Photography by Paul Cooper

Michael Appleton

Oxford United, 2014-2017

There’s never a ‘good’ way to find out you’re losing your job.

Some ways are better than others, though.

I had been Blackburn Rovers manager for 67 days when I found a letter on my desk at the training ground one morning, saying I was losing my job.

The signature at the bottom belonged to Shebby Singh – the sporting director, advisor to the club’s owners, and someone I’d never even met.

As difficult as that moment was, it didn’t compare to the things I’d already been through.

Yes, it was hard.

It was a nightmare.

But it wasn’t the end of the world.

Paul Cooper

That moment had come 10 years earlier, after a West Brom reserves game against Newcastle. The match was supposed to be part of my comeback after a nightmare two years trying to recover from a ruptured PCL, but it didn’t quite work out that way.

There were two or three times during the game when a couple of young Newcastle lads ran past me. There was nothing I could do about it. I couldn’t get near them.

At some point, I walked off the pitch and went straight into the dressing room, without saying a word to anyone.

The game was still going on, but I’ve no idea which half it was. I was in a world of my own.

I didn’t shower, just took my boots off, put my trackies on and got straight in the car. It was during those two hours driving from Newcastle to Preston that I got it into my head, I was done.

When I pulled into my driveway and opened the door, I fell out of the car. My knee had completely stiffened up.

I was finished.

“The first three or four weeks at Portsmouth were brilliant. And then, overnight, the carpet was ripped from beneath us”

I was adamant I was going to move back up north straight away, but Gary Megson, who was West Brom manager at the time, convinced me to stay.

He said I should stick with my routine and get involved with bits and pieces of training. I could even do some scouting.

I remember my first scouting trip well, because it was an absolute disaster.

I went to watch Nottingham Forest versus Wimbledon and put together a really detailed report. I wanted to do the best job I could with it.

The next day, Gary’s assistant Frank Burrows called me over at the training ground.

“Appy, come here. That report – it’s one of the best reports I’ve ever read in my life. The detail is brilliant. There’s just one problem…”

“Yeah?”

“It’s on the wrong frigging team.”

Matthew Lewis/Getty Images

Over time, a couple of opportunities to get involved on the coaching side came about. I worked my way up through the age groups at West Brom, took over the youth team, then the reserves, and finally made it to first-team coach. At the same time, I made sure I got fully qualified.

I did the lot – from C Licence up to the Football Diploma in Management – in six years.

My first taste of management came in early 2011, but it was a one-off. I was put in caretaker charge for West Brom against West Ham – the game before Roy Hodgson started as manager.

I packed a lot into those 90 minutes, though.

In the first half, we murdered them. It was 3-0, but we could have had eight. At half-time our lads were high-fiving each other, thinking the job was done.

By full time it was 3-3 and, if I’m brutally honest, we probably should have lost. It was a big lesson for me. I saw that once a team gets that momentum going, it can be very hard to stop.

I didn’t sleep that night, I can tell you that.

About 10 days after Roy arrived, we had a massive row. It was basically a difference of opinion over something that happened in training. We went properly toe-to-toe.

It was actually the best thing that could have happened, because from that day on we got on brilliantly. I think he trusted me more than he’d ever done because he saw there was complete honesty.

That was something I came to see the true value of when I became a manager for the first time.

“I turned up at the training ground and the kitman told me we couldn’t train: ‘We’ve got no balls’”

The first three or four weeks at Portsmouth were brilliant. I absolutely loved it. And then, overnight, the carpet was ripped from beneath us.

There were big problems with the owner’s other businesses and, as a result, the club went into administration.

In my first meeting with the administrators, they sat me down and said: “Just so you know Michael, tomorrow morning you’ll be sacking four members of your staff.”

I told them that wasn’t an option. If they went, I did too.

“What would keep them in a job for the next six months?”

If the players could take an extra 5 or 10 per cent off their wages (they were already being hit with a 20 per cent reduction), we could make it work.

The next morning, I got all the players and staff together in the dressing room. I pointed to each person whose job was under threat and asked the players: how important is this person? And this one?

“For the sake of an extra 5 per cent, you can keep them in a job for the next six months.”

I left the room, giving them five minutes to think about it.

About 30 seconds later, the captain Liam Lawrence opened the door: “Not a problem, boss. If we have to take an extra 10, 15 per cent, it’s not an issue.”

Paul Cooper

In the space of four weeks, I had to reduce the budget from about £13m to as close to £3m as possible. That meant selling my seven best players and replacing them with ones who were earning between 10 and 20 per cent of what the players leaving earned: kids from West Brom, Manchester United, City, Liverpool.

It was almost like an Under-23 team.

Then there were the days I’d turn up at the training ground and the kitman would tell me we can’t train: “We’ve got no balls.”

“Of course we’ve got balls.”

“They’re in the container. The problem is that the people who own the container have changed the locks because we’ve not paid them.”

We were also struggling to pay for players’ meals, so I got them to bring their own food in to training every day. Then there were the injuries: we couldn’t afford to pay for scans. I lost count of the times I sat in press conferences with journalists asking me: “How’s so and so?”

I’m afraid I can’t really tell you.

