Peterborough, 2007-2009, 2011-2015, 2019-2022
There was a specific moment when I knew I wanted to be a manager.
Not a first-team coach, or an assistant manager. A manager.
A conversation I had at the age of 28 convinced me.
It was 2001 and my manager at Wrexham, Brian Flynn, was moving upstairs under new owners. The managerial position was going to become available.
“I want you to take it,” Brian told me.
I couldn’t believe what I was hearing.
“I’m not ready,” I said. “I’m too young. I want to keep playing!”
But that conversation changed something in my head. It gave me confidence. I knew where I was going from then on. I had direction. With a big chunk of my playing career still to come, I already knew what I was going to do after it ended.
There had been some underwhelming spells in my playing days.
My time at Manchester United wasn’t as enjoyable as it might have been. It was a difficult time.
"I was overlooked, even for a backroom-staff role. It left a really bitter taste, so I left"
The year we won the league – the first year of the Premier League – I played the first 15 games before getting injured. Even so, I just never felt completely happy.
My dad was the manager and he was under pressure back then, particularly when I first joined in 1990. It just wasn’t as enjoyable as I thought it was going to be – or as you might expect it to have been, playing for United. It was difficult playing under my dad and having a working relationship with him, while in the background there was pressure on him.
Looking back on that time – and my playing career as a whole – I really feel I should have done better.
I just feel I had the potential to make more of being a player than I did in the end.
But one thing I did well was being a leader on the pitch. That must have been what caught my manager’s eye.
And then came that conversation with Brian. That gave me something to work towards.
I started doing my badges straight away. I committed to them and worked hard at them. Every summer I was doing something else to work towards getting my Pro Licence.
Steve Cooper and Steve Weaver were two of the young coaches I had at Wrexham – they were working with the youth team. Seeing them at work really inspired me.
"I want to create an environment that is good for the players to work in, and which helps foster positive relationships"
I started coaching the younger age groups in the evenings twice a week, and did that for years. By the time the manager’s job became available again in 2007, I was well on my way to finishing my Pro Licence. I felt sure it was my time to get the job.
But I was overlooked, even for a backroom-staff role. It left a really bitter taste, so I left immediately. Eight years at Wrexham, brought to a halt just like that.
Within a week I had been appointed at Peterborough.
I initially went in as player-manager. Barry Fry (below) had wanted me as a player when he was manager. Now he was upstairs at the club, he said I could be the best player in League Two and also manage a team that should be challenging at the top of the table.
I think it was a big shock that I got that job at the time. Football was different back then. You didn’t get many people getting managerial roles because of their playing career or because of their name. There was a good chance it might be my only shot, so I knew I had to make it work. My motivation was massive.
Between me and Barry, we had a lot of good contacts in the game to make use of. Everything fell into place brilliantly.
We brought in lots of young players who we felt had the hunger to succeed; players I could develop. We built up the best team spirit I’ve ever experienced. I had a fantastic connection with the players; we were like a family.
That is something I feel I am particularly good at: building a team spirit and a togetherness that can drive the team on. It’s the main thing I focus on when I first take over a team. I want to create an environment that is good for the players to work in, and which helps foster a positive relationship between the management staff and the players.
"We stopped communicating, and that was catastrophic. It became this weird standoff between us that we now laugh about"
When I sign a player, for example, I put a lot of focus into finding out about them personally, to see if they have the correct attitude and character. If they have those, then it is up to me and my coaches to improve them as players. That Peterborough team was full of players we recruited who had brilliant attitudes. We built up a collective unity that made us feel unbeatable.
A run of seven consecutive wins through March – I always seem to have a good March – saw us storm up the table and we finished second. In my first season as a manager, we won promotion.
Don’t get me wrong, we celebrated, but we also very quickly turned our attention to next season. I spoke to the chairman, Darragh MacAnthony, and he was almost unimpressed.
“Right,” he said. “On to next season then.”
Straight away, it was time to go again.
You could tell the players were confident. It was some group, looking back. Craig Mackail-Smith, George Boyd (both below), Aaron McLean. We had a really, really good team. And we all believed in ourselves.
