New England Revolution, 2017-2019
I’m stubborn by nature. I know that.
But when I first started out coaching, I tried my best to become a sponge. To learn as much as I could. Because one thing I found out very early on is that, when you go into coaching, you’re going in at the bottom again.
You’ve got all this knowledge inside your head, and you’ve got to figure out ways to organise it – and, most importantly, teach it, so that you can get your team playing the way that you want.
There isn’t just one way to do that, there are many. You just have to figure out which way is going to be your way.
I was lucky to have a lot of great coaches during my own playing career. And while I can’t say that I took everything from each of them, I learned something from every single one. Including how to be a good pro.
That was something I learned before my career even got started, really.
Back in the 1980s and early ’90s, all the best players in the United States went to college. So, when I played for UCLA, it was a bit like playing academy football in Europe. At 18, you’d find yourself up against all the best 18 to 21-year-olds in the country.
Sigi Schmid was our head coach, and he set up what was pretty much a professional scenario – just without the getting-paid part. Being a part of that set-up was the first time I started to think: maybe I could make a living from this game.
Where I grew up – in Bay Village, Ohio – we didn’t have professional outdoor football, so my first memory of seeing it came pretty late. I was nine years old and on a family vacation in England when my dad took me to Wembley.
It was Liverpool against West Ham in the Charity Shield.
We were sitting with the Liverpool supporters, and it was just a special experience. From that day on, I started supporting them as much as I could, even though it was from afar.
I never thought that one day I could be where those players were. Back then, being a professional soccer player didn’t seem like an avenue that was open to a kid from Cleveland.
"Culturally, everything was completely different. Not just religious beliefs, but the day-to-day living. It was an eye-opening experience"
Thirteen years later, this kid from Cleveland was on a plane back to England to sign a contract with Brian Clough’s Nottingham Forest.
Sadly, I never got to know Brian like I would have wanted to. My application for a work permit was denied, so after training there for a short time I was on a plane back to the US.
I was there long enough to see the respect he commanded from everyone he came in touch with, though. For a young American player to be around him, even for a short time, was a truly remarkable experience.
My time at Forest was just the start of a frustrating few years fighting red tape. In the end, I had to look outside England to start my career.
In September 1995, I boarded a flight to Istanbul.
I knew a little bit about the football in Turkey. Not a lot. But I knew who the big clubs were, that the fans were fanatics, and that football was the number-one priority of most people.
But you can’t really imagine what it’s like until you set foot there.
I was signing for Galatasaray, a great club that’s locked in an intense rivalry with two other teams in the same city: Fenerbahce and Besiktas.
Graeme Souness was the manager, but it’s not a country where every other person on the street speaks English. I needed to learn as many words as I could, as fast as possible, so I could join in with my teammates.
Culturally, everything was completely different, too. Not just religious beliefs, but the day-to-day living. It was an eye-opening experience for me, in a very good way.
"You have to win. If you don’t, there’s going to be repercussions. It was a good lesson to learn at a young age"
A lot of us will sit back and formulate opinions on other cultures and other people without ever actually knowing them. It’s a dangerous thing. I really tried to submerse myself in the culture while I was there, and meet as many people as I could – both inside football and out of it.
In terms of an educational and learning experience, it was probably the greatest time of my life off the field.
And on it, I became a different player.
Mentally, there was just so much to handle. Not only the heat of a Galatasaray-Fenerbahce derby, but the way footballers at the big clubs are constantly under the microscope. There’s a camera outside your door, or in your face, almost 24/7.
Dealing with that kind of atmosphere teaches you how not to make mistakes.
You make a mistake in Turkey and you better believe people will be waiting by your house or your car, or trying to tip the team bus over... you quickly understand how important the sport is to the people who are virtually paying your wages.
On and off the field, you have to be accountable for your actions.
You have to win. If you don’t, there’s going to be repercussions. It was a good lesson to learn at a young age – well, young for a goalkeeper.
After that, playing for the national team in places like Mexico and El Salvador, where the fans really want to beat the US, seemed easy. They seemed docile by comparison.
My experiences in Turkey meant that, when the call I’d been waiting for finally came, I was so ready for it.
After a lot of hard work by my agent Paul Stretford, Liverpool manager Roy Evans and the club’s team of lawyers, I was going to play for the team I’d supported ever since that special day at Wembley. It was incredible news. For a few hours at least, I felt like a weight had been lifted off my shoulders.
Shortly after that, it was business as usual: I was on a plane and fully focused on trying to impress and win games.
But my first few months at Liverpool (above) were probably the most inconsistent I’ve been in my whole career. I don’t know why. I’m not a nervous character. I certainly didn’t feel nervous in the games. But first impressions count for a lot in football – and, looking back, I’m sure I gave a lot of people mixed first reactions.
