To celebrate our Commercial Director Steve Coakley's long-service award from the EFL and his near-30 years in the professional game, www.themillers.co.uk sat down with him to recall the story of how the man - who is liked and respected in the game - came to where he is today...
Nearly 30 years spent in any profession is a feat to be admired. The dedication and ambition needed to devote such a large part of anyone’s existence in one particular field cannot be underestimated.
Whether it be three decades of delivering post or the same amount of time as one of the country’s leading lawyers, the individuals occupying those roles will undoubtedly love what they do.
Some of us find our vocations at an early age. Young children using plastic stethoscopes go on to become the people who take care of us, or, kids constantly dismantling their parents’ prized possessions become engineers, architects or mechanics.
Others find their natural calling in life.
Rotherham United’s Commercial Director Steve Coakley comes to the realisation that he matches the latter of those descriptions having left school with nothing other than a love for the beautiful game and a burning desire to be the best version of himself, as he sits down to reflect on the long-service award he has just been presented by one of football’s leading governing bodies, the EFL.
"I remember sitting on my bed crying at the age of 16 saying 'I just don't know what I'm going to do, Dad. I'm not good at anything'."
“My Dad was a policeman and I knew I didn't want to do that. I didn't have a natural talent or desire to do any job in particular.
"When I left school, I wasn't a particularly gifted or studious person and I wasn't a natural academia. What I didn't have in those areas, I had to make up for in others and through a combination of hard work and communicating, I thought I would be able to do that.”
Steve speaks candidly as he recalls the image of himself as a young Derby County supporter, fresh out of school and, by his own admission, with nothing other than a passion for football and his personable nature to show for a CV.
You could argue then, that his first ‘real job’ in 1992 – as an administrative assistant – at the Baseball Ground with his beloved Rams was as close to a dream role as anything other than pulling on the black and white as a player could be.
Steve is pictured as a mascot for his beloved Derby County
"Somebody gave me an opportunity and that was Michael Dunford, who was the General Manager of Derby County at the time,” Steve explains.
“He gave me a chance to start at the bottom and it was then up to me to see where I ended up.
"All I knew was that I really liked football. I wasn't naturally academic, so I had to work really hard and as part of my 'terms and conditions' of starting at the Baseball Ground, they funded a Further Education course for me for three years. I did a BTEC first in Business and Finance and then a BTEC National in Business and Finance and that was a day release before it was a night school.”
Having left school just a couple of months earlier and keen to repay the faith shown in him by those at his boyhood club, Steve set about making himself indispensable around the office.
It was the early impression that he made in what was a largely miscellaneous role which meant that by the time Derby County were set to leave their spiritual home at the Baseball Ground for pastures new at Pride Park in 1997, Steve had stepped up to become the club’s assistant ticket office manager.
Initially his day-to-day duties included general office and ticket office tasks, ranging from answering phones, taking ticketing bookings, selling tickets and other general clerical work, but each day he strived to earn more respect than the one previous.
Not in the job description: Steve's miscellaneous role sees him modelling some of Derby's Puma Teamwear range for a club shop photoshoot
“When the club moved to Pride Park, I was the assistant manager in the ticket office involved in the purchase and installation of new ticketing systems but I was always a bit of a 'talker',” Steve continues in his still incredibly likeable and personable nature.
“Having worked in the ticket office environment I soon came to realise how fraught and hectic it can be on a matchday. It is one of those roles whereby unless you have had first-hand experience, it is incredibly difficult to appreciate how demanding a job it can be – particularly in busy periods.
"I didn't envisage my long-term career being purely in the ticket office because I always enjoyed the communication element of the job. Rather than sitting in the back office and looking at systems, I wanted to be dealing with people.”
Having been a part of a historic transitional period with the Rams, Steve continued to excel and, having enjoyed a role in the business development department of the club, he eventually found himself in a role that suited his skillset down to the ground with the Rams’ commercial team – vindicating the club’s decision to help him to further his education in the field years earlier.
"After my time in the ticket office and because I was looking to make my skillset a bit broader, I went into the business development department which was effectively sales and marketing,” he continues.
"Whilst there was quite a bit of promotional work, that department always looked at me for a contribution to the sales element of it and I always felt that was my natural strength really.
"When the club got relegated from the Premier League, the business development department was a casualty of that, but I survived it and was then moved across to the purely commercial sales department.
