Bristol Rovers, 2019-2020
I was given a pamphlet with four passing drills in it.
That was it. First day, there’s your team, get on with it.
I was starting out with the Crystal Palace Under-11 team. It was a part-time role, initially, so I also took a job as head of PE at a nearby prep school – three afternoons a week there, teaching football and then cricket in the summer.
Then I got a job at a local sixth form college in the mornings, and was already working with a couple of non-league clubs on my spare evenings. It was busy – 60, 70 hours a week of work and coaching – but by combining it all I earned enough to be able to carry on doing what I loved. My passion was coaching and I wanted to do it as much as I possibly could.
By the time I started at Palace, I had already been coaching for several years and had so many ideas I thought could be relevant – and it was a great time to work in the Academy system. There’s a lot more structure in academies now than when I started at Palace in 2004, but it was fantastic for me to have that freedom. The Under-11s was my base, but I’d watch the other teams, the older age groups, go and watch other coaches elsewhere – learning, adapting and adding to my beliefs all the time.
I moved up to the Under-13s, then the Under-16s, and after that I went full-time and combined several roles. One season I was head coach for the Under-15 team but also assistant with the Under-18s; the following season, we set up a full-time schools programme that I designed and oversaw. On reflection, that was like getting three years of experience in a single season – three different teams, three different sets of coaching. It was morning, noon and night, but it really accelerated my learning as a coach and I loved it.
“The football in tight areas was incredible – they were basically recreating street football”
I wanted to be the best coach I could be, but I also wanted to do the best for each and every one of the players I was coaching. In that area, some of the young players don’t have very much – there may be problems at school, problems at home. Football was their release, their chance.
But there were wonderfully talented players coming through. I remember one group of Under-15 and Under-16 players training together. Victor Moses was in there, Sean Scannell, Nathaniel Clyne, John Bostock too. We had this dome that was 60 yards by 40 yards, and it must have been 10-a-side in there – it was crowded, absolutely no space. The standard of the football in such tight areas was incredible, though. They were basically recreating street football; the challenge from a coaching perspective was to educate them without restricting their natural ability.
In relation to how you were taught to work with players on the coaching badges, it could be the complete opposite with someone like Wilfried Zaha. You might stop a game at a point where he’d be surrounded by three players, pressure from every angle. Following a coaching protocol, what should he do? Pass to a teammate elsewhere who’s unopposed. But then he’d do something magical with his feet and be away and gone, all three defenders left standing. That’s why working in the Academy at Crystal Palace was such a fantastic grounding as a coach.
Aaron Wan-Bissaka (above) was among the first intake of the school programme, and I think he really benefited from having full-time contact with the club at that age. He’d have been 13 or 14; raw and spontaneous, not unlike Wilf in a lot of ways, but with that extra technical and tactical time under the good coaches we had on that programme, he blossomed. Now he’s playing week in, week out at the highest level with Manchester United. It’s fantastic to see.
Stepping up to the first team at Palace was a gradual process. A lot of the staff had left to go to Bolton with Dougie Freedman in October 2012, and in the interim I’d stepped up from the Under-18s to take the Under-21s, as it was then. That lasted maybe six or seven weeks, but within that I’d started taking sections of first-team training – maybe with the forwards at the end of a session or for the warm-up before a home game.
Later that season, I’d gone in to watch a home game against Birmingham. We lost 4-0, but afterwards Ian Holloway, who had replaced Dougie, turned to me: “You’re with me now. You’re coming up with us full-time. I need another coach, and I really like you. I’ll sort it with the Academy.”
“that group was the bedrock for the period of success palace have had in the premier league”
Because of the way we trained at Palace, with the first team and academy players in such close proximity, it wasn’t like I was going into a totally new environment. There were already relationships there, and that particular squad was a really motivated, highly driven group of professionals – they were always fully focused from the first second of training.
For me, as a coach, that was brilliant pressure. I made sure the structure of training and the content was always of the highest standard, and the players thrived on it because of how driven they were. That group won promotion to the Premier League that season, and then the following year finished 11th with what would definitely have been a bottom-three budget.
Mile Jedinak (below, centre) was the captain, and he was intense in a good way – a major driver in their very high standards. There were a good number of senior pros around him, too. Damien Delaney, Paddy McCarthy, Peter Ramage – some of those guys maybe didn’t play too much in the Premier League, but they still drove the group and were a huge influence around the training ground. Julian Speroni was a much more reserved character, but a brilliant professional.
That culture filtered down to the younger players and those who came into the club. Adrian Mariappa, Scott Dann, Joel Ward, Jason Puncheon – they all took on leadership responsibilities; James McArthur was a fantastic professional. Younger, hungry players with real talent would come through and look up to these players – guys like Wilfried Zaha, Yannick Bolasie, Jonny Williams.
When you get that at a club, it’s a perfect mix – and it wasn’t all manager-driven. There were four different managers in that two year-period, and of course they all had an impact, but the underlying core was the drive and culture of those players. There was such a hunger for success; that group was the bedrock for the period of success and sustainability Palace have had in the Premier League since.