We finished second to a very good Leicester team, and we won promotion. We’d done it again! In two years, I’d taken Peterborough from League Two to the Championship. That time, we enjoyed promotion even more.
I was making a name for myself as a manager in my own right, and that led to interest from elsewhere. West Brom and Reading both made approaches for me, but the chairman wouldn’t even let me speak to them. In truth, I had wanted to have a conversation with those clubs, but he just wouldn’t let it happen. That wasn’t great for our relationship.
"I looked at my wife and said: 'i've just made a terrible mistake"
We were both naïve going into the Championship season, and we underestimated the challenge. Then, we stopped communicating, and that was catastrophic. It became this weird standoff between us. It was stupid – we laugh about it now – but we just stopped talking.
I know now that a manager’s most important relationship is with the chairman. We let that relationship fall apart – temporarily, at least – and a few months into the next season, when we were bottom of the table, I was sacked.
I’d done something almost unthinkable in taking Peterborough up two leagues, so I definitely deserved more time.
But I understand why it happened. I showed my lack of experience with how I let things get to me. I threw my toys out the pram. Stubbornness on both of our parts got in the way of the team’s progress. Who knows what we would have achieved had we stayed together that first time?
I had a bad feeling about them both, to be honest. My gut was telling me that neither of them was right for me. But they were two great clubs. I decided that I couldn’t turn them both down.
So, I picked up the phone and accepted the Preston job. I looked at my wife and said: “I’ve just made a terrible mistake.”
I just knew.
Not because of the club – it’s a fantastic club, which nobody should be turning down. It just wasn’t the right time for me.
"when you walk in the door at a club like Preston, the players aren’t interested in what you did at Peterborough"
My first meeting with the players wasn’t good. I wasn’t as confident as you need to be, and I could tell the players were aware of that. I told them I was going to improve them, and I could tell they were unsure. It took me a long time to forge a relationship with those players.
Back in those days, I was less of a coach than I am now. I was much more a manager than a coach. I’d gone from youth coaching – and not even being very experienced at that – at Wrexham straight into first-team management at Peterborough. I had little experience of being a coach, and did far less of the tactical side of things than I do now.
At Preston, I went in after Alan Irvine, who was a proper coach. My style was a huge change for the players.
It was the least successful year of my entire career, but I still think it was the most important just because of how much I learned.
I went from managing young, hungry players who wanted to succeed and make it to the Premier League, to overseeing a group of more experienced players who were on higher wages and were, in all honesty, far less motivated.
I went in there on the back of vast success, but when you walk in the door at a bigger club like Preston, the players aren’t interested in what you did somewhere like Peterborough.
It was a huge learning curve for me, mainly in how to manage different people and personalities. We went through terrible periods when we couldn’t buy a win, and I didn’t have a great relationship with the fans.
Walking from the dugout to the tunnel at Deepdale is a very long way when you have fans screaming at you. It feels like it takes about 20 minutes!
"Through loads and loads of repetitions, the players fully got what I wanted them to do. We flew up the table"
Even though we survived in my first season, I would class my time at Preston as a failure because of how things ended, with the team bottom of the Championship midway through the next campaign. But it was still so, so important for me. I wouldn’t be the manager I am today without that experience.
If my first appointment at Peterborough had been a surprise, the second was a complete shock.
I was desperate to get straight back in, so I was keeping my eyes open for opportunities. By this point, it was 14 months since I’d been sacked by Peterborough, and I hadn’t had any contact with the chairman – I always call him ‘the chairman’. None at all; we still hadn’t spoken once.
Then, I was out with my wife taking the dog for a walk when an email alert popped up on my phone. It was the chairman.
“Can we have a chat?”
I didn’t know if he wanted advice or what. Peterborough were struggling at the time, and they’d just sacked Gary Johnson, but I still couldn’t believe he was going to ask me to come back.
After I’d left the last time, some of the players had wanted to go out for dinner as a kind of ‘thank you’ for what I’d done for them. Darragh went to the papers slagging me off for that! People would have thought there was some animosity between us.