By this time the year was 2003 and 11 years on from leaving school without a particular career path in mind, Steve had discovered his calling in the commercial world of football.
The once unsure schoolboy was now a fully fledged sales operator for the Rams with an ever-growing network of contacts both in business and across the game.
Having climbed his way up the ladder with his boyhood club from proverbially ‘making the cups of tea’ to now commanding respect in the corporate world, Steve, who himself admits he is driven by ambition, was ready for a new challenge.
"At 24, I felt like I was ready for a new challenge. I'd had quite a bit of experience and it was time to move on."
“I knew that I would have to go to a club where I didn't know where the nearest shop or petrol station was and prove to myself that I could take the step up professionally and that is when I went to Sheffield Wednesday in 2004.
"As a young lad watching football throughout the early 90s it was Hillsborough and Villa Park that were hosting FA Cup semi-finals. You remember the Panini stickers of all the great players that Sheffield Wednesday had. Then when you talk about a job opportunity coming up at Hillsborough, it was always one of the biggest clubs in the country at that stage.
"Kaven Walker, who was the Head of Brand and Merchandise at Derby, went on to become the Commercial Director at Sheffield Wednesday and he approached me about the job at Hillsborough.”
The role in S6 would be a ‘first’ on a number of fronts for Steve. A first away from the comfort of his boyhood club Derby, but most importantly for his career progression, a first chance to be the person accountable for the running of the commercial operation.
It wouldn’t be an easy task to undertake either, with Sheffield Wednesday experiencing an off-field transitional period and with it some animosity between club, supporters and commercial partners.
However, this cocktail of challenges only made Steve more determined to succeed in his new role.
"At the time, Sheffield Wednesday had just been through the Ken Bates failed takeover and there were mini off-field battles going off between supporters' groups and the owner amongst other things,” he explains of the situation at Hillsborough at the time.
"My nature is very much 'glass half full' and I believe in opportunity and that there is a solution to everything. I would like to think what I brought to the club at that stage was a bit of a human side.
"It took a while for corporates and other external people to build up that trust with me because I had come in as an outsider to Sheffield and followed on from a popular member of staff in Ian Leech.
"Once they got to know you as an individual, rather than as somebody's replacement or somebody's appointment, it was absolutely brilliant.
"It was my first experience of being the one person that people came to for solutions. The one that people came to sort out problems. That is the responsibility that came with being a department head for the first time.
"I got the full spectrum at Sheffield Wednesday really. I was selling hospitality for tables of two and doing shirt and stand sponsorship and everything else in between.”
The universe is known to operate in mysterious ways and sometimes it can feel like every decision – no matter how small – leads us to a pre-determined destination in our lives.
Steve’s appointment at Hillsborough - as well as providing him with an opportunity to further grow his promising fledgling career - also presented him with the chance to meet a business contact who, unbeknown to him at the time, would go on to shape a large part of his future.
A successful local businessman by the name of Tony Stewart had delved into local sport for a number of years by this time, but it wasn’t until he crossed paths with Steve – now in a commercial manager role – at Sheffield Wednesday that he began to take a serious interest in professional football for the first time.
"Tony had always been a supporter of local sport and had done bits of sponsorship with clubs like Rotherham Titans."
"When I went to Hillsborough, ASD Lighting had a perimeter board and during my time there I built up a good rapport with Tony and subsequently Richard.
"In terms of something reasonably significant, I do like to think I helped introduce him into the football world.
"Richard was a passionate football fan as well, so I think both were aware of the benefits that a business relationship could have for them, so I think it was a case of joining the two together and making clear what those benefits would be for ASD.
"I ended up selling ASD Lighting the naming rights to the Kop as well as an exec box at Hillsborough.”
Now, it has already been mentioned within this piece that Steve conceded that other than his personable nature, he hadn’t left school with a portfolio of qualifications, but it was exactly those endearing traits which would earn him his next big move within the football world.
His relationship with ASD Lighting and the Stewart family reached such levels of strength in fact, that it would open arguably the biggest door in his career, despite already enjoying success in his role at Hillsborough.
"Tony obviously acquired Rotherham United and spoke to me about the chance of coming to join the Board as commercial director,” Steve explains.
Steve joins the Millers at Don Valley as a new era dawns for Rotherham United
"Whilst Rotherham United, at the time, probably didn't look too appealing a prospect to an outsider, it was the vision that Tony had sold to me that really stood out.
