Hull City, 2019-2022
You always hear people say: “I have no regrets.” I definitely have some.
When I was a young player, I could have been more professional. I always had a bit of an edge about myself. I’d talk back to the coaches if they had a go at me. And when I got a bit older, I had too much interest in Saturday nights.
I regret not taking it more seriously. They weren’t the actions of a player desperate to make it to the top, even though I’d put all of my eggs in one basket.
From the moment I signed for West Ham at 14, I had no interest in school. It was all about being a professional footballer. I should have tried harder and done better in school, and I was lucky to be able to make it as a player.
I moved over from Belfast and into digs with Michael Carrick in Barking, which was really tough. We had to get a bus over to Chadwell Heath every morning, and I had to fend for myself at a very young age.
It was a very different place to the Northern Ireland I’d left behind, though. I grew up through the Troubles, and my parents pushed me to make the most of the opportunity I’d been given. They kept telling me there was nothing for me back in Belfast, and they were delighted that I might have a route out of there.
In my first year, I found it all a bit of a chore. I didn’t appreciate what I had and didn’t really enjoy it. I wasn’t knuckling down.
I was on the verge of not being offered a professional contract, so I got my head down and worked. My parents pushed me, and I made a real effort to keep my mouth shut and make it at West Ham.
"Harry sent me out on loan to Livingston to give me 'a kick up the backside'"
Most kids who got a scholarship and moved over from Northern Ireland or Scotland would also be offered a professional contract to show that they weren’t just going to be dropped after two years. I wasn’t given that safety net.
So, I had to earn my contract. I managed to do what I needed to do and signed as a pro with West Ham the next year.
It was an incredible time for talent at the club. As well as Carrick, I was playing with Frank Lampard, Joe Cole, Jermain Defoe, Rio Ferdinand. It was a cauldron of talent.
We had Harry Redknapp, Frank Lampard Snr (both below) and Tony Carr guiding us, and senior players like Julian Dicks, Iain Dowie, John Moncur and Paolo Di Canio to learn from. The tough part of digs, combined with the footballing education I got, gave me a really good grounding that I was lucky to have.
The following year, Harry sent me out on loan to Livingston to give me – in his words – “a kick up the backside”.
This was men’s football. It felt like life or death for these guys. It was a real shock for me, but it gave me exactly what I needed. Harry was brilliant at knowing how to help talented young players improve, and that loan was perfect for me at that time. As a coach now, I try to recognise when my players could do with a loan down to a lower level.
I was more mature by this point. Although I still didn’t take my career as seriously as I should have, I became more and more professional as the years went on.
I knew football was all I was ever going to do, but I gave no consideration to life after playing the game until I was at Scunthorpe. As I approached 30, while playing under Nigel Adkins, I started to think about the game in a deeper way. I wanted to know more about the decisions behind us doing certain sessions, or why certain players weren’t playing.
"Within a year and a half of becoming assistant, I was Peterborough manager"
I didn’t ask questions in front of other players, but I went to Nigel and asked him to explain things to me. They were my first steps into becoming a coach.
When I left Scunthorpe and went to Peterborough, I started on my badges – and I raced through them. I was training in the mornings, coaching the Under-15s in the evenings and working on my badges around all of that. Oh, and still playing matches for Peterborough, too!
As I came towards the end of my career, I was playing less and less – which at the time I didn’t take too well, to be honest. But I put more energy into coaching the Under-15s, and I absolutely loved it.
I had a short stint with Linfield back in Northern Ireland, but then I got a call from Dave Robertson, who had just taken over as Peterborough manager. He wanted me to end my playing career and come back as his assistant.
I jumped at the opportunity. And that was how I made the move into full-time coaching.
Within a year and a half, I was Peterborough manager.
I was incredibly proud to get that job. I’d been a lot of the players’ teammate not long before, which I actually think helped me as manager because I had such a good relationship with them all. I also had a great relationship with the club and the fans.
I’d been trusted by Peterborough as a player, as the Under-15s coach, as assistant, and now as manager. I just wanted to make those in charge pleased that they’d made the right decision.
"I had a real fire in my belly. Doncaster felt like an opportunity to prove some people wrong"
We did well, and finished in mid-table in League One in my first season in management. That was a good performance, given the team’s budget, and in my second season we were challenging for the playoff positions for much of the season.