So, it was a real shock both to me and to the fans when I got the job. There was no hesitation from me, though. I couldn’t get back quickly enough.
That was when I started doing more coaching. I was developing as a manager and became more involved in the coaching side of things. The players responded really well to it, and that gave me more confidence.
"Usually there are positives to take from hard times, but there was nothing good about this"
I also made the conscious decision to do more of the tactical stuff and changed the team’s shape to a diamond to get all of my attacking players into the team.
It worked wonders. Teams just didn’t know how to play against us. We scored goals for fun.
That was when I really found my feet tactically, and I loved the work we did on our rotations, transitions and pressing. Through loads and loads of repetitions, the players fully got what I wanted them to do. We flew up the table, finished in the playoffs as the top-scoring side in the top four tiers in England, and then won the playoffs to go up again.
We took that same approach into the Championship, and this time we achieved our goal of staying in the league. We did it quite comfortably in the end, which was a great feeling; I knew this league was where I belonged. Our performance meant we were quite confident going into the next campaign. The aim was to progress and finish a bit higher up the table.
It started terribly, though, as we lost our first seven games. Then, after winning a few, we went on a run of seven losses in eight. At Christmas we were still bottom.
I could feel the pressure. Plenty of people were saying I should be sacked, but the chairman stuck with me.
And he was proven right. We only lost six of our last 25 games. Again, the team spirit we’d built together was fantastic, and it was an incredible environment for the players to express themselves. They didn’t play like a team fearing relegation, and we were one of the best teams in the league in the second half of the season. It looked like we going to survive.
On the last day of the season, though, it all came crumbling down. We were winning 2-1 at Crystal Palace with seven minutes to go; a result that would see us jump up to 21st. Then, we conceded twice, lost the game and went down with the highest-ever points tally for a relegated side in the Championship (above).
I was utterly crestfallen.
It was the worst day I’ve had in football. There was nothing positive about it. Nothing at all.
"In my mind, it was time to go again. I had the Championship in my sights, but the club had different ideas"
Usually there are positives to take from hard times, but there really was nothing good about this.
We’d got 54 points and finished 22nd. The season before, we’d finished 10 points clear of the relegation zone with 50 points! Clearly, we now had a team capable of playing Championship-level football, but relegation meant players left and the team was broken up. I just couldn’t believe what had happened and how unlucky we’d been. It was a freak season that I don’t think will ever be repeated.
I wanted to leave straight away. I knew I couldn’t offer the club anything more, and I told the chairman as much. “I’ve done as much as I can here,” I told him.
There’s only been one season in my 15 years as a manager where I’ve not been in a promotion race or a relegation fight.
It’s been incredibly intense, and by the point of that relegation fight in 2012/13 it had taken its toll on me.
I was convinced to stay, but I couldn’t get Peterborough back out of League One, and so eventually I left.
I gave myself some time off, and just when I was feeling ready to get back in, the Doncaster Rovers job came up. A really good club. When the chance to join them came along, I was really up for it.
They were in League One at the time, and the ambition was to get into the Championship. That was where I wanted to be, having achieved what I had done with Peterborough.
But things didn’t turn out as I’d hoped. After a run of 16 games without a win towards the end of my first season there, we got relegated.
All of a sudden, I was back in League Two.
"Then came the most remarkable and frustrating season of my career, when Covid struck"
I could have been sacked, but the club stuck by me. I didn’t want to be down there at all, but I felt largely responsible for the relegation and felt a duty to get Doncaster straight back up. The board were great, and backed me, and there was no way I was letting us hang around in the fourth tier. We got straight back up at the first attempt.
In my mind, then, it was time to look at going again. I had the Championship in my sights.
But the club had different ideas. For them, the next campaign was all about consolidating in League One. We did just that – that was my one season in which I didn’t go through a promotion race or relegation battle – and at the end of that season I was ready to kick on.
The club weren’t keen, though. The owners didn’t want to go for it. They were happy with sticking where we were in League One.
It was also around that time that my dad fell ill. That was taking up some of my attention, and I just decided I couldn’t deal with a battle with the club over my transfer kitty. There were more important things to think about, and I could tell they were never going to match my ambitions. So, I resigned.