If you’re a club outside the top six in the Premier League, you need to be at 95 per cent or above in every single game. Otherwise, you’re just not going to win. Intensity, application, effort – you have to be on it the whole time. I immersed myself in the job, but also kept the emphasis on learning as much as I could – both within the club and from our opponents. What was it that made the top teams so good? Why were those players and those coaches successful? It was a fantastic learning curve. I would be watching hours and hours of games each week, trying to identify how we could beat these established Premier League clubs – and from that plan training sessions to get the most out of our players.
“at west brom, i had been recruited externally and on my own merits”
We had a slow start in that first season, though, and Tony Pulis replaced Ian Holloway. As a group, the one thing we lacked was real Premier League experience – but Tony came in on the back of 10 years at Stoke, and he was very confident in his methods. People thought: “This guy knows what it takes to stay in this league.” Everyone bought into it, and we thrived on Tony’s work ethic and organisation.
Neil Warnock came in for a short period after Tony, and then Alan Pardew took the base that those before him had built and freed everything up a bit – which, again, felt like the right approach at the right time. We ended up having a wonderful season and finishing 10th.
When I look back at that time, I think I wouldn’t have learned anywhere near as much as I did under just one manager. Four managers in three seasons, all successful in their own right, all strong personalities, all very different. Being able to see them at work – dealing with the media, handling difficult situations with players and agents, managing upwards to the board – taught me some amazing lessons I can take into my own career as a number one.
I didn’t know Tony Pulis (above) prior to him taking over as manager, but I earned his trust and, before he left Palace, he had started giving me more responsibility. He called me about joining him at West Brom, where he said I would get even more in terms of delivering pre-game tactical meetings, structuring the analysis how I wanted and having a strong input into the coaching.
I knew the way Tony worked, his strong emphasis on defensive organisation and set-pieces, so I saw my role as, right, how can we be a threat in an attacking sense? How do we make best use of the ball when we have it and be as ruthless as possible on counter-attacks? I liked that challenge, but the time was also right for me to make that move. I had been at Palace for 11 years and was always going to be seen as someone who had worked their way up through the academy; now, at West Brom, I had been recruited externally by another Premier League club and on my own merits.
The other thing that really excited me when I went into the club was the young players. I looked at the talent coming through the academy and it reminded me of what I had seen at Palace a few years earlier. Tyler Roberts, Jonny Leko, Sam Field, Rekeem Harper, Kane Wilson, Nathan Ferguson – below them was Morgan Rogers, who is now at Manchester City. I looked at that group of young players, at a really good academy led by Mark Harrison, and I saw a group around which you could have built a team over the next four or five seasons.
“i spent a day with eddie jones and the england rugby team during a six nations camp”
Four or five of them would be with our core first-team group every day, training and travelling with us, and they offered a great balance to the seasoned professionals who had been there and done it. Darren Fletcher was a fantastic captain who influenced everyone around him; then there were established senior professionals in Chris Brunt, James Morrison, Gareth McAuley, Jonas Olsson, and we had a couple of South Americans – Claudio Yacob and Salomón Rondón – who were good leaders in the group too.
My second season there, 2016/17, we finished 10th. We’d been around eighth for most of the season and just fell away at the end, which was disappointing, but I felt that was the time for the club to really kick on. With the right investment, a bit more athleticism and dynamism in the squad to complement the experience and exciting young players coming through, and a bit more quality to improve in possession, the club could have established itself as a top-10 Premier League team. Unfortunately, that wasn’t to be.
When I left West Brom in December 2017, I planned to take a sabbatical until the end of the season. I had coached non-stop from 2004 – I wanted a break, and a chance to reflect and see if I could make that step and get a manager’s job.
I enjoyed that period. I spent time with my family, visited a lot of clubs, spoke to technical directors, coaches and people in other sports – I spent a day with Eddie Jones and the England rugby team during a Six Nations camp. I learned as much as I could, reflected and looked forward, with the aim of getting back in somewhere that summer.
I was offered a job in League One, at a club I felt had great potential, but quite late in negotiations the job changed in terms of the control of key factors such as team selection. So I walked away quite late in the process, which was disappointing because I had turned down a couple of other opportunities and now those ships had sailed.
“it is impossible to work in india and not be humbled by the experience”
After a time, I had the chance to go to India with Steve Coppell, who was manager of ATK in Kolkata. Steve was someone I had looked up to for a number of years, growing up as I did at Crystal Palace and in the local area – so the opportunity to work with him and experience both football and life in India, taking myself out of my comfort zone, was an opportunity I felt I had to take.
Football-wise, it was a challenge. Technically and tactically, it was a really good league, but physically there was a much lower tempo; because of the style of play combined with the heat and humidity. But I loved working with the Indian players – their desire to learn and improve every single day, you gave everything to try and help them do that – along with players from Brazil, Nigeria, Cameroon and Spain. Getting to know them all as people, and then understand how to try to get the best from them, was incredible – as was the opportunity for me to speak Spanish in a football setting.
I think it is impossible to work in India and not be humbled by the experience. My heart goes out to the Indian people, who have been through so much with Covid-19. I hope and pray the pandemic is quickly brought under control.