Looking back at that period, I do think I worked too hard. I took it so, so seriously. I struggled to switch off. I didn’t know how to deal with losing. I was analysing every last detail of games we’d lost.
There were times when I’d sleep at the training ground just to avoid having to go home and face my family. They never did anything to make me feel bad or anything like that. I just built up this idea in my mind that I’d let everyone down: the owner, the fans, my wife and kids.
Equally, when we won, it felt incredible. Really, the highs were too high, and the lows were too low. I learned an awful lot from that experience, and I’m a completely different manager and person now. I’ve mellowed out a lot.
I had a bit of time out of the game after I got sacked in February 2018, but applied for the Doncaster Rovers job later that year. I was really excited by the role and submitted my application quickly.
I then had a yearly golf trip to La Manga coming up with a group of mates. My bags were packed, and I was ready to go.
The phone rang. It was Doncaster asking me to come up for an interview.
I asked my wife if she thought I could ask them to delay a week. She was pretty clear with her answer.
"We were attack-minded and scored a lot of goals. We might have been too open at times, but we were a lot of fun"
“Put your golf bags down and get up to Doncaster right now.”
I’m delighted she made me see sense. The interview process was fantastic. I got on well with the owners, and they offered me the job soon after.
I had a real fire in my belly. I felt that I wasn’t given enough time at Peterborough, and I could have achieved what was wanted of me had I been allowed to stay until the end of the season. I believe I could have got them into the top six and into the playoffs.
Doncaster felt like an opportunity to prove those people wrong. This was another League One side, but with an even smaller budget.
The first thing I did was get a better team of staff around me, namely bringing in Cliff Byrne as my assistant. He has been brilliant for me as my number two ever since.
When I spoke to the press before the first game, I said we wanted to get Doncaster into the Championship, and that shocked a few people. I think that ‘edge’ I mentioned earlier was shining through again. I really wanted to prove myself.
We played on the front foot: high energy, high pressing, possession-based football. I’d played a 3-4-2-1 at Peterborough, but I quickly realised we didn’t have the players to do that at Doncaster. We played a 4-3-3, and it was a very different team to my Peterborough side; the rotations and movements were different. But I think you could still see it was one of my teams. We were attack-minded and scored a lot of goals. We might have been a little too open at times, but we were a lot of fun.
"I’d been so disappointed that I hadn’t made it to the Championship with Doncaster, and this was a chance to get there immediately"
We were one of the top-scoring sides in the league, and we snuck into the playoffs.
We faced Charlton in the semi finals, and Lee Bowyer had them playing really well. They’d finished third and we’d come sixth, so nobody gave us much of a chance. We lost the first leg 2-1 at home, so that meant even fewer people thought we could beat them.
I spent the whole time in the lead-up to the second leg trying to take the pressure off the players. Training was more relaxed, and everything I said to the press was an attempt to put pressure on Charlton.
We put in one of our best performances of the season and won 2-1 in 90 minutes. The game went to extra-time, and we scored again – only for Charlton to equalise and then beat us on penalties.
I think the manager I am now might have been a bit more cautious in the first leg. I thought we had to get a win at home so I went for it, when really a draw would have been a good result. I’m not naturally a cautious manager, but I’ve learned that it’s important to be a bit careful sometimes.
Cliff and I knuckled down for a summer of hard work. We lost a lot of players whose contracts or loan deals were ending, so we had a lot of recruitment to do. We got ahead of the game with a few very good players, who we agreed deals with early on. We were excited about the season ahead.
But then my agent got a call from Hull. They wanted me to take over there.
"the owner told me that he’d brought me in to play a certain way, and that I should stick to that"
I’d been so disappointed that I hadn’t made it to the Championship with Doncaster, and this was a chance to get there immediately. It wasn’t an easy decision at all, but it was an opportunity I couldn’t turn down.
I had to phone around the players we’d agreed to sign for Doncaster and explain the situation. There was a lad called Reece James – who’s now at Sheffield Wednesday – who I convinced to join me at Doncaster after meeting him and his dad, only for the Hull call to come the very next day. That was a really tough conversation to have, but I think he’s just about forgiven me now!
At Hull, the size of the club struck me instantly. The set-up was amazing. You could feel the potential this club had.
We made an amazing start to the season. I was bold with our football and I was bold in my press conferences. We were aiming for the Premier League, I said. And at the turn of the year we weren’t far off the playoff positions.
