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'Retiring without officially retiring, I guess!' - Joe Davis' new seat at a familiar table

Port Vale FC

A new club this season for Joe Davis, and his side currently sit three points off the top of the table, with two games in hand. He lives just about as close by as you could wish, and he’s also been able to slot right into the club environment. The only slightly crucial difference this time around for the former Port Vale and Fleetwood Town defender, though, is that he isn't a player - he's head of media at AFC Fylde.

While moving from playing into media involvement is one of the most natural progressions in the game, to actually be a club press officer - and at 27, so soon after playing professionally - is not one you hear of too often. In this extended conversation, Joe gives his take on growing up with a Football League defender (and later on, manager) as a dad, playing under former international players, and being at the club who completed the most improbable of Premier League title wins, the very season they did it. There is also ‘the worst sound in football’, and plenty more besides, but we start with an adeptly-timed jump into the unfamiliar for the long-time centre-half...


Firstly, you've been more than busy with the Fylde job, but as we speak now, would you be quite content to not play again? Or is there a slight ‘well...maybe’?

I think at the moment, it’s very much not, only because of the commitment that I’ve got to AFC Fylde, and obviously what that job entails, the hours; I don’t think it’d be feasible to do both. I’m just enjoying the position that I’m in at the moment now really, and seeing where that goes more than anything. Trying to get my head into that and into a different mindset, I guess, because it’s obviously completely different to playing. Retiring without officially retiring, I guess!

Had you been considering using your studies to actually work for a club, or did this job just come up and you thought ‘actually, why not?’?

Yeah, the latter really, it was completely out of the blue. I’m doing a Professional Sports Writing degree through the PFA at the moment, so I’m only a year into that, going into my second year now. I live in Lytham St Annes, so Fylde for me is only a ten-minute drive. When it came up, I saw it online, got in touch and they were fairly fast to come back to me really. I think what helped me with it was I’d been writing for the Blackpool Gazette, I had a column in that, and I think the chairman had spotted that and sort of put my name forward. I was always interested in going down that route when I started doing the course, so I was quite fortunate to get into that whilst studying.

Press officers/media staff are obviously closely connected to the team and management because they’re at the heart of your job. Has it been surreal being that close to a first-team environment this season but from an entirely different vantage point?

The strangest thing has probably been the fact that I’ve played with three of the players; I played with Nick Haughton, Chris Neal and Nathan Pond at Fleetwood. When it was day one and I turned up, it was ‘what are you doing here?’ sort of thing. It was a bit different but I think that experience as a player has helped me in the environment. That’s probably something that people struggle with, when they’ve not had a taste of it before, trying to adapt to that side of it, the pace of that environment, the ruthlessness of it, I guess. So I found that pretty easy, slotting into that. Jim Bentley’s been fantastic with me, the manager. I didn’t really know him prior to coming in; I knew him from playing against his teams. He’s been great with me, (assistant manager) Nick Chadwick and (performance analyst) Andy Taylor have been as well, and Jonty Castle, the chief exec, has really looked after me. The environment for me has been perfect to come straight into, so that’s been really pleasing, but I do think the experiences as a player have helped me more than anything.

I was going to ask about that actually. Is there anything you feel you can bring that’s unique because of having been the player yourself? Whether it's reading the mood of people before getting them on camera, knowing if a media request is likely to be good for that player and the club etc.?

I think what I’ve been able to bring is the angle of the player, so when I go to speak to a player or the manager – more so a player – I know exactly how they’ll be feeling. Maybe post-game, I know that it’s a tricky sort of time, so I know the questions that they’ll want me to ask and what they won’t want, and because I can predict the sort of answers that I’ll be getting, I can go in there with the questions that I’d want, from that perspective. There’s loads of things that I’ve had to learn, which is the press side of things, which you don’t get to see when you’re a player. I’m sort of going in there with the perspective of an ex-player, and I think that’s helped with building relationships with the lads, and with them maybe respecting my opinion on some things as well, maybe after a game when we speak about how it’s gone. Little things like that, just from being in the dressing room, knowing the environment, I think that’s helped massively.

I've had differing experiences of press officers over the years, from different levels/countries, and while there's always circumstances to try and consider, over time, you can see the ones who really do want to help. Others just aren’t that helpful, or even polite in some cases, and it hugely shapes the impression you take away of not just that person but the club. With that in mind, have you thought about the kind of person you want to be in this role?

Yeah, of course. I always try to respond. We get a lot of requests for work experience, volunteers, stuff like that, and I think at this level, it’s important that you get those kind of people on board that are willing to chip in. You build good relationships with the local universities and things like that, so I’ve tried to be somebody that responds, first and foremost, and gives opportunities to people like that. We’ve got a lot of people on match days who volunteer, so it’s managing those people as well, and giving them the opportunity to get involved. I think that’s important, specifically in non-league. In terms of me and the role, networking’s really important, so I’ve tried to use my contacts to get little pieces of advice from people that I know. My dad (former Crewe Alexandra manager Steve Davis) obviously works at Wolves (as Under-18 head coach), so I’ve had a lot of conversations with the head of media there. Things like that, just to get some advice, some new ideas and perspective of how they do things, obviously with it being my first role.

