Shrewsbury Town manager Paul Hurst is the man most recently linked to the managerial position at Sunderland recently vacated by the sacked Simon Grayson.
Sky Sports yesterday morning claimed that Hurst is ‘interested in the Sunderland manager's job’, according to their sources.
But what just can we expect from Hurst, a man that the vast majority of Sunderland supporters have little to no knowledge of?
He is an ambitious, young manager with a proven track record of dragging together teams low on confidence at the worst positions in their history, managing to efficiently galvanise and unify both the players and fan base, and achieve unprecedented and much-craved success.
He almost sounds too good to be true.
Sheffield-born Hurst was a left-back by trade, spending all of his career at Rotherham United bar a two-month loan spell at then Conference (National League) side Burton Albion in order to regain fitness in the twilight of his career. Playing 438 times for the Millers, Hurst is still to this day a club legend, and retired after being released at the end of the 2007-08 season.
While in the twilight of his Rotherham career, Hurst studied for a BA in Professional Sports Writing and Broadcasting at Staffordshire University and received his UEFA ‘A’ coaching license in 2014.
In January 2009, Hurst began his managerial career at Ilkeston Town as joint manager alongside former Rotherham teammate Rob Scott. They led the club to promotion from the Northern Premier League (now Evo-Stik Premier Disivion) into the Conference North via the playoffs. The club was struggling in mid-table when the pair took over, but they managed to push the side to finish second.
At the end of the season, Hurst and Scott moved on to Boston United, once again achieving promotion into the Conference North via the play-off final. This was just one success in a trophy-laden season for the Pilgrims, who secured a treble with victories in the Northern Premier Challenge Cup and Lincolnshire Senior Shield.
They took over just after Boston’s double relegation - a trubulent moment whereby the side lost their status as a Football League club. However, Hurst helped reverse their faltering fortunes, and it wasn’t a one off.
The pair then moved to Grimsby Town in March 2011. There they replaced sacked manager Neil Woods after his team were relegated into Non-League football for the first time in their history after 117 consecutive years in the Football League.
The team were low on confidence and struggling near the bottom of the Conference - sounds familiar, right?
Hurst and Scott kept Grimsby up and finished eleventh for two consecutive seasons, stabilising the club. Ross Hardie, a lifelong Grimsby fan believes this stands Hurst apart from many other managers linked with the Sunderland vacancy:
I don't think you should look at it as 'too big of a job’ - Hurst took control of Grimsby during the worst period in the club's history after being manager of a club lower down the pyramid. He took the step up and created a positive atmosphere within the club.
There is no reason he can't do the same for Sunderland. You show the same symptoms that we did in 2011; a club who have fallen into disrepair due to poor finances and decision making, laden with overpaid veterans who don't care, and a rightfully apathetic support who are obviously annoyed at the state of the club.
He's been there before and I think it's better getting someone who has rather than a former Premier League manager who doesn't understand these issues.
The season after, the Mariners finished fourth but lost out to Newport County in the play-off semi-finals. Joint manager Rob Scott was suspended from the club in September 2013, leaving Hurst in charge, and was eventually sacked from the club for gross misconduct. Yet, from here on out Hurst remained as sole manager, and lead the club to fourth, third and fourth place finishes. That following season, however, Hurst finally guided his side back into the Football League at the fourth time of asking after defeating Forest Green Rovers 3-1 at Wembley in the playoff final.
During this time, Hurst also led the side to Wembley on two more occasions in the FA Trophy, but lost both finals. Hardie had this to say on Hurst’s time as a whole at Grimsby:
Hurst is a positive, young manager who would do wonders at the club... he’s a great man manager, and his players run through walls for him.
Mind, he is very stuck in his ways; it's plan A, and if plan A doesn't work, try plan A again. He creates strong defensive teams. If he does sign, you're not gonna be scoring five goals every game, but the defensive shape is usually great.
His sides can become complacent against 'lesser' teams. We'd go on a good run of form and then lose away at 'Insert Joke Team in the conference here'. He left us because we wouldn't expand our coaching staff (it was needed) and given the support he's smashed it.
I think he'd be great just don't expect “tiki-taka” football.
And on his track-record in the transfer market:
He is a great recruiter, he'll sign someone pwho you think is useless, and that person will become solid and a key part of the team.
For Sunderland, Imagine him buying someone who's 25 and playing in League 1 and he ends up scoring 27 goals next year. That type of signing epitomised his time at Blundell Park.
Despite finishing in the playoffs for four consecutive seasons, his side could not quite reach automatic promotion, but, according to Hardie this isn’t a concern:
He was very comfortable reaching the playoffs every year and didn't really worry about finishing top because a top five team will have a great chance in the National League. It’s easier to qualify automatically in the Championship than the National League with the increased automatic places.
Hurst led Grimsby for the start of their return back to League Two, but in October 2016 accepted a role to take over as manager of Shrewsbury Town following the departure of Micky Mellon to Tranmere Rovers.
At the time of taking over, Shrewsbury sat rock-bottom of League One and Hurst was given the remit of steering the club away from a potentially disastrous relegation from the Football League.
