Brighton & Hove Albion, 2014-2019
I’ve always been the type of person who wants to look forward, as opposed to looking back.
In this game, it helps.
But sometimes, looking back is the only way to understand how you got to where you are – the reasons why life took you on a particular path.
That’s not to say you always get the answers you’d like, though.
When I look back on the second half of my last season as Brighton manager, I’m very conscious of our form – particularly at home. We lost to teams that we would have got results against previously.
In that respect, we weren’t as strong as we had been.
I still wasn’t expecting my time there to end the way that it did, though.
Unfortunately, that’s the game.
All I can do is to reflect on what I think was a decent job, and hope for better things to come.
Like I said, as a manager you have to make sure that you’re always looking forward. That’s the only way you’ll see that next opportunity when it arises.
That’s how I made it as a professional footballer in the first place.
I was 16 when Tottenham Hotspur – the club I’d been at since I was 13 years old – decided that, while they felt I had a chance of making it, I hadn’t done quite enough to warrant them offering me apprenticeship forms.
There was still that chance, though – a small window of opportunity. So, while I started a four-year apprenticeship as a lift engineer, I stayed on at Tottenham as an amateur.
That meant working all day, then on two nights a week getting the bus or train to the training ground – apart from those days when I ended up working late and just couldn’t get there in time. Then, on Saturdays, I’d play for the youth team. I lived that life for two years.
Then, at 18, I had a big decision to make.
Tottenham asked me to consider signing as a full-time professional. That would mean cutting my lift-engineering apprenticeship short – something I didn’t really want to do.
"My coaching career all stems from that time at Tottenham"
So I said no, continued playing for the club as an amateur, and finished what I’d started.
I was fortunate. My window of opportunity stayed open, and at 20 I finally became a professional footballer for Tottenham... as well as a qualified lift engineer.
During the 13 years I played there, Tottenham had some great success, winning two FA Cups and the UEFA Cup. It was a period that had a big impact on me, and on who I became.
When I look back at my coaching and management career and the aspirations that I’ve always had, I think it all stems from that initial time – and from the people I was surrounded by. The likes of Ossie Ardiles and Ricky Villa, who had won World Cup winners’ medals. Glenn Hoddle, who at that time was regarded as one of the most gifted players not only in the country, but also in Europe. Steve Perryman was the best captain I played under; we had a world-class goalkeeper in Ray Clemence, and many others.
An array of players who were all so different.
In Keith Burkinshaw, we also had a manager who was able to bring all those different characters, personalities and strengths together and turn them into a very, very good side (below).
As a young player, it was impossible not to be influenced by all of those things.
But, at that stage, I was really only focused on myself, on how I was going to develop as a footballer. Whether I was going to be good enough to continue making progress. We all know those individuals in a team who we think will make great coaches in the future, but I think most players are focused on playing – working out the emotions of the game, the ups and downs, and how to be the best player they can.
I certainly was.
It wasn’t until I reached my late 20s and did a few coaching sessions at soccer schools that I started to think this was what I wanted to do. Part of that was probably to do with the knee injury I picked up at the age of 28. From then on, I didn’t play as regularly as I’d been used to.
That gives you more time. More thinking time.
"Some players find the transition to coaching a natural one"
I started doing my coaching badges, and by the time I signed for Brentford at the age of 33 I was certain that I wanted to coach. I was taking far more interest in things like tactics and the thinking behind training sessions. Brentford’s manager at the time, Phil Holder, even allowed me to take a few sessions.
Once I retired, it was all about the opportunity.
That’s where the hard bit is – getting that first opportunity.
I was fortunate. In the same year that I retired, Ossie Ardiles had become Tottenham manager. We’d been good friends since our days playing for the club, so he knew all about my coaching aspirations and brought me in as the under-21s' and reserve team coach.
I’ve always been very grateful to him for giving me that first opportunity.
You might find some players who find the transition to coaching a natural one, but for most it’s a big step. I was lucky that, for the first year or so, I was working alongside former West Ham player Pat Holland – an excellent tactical and technical coach.
It was a huge help to me. Because, as much as you’ve been part of a changing room thousands of times as a player, taken part in countless training sessions and listened to more team talks than you can remember, none of those things have ever been your responsibility before.
In that respect, football is no different to any other aspect of life. If someone has spent years working on a shop floor, then moves up to management and has to govern a group of people, they have to make that same transition.
It’s not easy.
"The challenge of going to Newcastle was a very exciting one"
You have to work as hard as you can to make sure you’re learning as quickly as possible. If you’re in the right environment – which I very much was – then it helps.
