A NEW series shining light on what life is like behind the scenes on a non-league matchday. Next up is Harry Pope.

Harry Pope is one of Cornwall rising managerial stars. After starting his management career with a successful spell at Threemilestone, Harry moved to Carharrack in 2015, where he won the Trelawny League Premier, Combination League, Combination League Cup and Supplementary Cup before joining Penryn in 2018. He was set to lead Athletic to the St Piran League West title last season before it was declared null and void.

Although a manager’s match preparation can be a week-long process, the real nitty gritty of it begins on Friday night for Harry, when he aims to select the squad for the following day’s game.

“If I haven’t picked my team already before Saturday morning I sit down and I get a piece of paper and a pen and I make sure I’ve picked it,” Harry says, “because I don’t want to be turning up to football still not knowing my decisions. If I haven’t picked my team by Friday night that’s the first thing I do on Saturday.

“I do lose sleep sometimes over it. I do lie and stare at my ceiling sometimes thinking, ‘Should I do this, should I do that and what if I do this and it goes wrong,’ and so on and so forth, but I’m sure every manager in the world does that, I’m sure I’m not alone!”

If the team line-up is sorted, Harry’s first job on a Saturday morning is to field several messages from his players – especially if it is during the wetter, winter months.

“Depending on the time of the year, usually the first thing in the morning is I get 18 messages saying, ‘Is the game on? Is the game on?’” he says.

The weekly uncertainty over whether a game is going ahead and subsequent disappointment at it being called off is a constant thorn in the side of non-league managers up and down the country – and Harry is no different.

“It’s so frustrating because you’re getting your squad organised, you’re looking out the window all week at work and thinking, ‘Oh it’s raining, is it going to be on?’

“I’ve got to get my squad sorted anyway and then you’ve got the group chat messaging you like, ‘Is the game on?’ and I’m like, ‘I don’t know, I’ll let you know.’

“Sometimes some of the lads will privately message me and be like, ‘Is the game on?’ I’m there like, ‘I don’t know yet!’

“It’s extremely frustrating, but then the second you get that decision, all of the stress is over, because it’s either, ‘Right boys, the game’s off, sorry,’ and then I put my phone down, or it’s, ‘Right boys, the game’s on,’ and then you’re instantly in football mode.

“That couple of hours on a Saturday morning when you’re waiting for a decision is horrendous as a manager. It’s probably one of the worst parts about being a manager, to tell you the truth, it’s one of the things I hate the most.”

The game may be declared on and the team line-up may be decided, but there is still the issue of ensuring that the players are fit and ready to play.

“You know you’ve got 12 players and you know one or two of them have got knocks,” Harry says, “and it gets to Saturday morning and you ask those guys how they’re feeling.

“You want them to message you back and say, ‘I’m fine, gaffer. I’m ready,’ and then they say, ‘I’m a bit sore,’ and you think, ‘Oh God, that 12 is down to ten and a half,’. It is tough.”

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Penryn Athletic manager Harry Pope. Picture by Colin Higgs

With the initial matchday morning admin sorted, a quieter period follows before Harry heads to the game, usually arriving at Penryn’s Kernick Road ground about an hour-and-a-half before kick-off in order to prepare for the players’ arrival.

“If we’re kicking off at three, we’ll meet at two,” Harry says. “If they’re a minute late they get fined, so usually from about 2pm to two or three minutes past two I’m jotting down names and writing down fines.

“We do a shout every week so a player will name a random item, everybody’s got to bring that item and if they don’t bring it then they have to pay a fine and it all goes into the kitty, so for five or ten minutes we usually have a laugh doing that.”

After the pleasantries, it’s time for Harry to announce the team for that afternoon’s game, before going through tactics ahead of the 25-minute warm-up, which Harry uses as an opportunity to see whether his charges are feeling up to the task that lies ahead.

“They all know what to do because we have a set routine, we do the same thing every week. I let them get on with it but I’m basically there as security, making sure they’re all switching on and getting ready for the game.”

With the warm-up done and dusted, all that remains before kick-off is for the players to get changed, put the music on and get ready, with Harry using the time to get his side feeling confident and fired up.