He subsequently managed to pull the club out of the relegation places for the first time in January 2017, and eventually finished in eighteenth place, two points clear of relegation.
It is this current season, however, in which his work has been truly remarkable. Hurst transformed his Shrewsbury side - looking to Non-League and former side Grimsby for players - and this season has led them to the summit of League One.
Shrewsbury are a point ahead of Wigan at the top-of-the-table, winning eleven games from sixteen, losing just once - last week away to Peterborough United without first-choice central defenders Mat Sadler and Junior Brown.
Paul’s effect on the club has been unbelievable really. Firstly, he pulled off his first miracle rescuing us from six points adrift at the foot of the table and all but down in early January. With a few shrewd buys, hard work and some swagger at times he pulled us clear to stay up with a game to spare. No-one thought we had a prayer, but his methods paid off immediately with a massive resurgence in home form.
Then he got a summer transfer window and a bit of backing and proceeded in building a solid and effective League One team. The bookies were not impressed and we were duly installed as relegation favourites. As soon as this season kicked off, we knew we had a special team assembled. Fit, fighting and passionate, the lads put together a league best 15 games unbeaten start of the season, most of them wins. That was his second miracle, one more and he can be canonised a saint by the Vatican. Saint Paul of Shrewsbury!
He’s been in the job now for a year, and it would be hard to argue against it having been the best calendar year a Shrewsbury town manager has ever had in terms of performance and improvement.
His impression is clear for all fans to see, and he has certainly transformed the aspirations of a Shrewsbury side low on confidence. But what just could we expect from his side on the pitch? Price had his say on Hurst’s style-of-play:
Hurst is pragmatist and his style has been adapted to best suit the tools he has. When he came in and we were struggling and he went 4-4-2 every week and got the basics right. We tightened up and then eventually started scoring. It was effective.
Over the summer he evolved, with better players and some of the gaps plugged from the year before he has started this season playing 4-5-1. He likes to dominate the midfield, and sets his teams up to play on the break. It’s been devastating. We like to hold the ball and play. It’s not long ball, its crafted with purpose and its pleasing on the eye.
We have taken apart some of the divisions “big teams” with this flowing style of football and played some magical stuff. When up against the “bus-parkers” he adapts, throws another man up top and keeps banging away until we find a way through, even if like many times this season it’s been very very late. He is pro-active and makes subs when we need it and even throws in the odd different tactic to put other mangers off. He’s wiley.
Clearly, Hurst has evolved and learned from his stint at Grimsby. I think every Sunderland fan would agree that his playing style and defensive organisation would be a huge benefit to Sunderland - especially after suffering through Simon Grayson’s total lack of tactical acumen or ability to organise a defence. But, just how much is in the reports?
It’s interesting. It’s not been a case of Sunderland wanting Hurst it seems, but more of the side that Hurst would be interested in taking over. Whether that’s his agent talking or some media site putting two-and-two together and getting five, who knows. But we should get used to it, the job he’s doing is amazing and he’s highly rated.
If he does not go to Sunderland he will go elsewhere before the start of next season. He’s ambitious and does not lack for self-confidence. He’s a Sheffield lad, so it’s likely when one of those clubs comes up for grabs, which with their recent records won’t be long, he might still make a move to a Championship side, maybe one with a position even better than that of Sunderland’s currently. He would be like getting a young Eddie Howe or Sean Dyche now if you get him.
David Moyes was the epitome of dour, while Grayson was both honest and open, yet totally uninspiring. Here are Price’s thoughts on Hurst as a manager:
He’s intelligent and has a media degree so works that side of the game well. Personally. I have met him a few times now and can say he’s a thoroughly decent bloke, funny and charming in person; he’s got time for everyone and has been a breath of fresh air.
I honestly don’t think he would fear the prospect of managing a big club like Sunderland. If you want committed players, someone not afraid to say what needs to be said and get them to do things his way, Hurst’s your man. He’s played and managed hundreds of games, he knows the game and he always has a plan. All that can let him down are the players, but we have yet to see evidence of that.
Hurst himself spoke out on the rumoured links earlier today in his pre-match press conference ahead of the weekend. He was coy on the rumours, claiming that he had no knowledge of any Sunderland interest. However, he did acknowledge his ambition to move up the leagues:
I take it as a compliment. If you are bottom of the league, I am sure you wouldn't even be linked with it. I have got a job to do here.
I'm ambitious, I want to manage as high as possible. But you can't help speculation. It's very much mind on the job in hand.
From his overall response you can tell he is a savvy operator and clearly has learned how to deal well with the media from his degree and experience.
Some fans have outright questioned and even mocked the links to Hurst; however, it is plain to see he is exactly the type of character we need right now - experienced in galvanising down-trodden players, fan bases and clubs, and transforming them into successful, ball-playing sides with a clear identity.
His record thus far definitely reminds me of Eddie Howe, and he seems to be the sort of successful, ambitious and larger-than-life character that is exactly what we need in order to get out of this current mire. Whether or not he can make such a massive step up will be a giant question mark as we all know the previous manager could not, but such a fundamental change as Martin Bain implied in his statement regarding Grayson’s sacking may be worth the risk.