"The future wasn't going to be Millmoor, it was going to be four years at Don Valley, but knowing full-well that we're going to find some land and design, develop and build a new stadium and a new future for the club with conference and events facilities that were unrivalled and the chance to build up a new and exciting corporate database.
"Having been through the journey with Derby County of going from the Baseball Ground to Pride Park, I had seen what an amazing journey it was. However, at that time I was just on the bus with the other staff, I wasn't driving it like I was going to get the chance to at Rotherham.”
Tony Stewart, as Millers fans will know, arrived in our corner of South Yorkshire as a saviour and whilst the move to Don Valley Stadium was far from ideal, it was also necessary, to allow him to come good on delivering his vision – the brand new state-of-the-art AESSEAL New York Stadium back in the town.
Like all good businessmen, Tony had surrounded himself with reliable, hard-working people as the project was put together and Steve Coakley was to become one of his trusted aides in his master plan to bring the Millers home.
"For me, as someone who didn't leave school with a host of qualifications, it was almost like an off-the-pitch version of ‘Football Manager’ to be part of a team who were designing a stadium."
“We really believed that it would be successful and generate the revenues to support the growth of the club and to be a part of that on the Board was fantastic,” Steve explains of his feelings at the time.
"I think, as a football fan who had been to however many games before as I had before I started at Derby, you allow yourself to understand what supporters want. I had stood on the terraces at various other stadiums that we've all been to over the years and built up that understanding of what worked and what didn’t.
"Features like the retractable walls came from ideas that we’d picked up from other venues we’d visited. We knew that when we had come from Don Valley we needed to maximise our revenue. We wanted a venue that could maximise revenue from a conference and events point of view from Monday to Friday and to do that we needed flexibility in how the rooms were used.
"To this day, people still take the micky out of me because I was literally obsessed in these meetings about the gradient of the stands!”
What a site! A half-built AESSEAL New York Stadium from the same view Steve now looks out onto the pitch from in his office every day
After thousands of hours of tireless work including meetings about how many plug sockets would be in each room within the new stadium and countless highs and lows, the plans for Rotherham United’s new home were officially submitted.
The job, in Steve’s eyes, was complete.
He had been drafted in by Mr Stewart to help him realise his vision and between them and the dedicated workforce at the club, they had turned an idea into reality. The Millers continued to play at Don Valley as construction began ahead of their return home.
Having been ‘on the bus’ for the transition between the Baseball Ground and Pride Park, Steve had finally realised his ambition of taking a shift at ‘driving’ the Millers to New York and having satisfied that dream, he felt his role in Rotherham’s master plan complete.
"I had loved every minute of working with Tony and the rest of the Board, but having successfully submitted everything in terms of the design it almost felt as if we'd accomplished what we needed to and I was maybe ready to tackle something else,” he reflects.
"Sheffield United had appointed a chief executive who I had worked with previously and after completing everything to do with the design of the stadium at Rotherham, I felt like I had achieved what I came to do.
"Sometimes you make decisions that you feel are right at the time and Tony and I never fell out about it and we always stayed in contact in the near-two years that I wasn't here.”
Steve gets to work at Bramall Lane having joined the Blades in 2011
As with any new role, Steve encountered new challenges with the Blades but also met Kelly, who would go on to become his wife and the mother of their two children, and with the Millers now enjoying life at their new home – a home he had helped them move into – a chance encounter left him yearning a return to the other side of the M1.
"These things happen for a reason, don't they?” Steve philosophises.
"As with any day in your life, you learn a lot. I did and I made some more valuable contacts and friends and I met my wife and now we have two amazing daughters, Isabella and Charlotte."
Steve, his wife Kelly, and their two daughters: Isabella and Charlotte
"Tony came to a game at Bramall Lane as a guest of one of Sheffield United's directors at the time and I hadn't seen him for a while. Seeing him just made me feel as though we were partners. Along with everybody else, we'd been there from the start of this great vision for Rotherham United and it all came flooding back - the hard work we'd done but the laughs we'd had along the way.
"We'd all lived and breathed it for so long and I couldn't help but think how good it would be to see games and work in the stadium that we had all collaboratively designed.
"Coincidentally, the first game that I actually came was Paul Warne's testimonial. I sat there and looked around and thought 'this looks exactly as it did on the paper it was drawn up on' and I just missed it.
