The Long Read: Kevin Nancekivell
IN a new long-form interview series for pafc.co.uk, Argyle Media is sitting down, remotely of course, with key members of the club’s staff to get to know more about their careers.
To kick-off this series, we speak to First-Team Coach Kevin Nancekivell, a man who embodies the Vision and Values of Plymouth Argyle - having represented us as a player; Academy lead; First-Team Coach and, when we needed him most, Caretaker Manager.
THERE is no substitute for hard work, and nobody knows that better than Kevin Nancekivell.
His high work-rate and ‘can do’ attitude are considered signature traits by those who have known Nance in his coaching role at Home Park, and his UEFA Pro Licence qualification backs up this spirit with no shortage of footballing nous. What is perhaps not quite so clear to many, though, is how hard he has had to work to carve out an impressive career in the professional game – a journey which began in a quiet corner of North Devon.
“I grew up on the family dairy farm in the village of Bradworthy, between Holsworthy and Bude,” said Nance.
“Like a lot of kids, I lived and breathed football, always had a ball under my arm and Argyle was always my team. Even living 40 miles from Plymouth, there was a strong fanbase in the nearby towns and villages.”
Nance, a member of the Green Army from childhood, still has crystal-clear memories of where it all began, with that first visit to the Theatre of Greens.
“I can remember travelling down to Plymouth, walking through Central Park and seeing the lights of Home Park in the distance. They are fantastic memories and something that stays with you for life.”
“My first game was at home to Brentford in 1979, we lost 1-0 and I remember Fred Binney missed a penalty at the Devonport End. I’ll never forget seeing the green grass of Home Park for the first time and obviously never dreamt I would one day be so lucky to have an association with the club.”
Nance’s own footballing journey, which would culminate in a dream move to Argyle under Kevin Hodges at the turn of the millennium, began with his local side before progressing to Bideford Town, where he became established as an energetic midfielder with an eye for goal.
It was, however, a move to Tiverton Town that would shape Kevin’s playing days, exhibiting that signature work-ethic and never-say-die attitude to help the Yellows to the home of English football, Wembley, twice.
“I joined Bideford at a very young age, 14 or 15, and started playing senior adult football with them. I spent around seven years at Bideford before joining Tiverton Town, where I was fortunate to be involved in a really successful team.
“We won the FA Vase twice at Wembley, in successive years, and we were knocking on the doors at the top end of the non-league scene.
“I prided myself on being extremely fit. I could pinch the odd goal from midfield, and I had to make the best of my ability; I wasn’t the most natural of players, but I’d like to think I work hard in every game I played.
“With that, you do improve technically, and I was lucky enough to get in positions to score goals. To experience Wembley twice and have won both times, I consider myself very fortunate.”
Even with his inherently positive outlook on life, Nance could have been forgiven for thinking that, despite conquering non-league football, his hopes of becoming a professional footballer were not going to come to fruition. At 28 years of age, though, he earned the opportunity he had dreamt of since that first trip to Home Park in the late seventies – a move to Argyle.
“Apparently, Kevin Hodges, who was Argyle manager at the time, had been watching me for a little while,” said Nance. “We played Argyle regularly in pre-season and I scored a goal against them in a game on the Friday night.”
Nance’s introduction to life in the professional business, for his beloved Argyle, could not have been more of a baptism of fire – playing on trial for the Greens against Premier League Everton at a packed-out Home Park.
“Kevin got in touch with [Tiverton manager] Martyn Rogers to say Argyle were interested in signing me,” said Nancekivell. “I played in a pre-season game against Everton on the Monday night at Home Park, which was an amazing experience.”
“It was a full house, playing for the club I had supported all my life, so it was fantastic. I was determined to enjoy it and played in midfield against Paul Gascoigne, who was everything you would imagine.
“He was absolutely brilliant, and you just couldn’t get near him with his one-touch play. He was also brilliant as a bloke, as I was running around at 100mph, and a couple of times he just said to me ‘slow down, you’ll be fine.’”