Even though we got deducted 10 points for entering into administration, we made it to the penultimate game of the season before we got relegated. Those 10 points had done us. Without that, we would have stayed up.

“If I was going to be a manager of any ilk, the next one was massive. It had to be the right job”

During those 12 months at Portsmouth, I was more like a chief executive than a football manager.

It started to feel like Groundhog Day. During my last six weeks there as manager, I’d turn up for training every day, then drive from the training ground to Fratton Park and have a meeting with either potential owners or the administrators. Every single day.

I knew I had to move on.

I went to Blackpool for some of the right reasons: it was an opportunity to get back up north, closer to my kids. I went in when Ian Holloway had just left, and they were struggling. It was about steadying the ship, more than anything.

And then very quickly I went to Blackburn, where there was a lot of turbulence behind the scenes with the owners. Looking back, it was a job that probably wasn’t for me at that time.

When I found that letter from Shebby Singh on my desk, I knew one thing for certain: my next job was so, so important.

Since leaving Portsmouth, I’d spent two months managing Blackpool and two months managing Blackburn.

If I was going to be a manager of any ilk, the next one was massive. It had to be the right job. As long as it was right, I was prepared to go in at any level.

Paul Thomas/Getty Images

There were five or six opportunities that came my way, but they were all to keep clubs up – firefighting. I just thought, surely, I’ve got to learn my lesson and say no to these clubs.

I waited 16 months for the right club to come along.

When I was approached by Darryl Eales and Mark Ashton – Oxford United’s then chairman and chief executive – they told me about their aim to take a side from League Two to the Championship in five years.

They had an idea for how they’d do it, and I bought into it.

When I got there, Oxford United had lost seven of their last eight games. It didn’t take me long to realise I was walking into a dressing room that had a losing culture, but I didn’t realise how difficult it would be to turn it around.

After my heaviest defeat as a manager – Cambridge United 5 Oxford United 1 – I knew things had to change.

After the game I went in the dressing room and asked the players a question I didn’t know the answer to. Never a good idea.

“How many of you have been relegated?”

Out of probably 18 or 19 people, there were only two who didn’t have their hand up.

Wow. I wasn’t expecting that.

“I told the players we were going into a bar where the Oxford fans were, to have one drink. It could have gone horribly wrong”

I phoned the chairman the next evening and said: “Darryl, I think we need to fast-forward the plan a bit.”

We had six players lined up who I knew would change the dressing room from a mentality point of view. I said we needed to try and bring in at least two of them during the January window.

I knew I had to get players in who had that winning mentality, but changing the culture went beyond that.

The relationship between the fans and the players wasn’t great, and that had to change. We decided to go to Austria for pre-season, and we made a big deal of it. The last time the team had gone into Europe for pre-season was 1985/86 – the season they won the League Cup.

We took around 2,500 fans to watch a game out there, and after the game I told the players they could have a bit of downtime. But first, I said, we were going to go into this bar where all the Oxford fans were, to have one drink.

It could have gone horribly wrong, but it was the best thing we ever did. The fans couldn’t believe it when the whole squad walked in to have a drink and a chat with them.

When I first went into Oxford, we were averaging 4,000, 4,500 fans. By the time I left, it was double that.

Matthew Lewis/Getty Images

Two things helped me to turn things around at Oxford. First: I read the book Legacy about the reasons behind the All Blacks’ success. I brought a lot of their thinking into the way I managed, and the way I dealt with players and people.

The second one was the Masters I did in Sport Directorship. It was a three-year course that took me out of my comfort zone – I was never particularly academic – and gave me some of the tools I went on to use. It also led to me meeting Jonty Castle, who I ended up bringing into the club as head of football logistics.

He was from a recruitment background in the army. I felt that, from a discipline and organisational point of view, he would be fantastic.

We did something called a SWOT analysis on the whole football department at the club: strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats.

It started with getting all the staff in a room and talking through it. What are the strengths of this place? The weaknesses? And so on.

Then Jonty interviewed all the staff, which made more sense than me doing it, in case they wanted to bring up anything I was doing or not doing.

Paul Cooper

We also started doing a lot more feedback sessions with the players. I wanted to create an environment where they felt they could say anything they wanted, at any time. For the first five or six games of the season we sat down with the players, watched 25 minutes of the game and talked about key incidents. Things we did well. Things we didn’t do so well.

At first, I led those discussions. But I told them that, in future, I wanted them to be the ones leading.

It took five or six games before the captain was the first one to step up and say: “Boss, I’ll take it. You can sit down.”

From then on, every Monday morning – or Thursday, after a Tuesday game – we’d sit down and review a game. All the staff would sit at the back of the room, players at the front, with a different one standing up after every game to take notes on what the group was saying.

When I left the club a year ago, it was for what I saw as a great opportunity to work in the Premier League at Leicester, with someone I knew really well in Craig Shakespeare. Things obviously change quickly in football, but my aspirations have always been the same: I want to get as high as I possibly can.

As a player, my opportunity to do that was cut short. But, as a manager, I’ve got plenty of time.

I’ll wait as long as it takes for that right opportunity to come around again.

Michael Appleton

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