Right, let’s switch back, Joe Davis the there a spell you look back on as a player that's felt the happiest/most complete time?

Well, when I look back, I always think I should have played more games. I should have been a bit more consistent, because when I look at the seasons I played in, I probably never really had a settled run, whether that was through injury, change of management. My happiest time was definitely at Fleetwood, I would say, in my first year, when I was playing my best football. I’d just moved into the area, so I had the excitement of settling into somewhere new, and the manager showed a lot of faith in me, Steven Pressley at the time. Unfortunately, it didn’t last too long (Pressley leaving in July 2016), and that’s probably where my development sort of stopped at Fleetwood, because I was in and out of the team, but that was certainly the time where I felt happiest. Also my promotion to League One with Port Vale, when I was sort of the young lad being around that environment, and the same at Leicester, when I was in the 23s when they won the (Premier) league. I think when you’re around those dressing rooms when they’re successful, they’re always the happiest. It was a good bunch at Luton as well, I should mention that. I was only there for a month, but that’s probably the biggest time where I grew up as a player, going and living down there on my own. We ended up getting promoted with that team; Andre Gray, Alfie Mawson were all there at that time, John Still was the manager.

Well, tell me about John Still. With a manager that experienced, the label that instantly gets put to them is 'old-school'. What did you find with him?

He was old-school in terms of playing style, he wouldn’t want you to mess around with it at the back, but in terms of his man-management style, it was a million miles above everyone else. He took me under his wing a little bit, because I was on my own in the hotel and he used to come and visit after games and we’d have a pint in reception, stuff like that. He was like a fatherly figure for a lot of the lads and he was brilliant with me right from day one. When I got recalled by Port Vale, it was because they were struggling with injuries, and I went straight into the squad against Brentford, and I remember him ringing me before the game to wish me all the best, to keep doing what I’d been doing for him and I’d be fine, and if I got chance to go back he’d bring me back. Little things like that, that he didn’t have to do, I think they stay with you.

You also mentioned Steven Pressley, was there a manager that stood out as the one who was most in tune with the kind of approach that you feel gets the best out of you?

Yeah, Steven Pressley, 100 per cent. I think the way he liked to play football suited me; I was someone who liked to get the ball down and play out from the back. He was certainly in tune with that, so I fitted into his style straight away, and his management style, too. When you weren’t playing, he’d pull you in and he’d tell you why, and there’s not too many managers who actually do that, as basic as it sounds. He was just really open and wanted to develop you. He’d pull you after training and give you little tips of where you need to improve, and also know when to put his arm around you and tell you how good you are. I think his management style suited me, it was just a shame that it didn’t last as long as I probably would have liked it to. Uwe Rösler was good; he was completely different, a sort of disciplinarian. He was really structured and he’d spend hours doing tactics. You’d certainly see the improvement of your training and performance levels, even though it was a lot different, and at times, long hours. Micky Adams was good when I was coming through; he’s probably the perfect person to come through under. He was the same, really strict but gave me my first chance, so he’s someone that I always look back on and appreciate.

I want to ask about the dynamic, in a football sense, between you and your dad. Your brother (current Morecambe defender Harry Davis) as well. I remember Peter Schmeichel talking about asking Kasper when he was younger 'do you want me to be your dad or your coach?' and Kasper saying he just wanted him to be his dad. Growing up and getting into football, progressing into becoming a pro yourself, would your dad always be giving you feedback or would he separate it and leave you to it?

It was probably easier for me than my brother, with him being actually at Crewe under him. That was probably a more challenging dynamic and one that they had to manage, but for me, he was always my dad. As we grew up, he was never really a pushy parent, football-wise or anything like that. He’d leave us to it and wouldn’t put any pressure on us, which I appreciated, because I know other parents aren’t like that. You obviously had the game where we were all involved (Port Vale v Crewe, February 2014), that was a different experience, but he’s always been good with us, to be fair.

What are your earliest memories of football, in terms of being around it at a pro level, watching on as a kid? Does anything instantly come to mind?

Yeah, growing up, it was always travelling around watching my dad, so my first memory is probably watching him at Barnsley. I think my most vivid memories growing up were when he was Northwich Vics and Nantwich Town manager. So just travelling around with him, on the team coach, and going to all these non-league grounds, waiting around for the final whistle so I could go on and kick a ball around on the pitch! Little things like that, and I think they were probably some of the happiest memories of my childhood really, just doing that with my brother and getting to see all these grounds and games, and feeling a part of the football club, even though you’re not really. Just travelling around, it was brilliant.

Signing for Leicester (in 2014), are you integrated much with the first team? Are you having any interaction at all with Nigel Pearson, Craig Shakespeare, Claudio Ranieri even?