The Pilgrims were, as to be expected, beaten handily by Gazza and his teammates, but Nance had shown enough to ensure that, by the time the season rolled around, he would be a part of the first-team squad.
“The negotiations with Tiverton went on for a few weeks, so I missed a bit of the pre-season with Argyle, but to sign pro at the age of 28 was unbelievable. I loved every minute of it and will always be grateful to Kevin for the opportunity.
“The difference in standard was considerable but I went into the squad, came off the bench a few times, although the team couldn’t really get going.”
The Greens’ 2000/01 season struggled to take off, which resulted in manager Hodges being relieved of his duties following a 3-2 home reversal to Barnet.
When another former Argyle superstar, Kevin Summerfield, took temporary charge for the Greens, Nance netted his one and only goal for the Greens, away at Hartlepool – which turned out to be a real Sliding Doors moment for the future Argyle coach.
Having perhaps staked his claim for more game time, Nance’s dream was painfully snatched away from him by newly-appointed Paul Sturrock, with ‘Luggy’ making it clear that the Greens’ midfielder would not be in his plans. By the end of that same season, Nance found himself back in the familiar surroundings of the Ladysmead dressing room with Tiverton.
“I did score a goal at Hartlepool, when we drew 1-1, and a great memory for me, but Paul Sturrock came in with new ideas and I was deemed surplus to requirements.
“I went back to Tiverton at the end of that season and had another four years with them.”
Understating his return to non-league, Nance chooses to omit the finer details of his second spell at Ladysmead, which included netting Tiverton’s only goal in a 3-1 FA Cup First Round defeat at Cardiff City at Ninian Park, as well as his role in helping Tivvy climb to the Southern League Premier Division in 2001.
Perhaps it is because, at that stage of his career, Nance already had more than one eye on a move into coaching.
When the Greens came calling again, he answered, no questions asked – starting out at the club’s Holsworthy Centre of Excellence, near to his home in North Devon.
“I put all my efforts into coaching and progressed to working in the Academy with [Academy manager] Stuart Gibson,” he said.
Maybe, more than anything else, it is his experiences as the grass roots levels of the game which have made him such an effective coach. He knows, better than anyone to have made their way into the sport, how difficult it can be to earn an opportunity to play professionally.
“I understand what it’s like for a youngster trying to progress in the game and it’s about getting their trust. If you can do and it still doesn’t work out for them, you can shake hands and say that everybody has tried their best.
“My approach to coaching has always been about positivity and enthusiasm. I care about the players and always try to help them improve. It is difficult in an Academy but I’ve been through similar experiences, spent time on trial with Argyle, Southampton and Torquay.”
Having served in a variety of Academy roles during his time at Home Park, Nance got the call to step up to the first-team under Carl Fletcher. With the Pilgrims still feeling the near-fatal damage caused by administration, the squad was now made up of a number of Nance’s Academy prospects.
“Fletch had watched a few of my sessions and it was a natural progression to become involved in the first-team,” explained Nance. “It was a big step but, at that time, there were a lot of young lads, people like Curtis Nelson, Luke Young, Isaac Vassell, who I’d worked with in the Academy. We also had some really good senior pros in the team, like Darren Purse, Nick Chadwick, Warren Feeney and Simon Walton.”
Having once again earned his stripes and become a fixture in the club’s first-team football setup, Nance, by proxy of Carl Fletcher’s dismissal, would soon find himself cut adrift from the Greens again.
“We had some success in the first season to stay in the League, despite being in administration, so it was horrible when Fletch lost his job,” he said.
“We’d struggled to get any momentum in that season, and it was devastating because you spent so much time together. Romain Larrieu was part of the coaching team as well, and he and I took over as interim managers briefly, until John Sheridan arrived.
Upon securing Football League survival on the final day of that campaign, Sheridan opted to bring in his own coaching team, which saw Nance depart the club for the second time.
