Big interview: Leam Richardson on managing a 'fragile' situation at Wigan Athletic
But these are not normal times, and Leam Richardson has found himself a reluctant hero of Wigan Athletic’s attempts to survive in League One with the “fragile” uncertainty, and restraints, of being in administration.
Thrust into the manager’s role for the start of the season, he turned down coaching roles in the Premier League and the Championship and stayed loyal to – in his words – “bring some sanity to the situation”.
And despite being Paul Cook’s long-time assistant, he admits the last few months have been a steep learning curve for him.
“I don’t mean to be flippant when I say this, but unless you’ve done the role, I don’t think anyone would realise how it is and what it entails,” said the 41-year-old, who had brief experience of being a manager at Accrington in 2012 and 2013.
“When I started out, I was an assistant manager for a long time, before I became manager at Accrington. I thought I was doing a good job as an assistant but then I jumped into the manager’s slot, and I quickly realised I didn’t have a clue. I didn’t have a clue about the fundamental work of the job, the pressures, the criteria you needed to fill, and all the expectations that went along with that.
“To be thrown into the role on top of everything else – administration, Covid, having to watch young players leave, then senior players, then staff who you’ve worked with than years, your support network, and having to defy the odds, sort problems out on a daily basis... there’s a lot of physical and emotional energy that goes into that. In layman’s terms, it’s awful!”
His brief stint as caretaker at Accrington ended with Cook’s arrival and he would later link up with him at Chesterfield and follow him to Portsmouth and then Wigan. But the experience in the hot-seat taught him a lot about himself, and his ambitions in the sport.
“Honestly, 10 years ago when I was at Accrington as manager, having been assistant, I had big choices to make then,” he reflected.
“After speaking to people in the game, family, friends, reflecting on it myself... I’m not really a status-driven person. So it was easy for me to say I was going to aim to be good at this, I’m going to aim for longevity.. .and in our game, you don’t get many chances to succeed.
“You need to make sure you’re well prepared, well educated, and make sure you’re ready for whatever tasks come your way.
“At one point I went to study social work, I was on a physiotherapy course, just to understand different departments of a football club, and how it would affect myself.
“You fast-forward 10 years, and I’ve worked for many years with one of the best managers in England in Paul Cook, you’re obviously learning a lot.
“We’ve obviously enjoyed a lot of success, and I’d like to think I’ve played my own part in that. In the manager’s hot seat, you tend to be a lot more critical of yourself, and everything is quite raw... whether you’re dealing with players, agents, finance director, we’ve no chief exec or no chairman at the moment.
“You find yourself doing most roles in the football club on any given day, but it does give you that confidence.”
Richardson moved back to No.2 when John Sheridan joined Wigan earlier this season, only to take control when the experienced head left two months later.
Does he still see himself as a caretaker filling a gap, or as a manager?
“I’m 41 now, and in the next five years or so, if an opportunity came along that matched my expectations and ambitions, the question is whether I think I could do it. Absolutely,” he said.
“I’ve managed to be lucky enough that every single club I’ve been at as a player or in management, we’ve won something or been successful.
“That gives you confidence within itself, and after the last seven or eight months here, when you have to delve deep inside you to see what you’ve got, I think it’s made me realise in the future I would like to manage.
“Do I think I’d be successful at it, with a good team around me? Definitely, yes.” His immediate focus is on defying the odds and trying to steer Latics away from the relegation zone, against a backdrop of uncertainty about the future – for the club and, he admits, for himself.
“I think you’ve always got to be careful in football, especially here, because at any given time new owners could come in with new ideas, including new players and a new management team,” he said.
“No matter how well you’re doing, all of a sudden you could find yourself being cast aside in the next breath.
“I’m totally aware of the industry we’re in, and that means you have to show a bit of respect for the situation you’re in.
“It’s never been about me, what’s been going on this season.
“Do I see myself as the manager? I see myself as managing a situation, a fragile one at that, on a daily basis.
“Every time we get through a week, and we’re still competitive, picking up the results that keep us in touch, that represents something of a success.
“And if we can look back at the end of the season having picked up enough points to keep us in this division, that would be as much of a success as anything I’ve been involved in.
“In this business, you’re always very aware that, at any given moment, somebody could just come in and sweep the carpet from under you.
“But there was a situation here where it’s full throttle and, until that changes, I’ll keep going.
“You’re not just representing yourself, you’re representing a football club thousands of people have supported for years, and it’s their everything.
“It’ll still be here long after I’ve gone, and if we can help to give it as solid a platform as possible, and make sure it’s here for as long as possible.
“Then we’ll all have done a good job.”