• Aaron Downes during his playing days at Torquay United (Getty Images)Source: Getty Images
Australian Aaron Downes spent 15 years as a professional footballer in England, now the 35-year-old is making his name as a coach with Torquay United.
John Davidson

3 Dec 2020 - 10:52 AM  UPDATED 3 Dec 2020 - 10:53 AM

Mackay-born, Mudgee-raised Downes retired in 2018 and joined the fifth-tier Gulls as assistant manager.

Under manager Gary Johnson and his Antipodean assistant, the Devon-based club secured promotion last year and are currently on top of the National League, and eyeing a berth in League Two next season.

“Absolutely, promotion is our goal,” Downes told The World Game.

“90% of the clubs in the division would have gone in with hopes of promotion or playoffs at the start of the season. Otherwise what’s the point if you don’t have the ambition?

“For the size of our club, our history and the season we had last year, that’s our intention - to challenge for promotion. Our start ignites a bit of the fans’ expectation, and expectation around the town and the history of the manager of the promotions he’s had in his career.

“We were tipped at the start for maybe making playoffs, or finishing in the middle of the league. It’s still too early, but it’s nice to be up and around it. We’re on track but we’re absolutely under no illusions there’s a long way to go.”

After 10 matches, Torquay are top of the fifth division with 25 points, with eight victories, one draw and just one loss. On Wednesday (AEDT), the side beat Wealdstone United 2-1.

Downes says no one at the 121-year-old club is getting carried away just yet, with plenty of matches to come over the next three-quarters of the season.

“We weren’t great [against Wealdstone], it was a great result because we played OK,” the 35-year-old admitted.

“In the second half we got better and ended up nicking it right at the end. It’s a good sign of a team that necessarily don’t play well and (still) grind out a win. We’re riding our momentum.

“It’s only a start. We’re not stupid enough to think that we’ve won the league after 10 games. But it is a good start. It’s nice to be top of the league after 10 matches.

“Christmas is always important, but it’s a bit false that its come in early. February is going to be important when you’re 20 games in. We’ve got nine games coming up in December, so it’s a really important period for us.”

Downes came through the AIS as a youngster and moved to the UK in 2003. The defender, who represented Australia at both Under-20 and Under-23 level, spent most of his career at Chesterfield and Torquay, with a final three seasons at Cheltenham Town.

He says he is “loving” his coaching role with the Gulls and working with experienced boss Johnson, who has been managing in the UK with the likes of Cambridge Town, Bristol City, Yeovil Town and Peterborough United since 1986.

“I’m blessed with the manager I’m working with,” Downes said.

“He’s had a lot of success, he’s in the game for the right reasons. There’s no selfishness about him. He’s doing it to enhance the club and get it where it needs to be.

“He gives me a lot of responsibility on and off the training ground, and I love that. He’s a great mentor, someone I look up to and admire. He knows my intentions are honest, in the fact that I want the best for him.

“I was his captain [at Torquay] and now I’m his assistant. That’s important as a number one and two. I’m enjoying learning, I’ve got a lot to learn.

“He knows there’s no threat from myself. Sometimes people have ulterior motives, but there’s nothing like that from myself. We’re striving for the same goal.”

Downes eventually wants to be in charge of his own English club one day, but the former Young Socceroo and Olyroo is in no rush.

“I know how tough it is for younger managers in their first role, otherwise you end up on the scrapheap,” he said.

“I’ve got no immediate ambition to be a manger at this minute. I’m really enjoying my role of learning and trial and error. I love the role. There’s a long time for that to happen if I do things right.

“When it does arrive, I'll make sure I’ve got the right tools to be effective. I want to give myself the best grounding. I’m ambitious as a coach and not looking to move on too quick.”

Few Australian coaches have been able to thrive in the ruthless environment of English football, with Harry Kewell currently the boss of Oldham Athletic and Anthony Limbrick leaving his post as assistant manager of Grimsby Town in September.

But Downes is out to buck that trend.

“It is a funny one, because I’ve spent so long over here I’ve built up a decent network of people I know and trust, and that know what I’m about,” he said.

“I see it both ways. The Australian ethic - hard work, underdog mentality, grit, mental strength that the Aussies love and are known for, I try to make sure that’s underpinned in my character as much as I can.

“I think the English appreciate it and understand it. What I do is based on solid evidence and good footballing education. If they can trust your character and what you say, that’s what it’s about.

“The background I’ve got, I’m proud of and I cherish, and I use that to my advantage. Coming from Mudgee; coming from Australia to get to where I’ve got wasn’t easy. You do develop a bit of strength within.

“I really want Kewell to do well to pave that way for a few people, like he did as a player.

"Ange Postecoglou has done a great job in raising the profile of Aussie coaches, it would be great to see him get a job in English football.

"There’s some really good coaches out there, they just need to be given a chance.”