After Lincoln City legend Glenn Cockerill, new Bury manager Paul Wilkinson is the second footballer with a Louth connection to build a good career in the game. With over 600 appearances to his name as a player, it is somewhat surprising to see him signing his first managerial contract at the relatively late age of 54.
Starting his youth career with Clee Juniors, Wilkinson first became involved in the youth set-up of local club Grimsby Town in February 1980 prior to joining as an apprentice in the summer of 1981. Signing as a professional at the age of eighteen in November 1982, he scored once in four appearances as the side narrowly avoided relegation from the Second Division. A winless run of fourteen games at the end of that season did not bode well for 1983-84, but Grimsby defied the pessimists by producing their highest league placing since 1948. Wilkinson earned a place in the first team and stayed there, making thirty-seven appearances as Town finished fifth. Forming a key partnership up front with the experienced Kevin Drinkell, Wilkinson’s twelve league goals helped create an unbeaten run of sixteen games that included a Boxing Day home win over Sheffield Wednesday in front of over 16,000 at Blundell Park. Grimsby remained in contention for promotion right up to the penultimate game when a 2-1 defeat at Oldham ended their season.
Hopes were high for a repeat performance in 1984-85, and they made a great start. A 5-1 win over Wolves on 10 November saw Grimsby in fifth place. Wilkinson kept up his excellent scoring ratio, and on 20 November 1984, he scored a goal that proved pivotal in his career. In a League Cup fourth-round tie at Goodison Park, he headed a last-gasp winner against Everton, England’s top side at that time. It put him firmly in the shop window and it was Everton who snapped him up on 28 March 1985 for £250,000. Three days earlier he had made his debut for England U21, scoring once in a 3-2 win over Republic of Ireland. He made his Everton debut two days later as a substitute in a 2-1 win at Southampton and scored his first goal against Liverpool as they coasted to the League title by thirteen points over their Merseyside rivals. He also scored in the next game against Coventry, a surprising 4-1 defeat, as he sought to establish himself in what many believe to be the greatest team ever to appear for Everton. They also won the Cup Winners’ Cup with a 3-1 win over Rapid Vienna, and narrowly missed doing the double, losing 1-0 to Manchester United in the FA Cup Final. Although Wilkinson was not involved in either final, it was all great experience for the twenty-year-old striker.
Unfortunately, he struggled to become a fixture in a side containing Gary Lineker and Graeme Sharp, and made very few appearances in 1985-86 as Everton lost both the League title and the FA Cup Final to Liverpool. Wilkinson’s solitary goal came in a 4-3 win over QPR in a frustrating season. He also made his fourth and final appearance for England U21 in a 1-1 draw with Italy on 23 April. Wilkinson appeared far more regularly in 1986-87 as Everton reclaimed the First Division title and made a huge impact in the League Cup, scoring seven goals in three games including a hat-trick against Newport.
Despite a relatively good scoring record of eleven goals in twenty-eight games in 1986-87, he was sold to Brian Clough’s Nottingham Forest for £200,000 on 26 March 1987. Amusingly, the first thing Clough told Wilkinson to do was get a haircut. He made his debut two days later in a 2-0 defeat at Manchester United, and went on to make eight appearances without scoring as Forest finished eighth in the First Division. Wilkinson featured regularly in 1987-88, although he didn’t score his first goal for Forest until his seventeenth game for the club. He contributed seven goals in thirty-five appearances as Forest finished third in the table, and also appeared in the FA Cup semi-final defeat to Liverpool. That game turned out to be his final start for Forest as he was sold to Watford on 16 August 1988 for £300,000.
His three seasons at Vicarage Road revived a stuttering career. Watford had just been relegated from the First Division and made a very good attempt at bouncing straight back. Wilkinson finished top scorer with 21 as Watford finished fourth, securing a play-off place. Unfortunately, they lost on away goals to Blackburn in the semi-final and faced another season in the Second Division. The following season of 1989-90 proved a big disappointment as Watford sank to fifteenth, although Wilkinson finished top scorer again with 16. Watford struggled badly in 1990-91 and only avoided relegation by three points. Wilkinson hit a hat-trick against Wolves on 13 April, but defeat at Notts County three days later left them in the bottom two before a run of three wins and a draw took them to safety with a game to spare. A personal landmark for Wilkinson was finishing top scorer for the third successive season (18): that is a unique achievement in Watford’s history.
One day before the 1991-92 season began, Wilkinson was sold to Second Division rivals Middlesbrough for £500,000 plus a further £50,000 after fifty appearances. Boro had a great season under manager Lennie Lawrence, winning automatic promotion to the inaugural Premier League and reaching the semi-finals of the League Cup where they were beaten 2-1 on aggregate by Manchester United. The league produced huge drama on the final day where a win at mid-table Wolves was needed to secure the second and final promotion spot: with a minute to go, and despite being down to ten men for most of the second half, Wilkinson headed home a Jamie Pollock cross to give his side a 2-1 win and a place in the elite. He also finished top scorer with 24 in all competitions, a great return from his first season on Teeside.
Middlesbrough made an excellent start to life in the top flight in 1992-93, with Wilkinson achieving the distinction of scoring Boro’s first-ever Premier League goal on the opening day. Four wins from the first seven games took them to sixth in the table, but things deteriorated after that. Seven defeats from eight games in February and March left them in the bottom three, and they never looked like escaping. Relegation was confirmed despite a 3-2 win at Sheffield Wednesday in the penultimate game. A minor compensation for Wilkinson was becoming top scorer again with fifteen goals. This meant that he had earned the unusual distinction of finishing leading scorer for his club for five seasons in a row.