“I thought to myself: I should have been there for the opening game against Burton Albion and I should have been there for Lee Frecklington’s goal against Aldershot.”
Steve missed it so much, in fact, that his spell at Sheffield United would come to an end soon afterwards and by 2013, he would be sat working in an office in the stadium that he had only really ever known as architect drawings.
His return coincided with plenty more major commercial deals for the club with AESSEAL pledging their backing as the club’s first ever naming rights partners, providing Tony Stewart’s upwardly mobile Millers with some key revenue en-route to the Championship.
With Steve back on board, the landmark naming rights deal with AESSEAL is completed
Rotherham United are certainly now as close to being ‘his club’ as anyone other than his beloved Derby County could hope to be and having now enjoyed nearly eight years in his second spell alongside Mr Stewart and the Millers, Steve reflects on what he considers to be his key achievements in his near-30 years in the game.
"I think being at clubs whilst moving stadiums on two occasions is a pretty unique thing to have on your CV,” he explains.
"I'd like to convince myself that I am still relatively young so to have nearly 30 years of experience across all of the four divisions, with four different clubs is something I'm proud of.
"I think and hope that I have managed to learn something and bring something to every one of them.”
‘Image’ is something that Steve has had to consider his entire professional life and during this interview, he is as ever, smartly dressed and well-presented.
However, despite knowing the importance of maintaining an ‘image’ for both himself and the clubs that he has worked for, Steve is an incredibly likeable and down-to-earth operator and there is much more to the man than the professional front his line of work requires him to carry.
He is popular with staff across all of the clubs he has worked for, many of whom have taken to social media to congratulate him on his award – an outward display of the impression that he has made on a personal level alongside his work.
Steve is a manager – but a manager who is always there to listen to any staff concerns.
It is unsurprising therefore, that at the top of his list of ‘achievements’ isn’t a number with five zeros following it or the wealth of the clients in his phonebook, but instead an incredibly humanistic one.
"The thing I would say that has been my key achievement has been being happy,” Steve explains.
One of those happy moments: Steve poses with the League One Play-off Final trophy after the Millers' triumph over Leyton Orient at Wembley
“Because I love football and I don't have a trade or a great wealth of academic grades behind me, getting where I have and enjoying every minute of it has been something that I am incredibly grateful for.
"If you really do love the game then you serve it well. If you are really happy with where you are job-wise then that is what happens. I have been lucky that I genuinely love our national game and I have been happy with every club that I have been at. I have been backed by some great people at every club that I have been at as well. You can only flourish in an environment when you get the support and that backing that you need.”
It is at this point – in the final minutes of the interview – that we ask Steve whether he ever thought he could see that 16-year-old boy sat on his bed crying whether he would reach the heights that he has in his career.
Whilst he may never have believed it possible, he quickly and emotionally goes back to the beginning of the journey, thinking of his Dad listening to his concerns after leaving school.
With a tear in his eye and a lump in his throat, he just about manages to declare the heartfelt thanks he has wanted to for years to his family. A family who have stood by him every step of the way on his journey and who have had to make sacrifices of their own along the way.
"I have to mention my Mum and Dad,” Steve says.
There every step of the way. Steve and Kelly are pictured with Steve's Mum, Linda and Dad, Trevor
"I grew up in a warm and encouraging environment and my Mum and Dad stood by me all the way. Some people don’t have that and I can’t explain how lucky I feel to have always known that in my life."
"They stood by me, supported me and guided me with every decision I ever made and they still do.
"It was my Dad who used to take me down to the terraces at the Baseball Ground and the one thing that I miss if I'm completely honest and wish that I could change is going to the matches with my Dad because I've never been able to do it.
"I was a season ticket holder with my Dad before I started at Derby and we used to go to watch FA Cup finals - not to watch Derby I must add - and the one thing I really miss is watching games in a non-working environment with my Dad.
“I promised him before the pandemic that we would go to an FA Cup final and watch a game and it will be like old times and that is definitely something I am going to do.”
Doing it for Dad: Whilst Steve may never have fulfilled his dream of becoming a professional footballer, he has certainly had a career in the game that both he and his family can be proud of
Everyone at Rotherham United would once again like to congratulate Steve on 28 years of service to football and thank him for his day-to-day efforts here at AESSEAL New York Stadium.