Leicester was really good for that. They really integrate the 23s with the first team, so you spend a lot of time doing tactics, set-pieces, shape with the lads before a game. Nigel Pearson, Ranieri used to do that, get the 23s to act as the opposition really. So it was good, I felt a part of it. Whether I ever thought I would play is a different story, but they really do integrate you well there. You’re in with the lads, you share the same gym, the canteen, so you’re always around it, and being there that year was amazing really, just being a part of the culture, if you like, that ran throughout the club. Watching them go against all the odds and win the league was fantastic to see.

Were there any memorable bits in training? Maybe going up against Mahrez, Vardy, Kanté?!

Yeah, well I remember pulling my groin trying to catch Jamie Vardy! We were doing a shape session and he’s ran in behind, and as I’ve tried to catch him, I just felt my groin twang! I got on well with some of the pros; Danny Drinkwater was someone who was good with me and a few of the lads, he used to pass his boots down to me. There was a really good vibe between the first-team lads and the 23s, it was really connected, which was good for us, our development, and has certainly helped us moving forward.

Any especially memorable individual battles you've had in your career with opponents?

When I was at Leicester, we had some good games, because with the 23s, you get the pros coming and playing down, if they’re coming back from injury or suspension. So I came up against Robin van Persie at Man United. When I was at Port Vale, Luis Suárez as well at Liverpool. So when I think back to players I’ve played against, I always think about those times. One of the best players I played against was Jack Grealish when he was at Notts County on loan. He was fantastic that day; I think we conceded five and he was at the heart of everything that they did. He had his socks down, he looked like he had no shin pads on, fake tan on – everyone was trying to get near him to kick him but couldn’t! He was brilliant on the day and it’s no surprise he’s playing for England now.

What kind of opponents would Van Persie and Suárez be, in that kind of a game? Would they be saying anything to you?!

I was always one to try and not get involved, because I remember when I was younger, it might have been Cole Stockton at Tranmere, I grew up playing against him. He was always a mouthy one and I used to try and get involved, and he’d score or come out on top! I remember on the car journey home, my dad saying ‘don’t get involved, because it always comes back to bite you,’ and they were words that stuck with me really. Van Persie and Suárez were quiet really; I think they probably didn’t wanna be there, to be honest!

Any teammates you've felt a particularly strong understanding with?

I had a good partnership with Nathan Pond at Fleetwood. I think we complimented each other really well; he was the big bruiser who went and headed everything, and I swept up and got on the ball. We get on really well off the pitch as well, and obviously, I’m with him now at Fylde, he’s captain there. He’s someone that I would always comment on when someone asks me that question.

In terms of standout characters you've been around, who comes to mind, as examples?

Tom Pope at Port Vale, Gary Roberts as well. I was a young lad coming into that dressing room as well, so it was a massive eye-opener really, going straight into that! It was good because I had to grow up really fast, when you’re in and around that, because if you’ve not got a hard shell, it can knock you back when you’re a young lad. They were brilliant with me, both of them.

Have you ever had to sing when you've joined a team, and if so, which song(s) have you gone for?

Oh yeah, five or six times, it’s horrendous. I sang Craig David at Luton; it went down like a lead balloon, so I sacked that one off! I sang Jack Johnson ‘Better Together’ because it was an easy one. I think if you’ve got one where there’s a lot of words in it, you’re alright; if you’ve got gaps in the song, you’ve got that awkward silence and it’s horrendous. That’s still the worst sound in football, when the fork hits the glass to do your initiation! I’m glad I don’t have to do that now; they tried to get me to do that here actually, but I managed to wriggle out of that.

Away from football, family too of course, what other interests do you have or are you involved with?

It’s a good question really because I spent most of my time working and being a dad at the moment! I’ve got a little girl who’s two, so I spend a lot of time running after her and trying to control her! The thing that you struggle with when coming away from football is knowing what to do; because you spend all your time in football, you don’t probably spend enough time discovering other interests like that away from it. I think that’s why a lot of people struggle with the transition really. It’s been an eye-opener, this period, just seeing day-to-day life, and being out of that bubble. Being out of the dressing room and not being home at 2 o’clock with your feet up; it’s not real life really when you’re in it. It’s just adapting to that, I think.

Finally, reflecting on all the game's taught you up to now, good and bad, what advice would you give to the Joe Davis who was on his way up at Vale?

What I did at Port Vale and when I was younger was probably overthink things and not really switch off. I was always thinking about something as simple as giving the ball away just before half-time, and I’d always be thinking about the game. When you look back now, it all seems really petty, to worry about different things, but I probably have no regrets in terms of my career. I’m happy where I’m at now and I think I’m glad I made the decision to be proactive in terms of getting on the ladder in my next step in my career. I probably wouldn’t really change anything or tell myself to do anything different, because I thoroughly enjoyed everything and I’m happy with where I am at the moment.

Interview by @chris_brookes

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