WITH York City sitting rock bottom of the National League and in grave danger of suffering a second relegation in as many seasons, Gary Mills could surely be forgiven for feeling anything but merry this Christmas.
The opposite, however, is the case with the 55-year-old truly relishing the festive season.
He is relishing the challenge of keeping the Minstermen up, relishing the opportunity to end a record-breaking 35 game winless run on the road and, above all, relishing being back in York.
“I love this city,” said Mills when speaking to The Yorkshire Post earlier this week in his office underneath the main stand at Bootham Crescent.
“When I was here before as manager, it was the first time I seriously considered moving lock, stock and barrel to a new city. I love York and the people.
“Mind, as football teaches you, it was probably a wise thing that I didn’t move because I got sacked not too long after we were promoted back to the Football League. But I still loved coming back to visit after that, York is that sort of city.
“It is why I didn’t hesitate when Jason (McGill, chairman) asked me if I wanted to return as manager. I am back at a club I love, a club that means the world to me.”
Mills’s return to Bootham Crescent in mid-October came at the end of a quite remarkable couple of weeks for the club.
In the wake of a humiliating 6-1 defeat at Guiseley, Jackie McNamara promised to quit if York failed to get a “positive result” at Braintree four days later. A 1-1 draw at Cressing Road followed but the Scot was still sacked, albeit with the unusual caveat of him remaining in charge for up to a fortnight as the search for his successor got under way.
As all this was happening, Mills was still Wrexham manager. That, though, changed on Thursday, October 13 as his 18-month reign at the Racecourse Ground was brought to an end and within 48 hours he was sitting down with McGill at a hotel in Skelton to thrash out the details of his return to a club he had led into the Football League in 2012.
Also present that Saturday evening was McNamara, who in a turn of events that left fans scratching their heads had been appointed chief executive.
Two or so months on and the Minstermen are, if anything, deeper in trouble. Mills’s first 10 league games have yielded just five points and York will spend Christmas Day propping up the National League, a position that recent history suggests is akin to a death sentence in the relegation scrap with seven of the last eight seasons having seen the team sitting 24th at this stage go down.
Mills appreciates just how much York are up against it. “It is a massive job, not just a big one,” he says. “But I am loving the challenge, as difficult as it is.
“Nothing is given to you in football and now, after seven or so weeks back, I see staying up this season as being every bit as big an achievement as getting York promoted in 2012.”
Since returning to Bootham Crescent, Mills has been busy. No fewer than six of the starting XI in last week’s goalless draw at home to Torquay United were signings brought to the club in the past few weeks. Another two were on the bench.
“I had to change things quickly,” he added. “I watched the Curzon Ashton (FA Cup replay) on the Monday after I got the job and I can’t tell you what I thought, other than it was very, very, very poor – worse than I realised, if I am honest.
“The challenge was definitely bigger than I had thought. There was a huge difference between this and when I first came to York (in October, 2010), when the team was again near the bottom.
“That big difference was the players. The ones I inherited in 2010 were decent players. Some had lost their way or weren’t being motivated – and they definitely weren’t a team.
“But, underneath all that, they were good players with the right character. It meant I was able to gel them together with a few key additions.
“Unfortunately, this time I inherited too many poor players. You can’t achieve anything with poor players. You can’t manage how you want to manage because they are poor players.
“By that I mean ability and mental strength, a bit of everything. There weren’t enough of the characters I need, people who would understand what I am getting at if I try something different.
“For example, I might take them for a coffee instead of training. Or a bite to eat or a pint, just a different environment to what they had become used to.
“I haven’t done any of these things here yet, but I can now get round to it because I am getting towards the squad I want. The chairman has been a big help in that respect.
“After Curzon Ashton, I realised I had to get players out quickly. There is a budget at the club that the chairman, fortunately, increased to give ourselves a chance of getting out of trouble.
“It has meant, for the last two games, I have come out of the tunnel at 2.55pm and thought, ‘We can win this’. I didn’t believe that before. I would have been kidding myself if I had.”
Returning to York meant, of course, working again for a chairman who had sacked him in March, 2013. Some would find this hard, but not Mills.
“It is always nice to be wanted,” he says when asked about returning to a club where he spent two and a half years at the helm.
“Jason was the chairman who sacked me, but he wanted me back and that was a big thing for me. That showed the respect we both have for each other.
“At the time, after what I had achieved for the club, I found the sack difficult to accept. But we are professionals and I never once bad-mouthed the chairman because he has a job to do.
“He felt it was the right thing to do at the time for the club and I had to accept that. That is the game we are in. Possibly, that respect is why I am sitting here talking to you again as York City manager.
“We both know what the other is about and, as football has shown down the years, managers can go back to a former club and be successful. My job is to make sure that happens here.”
Success this season means escaping the bottom four.
Ending the Minstermen’s near 16-month wait for an away win on Boxing Day at North Ferriby United would be a good start, not least because the part-time Villagers are one of three White Rose sides sitting in the relegation zone.
“When I came here in 2010, I sensed the desperation to get back in the Football League straight away,” adds Mills. “This time, though, the desperation surrounds staying in this league.
“That is a totally different kind of feeling. Much more desperate, if you like. That is why we have to get this right.
“I have always loved a challenge. But, because of what the club means to me, that challenge means even more. I have to make sure we stay up.
“Then, I am certain next season we will be back up in that top five and challenging to get back to where I got the club before. That is where we have to be. But, first, we have to get out of this mess we find ourselves in at the moment. This is a fantastic club and we have to get it going again.”