The opportunity came up to become manager at Bristol Rovers just before Christmas in 2019. At the time, the club was fourth in League One, but the owner and board wanted to completely change the identity of the club moving forwards.
So my remit going in was to change the style of play, build infrastructure – both in terms of facilities and staff – lower the wage bill, generate profits in transfer fees, bring in young players who could be developed and, over time, build a team that could challenge for promotion. It was a good fit for me, and I was excited by the challenge.
In the short term, there were difficulties to overcome in terms of facilities, food and logistics – so we had to be very creative as a staff.
Graham Coughlan, the previous manager, had done an incredible job to get the group to where they were when I arrived. But I don’t think you can have success moving forwards, sustainably, if you haven’t got a good infrastructure – and that was my challenge.
“we went back to the beginning: get foundations in place and start building upwards”
My focus was on getting a training ground and having a base with pitches on which we could train every day. My priority was going to be pushing to improve every aspect of the club to get it to where it should be, and to where it would allow future progress. I had spent the majority of my career in the Premier League. I knew what it took to get there and I knew the standards that would be required.
Could results have been better in that first season? Without doubt. We missed a penalty in the 89th minute against Fleetwood with the score at 0-0. We had a one-on-one in the last minute against Tranmere to win the game. We were 1-0 up at Bolton and conceded late from a corner (below) – the only goal we conceded from a corner during that period. There were so many opportunities to win games and it didn’t quite happen – they are the fine margins in football, of course, and ultimately as manager you are judged on the results.
However, I felt the priority was building infrastructure and delivering on the football and business model that the club wanted to put in place – even if that meant criticism for me in the short term.
So we went back to the beginning: get the foundations in place and start building upwards. The biggest priority was the training ground. Fortunately, the owner had a site that could be developed and the first phase of this was undertaken. This would provide the training surfaces and facilities required to work to a high level every day. Medical staff, sports science staff and analysis staff were recruited. Analysis software and tools were added so training could be filmed every day, tactical meetings could be produced, and the players could have their own individual clips.
Alongside this, we brought on board an external recruitment company to provide data and added weight to our recruitment processes. We felt it was important to have a nutritionist and a strength and conditioning coach, neither of which we had before, and worked really hard on building a culture within the squad.
We were also keen to provide pathways for young players from the academy, such as Zain Walker (below) and Tom Mehew. I developed a good relationship with the academy manager, Chris Hargreaves, and there were some good staff within the academy set-up. We wanted to align the club with a single purpose and a clear philosophy.
“it felt like we were on an upward curve – within three weeks i was sacked”
In terms of our remit, we ticked a lot of boxes. We lowered the average age of the squad considerably, generated significant profits in transfer fees and reduced the wage bill. We were growing as a group, with a developing playing identity.
The targets given to me of improving infrastructure, creating an identity, and developing young players were all well under way – all alongside a training ground being developed. Unfortunately, after going through that process and putting in an incredible amount of work across the club, the situation changed after seven league games of the new season.
This was very frustrating, as we were having our best spell since I’d come in as manager. We’d put in a very strong performance in beating Northampton, played really well at Oxford in the EFL Trophy with a very young team, won away at Lincoln – who were top of the league at the time – drawn at home to Burton and then won away at Shrewsbury. It felt like we were on an upward curve and you could feel all the hard work coming together. It was a real blow that changes were to be made in how we had worked up until that point, and within three weeks I was sacked.
Ultimately, football is a volatile industry and you have to take the lessons from the experiences and move on. As always in life, there were a number of factors outside my control – but my focus has been on taking ownership of as much as I can. What did I do well and, most importantly, what could I improve?
I’ve watched every training session, every game and every interview back in detail in order to identify how to get better. I put a review document together and critically analysed each area of the role. On top of that, I’ve spoken with numerous managers, coaches, technical directors and experts in their fields – including from other sports and industries. My drive remains to be the best I can be, and that comes from working hard to improve every single day.
“brendan rodgers is someone i really admire”
I’ve also taken the opportunity to reframe my career. If you’d have said to me at 24 years old, on my first day with the Crystal Palace Under-11s, that by the age of 40 I would have won a Championship playoff final, coached in the Premier League for five seasons, worked in the Indian Super League and been a head coach in League One, I would absolutely have taken it.
Now I’m looking ahead, excited about what the future holds. I have learned an incredible amount, and I think I have a lot to offer to the right club and the right people. The important thing for me now is the organisation and their beliefs and ideas. I’d love to be a manager or head coach again, but if it’s another role at a club or organisation where I see a vision or way of working that I can buy into, then that’s what is most important to me.
Brendan Rodgers is someone I really admire, and during lockdown I spoke with him about his time at Reading and then his subsequent journey. It didn’t work out at Reading because it wasn’t the right fit and he wasn’t given enough time to implement the changes to make it work. Brendan then got the opportunity at Swansea, though – that was a perfect fit, and he has gone on to have great success with Liverpool, Celtic and now Leicester.
After two decades of coaching, my passion and hunger remain as strong as ever. All of the experiences along the way have put me in a great position for the future. I am looking forward to a new challenge and the opportunity to keep doing what I love. I know there is a lot more to come, and that is what excites me.