“I went to Torquay and worked with their Under-18s and the reserves. I loved every minute of it, a smashing club but going through a tough time because they were fighting to stay up under Chris Hargreaves.
“Unfortunately, we went down to the Conference. It is a fantastic club, but they sadly closed the Academy for financial reasons, so, coming full circle, Kevin Hodges and Phil Stokes were running the Argyle Academy, and they invited me back.”
The return to the Theatre of Greens was obviously a source of huge pride for Nance and he progressed from the Academy to working in the first-team again, as a part of the coaching staff that steered the Greens to promotion from Sky Bet League Two in 2017.
“I was head of coaching and responsible for the reserves in the South West Peninsula League for a couple of years.
“Craig Brewster was assistant manager but had to leave for a hip operation, so I moved up to the first-team and continued in that role when Craig didn’t come back.
“Winning promotion, playing Liverpool in the FA Cup, was fantastic. We had a very resilient team, strong in defence and, like all successful teams, there was a real togetherness about that group.
As is painfully well-known, the Pilgrims suffered a catastrophic loss of form to bring Derek Adams’ tenure at the club to a close in 2019, leaving Nance to lead the troops in the Pilgrims’ do or die season finale against Scunthorpe United. He managed the team to a superb 3-2 victory - but results elsewhere condemned the Greens to a return to the fourth tier.
“It was a manic week leading up to the Scunthorpe game and to go from watching Argyle with your Dad to leading the team in what was one of the biggest games in the club’s history was surreal,” said Nance.
“I had gone from leaning over the bannister on the Mayflower, watching my heroes kick a ball around, to being in charge for a huge game. I remember the week building up to it as something special because the whole city got behind us.
“It was an intense week and all I tried to do was be positive with the lads and free their minds. We played great on the day, blew Scunthorpe away really, even though it ended 3-2. When we heard Southend had scored the goal to still send us down, was a numbing experience.”
Understandably, Nance is reluctant to talk at any great length about last season, with scars still not fully healed. However, what became clear in the weeks and months that followed was just how highly he was thought of by the club’s senior management - with Chairman Simon Hallett, among others, expressing, on record, his desire for the club’s newly appointed manager to retain the boyhood Pilgrim in the setup.
“The club were brilliant with me because it is an uncertain period for any coach when the club is looking for a new manager, but Simon [Hallett], Andrew [Parkinson, Chief Executive] and Zac [Newton, Club Secretary] were fantastic with me, and they kept up a regular dialogue,” said Nance.
“When Ryan and Schuey [assistant manager Steven Schumacher] came on board, they were brilliant from the very start. Ryan was straight on the phone to me and we’ve worked really well together ever since; I’m obviously very grateful to Ryan for keeping me at the club.
“We had a great start to the season, and we have been improving all the time, up to this enforced break. We’ve got a lot of good players this season and they’re playing very well. There is a lot of positivity around the club and confidence is high.
“You can see that on the pitch because the boys go out and play attacking football. We’ve had a good season and we are just desperate now to finish it off.”
The Pilgrims were actually on the road to Morecambe, and a reunion with Derek Adams, when the EFL announced a suspension to all football activities, leading us to the uncertain world we are all now experiencing.
The health of the nation, and the whole globe, is the only thing that really matters at the moment but, when football does finally resume, Nance firmly believes the current season will be allowed to properly conclude.
“We set off for Morecambe around 8am to train halfway up,” he said. “We had word there was an EFL meeting take place, so we weren’t overly surprised when word came through that football had been suspended.
“The gaffer hastily got us together for a meeting at Gloucester Services, we decided on a plan for the next few days before speeding back down to Plymouth.
“We are all in the same boat at the moment, we are in daily contact with each other, and the players. We are planning for our return but football will always come second to people’s health, which is all that matters right now.
“Our job is to make sure, when football does return, we are ready for action. There is too much stake for Premier League and EFL clubs not to finish the season, and we will be ready when it does restart.
“We are all in this together and Argyle is a family, so it’s important we call each other, stay connected and stay safe.”
Well said, Nance.