Colorado Rapids, 2017-2019
In my first pre-season in my first job as a head coach, I got really ill.
When I had gone for the job at Maryland Monarchs, everyone had said I was too young. Then, when I got it, everyone said it again.
I was 27, and I wanted to prove them wrong.
The club didn’t have a lot of resources, so I was doing all the analysis myself. In fact, I had to do everything myself.
But, that first pre-season, it was cold. There was snow, the temperatures were low. It was just terrible. I remember one day, during training, I couldn’t stop coughing. I had to go over to the corner of the field to hide it.
I felt awful, but I didn’t want to tell anyone. I was conscious of how young I was, and I didn’t want the owners thinking I couldn’t handle it. I didn’t want anyone at the club to know, so I went to see another doctor – one outside the club.
I had walking pneumonia.
I had to come through it, though. I had set myself a dream of managing at the highest level. I believed I could do it and I wanted to get there, but I have always had to fight for it.
That’s the bit I love the most: overcoming challenges, backing yourself and fighting through it. That’s what life is all about.
When you are born into a footballing family – my dad, Alan Hudson, played for England and both my older brother and my cousin played – you grow up in an environment where the only thing that is talked about is football. You just can’t get away from it.
I started playing and I looked up to my dad (below). He was my hero, as was Paul Gascoigne. I remember watching him and falling in love with football.
But, unlike my dad, I had an unfulfilled playing career. The hurt and the pain that came with not fulfilling my potential as a player is what drives me today.
I don’t want to be a half-coach. I want to manage at the highest level. I have found something that I love, and I am going to be the very best coach that I can be.
That is why I have gone to watch 200 managers from all over the world on study visits. Every year since I started coaching in the US, I returned to England during the off-seasons and visited teams from Manchester United to Port Vale. The next year, I went to Holland; and the year after that, to Spain.
I went to see José Mourinho at Real Madrid (below), at a time when he was under real pressure. In fact, he was by no means a favourite in Spain. It was around the time when he had dropped Iker Casillas, and poked Tito Vilanova in the eye. Importantly, he was losing games.
I arrived, though, and you would have thought he was winning every match. He was so relaxed, calm, joking around and felt bigger than everything.
On the Friday before the game, he showed me what they were going to do against their opponents, Real Sociedad, and how it tied into the training that morning. I could not believe that a manager under such pressure was talking to me, some young coach, about his tactics. From that visit, I realised that you always have to be bigger than the situation at hand.
I’ve seen so many coaches and clubs across Europe, and I’ve learned more from those visits than you could do on any course.
I come away reflecting on what I am doing and what I need to improve on. The only way I can stand in front of a team and tell them I can do the job is by working for it. I’ve got to be prepared, I’ve got to study, I’ve got to know the game inside out – that’s how I’ve got my confidence and self-belief.
I never gave up, either – even when times were tough.
After returning to England after my time in Maryland, I took up a coaching role at Tottenham, who at the time were being managed by Harry Redknapp. Through Harry, I got to know John Still at Dagenham & Redbridge – so, when the following season I left my next role at Newport County, I called John. He invited me in to do some first-team sessions.
“When you go to different countries, you have to understand the culture – otherwise you can get chewed up and spat out very quickly”
I used to drive to Dagenham every day, and worked unpaid. I remember my family members saying: “What are you doing? Why are you doing this?” I was just getting through the day and trying to survive.
One night, Gillingham were playing Dagenham. I walked into John’s office and there stood Peter Taylor, then coach of the Bahrain national football team. A few weeks later, Peter called me up and asked me to be the Bahrain Under-23 coach.
I know if I hadn’t kept pushing myself, I wouldn’t have been in John Still’s office that day. I wouldn’t have met Peter Taylor, and I definitely would never have gone to Bahrain.
I learned some big lessons over in the Middle East, especially culturally.
When you go to different countries, you can’t just go in and do things your way. You have to understand the culture and listen, otherwise you can get chewed up and spat out very quickly.
Bahrain was a prime example. Just imagine, you had two different religions, Shiites and Sunnis, with different prayer times. In the build-up to the game, one group is off to pray – and then, five minutes later, the other group is off. You have to time your pre-match meetings around all of that.
Peter taught me a valuable lesson, too: pick the national team based on form. I remember some incredible stories where, in the past, there had been preferential treatment depending upon the manager’s prejudice in favour of one religion.
I think, if you’re honest and you communicate well, people respect that.
