Norwich City, 2015-2017
I can tell you the exact moment I knew – for sure – that we were going to go up. It was actually straight after a defeat.
My Norwich team played Middlesbrough at home on a Friday night. It was April 2015, three games from the end of the season.
We were second, one point off Bournemouth, level on points with Watford and one point ahead of Middlesbrough, who were fourth. Clearly, this was a huge game.
We battered them. We played them off the park and missed chance after chance. But, at a corner, the ball came off Alex Tettey and flew into his own net (below). We ended up losing 1-0.
After the game, I walked into the dressing room and Alex was crying in the corner. The game meant that much to him. You could see the disappointment in the players.
We’d dropped out of the automatic promotion spots with two games to play, but from that moment on there was no doubt in my mind that we’d go up.
When I’d gone in at Norwich in January of that year, I felt the team had lost focus. There was a lack of intensity.
The group was so talented for the level they were playing at, but there was something missing.
You want your players to be relaxed and enjoy themselves, but I do feel there has to be a level of intensity. That was one of the main things I looked to change quickly after going in.
“I could affect games with my leadership, telling others where to go and what to do”
In that moment in the dressing room, when I saw how down the players were, and I’d watched them put in the effort they had just given – I knew we were going up.
People hadn’t known who I was when I moved to Norwich. I had played some games down in England, but not to a very high level, and had spent most of my career at Hamilton Academical.
But at the time that I made the move, all I’d known for the past 18 months was winning. I was still only 33, and only had two years of management under my belt, but I’d had a lot of experience of winning games.
Late in my 20s, while playing for Hamilton, I got a really bad hip injury. I had surgery, but we realised after I tried to make my comeback that the operation hadn’t gone very well.
I had to go in again. Both times, the recovery was 10 to 12 weeks. That meant I had a lot of spare time on my hands.
I had been a decent player, but I didn’t stand out technically or physically. I was a good leader, though, and I could affect games with my organisational skills and leadership; telling others where to go and what to do. Billy could tell I was suited to coaching.
I got started on my badges, and I worked with the club’s Under-17s and Under-20s. I got a couple of years’ experience with those youth sides, and then there was a major change at Hamilton.
Billy left in April 2013. There were seven games of the league season left, and the club asked me if I would take the job.
“Then, completely out of the blue, came a call from norwich”
To be honest, I didn’t want it. I just didn’t feel at all ready to be a manager.
But I’d been captain for eight years. I was so influential there. I had a lot of sway on the dynamics of the club; on the dressing room.
My thinking was: if I don’t take the job, someone new might decide it’s the end for me. I felt I couldn’t turn it down.
I had mixed emotions, because I was really sad that Billy had left, but I also really wanted to succeed. I’d only been given the interim job for the remaining seven games, so my focus was just to win the next match. I didn’t do much planning ahead.
After a manager is sacked, players suddenly know there is nobody else to blame for the bad performances. That can motivate them quickly, and I saw that happen at Hamilton.
I tried to bring a freshness to training – and I think that, combined with added motivation for the players, meant it all clicked.
We made some good signings, and we started to win games. Our momentum built, and with it came more confidence. The wins just kept on coming, and that positive feeling rolled on – basically for a year and a half! We won promotion to the Scottish Premiership and had some great times up there, including a win over Celtic. As I said, we got very used to winning.
Then, completely out of the blue in January 2015, came a call from Norwich.
Hamilton had been my home for nine years. There wasn’t even a thought in my head about leaving.
“I loved derbies, partly because I had so much success in them”
But Norwich had just dropped out of the Premier League. I can’t think of any other manager who had made such a big move in the previous decade as I did when I moved from Hamilton to Norwich. I just couldn’t say no.
There were probably some doubts about me. But I didn’t find the prospect of turning things around for Norwich – who were seventh in the Championship at the time – at all daunting. I felt quite relaxed about the challenge. There was no apprehension at all. I felt very, very used to winning.
I got everyone pulling in the same direction, and we started winning games.
After the Middlesbrough defeat, there was too much ground to make up to the top two, so we finished in the playoff spots.
We played Ipswich in the playoff semi final. Obviously, that was a huge game for the fans, and I was well aware how much this game was going to mean to them.
I always loved derbies as a player and a manager – partly because I had so much success in them.
I played or managed in 14 of those games, and I only lost one.
