In April 1996 Rotherham United took on Shrewsbury Town at Wembley Stadium in the Auto Windscreen Trophy (or Football League Trophy) Final. Playing at the back that day for The Millers was a left sided defender called Paul Hurst. He had joined the Yorkshire club three years earlier and the Sheffield born defender would go on to make over 430 appearances for them in a 15 year spell. Little could the Shrewsbury fans who witnessed that final in 1996 realise that the diminutive defender in their opponents back line would be the very same man that, a little over twenty years later, would be managing their side to the top of League One!
It is truly remarkable and so is the rise the man now being touted for a big future in management. Hurst did not take the traditional route into management but rather worked his way up from the bottom growing and developing with each job he took. It would have been easy for him just to take a backroom job with the club he had spent nearly he whole professional career playing for but instead he did something quite unusual.
He opted to become joint manager alongside Rob Scott at Derbyshire side Ilkeston Town. It was an interesting yet inspirational move for Hurst and one that brought great success to the club. In their first season at the helm Ilkeston were promoted to the Conference North. Hurst and Scott had only taken over in January at which point the club were sitting 9th in the table. They led them to a 2nd place finish and went up via the play-offs.
In the summer of 2009 there were a number of rumours about whether the pair would remain in charge due to the precarious financial situation that Ilkeston were in and in the end Scott and Hurst joined Lincolnshire outfit, Boston United. It was a step backwards to go forwards as the club were in the Northern Premier League but again Hurst helped steer the club to a treble, winning promotion via the play-offs again as well as the Lincolnshire Senior Cup and the Northern Premier League Challenge Cup.
By this point the success the pair were having was starting to attract attention from many professional clubs but I suspect that the unorthodox practise of having joint bosses put many sides of approaching them for their services.
Cue John Fenty and Grimsby Town! The East Lincolnshire outfit had been playing poorly and had also been terribly inconsistent. Neil Woods was relieved of his duties and this led to Scott and Hurst resigning from their posts at Boston and being announced the joint managers at Grimsby the following morning. It was their big break and taking on a side that had huge potential but needed a lot of work was just the challenge that the pair needed.
In the first couple of season there was little progress as two 11th place finishes were secured but then in 2012-13 there was a vast improvement and it could have been a lot better for the Mariners as they were in contention for automatic promotion for much of the season only to end up finishing 4th and losing to Newport County in the Play-off Semi Finals.
In early September 2013 Rob Scott was suspended by the club and then sacked two weeks later for gross misconduct, leaving Hurst in sole charge. The relationship between Hurst and Scott had always appeared amicable with Hurst considered the quiet, meticulous planner and Scott the more vociferous motivator but the later also had a reputation as a bit of a hot head which likely contributed to his dismissal.
Hurst took the chances of solo management, accepting an improved, a leading The Mariners to a fourth place finish in 2013-14 but again saw his side fall short in the play-offs, this time against Gateshead. What he had to deal with was the continual loss of key players either to injury or being sold to bigger clubs yet he managed to always find a way to keep the side competing with the top sides in the Conference National. His philosophy was simple yet effective. Build a side around a core group of key players and improve year on year. The likes of James McKeown, Shaun Pearson and Craig Disley were solid long term term players that Hurst could depend on and coupled with Hurst’s ability to pick out a gem in the transfer market he made Grimsby from also rans into contenders.
During his time at Grimsby Hurst brought in the likes of Toto Nsiala, Padraig Amond, Omar Bogle and Lanell John-Lewis all of who were key in the Mariners return to the Football League. The side finished 3rd in the 2014-15 season and this time managed to reach the play-off final only to lose to Bristol Rovers but in 2015-16 he took his side to the play-off final again and this time was victorious, beating Forest Green Rovers 3-1!
Finally Hurst had achieved his goal of returning Grimsby to the Football League even when some of the clubs fans were starting to air their doubts in their manager. Hurst had gone about the task with a quiet confidence but when the opportunity to take over at League One Shrewsbury came about in October 2016 he jumped at the chance and proceeded to steer the Shropshire side away from relegation, finishing just 2 points ahead of relegated side Port Vale.
With his first summer in front of him Hurst took the side to Portugal for a training camp and his recruitment drive began. He brought in players that he had worked with before such as Dean Henderson, a young Goalkeeper on loan from Manchester United, Lanell John-Lewis came in as well as the likes of Stephan Payne, Omar Beckles, Michael Bolton, Jon Nolan and Ben Godfrey. Many of these players were not house hold names but Hurst knew what he was doing and knew the kind of players he was brining in.
The season started with a 1-0 at home to Northampton and was followed up with wins at Wimbledon and then back home against Rochdale. A trip to Oxford was seen as their first real test and yet not only did they come away from Oxfordshire with a point but they in fact outplayed their hosts for large portions of the match and should have won it.
What was clear was that Hurst was organised and also able to get the best out of his players. Alex Rodman and Toto Nsiala were notoriously inconsistent before joining Hurst at Shrewsbury but with a summer under their belts they looked like new players. Nsiala has been exceptional so far and Rodman is a constant threat, contributing with a couple of vital goals to boot.
Wins at Gillingham and then a 1-0 win over title favourite and League One heavy weights Wigan compounded all pre-season predictions, many of which, and I include D3D4’s in this, had them struggling at the bottom! Far from it and it has just got better and better as Salop beat Southend at a wet and windy New Meadow before beating Oldham, a side playing with new impetus, 2-1 at Boundary Park with Stephan Payne in inspirational form. Payne has currently got the best goals to minutes ratio outside the top flight and with the way the Shrews are playing at the moment you feel the striker could have a 20 goal + season ahead of him.
Long term there is already talk of Hurst being a target of those further up the Football League ladder but knowing the man that he is he will not let any of this talk turn his head or let himself get carried away. With the Shrews sitting an amazing 5 points clear at the top of League One with 7 wins and a draw in their first 8 games things could hardly have started better for the club. Another test in Blackburn Rovers lies ahead but for now for all those fans of the club from the centre of Shropshire I say, sit back and enjoy the ride, it will be something that you will never forget!
words James Richards