An ex-investment banker from Yorkshire who quit Wall Street to pursue his football coaching dreams is now battling relegation as Grimsby Town’s new manager. Chris Burn reports.
New York and Grimsby is not a comparison many people are asked to make, but Michael Jolley is in something of a unique position to do so. The Cambridge graduate and former HSBC trader has taken an unlikely career path that has seen the Sheffielder move from Manhattan into football management – taking charge of the struggling League Two club on the Lincolnshire coast earlier this month.
The 40-year-old says the two places have more in common than people may assume, particularly when it comes to local pride – but Grimsby has the upper-hand in at least one area. “The fish and chips are better in Grimsby than New York! I have been really lucky in life to have lots of different experiences and living in New York and living in Grimsby are very different experiences. But Grimsby has got a very strong community heartbeat, the same as New York.
“There are really good people here, they love their football club and want it to succeed.”
It has been a tough start in his brief spell in charge at Grimsby, with a draw against fellow strugglers Port Vale followed by defeats against Lincoln and Coventry in his first three games.
The team now sit just one place above the relegation zone and face the real prospect of dropping out of the Football League with seven games left to play. But Jolley is well used to tough challenges, having been rejected from the game as a teenager, winning a place at Cambridge, witnessing 9/11 unfold from the 25th floor of a nearby skyscraper and achieving the near-impossible task of making it as a coach for clubs including Burnley, Crystal Palace and Nottingham Forest, despite not playing as a professional.
As a football-mad youngster living in Sheffield, he played for the city’s schoolboys and ended up being signed for Barnsley’s centre of excellence. But after two and a half years on their books, he was released at 16 – taking his life on a very different path as he focused on his studies.
“I could have gone on the rounds and tried to get another club but my father was really keen I pursued my education and said I could always come back. I’m one of the thousands and thousands of young lads that the professional game leaves behind. I’m very honest about it – I wasn’t good enough to be a pro. But I always felt I had a pretty good football brain and wasn’t able to execute the things I wanted to do.”
While doing his A-levels at college, a teacher advised him to apply to Oxford or Cambridge and Jolley went on to win a place at the latter university to study economics. “Clearly Cambridge has got a reputation of being quite elitist and there is no escaping there is an element of that. But there are a lot of people from normal backgrounds that end up at Cambridge or Oxford who are hard-working or talented or both. It is a fantastic place to go and expand your mind and it teaches you how to think and view the world and opens up all kinds of possibilities.”
At the end of his degree, he was offered a job by HSBC’s investment bank as a junior trader and after a brief spell in London was offered a position at the bank’s operation on Wall Street in New York, moving over to the States in 2000.
“It was a really amazing experience for a 22-year-old lad from Sheffield – it is an incredible place to live and work. As a young person, it was an amazing time. Being a trader is a tough environment, it is very demanding and outcome-driven every day in terms of profit and loss with significant amounts of money at stake. There is pressure and competition. In many ways, it was good preparation for what I’m facing now – you get judged on your results.”
Jolley was working on 9/11 – witnessing the terrible events unfold from the 25th floor of his office building from which the Twin Towers were visible.
“It started like any other day. It was absolutely beautiful weather, the sky was very blue and it was a busy bustling morning in New York. There was an election going on so there was a lot of activity.
“We were in our office and a news flash came through about the first plane. We started to make phone calls to people we knew in the building. When the second plane hit, that was when everybody went from being concerned to understanding it was a terrorist attack. We were instructed to remain in our office but there was a lot of uncertainty about whether we wanted to be there, especially as we were very close to the Empire State building.
"My decision was to get down to the ground and I just walked home back to my apartment on the Upper East Side. When I was walking, that it when the Towers came down. It was very frightening.”
In 2002, Jolley moved back to the UK to be closer to his family. He continued to work for HSBC and then moved to another bank called Toronto Dominio but started to rekindle his interest in a career in football. While completing a coaching qualification, he was put in touch with a Crystal Palace coach Bob Dowie. Jolley, then in his mid-20s, was invited to help out with the club’s academy.
“I continued to do the day job so I was getting up at 6.30am, going to work, getting the train down to Crystal Palace’s training ground for 5pm and working there in the evenings on three to four nights a week and doing Saturday-morning coaching. Coaching was something I got a bug for and I could see I was having an impact on these young players. I enjoyed the process of trying to help them improve and progress.”
By the age of 30, Jolley had completed further coaching qualifications and knew he wanted to pursue a job in the sport as a full-time career. He was offered a job at Nottingham Forest’s academy and decided to leave banking behind for good.
“My family were really supportive, they knew how much coaching and football meant to me. While I was doing well in my career, they understood if I didn’t do this, I was going to be dissatisfied. It was a bit of an impossible task to take on – to come in from a non-playing background and try to become a coach.”
After Nottingham Forest, he worked for Lincoln City and Crewe before being offered a job at Burnley as an Under-21 coach, where he worked as part of highly-rated manager Sean Dyche’s staff and eventually became the club’s Under-23 manager.
Jolley says Dyche has been a major influence on him. “I think I could go through my whole career and not see a club that operates as well as Sean Dyche and his team at Burnley. There are so many things I could say about Sean - he has great clarity on what he is about and very clear on what he expects from people.
“I had been very, very content and happy at Burnley and felt I was learning all the time from working with Sean and his staff. I got access to the first-team staff and players and working with Premier League footballers is a great experience.”
But Jolley left Lancashire last June to take up his first manager’s job at bottom-placed Swedish Premier League club AFC Eskilstuna. Despite victories over some of Sweden’s top teams, Jolley was unable to prevent relegation and left at the end of the season by mutual agreement.
Jolley says it was an amazing experience. “It was an interesting club that had originally been based in Stockholm but the owners decided to move the club to Eskilstuna, a city of around 100,000 people. It was a bit like the MK Dons situation when they moved Wimbledon to Milton Keynes in trying to build relationships and establish itself.
“Nearly everybody spoke English but I had started to learn some Swedish and was just starting to get confident when the club and myself jointly decided to go our separate ways.”
Jolley says he had other jobs offers both from Sweden and in the UK but jumped at the chance of applying for the Grimsby job when it became available.
“I felt like it was a really good fit.”
When The Yorkshire Post spoke to him earlier this month, he and his wife were in a hotel but in the process of sorting out a house in the area.
“It is really important that if I’m going to be the manager, I’ve got to live in the area. I want to be part of the community and get a sense of what it is all about.
“We are in the middle of a relegation fight and have to fight our way to a position where we can secure our place in League Two for next season.
When you are trading is it is about yourself and the bank, whereas here you are carrying the hopes and expectations of a town, an area, a community. There is much more pressure in many ways. All those people will enjoy their meal on a Saturday night or not based on how the team has got on. You have to be able to give everything you can.”