Back in the Second Division, 1993-94 proved a mediocre season with a ninth-place finish despite another nineteen goals from Wilkinson. There was a new man in the Ayresome Park hot seat for 1994-95 in the shape of former England captain Bryan Robson, and he led his side to the First Division championship at the first attempt. In what was to be their last season at Ayresome, Wilkinson scored just six league goals and eventually lost his place in the side despite a League Cup hat-trick against Scarborough. Wilkinson was destined to make just six appearances back in the Premier League and joined Oldham Athletic on loan on 26 October 1995. After one goal in four games, he returned to Middlesbrough before heading back to former club Watford for a further loan from 1 December 1995. A further unsuccessful loan to Lennie Lawrence’s Luton on 28 March 1996 which ended with a broken toe concluded a disappointing season for Wilkinson and he was released in May.
Wilkinson returned to the Second Division with Barnsley on 1 August 1996. Hoping to revive his career again, Barnsley had a great season that saw them win automatic promotion to the top flight for the first time in their history. Barnsley got away to a great start with five straight wins, and Wilkinson was soon joined by his strike partner from Middlesbrough John Hendrie. The pair scored twenty-seven goals between them, and a 2-0 win over Bradford in their final home game took them up. After four games back in the Premier League, Wilkinson was unexpectedly sold to Second Division Millwall for £150,000 on 18 September 1997. After a disappointing season that saw the side finish seventh from bottom, Wilkinson made the final move of his playing career to fellow Second Division side Northampton on 1 July 1998. He played very few games as Northampton were relegated to the fourth tier in 1999 and none at all as they immediately won promotion in 2000. He was released at the end of that season and, at the age of 35, Paul Wilkinson retired from playing.
His coaching career began that summer as U16 coach at Leeds United, but he was not there for very long. In November 2000 he returned to first club Grimsby as reserve team coach under new manager Lennie Lawrence, his old manager from Middlesbrough. He kept his job under player-manager Paul Groves when Lawrence was sacked in December 2001, and remained at Blundell Park until May 2003 when he was released as a cost-cutting measure. His next stop came from October 2003 as reserve team boss at Cardiff City where Lennie Lawrence was now manager, and it was a role that Wilkinson would retain for eight years. When Lawrence stepped down in May 2005, Wilkinson continued to work with new manager Dave Jones as both coach and assistant; that is a relationship that has continued to the present day, as we will see a little later.
Despite the period at Cardiff being blighted by transfer embargos, winding-up orders and changes in ownership, it was a time that included some notable successes. Cardiff reached the FA Cup Final in 2008 before two successive play-off defeats in 2010 and 2011. When Jones was dismissed by Cardiff in the summer of 2011, coach Wilkinson followed shortly afterwards. In July 2012 Wilkinson linked up with Jones again, this time at Sheffield Wednesday as assistant manager. Wednesday struggled near the foot of the Championship for eighteen months before Jones and Wilkinson were sacked on 1 December 2013 with Wednesday second from bottom of the table with a solitary win to their name.
Wilkinson’s next port of call was at Norwich as U21 academy coach from October 2014. This appointment was destined not to last long either, as he was released in May 2015 due to restructuring of the academy system. There was a short spell as Barnsley U21 manager from March 2016 before he was named assistant manager of newly-promoted League One side Northampton Town in June. Northampton got away to a reasonable start with seven games unbeaten, but a downturn in form led to the dismissal of manager Rob Page on 9 January 2017. Wilkinson stepped up for his first taste of management, but took charge of only one game before the arrival of the late Justin Edinburgh a week later. Wilkinson left the club the following week.
In April 2017 Wilkinson returned to Grimsby for the third time, this time as assistant manager to Russell Slade. This was the start of some challenging times for the Mariners, who had lost momentum after promotion from the National League the previous season. Grimsby sat in mid-table at the midway point of the 2017-18 season, but a run of four points from twelve games led to the dismissal of Slade on 11 February. Wilkinson was appointed in a caretaker capacity but was only able to oversee three more defeats before new manager Michael Jolley took over from 10 March. A dramatic late run kept Grimsby in the League, and Wilkinson was released on 11 May 2018 along with a clutch of players.
The next stop was in the far south-west at National League South strugglers Truro City, who were facing relegation to the Southern League. Appointed caretaker manager on 27 March 2019, Wilkinson was unable to keep Truro up. Despite their relegation, he was appointed on a permanent basis on 17 June 2019 on a two-year contract, but an old friend was about to take him back north.
Wilkinson’s appointment as manager of crisis club Bury on 2 July 2019 took the football world completely by surprise. Whilst the list of candidates for the role would not have been a long one, former Cardiff manager Dave Jones had been hired by Bury owner Steve Dale to rebuild football operations at the club, and it was Jones who returned to his former assistant to fill the post.
Of all 92 league managers, Paul Wilkinson is facing by far the toughest challenge this season. At the time of writing, Bury have no players, no training ground, no money and a debt estimated at £16 million less than three weeks before the season is due to commence. A winding-up order hangs over the club’s head until Dale can secure support for a CVA. That would mean administration, a twelve-point deduction and probably a transfer embargo. Paul Daniels would have struggled with that lot, never mind Paul Wilkinson. It is hard to imagine a tougher set of circumstances under which to start a career in professional football management, and Wilkinson will need every ounce of his nineteen years’ coaching experience if Bury are to stand any chance of survival.
P = Promoted; R = Relegated; SF = Lost in play-off semi-final; F = Lost in play-off final; PO = Won play-off final; D = Demoted.
Figures are league games only; cup matches and play-offs are not included.
League position shown is either the position at the end of the season or the position at the time of departure
— Vital Lincoln City (@VitalLincoln) July 17, 2019