I ended up coaching at Tottenham for more than 14 years, serving under seven different managers. Every time a new one came in, I saw it as another test. Could I deal with the changes? Could I adapt? Could I learn?
But, of course, at some point during that period, the question arises – when do you become a manager?
For the majority of my time at Tottenham, my biggest drive was simply to do the best I could in the job that I was doing. If the club felt strongly enough about me to keep me there, then I had a responsibility in return to do the best that I could for them.
But, towards the end of that period, my desire to manage became stronger and stronger.
By then, I was assistant manager, working alongside Martin Jol (above). We had three years together, and in terms of league positions they were successful ones. But after a difficult start to the 2007/08 season, Martin lost his job – and, after 14 and a half years of coaching at Tottenham, so did I.
A few months later, I got a phone call from Kevin Keegan. He’d not long become the manager of Newcastle United, and he wanted to know if I would go there as a first-team coach.
I’d played against Kevin, but didn’t know him all that well. Even so, I didn’t really have to think about it.
Not only was it an opportunity to get almost straight back into football, but it was also my first chance to work outside of London – in all my years both playing and coaching, I’d been based at London clubs. So the challenge of going to Newcastle – and the opportunity to work with Kevin – was a very exciting one for me.
"It was a big season for the club, and it was equally big for me"
We put together a good run in March and April, to finish the season 12th in the league – but the following year was tough. By the end of the season, there had been three different managers in charge – and defeat to Aston Villa on the final day meant that, after 16 years in the top flight, Newcastle were relegated.
That summer was very difficult.
Everybody was aware that the owner was trying to sell the club – and we had players who wanted to leave for Premier League clubs or moves abroad. We had to quickly determine the ones who wanted to stay and fight – the ones who wanted to get the club back up into the Premier League.
There was so much uncertainty around the club. But, even in those situations, there are some things that will always remain. Firstly, the team have to train. Irrespective of what’s going on around them, that’s what players want to do. They enjoy training.
By the time we’d got past the transfer window and it was determined which players were going to stay, I knew we had a group who were determined to go straight back up again.
At that point, I was still Newcastle’s caretaker manager; it wasn’t until late October that the club decided to make it permanent.
Compared to first becoming a coach, my move into management felt like a much smaller step. I have no doubt that’s thanks to the coaching experiences I had in all those years working at Tottenham, and with the managers I was fortunate enough to work alongside.
It made it so much easier for me. Not only to take my first step into management at such a great club as Newcastle United, but to take charge of what was a very strong-minded changing room.
We had lost a lot of players – a lot of good players – but we still had plenty of quality. We also had a strong mentality, without which I think we would have found that season difficult. You only have to look at the teams that have gone down and found it difficult to adjust to the Championship to understand how hard a division it can be to get out of.
We were one of the favourites for promotion that year, so it was a big season for the club – and an equally big one for me. Fortunately, we had the quality and the strength of character in the dressing room to handle it.
"The team had been through a difficult period and I was aware I was changing their way of playing dramatically"
My first season as a manager ended with my first managerial achievement – promotion to the Premier League. It set me on my way, and it’s something I’ll always be grateful for.
Of course, the following year, my time at Newcastle came to an end.
We were in a good position when it happened – 11th in the league. For me, that was fortunate because it meant that, in the aftermath, there was a huge amount of goodwill towards me.
The moment the club let me go, I made a decision – I was going to look back on my experience at Newcastle as a positive one. It was my pathway into management, and had left me in a position where I felt I would have offers to continue on that road. I was confident of that.
Spells at Birmingham City and Norwich followed – the first of those giving me the memorable experience of managing a club in the Europa League – before I got the call from Brighton & Hove Albion.
It was December 2014, and the club had been on a bad run, leaving them 21st in the Championship.
When you join at that stage of the season, it’s about instilling the system that you want to play in as short a period of time as you can, and getting the players to buy into that system.
You hope that the reaction to a new manager coming in is a help and not a hindrance to that. And in most cases it is a help, because everybody wants to do well. But I was aware that the team had been through a difficult period, and that I was changing their way of playing quite dramatically.
Everything rested on how they’d respond to it, and fortunately they did that well. But even then, I knew it was going to take a summer of working with them throughout the pre-season period, and recruiting well, to take the club where they really wanted to go.
"That old style of management – of berating players, and of being very aggressive – is something you now see a lot less of"
In my time at Newcastle, Birmingham and Norwich, I’d generally played a certain way – but, as a modern coach and manager, you have to be flexible.