“fifteen minutes in, I knew the game was over”
I’ve always paid particular attention to the derbies. Bragging rights mean so much for the fans, and your job as a manager is to make sure the fans are happy. I – almost always – made sure they had a good day.
The semi final was no different, and we beat Ipswich to make it to Wembley for the final. Once again, we came up against Middlesbrough.
This time around, we did plenty of homework. We found that, in almost three seasons under Aitor Karanka, Boro had only come from behind to win twice. Twice. In nearly three seasons. The first goal was more important than ever when you played them.
They were very well organised; defensively very, very good. If they got the first goal, they were very, very hard to break down.
I remember thinking: “Do I go for it, and leave the team a bit exposed to conceding that first goal? Or do I set the team up to match their caginess, and try and hold out?”
The latter option just didn’t come naturally to me. I’ve never done that before. We went for it.
Fifteen minutes into the game, we were 2-0 up. Genuinely, I knew the game was over.
“It was a whirlwind. When the game was over at Wembley, I just felt so tired”
One goal was always tough for this Boro team to recover from, so two – against the quality we had – was going to be a big, big ask for them.
We controlled the game with the ball in the first half, and then we controlled it without the ball in the second. It was an incredible performance.
I’m not sure I enjoyed the day quite as much as I should have, though. I don’t think I took in the magnitude of what we had managed to do.
To be honest, I was just knackered. After the game, I spoke to the players, and then went and sat on my own in the coach’s changing room. I was exhausted.
In the space of two years, I’d gone from playing for Hamilton and coaching two of their youth teams, to taking Hamilton to the Scottish Premiership, where I worked so hard to make a good fist of it, to taking Norwich into the Premier League. It was a whirlwind. When the game was over at Wembley, I just felt so tired.
I do look back on that with a bit of sadness, because I didn’t really take it all in or enjoy it as much as I should have – or as much as the players did!
“Winning unexpectedly against bigger teams has been a theme throughout my career”
The thing is, with football, it’s like a never-ending mountain climb. No matter how far you get and how tired you are, you want more. Nobody is ever satisfied. That makes management an incredibly difficult and tiring job.
Once we’d had what felt like five minutes’ rest after the playoff final, it was time for the Premier League.
We actually started the season well. We beat Sunderland away, we beat Bournemouth, and we drew away to Liverpool and West Ham. By the end of September, we were in mid-table.
But what I found so difficult about the Premier League was the constant shifts in mindset you had to get from the players. One week you’d be playing Manchester City or Chelsea, where the aim was just to be as defensively solid as possible. Then the next week, you were playing the teams around you in the table, and you absolutely have to pick up some wins. The games come along so quickly that it’s just so hard to prepare properly, and to get the players used to switching from being relatively defensive to relatively attacking in the space of a few days.
In the Championship, we could be as expansive as we wanted. We could risk losing the ball because we had the players to win it back. In the Premier League, if you lose the ball, you might not see it for five minutes. Worse still, you might be playing a team set up to counter, and you risk conceding a goal inside five or 10 seconds.
We were always aggressive, though. We went to Old Trafford, and we didn’t shy away from it – we gave them a real battle, went 2-0 up and came away with a win. There were also draws with Arsenal and Man City.
“You want to be able to recognise your team from their style of play – and mine did that in the Premier League”
Winning unexpectedly against the bigger teams has been a bit of a theme throughout my career, and I love the tactical side of those battles. Spotting the patterns of play big teams use, and trying to work out ways to stop them, is one of my strengths. I think I do a good job of making my players believe they can win those games, too.
In hindsight, though, I think we were too aggressive in the more important games – those against the teams we were battling relegation alongside.
Getting the balance right against the lesser sides was something we could certainly have done better. That’s a big lesson from my year in the Premier League.
I was incredibly proud of the team I took into the Premier League, though. As a manager, you want to be able to watch your team in black and white and be able to recognise them from their style of play. I can safely say my team did that for me, particularly in the first 12 to 15 games of the season.
We finished on 34 points, which has kept plenty of teams up before – so we weren’t far off achieving our goal of survival.
I was managing in the Premier League at 34 years old, and a lack of experience hurt me in the end. I know now I should have looked further into the future when we got promoted, and made some plans for a couple of years down the line. We should have strengthened more then. The team could have been more conservative at times.
I learned an awful lot in my time at Norwich, and all of those experiences – good and bad – have only made me a better manager today.