Before the start of the National League season, Solihull Moors’ official partner Sportnation.bet priced up each club in the division to win the title. Their own club were given odds of 200/1, the second longest in the division. As one season preview read: ‘Solihull were just six points off the bottom four last season and the upcoming section looks far tougher on paper.’
You could see the justification for pessimism. Solihull had only survived relegation after an unlikely late-season salvo that followed three wins from their first 19 league matches. Manager Mark Yates had left for promoted Macclesfield Town, and his assistant Tim Flowers had been given his first permanent managerial job since a nine-game stint at Stafford Rangers in 2010/11.
Flowers regarded the club’s survival as one of the greatest achievements of his career. Having been promoted to the fifth tier for the first time in their history in 2016, Solihull Moors were still looking down nervously rather than up with optimism. Flowers became their seventh different manager since promotion.
But with 11 games of the National League season remaining, Solihull are third in the table with a game in hand that could see them go top on merit. Having begun the season hoping again to break the 50-point barrier, Flowers’ team hit that total on January 5. They are the current second favourites to win the league. You suspect Sportnation.bet will be only too happy to pay out.
Solihull Moors is a club firmly pointed in the right direction. In August, former Oxford United chairman Darryl Eales took over the same role at Solihull. Eales went to watch Moor Green – who merged with Solihull Borough in 2007 to form form the current club – as a child with his father, and made a commitment to reach the Football League within five years. Seven months later, Flowers has bloomed way ahead of schedule.
“We are million, million miles away from where we were when I first joined,” Flowers said. We are sat in a function room in the main stand at Damson Park, which still feels deliciously non-league. A note pinned to the wall of the toilets tells supporters to ‘Text Dave’ if they want to go on the coach to Salford City this weekend. The wind blows through the roof of the clubhouse and rattles the ceiling panels as we talk.
“We looked like we were going to be relegated, and it needed something to happen quickly. That came with changing the training sessions from two evenings a week to three mornings a week. We brought a couple of better players in, but those three days helped us organise and get fitter. Lads who had jobs found a way to make it work and commit. From that first training session I witnessed to what I see now is a million miles apart.”
Eales’ investment has clearly helped. Off the pitch, the stand in which we sit will be renovated this summer and work on a 4G training pitch will be started too. I enter through a side door because the reception is being transformed and a permanent club shop will soon be opened. With the club performing way above schedule, Flowers was able to bring in three new players in January.
But do not be tricked into thinking Solihull have paid their way up the division. The club’s entire playing budget is £650,000, three times what Salford City are paying Adam Rooney in wages alone. Attendances have risen following Flowers’ success, but Solihull still rank 19th out of 24 by that measure. Damson Park only holds 3,000 people; ten grounds in the league hold more than twice that number. Only training three mornings a week (Monday, Tuesday and Thursday) has its obvious limitations, but Flowers has made it work through hard work and planning.
💪 1️⃣1️⃣ cup finals to go…
Who’s got that #FridayFeeling?
💛💙 #SMFC pic.twitter.com/wTIVuDN6G5
— Solihull Moors FC (@SolihullMoors) March 8, 2019
“It’s hard not being full-time like I was as a player,” he says. “Say we’ve missed out on a certain facet of something in training before a Saturday because there simply isn’t time. You stand on the touchline and you watch and think ‘Why didn’t we do that on Thursday?’. Plus I don’t see them on Fridays, so they have 48 hours for everything to go out of their skulls before the game.
“What we try and do is plan ahead. My assistant and coaches know what they’re doing for the week. I’m always looking ahead, watching two or three of our upcoming opponents’ games. I have written reports and clips too. We get GPS data from sessions so we know what our workloads are. We can tape training. I have an analyst and four or five scouts out four or five nights a week watching players and teams. I know where and what everyone is doing and who they are watching. It’s the only way at this level.”
If Solihull’s unlikely push for the Football League has become the headline story, there is far more to Eales’ investment than simply gaining promotion. Before taking over he set the club up as a Community Interest Company, a Government initiative designed for social enterprises that want to use their profits and assets for the public good. Solihull have one of the widest-ranging youth participation schemes of any football club in the country, with 80 youth and junior teams, a women’s team and disability programmes. Anyone aged 12 and under can attend matches for free with an adult.
“This is a massive community project,” Flowers says. “We have umpteen youth teams coming up to Under-21s, women’s teams, disabled teams. We aim to be very inclusive. So what we don’t want to do is move to a more professional way of doing things and lose all that.
“The players, after a game, have always gone and met the supporters for a drink and to chat about the game and we don’t want to lose that either. That is part of why people come to watch us. It’s their club, remember. And it has to stay that way. I’d only like to increase that side of things.
“The next step is an Under-23 team, to provide the last stepping stone to the first team. And then if we can get a good player through every year, either to get into the team or be sold and bring in revenue, the dream can work and the more successful we can be.”
Flowers has clearly relied a lot upon his extensive coaching and playing career; there are not many Premier League title winners and England internationals who have been in European Championship and World Cup squads managing at non-league level. He cites Kenny Dalglish and Martin O’Neill’s demand that players keeping their feet on the ground as one influence, but also Aidy Boothroyd’s obsession with restarts (free-kicks, corners and throw-ins). Flowers calls Roy Hodgson the best coach he played under.
But he is also adamant that simplicity has been the key to his success at Solihull. In a relentless division filled with recent Football League teams and clubs with big budgets and even bigger ambitions, Solihull must fight for everything. Concentrating on playing their way is the only way.
🎥 WATCH | “It’s testament to the boys how well we bounce back.”
Yesterday’s hat-trick hero @Hylton_24 praises the team as they returned to winning ways in style against @maidstoneunited.
👉Full interview: https://t.co/QiSZlOcca7.
💛💙 #SMFC pic.twitter.com/gzUAkNDyH1
— Solihull Moors FC (@SolihullMoors) March 3, 2019
“Last year, before we came in, people would just turn up and roll over Solihull and go home,” Flowers says. “It was all very nice. They’d play the game, have a sandwich and a drink and go home, a really friendly non-league setup. But that’s not for me and I told them that. You have to grow a pair.
“Sometimes people don’t like you because you make a stand. But the days of clubs waltzing past us have gone. We might lose a game, but it won’t be for a lack of spirit and organisation and effort. I wanted an end to all that. It’s about bringing in focused people, getting organised, having a code to live by and forging a spirit. That is our mantra.”
Promotion might not happen this year, or next year. Setbacks will come because they always do. Flowers uses former club Leicester City as an example of an underdog story that gives every small club hope, but is also keenly aware that managers can become victims of their own success and players can easily get swept up in a club’s off-field ambition.
Whatever happens from March until May, Solihull are building something they believe can be special and, more importantly, believe can be sustainable. If Flowers considers himself fortunate to be a part of that, he should not underestimate his own role in the greatest season in Solihull Moors’ short history.
“If Solihull finish in the top seven, it will have been an incredible season. The pressure isn’t on us, it’s on them. We were never supposed to be here.
“But we organise. We try to prepare during this ruthless season. We have late nights. It is incredibly tiring. But now is the time to stick to your guns. And long may it all continue.”