Sheffield United: Nick Montgomery on Central Coast Mariners, Barcelona and becoming a manager

Seated in the executive box of Sydney’s Accor Stadium, surrounded by some of the greatest names in Australian and Catalan sport, Nick Montgomery paused for a moment to take in his surroundings before concentrating on the football.

Sunday, 26th June 2022, 12:01 pm

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Down there on the pitch, located a long pass below him inside the cavernous bowl which dominates the city’s Olympic Park, three members of the Central Coast Mariners team he once played for and now manages were busy locking horns with Barcelona in front of more than 70,000 fans. Jason Cummings caused them problems. So too did Kye Rowles, taking part in his last match ahead of a transfer to Heart of Midlothian. And when Garang Kuol entered the fray at the beginning of the second period, it completed a remarkable hat-trick for both Montgomery and a squad he has transformed into one of the most talked about Down Under.

“Even Xavi, Barca’s manager, said one of our guys was special,” Montgomery says, the pride still evident in his voice a month later. “Think about it, someone like Xavi coming out with that.

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“To see our lads out there, against people like Ousmane Dembele, was wonderful. And two of them we’ve brought through the system, which makes it even more special. They were even winning at one stage, before losing 3-2.”

The A League All Stars game marked the culmination of a remarkable season for Montgomery and the Mariners, who finished fifth in the table despite possessing the lowest budget in the competition. But it isn’t simply the former Sheffield United midfielder’s ability to beat the financial odds which have attracted rave reviews during his first full campaign as a head coach. Previously in charge of the Mariners’ youth programme, Montgomery is also building a reputation as a developer of young talent. Last term saw him hand more minutes to academy graduates than any other side in the country; a figure bettered by only 16 other clubs in the world.

“I think it’s given us a personality, made us pretty unique, the focus on development. It’s brought an identity to what we do. I’d worked with the academy and that convinced me the lads would be good enough if they were given an opportunity. So that’s what we did. The academy had been restructured and we’d developed the scouting aspect. So we brought them in. But they surrounded a core of really good experienced professionals.”

Former Sheffield United midfielder Nick Montgomery is now manager of Central Coast Mariners: Tony Feder/Getty Images

Montgomery made 398 appearances for United before leaving Bramall Lane 10 years ago. The overwhelming majority of those came under Neil Warnock, a master at getting the best out of previously wayward individuals. Having helped Cummings, previously of Nottingham Forest and Scotland, get back on the straight and narrow, it appears Montgomery shares some of his old boss’ traits. As well as being happy to promote from within, also bringing the likes of Phil Jagielka, Michael Tonge and Stephen Quinn through the system, Warnock was skilled at getting the best out of sometimes wayward performers.

“He’s got the ability to be whatever he wants to be,” Montgomery says of Cummings; a player whose career has often been blighted by off-the-pitch issues. “Seriously, that’s the talent Jason has got.

“He’s showing that now, He’s been brilliant for me. I just told him to knuckle down and concentrate on his football. That’s what he did. And he’s done the rest. He’s showing people now.”

Nick Montgomery celebrates helping Sheffield United reach the Premier League with his former team mate Phil Jagielka

“In a way, it’s harking back to my time with United,” Montgomery adds. “It was the same set up then, with people coming through and then helping the younger ones themselves. Seeing people like Harry (Maguire) and Kyle (Walker) develop and go on to represent England - brilliant. They were encouraged, not dropped if they made a mistake.”

Despite being based halfway around the world, it can surely only be a matter of time before Montgomery’s name starts to be mentioned in European boardrooms. Maybe recognizing this, the Mariners recently awarded him a new long term contract. But if Montgomery does harbour ambitions to eventually work in England - maybe one day taking charge of United - he is keeping them under-wraps. A decade since leaving South Yorkshire, the 40-year and his family are happy, settled and satisfied with their lot on Australia’s eastern seaboard. Nevertheless, Montgomery still keeps abreast of events in the Steel City where, after losing to Forest in the play-off semi-finals last term, Paul Heckingbottom and his squad are busy preparing for the new Championship season.

“I watched it on television. I was gutted that the boys didn’t win it. I was desperate for a win and thought they deserved it, winning the second leg at their place. But the first, I thought they just let it get away a bit.”

Nick Montgomery, pictured in action for Sheffield United, has built an exciting young squad in Australia

Montgomery began implementing his vision for the Mariners immediately after being appointed 11 months ago. Together with Sergio Raimundo, who he had met on a UEFA coaching course, the former midfielder set about building a squad which connected with supporters.

“The previous coach left because he felt we didn’t have the money to compete. Our first game, against Newcastle Jets, was a derby and we won. It was a proud moment, especially knowing your team had been helped through by the fans who really bought into them.

“The adrenaline, knowing you’re responsible, was so strong. You do all the preparation but, when it starts, there’s only so much you can do. Now I know why Neil was so stressed all the time.”

A fearsome competitor during his own playing days, Montgomery believes constructing a team in his own redoubtable image can see the Mariners continue to make progress.

“All of them, including the young lads, they’ve got high-energy, intensity and they entertain - that’s important. But they also want to out-run and out-fight people. Teams know, if they’re up against us, that they’re going to have to work damn hard if they want to try and come away with anything.”

Nick Montgomery meets Sheffield United fans in 2005