I was once again asked to return to Peterborough shortly after. I wasn’t sure, but this time we decided it would just be until the end of the season. That felt like a good move.
But the temporary position worked against me. You could tell the players weren’t fully buying into my ideas because they knew I was leaving at the end of the season.
We missed out on the playoffs by a point, but by that stage I was hooked again. There were two other owners on the board by now, and I’d struck up a good relationship with them. After the end of the season, signing up for a longer period felt right.
Then came the most remarkable and frustrating season of my career, when Covid struck.
"I’ve had five promotions as a manager, and that one was my favourite"
We were flying by the time the last game was played in March. When the season was interrupted, we’d won eight of our last 10 matches, were sixth in the table – the last playoff position – and were only three points off the automatic promotion spots.
But on points per game, we were down in seventh.
We had 11 games left when the season was stopped, and all but two of them were against teams in the bottom half of the table. If the season had been finished as normal, we wouldn’t just have made the playoffs; we would have got automatic promotion.
We were bang in form, battering good teams who were up there with us at the top. We were the top scorers in the league, and everyone in the squad was fit. There’s no doubt in my mind we would have gone up.
Eventually the decision was made to decide the league on points per game, and I was utterly heartbroken. The decision was really, really upsetting.
I knew right away that the only way to heal that wound was by getting promoted the next season.
We lost Ivan Toney (above) to Brentford that summer, so it was tough, but the motivation was huge. Both the players and I felt incredibly hard done by after what happened with Covid, and it fostered a brilliant camaraderie in the team.
We all wanted that promotion so, so much, and we worked incredibly hard for it.
"We’d reached the end of the road together, and it was time for me to go. The love affair with Peterborough was over"
I found Covid very difficult, and I took it seriously because I have bad asthma. I sat up in the stands at games and did some of my team talks outdoors. My thinking was that I didn’t know how long I’d be off for if I caught it, and I had a responsibility to the team not to let that happen. I was very careful.
Everyone rallied together, and as top scorers – yet again – we got automatic promotion.
I’ve had five promotions as a manager, and that one was my favourite. It was two seasons wrapped up in one, and we wanted it so, so much. To get over the line after such a long time was just such an incredible feeling.
I’ve had many achievements in my career – not least those five promotions, selling players for fees totalling more than £30m despite never managing higher than the Championship, and building some really, really good teams along the way – but the joy at that promotion will not be beaten.
Unfortunately, we didn’t establish ourselves in the Championship this time. We underestimated it as a club, and we weren’t ambitious enough with our investment. I just couldn’t see the club getting to where I felt they needed to be to stay in the league, so in February 2022 I decided to leave. I couldn’t face the prospect of being back in League One, and I thought someone else might be able to save them from the drop.
It was as far as I could go with Peterborough. We’d reached the end of the road together, and it was time for me to go. The love affair with Peterborough was over. It’s a club I love dearly, but we all knew it was right to call time then.
I’ve had plenty of offers to go back in, but I’ve got no interest in taking a job for the sake of it. It’s important to enjoy the time off and recuperate, but also to have a hard think about what I want from my next job. Then, I can take my time and wait for the right one to come along. I want to go somewhere with real potential; a project I can get my teeth stuck into.
"I’ve done everything in my career off my own back, and it will be no different going forwards from here"
I think I’ll know when it’s the right club.
Some people might assume I’d lean on my dad for help getting a job. He’s helped a lot of people get jobs over the years, but I’ve never once let him make a phone call for me.
I always ask him for guidance and advice. He’s obviously a brilliant person to be able to call on in that regard, but I have never had a hand getting a job through being Sir Alex Ferguson’s son.
I’ve done everything in my career off my own back, and it will be no different going forwards from here.
I’m not going to be doing this until I’m 70, like my dad. But before I retire, I’d like to firmly establish myself in the Championship, where I feel I belong.
More than anything, though, I want to enjoy myself. I’ve done it for 15 years already, and I’ve learned this job is best when you let yourself enjoy your work.
Author: Ali Tweedale