On most occasions, though, it’s about the type of players that you’ve got. It’s true that, as a manager, I’ve mostly tended to play 4-4-2, 4-4-1-1 – but in my last season at Brighton I played more 4-3-3 than perhaps I have done at any other stage.
So the formation that you want to play comes first, and then it’s about a way of implementing that formation. I’m the type of coach who very much wants to work off a solid base. I wouldn’t call it a defensive strategy – it’s setting up a team to be compact while also having strong attacking aspects from the way the team is set up.
Ultimately, it’s about winning football matches, and how you do that comes down to the level of club that you are managing and the players that you have.
It also comes down to the performance levels you can get out of your team. How you go about getting those as high as possible has changed over the years. The old style of management – berating players, being very aggressive – is something you see a lot less of now.
Players’ mentalities are different.
And, with the turnaround in coaches and managers quicker now, you have to maximise your time with them. That means taking notice of all the issues that exist around the first-team group. Being emotionally intelligent, aware of the mentality of your players – and respecting that it is a bigger part of the job than it has ever been.
In my first full season at Brighton, we came within touching distance of automatic promotion to the Premier League, missing out on goal difference. We then had less than a week to prepare for the first leg of our playoff semi final against Sheffield Wednesday.
We lost it 2-0. And, despite playing some of the best football we’d played all season for 30 minutes of the second leg at the Amex, we drew that game – meaning that, despite losing just six league games all season, our hopes of playing Premier League football the following year were over.
The question then was, having got so close to promotion and put so much into achieving that aim, what would the reaction be like from the players next season? Would they be as determined to go through it all again?
The honest answer is that, at that moment, you just don’t know.
All you can hope is that the disappointment will drive them on, and that you’ve instilled enough into them to give you the best possible chance of success.
"I’ll always remember Newcastle’s promotion as my first achievement, but this one was probably the most emotional"
As soon as pre-season started, though, I could feel we had a group of players who were desperate to go again. We were playing in a division that had a lot of strong teams, but thankfully we started the season well – we lost just twice before the turn of the year.
With four games of the season to go, we were top of the league. By that stage, I was quietly confident that we were going to achieve promotion.
Going into our game against Wigan Athletic – at home, where we had a strong record – I was equally confident of getting a result. But that belief doesn’t take anything away from the emotion of what you feel inside once the job is done, and promotion is secured.
At that stage, it becomes not so much about yourself but what it means to the club, the fans, to the people who employ you, and to a group of players who were desperate to be Premier League footballers.
A lot of people ask me about the difference between that promotion and the one I had with Newcastle. In all honesty, if I look at where the team was when I took over, I think it was a harder job to do it with Brighton.
I’ll always remember Newcastle’s promotion as my first achievement as a manager, but this one was probably the most emotional.
Having reached the Premier League, my ultimate responsibility was to make sure that we stayed there. That means making the right decisions when it comes to putting together a team you feel is going to be good enough to do that.
At that point, you have to take the emotion out of it. Hard choices have to be made in terms of areas you feel need to be strengthened. But it’s also about finding the right balance between keeping the consistency of players who have been playing together for a period of time, and deciding whether they are good enough to make that step up.
At the time, I thought that we had the makings of a team, and a mentality, that didn’t need too much work. And, for the next two seasons, we remained a Premier League team.
But our form in the second half of my last season worried me. We enjoyed a run to the FA Cup semi finals, but in the league we weren’t as strong as we had been the previous year.
Even so, it came as a shock to lose my job in the way that I did.
When you’re not working as a football manager, lots of emotions go on in your head.
"Sometimes when you have had a little period out of the game, it allows you to instead see things in a bit of a different way"
If you’re in your first or second job as a manager, you’re desperate not to be out of the game for too long. But, even in my case, I’m conscious there are better managers than me who aren’t working at the moment – and, generally, not too many jobs available.
What I do know is that I’ve managed three Premier League teams that I felt have coped very well in the league for a good period of time, and I’ve thoroughly enjoyed those experiences.
I want to manage at the highest level. That’s not to say I can pick and choose, but it does have to be right – as long as that’s the case, then it benefits the club as much as it does myself.
Sometimes, when you have a little period out of the game, it allows you to see things in a bit of a different way. It gives you the time to go and watch other sports, or to go abroad and watch a few games to see how other people work.
So that’s it from me; I’m done looking back. Now it’s all about looking forward.
Because that’s the only way you’ll see that next opportunity when it arises.
Author: Tony Hodson