“When I was a player I used to like to come into the changing rooms and give myself just ten minutes to get my head around it, just to get myself ready for the game,” he says, “so that’s basically the message I try to get across to the boys, ‘That 15 minutes is for you.’

“I’m not going to be giving a massive team talk in those 15 minutes, people don’t need to be intently listening to me, they need to just be themselves and get themselves ready for the game.”

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Harry Pope watches his side take on St Ives Town in last season's Cornwall Senior Cup third round

With the talking over, the players make their way out onto the pitch, with Harry first making a beeline for the opposition dugout to shake the manager’s hand.

“Some people don’t think that there should be a handshake before the game; they think only after,” he says. “I like to do it; I think it’s a bit of courtesy.”

Other than that, Harry uses the final few moments before kick-off to take one last look at his players to make sure they’re focused.

“I’m looking around at my lads, just seeing who is ready,” he says, “if there’s somebody waving at their missus in the crowd or if they’re focused and ready for the job.”

For the next 90 minutes or so, Harry will be shouting instructions to his side from the touchline depending on how the game is going, but what is the one thing he is always trying to impress on his players?

“Start the game well!’ he laughs. “That’s one thing I say quite often to the boys. To me it all comes down to that first 15-20 minutes; being defensively solid and take your chances if you get any.

Whether the team achieved those two aims will form the basis of Harry’s half-time team talk, but regardless of the events of the previous 45 minutes, he will aim to stick to his preferred formula.

“One thing I try to stick to is to get anything that’s negative, address that first, and then end with a positive so that the boys go out in the second half not thinking about all of that negative stuff.

“If players have fallen out or not playing very well, I like to address that first so that we all understand it and get the negative out of the way and address the positives so we go out on a positive note.

“No half-time team talks are the same though, it all depends on what the score is and how the boys are playing.”

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Harry Pope led Penryn to the brink of a league title in both of his two seasons in charge. Picture by Colin Higgs

With the team talk done and the second half underway, Harry is first looking for a positive reaction from his players, if necessary, before considering how he might change things up.

“In the second half you’re thinking about changes,” he says. “It depends on the situation, if you’re winning a game comfortably you might be looking at getting a couple of players some rest.

“If you’re drawing or if you’re losing, then you’ve just come out from a half-time team talk so you’re hoping to see a reaction, but obviously sometimes it doesn’t always go the way you planned.

"You can pick your best 11 or what you feel is your strongest 11, but if you’re 60 minutes into a game and it’s not working, you’ve got to make some changes, and sometimes a change that you think, ‘I don’t know if that’s going to work’, might end up being the best decision you’ve ever made.”

When the referee blows his whistle for the final time that afternoon, it is time for Harry and his team to celebrate a hard-earned victory or last-minute leveller – or begin the inquest into a lacklustre draw or disappointing defeat.

But whichever of the above scenarios has just occurred, there is one thing that Harry likes to do after every game.

“One thing I like to do – win, lose or draw – is after the game, once the boys have done a little cool down, we sit everyone down just for a couple of minutes.

“Obviously if you go out and win 6-1 and you’ve been brilliant but conceded a rubbish goal, you say, ‘Right boys, we’ve been brilliant tonight, a little bit of a lapse in concentration for the goal but we go again’.

“If you’ve just conceded a goal late on to drop the point, there might be a few raised voices and a couple of swear words!”

After the post-match debrief, Harry and the squad usually head into the clubhouse for a spot of food and drink in front of the televised evening kick-off in the Premier League – a ritual that Harry feels is just as important as the game itself.

“It’s good to have that little bit of social after the game,” Harry says. “If we’ve been at home, the second team will come back to the clubhouse as well after they’ve come back from their away game, so we’ll catch up with them and see how they’ve got on.

“I think that’s one of the most important sides of a football club, really. Even if it’s only for half an hour or an hour after a game every week, I think that crucial social side is massive.

“If you can form good friendships off the pitch, people are going to run through a brick wall for each other on the pitch, and that’s going to get you three points on a Saturday, isn’t it?”