"The most important thing is that you don’t lie to players and that you have a staff that knows how to play off your emotions"
At that time, expectations of American players were low. That wasn’t just in England, but all over the world. It was up to us to prove people wrong.
That wasn’t easy. There was a feeling that you had to perform twice as good as you ever had before in your career to get the jobs in Europe. You definitely had to perform better than what was at the club already, or you wouldn’t be given the time of day.
I didn’t want to leave Liverpool. But after three years, I knew I had to for the sake of my career.
My time there might not have gone the way that I wanted, but if I got the opportunity to sign for Liverpool again, I’d do it without a doubt.
It was the start of an incredible 18-year journey in English football – an 18-year education under so many great coaches and managers.
In the early days, managers were just people who I respected and tried to listen to. I like to think I always got their respect back too, because of how hard I worked and how seriously I took the profession. But I never really had what I’d call a ‘relationship’ with them.
If I performed well for a manager, then they’d want to give me a contract extension or sign me at another club. If I didn’t, then they probably wouldn’t, and there would be very little relationship going forward.
As you get older, that changes a little. Mark Hughes had been a teammate of mine for two years at Blackburn before he became my manager there. Our relationship obviously changed when that happened – we weren’t going down to the pub together any more – but it was still very good, and we could have an easy conversation about things.
Martin O’Neill signed me for Aston Villa, and he was someone I got along well with. He’s very much like myself in that you can have a fight and a bust-up, but you can also shake hands afterwards and get on with it.
When Gerard Houllier took over from him, I wasn’t sure how that would go – we hadn’t exactly had an outstanding relationship when he was my manager at Liverpool. But at Villa, we actually had a very good one. If I’m being honest, that was probably about me growing up a little.
"I’d say the role of a manager is now 75 to 80 per cent mental as opposed to the day-to-day training"
By the time I moved to Tottenham, I was starting to think about getting into coaching and I was in the perfect spot to begin my journey. The head of the club’s academy, John McDermott, opened the doors to me so I could help out – and, during my four years as a Tottenham player, I had four completely different managers to learn from.
Harry Redknapp was a veteran of the game, set in his ways and knew exactly how he wanted to run things. Then there was Andre Villas-Boas (below) – a younger manager who’d been at clubs that had a lot of the new money in the game. Tim Sherwood, who was brought up from the academy, followed him. And, finally, there was Mauricio Pochettino.
Four entirely different viewpoints on the game. I took a lot of notes.
There was one common denominator in all the advice I received on going into management: be yourself. If you get upset in a situation, then be that. If you’re happy, you can be that, too.
The most important thing is that you don’t lie to players and that you have a staff that knows how to play off your emotions, so you don’t have an entire staff that’s angry or happy at the same time.
I like to think I’ve taken that advice.
I was studying the players while I was at Tottenham, too. Trying to think about what was between their ears and what motivated them. In my second or third year at the club, it started to become clear that the young players were so different to me in the way they thought.
It was a little bit eye-opening to see what they truly felt was important. Way back when, it was only about lifting the FA Cup or the Premier League trophy. That changed over the years. Contracts became important. Houses and cars became important. Your public brand and peoples’ perceptions of you became important.
Players now have to deal with all these things.
I think that’s changed the job of the manager. I’d say it’s now 75 to 80 per cent mental as opposed to the day-to-day training. Keeping players physically fit and getting them up to speed with what you want to do tactically is the easier part.
The way you approach a player mentally is far more important.
As a coach, you have to move with the changing times, learn about them and adapt. If you stay stuck in how you thought before, you’ll have a difficult time succeeding.
"Being a goalkeeper means you get to see combinations all over the field – things you can absorb and learn"
That’s what Sir Alex Ferguson was best at. He adapted and reinvented more than anyone. That’s the key: you have to constantly understand where your surroundings are, where you are, who you’re coaching, how they’re thinking and what motivates them.
When I started my first head coaching role with the United States Under-19s, I began to understand that even better.
I spent two years working with the federation. It was a tremendous honour and an experience that gave me a really good understanding of how different the man-management side of coaching is in the national set-up, compared with the club game.
Given everything I learned during those two years, I think going into first-team management right away would have been a very difficult thing.
As it was, I came to New England Revolution (below) really clear in my mind about lots of things.
I think being a goalkeeper helped with that. It’s a position that gives you an incredibly good perspective on everything associated with the game: you know how you want your defenders to defend, individually and collectively. You know where you don’t want strikers to shoot the ball in certain instances. You know exactly what good runs and bad runs are.
You get to see combinations all over the field – things you can absorb and learn.
It’ll take time for us to get all of our players in place at New England. But, as each transfer window goes by, you get closer and closer to being able to implement your full philosophy.
For me, that’s a team that presses. One that wins the ball as close to the opposition’s goal as possible, plays at a high tempo and is very committed, both with and without the ball.
A team that will not quit.
A team that’s just a little bit like its stubborn manager.
Author: Tony Hodson