Then we lost Jarrod Bowen and Kamil Grosicki to Premier League teams in the January transfer window. That meant a huge proportion of our goals and assists were gone.
We tried to get other players in to replace them like for like, but that was such a big ask of anyone. Replacing players of that quality was a tremendous task.
The goals dried up and we started to slip down the table. I didn’t recognise it at the time, but I think the players lost a lot of belief. Once that had gone, we really struggled.
Looking back, maybe I should have changed things up and gone more conservative with my football. But at the time, I didn’t want to compromise my beliefs – and the owner told me that he’d brought me in to play a certain way, and that I should stick to that.
"Even though we got relegated, there is still part of me that is glad I stuck to my guns"
But we went into freefall, tumbling down the league and ended up finishing bottom. We had a terrible day at Wigan when we lost 8-0, which was difficult to recover from. It was the only time I’ve ever felt a team just give up.
I did get a nice text from Ralph Hasenhüttl that week, though. He’d lost two Premier League games 9-0 when he was Southampton manager.
“These things happen,” he said. “It’s football. You’ll recover from this.”
He’d gone out of his way to get my number and send that, which I really appreciated.
Even though we got relegated, there is still part of me that is glad I stuck to my guns. I know I’m a better manager after having gone through that experience.
Truth be told, though, I don’t know if I deserved to keep my job. I take full responsibility for what happened. Managers have to be accountable.
But the owner came to me after the last game of the season and told me not to worry. He told me he trusted me to bring the club straight back up.
And I did.
"I mentioned earlier how I’d matured as a young player, and I think I’ve gone through something similar as a manager"
It was hard to pick the players up after the way the season ended. It was the year when football was stopped due to Covid, so we had been playing in front of empty stands. We had a load of players who didn’t want to play because their contracts were up and they didn’t want to risk an injury that might scupper a move elsewhere, and we were losing games near enough every week.
So, when the season ended, we made a conscious decision to recruit characters. Footballing ability was of course important, but first and foremost we wanted characters. People who were going to set standards in training and demand the best from everyone around them. The signings of Richie Smallwood, Lewie Coyle and Greg Docherty did exactly what we’d hoped.
The squad was transformed. These players kept everyone on their toes, which was so important. There was so much desire in the squad to get us straight back up, and we went on to win the league. The icing on the cake was that we won the title by beating Wigan, who had given us such a terrible day the season before.
The most pleasing thing about the achievement was what the owner said to me afterwards, though. He told me he was delighted that we’d stuck to our principles, and got promoted by doing exactly what we’d set out to do. It was great to know that we had stuck to our guns and it had worked.
Our task going back into the Championship was made even more difficult by the club being put under a transfer embargo. That meant we could only sign players on free transfers. And we had the lowest wage budget in the league, as well.
We played half the season with rumours of an imminent takeover persisting, but we were more than competitive. When the takeover happened and I was sacked in January 2022, we were six points clear of the relegation zone. To come through all of those issues and have the team looking good to stay up is something I’m really proud of.
My stock was high at the time, and I was keen to get straight back in. I spoke to Sunderland about taking over until the end of the season, and got calls from Charlton, too. Two huge clubs.
"I’ve also worked hard to improve, and I think I’ve done that in just about every aspect"
But my family had been settled near Peterborough for a long time, and I’d been away from home for four and a half years. My wife’s dad had just died, so it just felt right to have another crack at Peterborough.
I took over with the team second from bottom of the Championship. My first game was against – would you believe it – Hull. My own Hull team beat us 3-0.
The club already seemed resigned to relegation, and although we finished the season well I just couldn’t keep them up. And what I did with them in League One wasn’t deemed enough, so in January 2023 I left Peterborough United for the third time in my career – this time with the team just five points and two positions off the playoff places.
I mentioned earlier how I’d matured as a young player, and I think I’ve gone through something similar as a manager. I’m definitely calmer than I used to be. I don’t take things to heart as much as I used to.
I’ve also worked hard to improve, and I think I’ve done that in just about every aspect. Every experience I’ve had is only going to make me better.
I’m hungry to succeed. I want to be the best I can be, and I’m working hard to do that while I’m out of work. I’m going to Leicester to speak to Brendan Rodgers, I’ve spoken to Michael Beale about doing the same at Rangers, and I’m going up to watch some sessions at Liverpool, too. There’s still so much for me to learn, and these opportunities are only going to help me.
I’ll be a better manager for whatever my next role is.
Author: Ali Tweedale