compete in the higher echelons of the league, yet Hurst remains realistic and recognises that, at this stage, the chances of such remain acute.

Quiet, yet aggressive. Introverted, yet extremely demanding. Calm and collected, yet hugely passionate.

If one theme has recurred throughout his career, it is never write him off. With a remarkable story possibly in the pipeline, Hurst is one book that you should never judge by its cover.