Matt Maher: Former Aston Villa and Walsall striker Darren Byfield looks to come full circle with Wembley return

As a player Darren Byfield’s Wembley experience was a blur, 14 frantic minutes in a professional career which spanned two decades.

Walsall Chronicle 31 May 2001 Walsall v Reading at Cardiff  Darren Byfield celebrates his extra time winner with Matt Gadsby and Ian Brightwell
Walsall Chronicle 31 May 2001 Walsall v Reading at Cardiff Darren Byfield celebrates his extra time winner with Matt Gadsby and Ian Brightwell

As a manager, it has the potential to be far more precious and profound. Should Byfield’s Walsall Wood team win at Warrington Rylands on Saturday in the semi-finals of the FA Vase and a week later he will lead them out at the home of English football.

“There is nothing better than playing but you get a lot more satisfaction from managing,” he says.

“That’s why reaching Wembley would mean so much more now because really, this isn’t about me. When you are a player everything revolves around you. Yes, we always say it is a team game but ultimately everyone is looking for their own plaudits.

“I would love to take this team to Wembley but it is more for them than me. I’m going to do everything I can to help get them there.”

Former striker Byfield is proud of a playing career which began at Villa, took in a further 16 clubs and delivered countless memories, not least his winning goal for Walsall in the 2001 Division Two play-off final at Cardiff’s Millennium Stadium.

It was six years on from that moment he would get his one taste of Wembley as part of a Bristol City squad aiming to reach the Premier League through the Championship play-offs. Byfield was introduced as a 76th-minute substitute as the Robins attempted, in vain, to cancel out the 1-0 advantage given to Hull City by Dean Windass’ famous volley.

“It was over in the blink of an eye,” he recalls. “I remember the atmosphere, the desire to get on and help the team.

“I missed one chance by an inch or two. Another got blocked. Emotions were all over the place. We were desperate to go up.”

More than a third of Byfield’s 482 first-team appearances were off the bench and he factors in the experience of being a substitute when developing his own man-management skills.

“When you are a sub you always want to make an impact but even if you do you never feel totally fulfilled,” he says. “I speak to my players all the time now, making sure they still feel involved in the team effort.”

Learning how to deliver his message has, Byfield admits, provided the steepest learning curve in the five years since he first decided to take the plunge into management at Redditch United.

It is a journey which to this point has as many ups as downs, including two sackings – at Redditch and Alvechurch – and one agonisingly close call when Walsall Wood missed out on promotion from the Midland League Premier Division on goal difference.

For Byfield, the biggest adjustment was dealing with part-time players who would arrive at training after a full day of work elsewhere.

“Honestly, I cringe when I look back at how I was at the start,” he says. “I was way too hard on people.

“I grew up at Villa with coaches that were on another level, on your case constantly. It is the same as if your parents were hard on you bringing you up, it is easy to be hard on your kids. It can be tough to break the cycle.

“Don’t get me wrong, Kevin MacDonald was probably the best coach I ever had. But what you find is when you start your own management career you revert to that.

“It is easy to say ‘well, it didn’t do me any harm’ but there are other ways of doing it. This generation, you have to be calmer with them. I still expect my players to give me their all but I also appreciate they have worries away from football.

“Whereas five years ago I would be aggressive with them, now it is about building a relationship. I need to know what makes them tick.”

Starting his management career in non-league was always the plan for Byfield, such was the desire, in his words, to “get his hands dirty”.

The 44-year-old’s long-term aspirations, admittedly, are higher. In December he began a two-year contract at Northampton Town as part of the Premier League, EFL and PFA charity’s professional player to coach scheme, which aims to increase the number of black and Asian players moving into full-time coaching roles.

“It has been great, superb,” says Byfield, who also spent time last year back at Villa shadowing under-18 bosses Mark Delaney and George Boateng.

“I’ll get to work with all of Northampton’s teams. At the moment I am with the U18s and it is another chance to learn.

“I’m proud of my playing career. But I believe if I had been a non-league player who then went into the league, to Villa, I would have appreciated it a lot more and given a lot more, every day.

“I wanted my coaching and management to be better than my playing career. Going to non-league as a coach has been tough. I’ve been sacked a couple of times. But you get on with it. I always look at things now and think OK, what could I have done better?

“In terms of the future it is similar to when I played and people would ask me how many goals I wanted to score that season?

“The response was always I haven’t got a target and if I did I wouldn’t be telling anyone.

“I want to manage at the top, I really do. But I am enjoying what I am doing and I want to see where it takes me.”

The next stop is Warrington for his biggest game in management to date. Walsall Wood enter the tie as underdogs, with the hosts having knocked out holders Hebburn in last weekend’s quarter-final.

The route to the last four has been far from orthodox for any club, with the Vase suspended for more than three months during the third national lockdown. Though there were serious doubts at one stage as to whether the competition could be completed Byfield urged his players to stay in shape, asking them to post videos of their individual running sessions before group training resumed in late March.

“We played Hednesford in a friendly first up and we were way off it, which is what I expected,” he explains. “Since then we have just kept getting better and better.”

Despite the magnitude of the occasion, Byfield will keep the build-up as normal as possible. The squad will train as normal tonight, before travelling north on Saturday morning.

“Yes, it is a bigger game than normal,” he says. “But if you start changing things this late on that’s when players can get scared.

“The routine has served us pretty well till now so we will be sticking with it.

“Getting past the quarter-finals was huge. The club had never got so far before so these boys have already made history.

“But we aren’t going to be happy now just reaching the semi-finals. These boys might never hit the professional game. They might never get this close to Wembley again.

“This could be their big chance and I have to do everything I can to make sure they are prepared. If we get to Wembley it will all be down to their hard work.”

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