The remarkable rise of England U20 manager Paul Simpson: from non-league boss to World Cup winner

England U20 World Cup

Richard Edwards delves into the unusual career path of the gaffer who led England's talented U20 team to their stunning success in South Korea this summer

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When Paul Simpson left Northwich Victoria in February 2012, the odds of him becoming the first England manager to lift a World Cup since Sir Alf Ramsey in 1966 would have been as lengthy as those accompanying a successful Donald Trump bid for the White House.

As the past 12 months have proved, though, making predictions about pretty much anything is becoming increasingly hazardous. In fact, so madcap is the current state of affairs that even Greg Dyke’s target of England winning the 2022 World Cup shouldn’t be discounted (steady on - FFT Ed). Particularly if those U20 players nurtured by the former Rochdale, Carlisle, Preston, Shrewsbury, Stockport and Northwich boss, have anything to do with it.

Anyone old enough to have seen Simpson play will bear testimony to his insatiable appetite for hard work

Anyone old enough to have seen Simpson play will bear testimony to his insatiable appetite for hard work, regardless of which team, division or position he was playing in. Born, appropriately enough, just four days before England met Germany in that World Cup final 51 years ago, the diminutive winger was a favourite wherever he went.

Whether he was playing for a Manchester City side that occupied an entirely different planet to the one managed by Pep Guardiola today, an Oxford United side getting acclimatised to life in the Second Division after hitting the heights in the old First Division or a Derby County team on the up under Jim Smith, Simpson brought graft, craft and a regular smattering of goals.

Simpson scores for Manchester City in 1986

Made to manage

It was his attitude, rather than his ability that singled him out, however. Just ask Steve McMahon. The former Liverpool midfielder was managing third-tier Blackpool when Simpson arrived following his release from Wolves on a free transfer at the age of 34. “Some experienced pros who drop down into the lower divisions in their thirties are accused of looking for easy money, but you could not accuse Paul of that,” he said.

That enthusiasm, which has been apparent in every interview Simpson has done since England’s historic U20 World Cup triumph in Suwon, was also reflected in his determination to ensure that he gave himself the best chance of carving out a career for himself after retirement.

In 2001, while still at Blackpool, Simpson enrolled at Manchester Metropolitan University for a Sports Science degree which, between managerial jobs, took him five years to complete. In 2010, he also undertook a diploma in Sports Management at the Warwick Business School.

“I won’t forget one bit of advice Jim Smith gave me: ‘So long as you go into it and know that one day you are going to be sacked, you just get on with it'

- Paul Simpson

He also found himself, like many other former pros, brutally exposed the vagaries of modern-day management. He once admitted that he first applied for the Rochdale job, while still a player at Spotland, because it would be good practice to write a CV and have an interview, not something too many footballers need to contemplate while still playing. It must have been quite a covering letter because when John Hollins vacated the ‘Dale hotseat in May 2002, Simpson was the club’s first choice to replace him as player-manager. 

On the eve of a last 16 FA Cup tie with his former club Wolves in February 2003, Simpson gave an indication of his philosophical nature. He said: “I won’t forget one bit of advice Jim Smith gave me: ‘So long as you go into it and know that one day you are going to be sacked, you just get on with it.’ If I were to lose my job, the only person who would worry about it is me, nobody else would give a stuff.”

In the eight years that followed, Simpson was given plenty of opportunities to test that theory because within two years of accepting the Rochdale job, he was contemplating life in the Conference after being relegated with Carlisle, having joined his home-town club as a player in the summer of 2003.

What happened next has become the stuff of local legend. “Simmo was there as a player but he put himself forward and said he would look after it [the manager's job] until the club decided what to do,” says Jon Colman, Carlisle United reporter for the city’s News & Star newspaper.

“His legacy is there for all to see. Against all the odds, he almost kept them up when they were a busted flush - and then he brought them straight back up the next season, then took them to the League Two title. He found some absolute diamonds, like Ashley Westwood, and he professionalised the dressing room as well."