“We talked about how to set up against Ronaldo. I thought about all the managers who had tried to stop him”
After managing the Bahrain senior team, I thought I had developed a skill for creating a culture. But when I went to coach the New Zealand international team in the summer of 2014, I realised that to create a new culture, first and foremost, you have to understand the one already in place.
For the Kiwis, culture is everything.
New Zealand want to be proud of what they do, and I had to tap into that mindset. Before I demanded respect, I had to respect them.
I travelled up and down the country speaking to different groups of people.
I spoke to top rugby teams, coaches, historians and the locals. I started talking to the team about what it means to be a Kiwi. If I hadn’t done that legwork, the players would never have respected me.
The New Zealand international team had had a bad couple of campaigns – they had only finished third in the 2012 OFC Cup and failed to qualify for the 2014 World Cup – but we managed to restore team spirit and instil a sense of pride. That ended with us winning the OFC Cup in 2016 – and that meant we qualified for the Confederations Cup in Russia the following year.
We were drawn in a group against the hosts, Mexico and Portugal, and there were some surreal moments. I remember doing the team meeting in which we talked about how to set up against Cristiano Ronaldo when we played Portugal. I thought about all the managers who had tried to stop him over the years.
We had gone to the tournament wanting to show attacking football and perform with our heads held high. We did that. How often does a team like New Zealand get to play against Portugal? The result didn’t go our way in the end, but we played some really good football and created chances.
“The players hadn’t slept. They were trying to get a few hours’ kip when military fighter jets began circling our hotel”
A few months later, the World Cup playoff matches against Peru were the most intense weeks I’ve ever had in football.
At home, in Wellington, the whole country got behind the team, and it was amazing. We drew 0-0 and probably should have nicked it at the end, but the performance put us in good stead for the away leg.
As for the next sequence of events, I’ve never known anything quite like it.
We had a private charter flight booked to land straight into Lima. We got on the flight, where we were told it wasn’t going to Lima, but Chile.
No one had any idea why.
We landed in Chile and then were held on the runway for six or seven hours. The pilot came out of the cockpit and said air traffic controllers wouldn’t let us land at Lima airport.
Eventually we arrived, hours behind schedule, and then the bus drove at 20 miles per hour all the way to the hotel. We couldn’t do anything about it.
On the first day of training, the bus ‘crashed’ – and then, at night, fireworks were set off outside the hotel.
The players had not slept at all; they were trying to get a few hours’ kip the following afternoon when military fighter jets began circling our hotel. It was so loud that it was deafening and dangerous.
“I used to be impatient, but now I am comfortable with where I’m heading. I feel in a good place about what I want next”
Then it got worse.
Someone messaged me. One of the pilots of the military fighter jet had pulled up his flying uniform, brandishing his Peru strip. He had taken a selfie and put it on social media.
At that point, I called our CEO and said: “This has to stop, you need to help us.” Even the Prime Minister of New Zealand got involved, on the phone negotiating with the Prime Minister of Peru. It was crazy!
That was a moment when the manager needed to be bigger than those circumstances. Looking back, I probably could have been even bigger than the situation.
Peru were, and still are, a top team in South America. They had some very good players. Even though they won and we missed out on World Cup qualification, I was proud of what we had achieved as a team.
I had taken over a squad that was not in a good place and turned them around. Now, there is pride in wearing the New Zealand shirt. No one missed a window. Everyone wanted to show up for their country. I feel very fortunate to have had that experience.
I feel exactly the same way about my time as head coach of the Colorado Rapids. What I soon learned from my time in the MLS is that, when you are first going into a club, it is important to know everything about not just the club, but the league too. You have to understand the differences – for example, the rules around marquee players and the salary cap.
I was told two things when I joined the Rapids: “You have to change the culture, and you have to change the style of play.”
The team had been a defensive, counter-attacking team, and they wanted to be more attacking. To change a culture, to change an environment, however, you have to be strong – set a standard, hold people to account.
The challenge in the MLS, however, is that there is a salary cap. You can go steaming in and identify the players who aren’t going to fit into the culture you want to build – but the reality is that they are still on your salary cap. You can’t bring anyone else in.
But you learn these things quickly, and I loved working both with the players and in the league. The MLS is a great competition played out in front of big crowds; to be head coach of a team playing in it was really good.
Now, I believe I’m in the best place I have ever been in my career as a manger, as a coach, as a man. I used to be impatient, but now I’m comfortable with where I’m heading. I am still young, but I’ve got a lot of experience at club and international level – and I feel in a really good place about what I want in terms of my next team.
If I can build something with players and staff that excites people and makes them happy, then that’s the best feeling for me. I want to be part of that journey, and allow others to be part of it too.
Author: Tony Hodson