Head of Coaching, Brentford, 2022-
I first started coaching when I was still a teenager.
It was while I was playing at QPR. At the bottom of the road where I grew up, there was a dry cleaners, and the man who ran it had a son who couldn’t get into the local team. He asked me if I would consider setting up and coaching a team that his son could play in.
A friend and I assembled a team of nine-year-olds who couldn’t get into the local teams. It wasn’t a great standard, but we wanted to help them. So, we coached the team, and that was where I first started to understand about how you need to make football fun for kids.
They’d turn up on freezing Sunday mornings to play, and we wanted them to enjoy it. We also wanted their parents to be entertained on the sideline, so we made every effort to make it fun for them, too.
That was my first taste of coaching. And I loved it.
It was all about making everything as fun as possible for the kids. Most of them had never played in a proper team before, so our job was to help them understand the game a bit better – but also just to make sure they liked football.
I was still a big kid myself, so I got involved in it, too. There wasn’t much standing around; we gave the kids lots of gos and lots of repetitions so they could practise as much as possible.
"I realised that my job now wasn’t only about outscoring the opposition – it was about giving the players the tools to be as good as they could be"
When I think about it now, there wasn’t much structure to it. A more qualified coach would have done things very differently – we did a bit of technical work and a bit of possession, but we just felt that small-sided games were what they needed. These players are now in their 30s and I see them from time to time, which is always nice. It was a good time.
I played under several good managers in my eight years as a professional player, and under some good managers while playing non-league football, too. I learnt from all of them: some good, some bad!
By the time I was 27, I had done my UEFA B Licence. That was a big step for me on my journey, and you learn loads on those courses. But you also learn so much from the other coaches there. I met some people who played a big part in my development and, crucially, I met Kieran McKenna – now the Ipswich Town manager – and he helped me get an interview at Tottenham. Fortunately, I got the job.
When I joined, I was young and inexperienced. Luckily, though, in the Spurs academy I was surrounded by experts.
At that time I was still playing part-time in the Conference with Boreham Wood, but I only trained with them two nights a week. I was contracted at Spurs to do two evenings a week, plus Saturday and Sunday mornings. I was very busy in the evenings and on the weekends, but I was left with every weekday daytime to myself.
So, I went into the club most days. I’d either train with the youth team or just be around to learn from the coaching staff. I immersed myself in it, and it was a brilliant learning experience for me. I followed the likes of Chris Ramsey, John McDermott, Alex Inglethorpe and Richard Allen, and learned a great deal from them.
"Looking back, I genuinely think that being in the moment has helped me progress"
They were all really helpful, and really generous with their time. They answered my many, many questions, and helped guide me towards the next step in my career.
Up until I went in at Spurs, I’d only ever known wanting to win. That was all that had mattered when I was a player. The staff at Tottenham did a great deal to help me improve as a coach and learn how to develop players, but they also changed my mindset. I realised that my job now wasn’t only about outscoring the opposition – it was about giving the players the tools to be as good as they could be.
The environment at Tottenham was great. There was a clear common goal of trying to get the best out of the players and trying to filter some into the first team. But John McDermott was also very clear in wanting all of the staff to develop on his watch.
It was the perfect start to my coaching career.
I was totally focused on where I was. Back then, I didn’t really have any aspirations to make it to a certain level, or to become a manager. Looking back, I genuinely think that being in the moment has helped me progress. I’ve become a much better coach as a result, rather than just trying to work my way to the top.
My priority was always just to help the players fulfil their potential, making sure they had a good time and hoping they could create some memories.
Then, after nine seasons at Tottenham, I started to feel like I needed a new challenge. I’d improved over the years, and while I was very comfortable there, a job opportunity came up at the FA. That felt like a challenge I wanted to take.
"it was a chance to work at the biggest club in the world, with some of the best young players and best coaches"
It still took me a while to even decide to go for the role. Eventually, though, I applied.
During the interview process, I was actually very relaxed. I wanted the job, but I also knew that if I didn’t get it, I had a great job to go back to.
The interview was really taxing, but I was lucky enough to get the role. It was such an exciting time for England under Gareth Southgate, with Dan Ashworth there as director of elite development. It felt like a really positive, logical next step in my career.
Working at the FA was very different to working at Tottenham. I went from doing nine years of five or six days a week, three or four nights a week, to suddenly coaching every two and a half months in concentrated bursts.
But I used the spare time I had to improve myself. I spent a lot of time talking to others and learning.
I stayed with one group and worked my way up through the Under-15s to the Under-17s over the years I was there. It was more about the team than at Tottenham, where the individual was more important. This was England, and they wanted to compete with the best in the world. It was a time when England’s youth teams had had a decent amount of success.
Unfortunately, Covid denied me the chance to take the team to a European Championship. Then the chance to move to Manchester United came up.
"when I was with England, I’d started to think for the first time about my own potential"
It was another tough decision. This was a role as head of player development, so it was going to mean – like with the FA – not spending all my time on the grass. I’m a coach, first and foremost, so I had a decision to make.
But it was a chance to work at the biggest club in the world, with some of the best young players and best coaches. I saw it as a huge opportunity for my development, so I took the plunge.
The move to United meant I was back working with Kieran McKenna again, and I was around loads of great minds. I moved my family up there, and I really did think I was going to be there for a long time. We went there with the mindset that we would be settling there for a while.
What actually transpired was that an even bigger opportunity came up back down south a year later!
In the summer of 2022, Brentford offered me a job as a first-team coach and also as head of coaching. This was my first chance to go into a first-team environment at the elite level, and I couldn’t turn it down.
Back when I was with England, I’d started to think for the first time about my own potential, and how far I might go.
"Working with Thomas has been fantastic for me. He comes in every day with bundles of enthusiasm and a smile on his face"
So, this chance to work with Thomas Frank and help him get the most out of the Brentford team – to get them as high up the Premier League table as possible – was just such a big pull.
Now, the objective is three points on a Saturday. There is still a player-development aspect – this is a club with a history of buying and developing young players – but the main focus is success with the first team.
My coaching in previous clubs with young players has proved transferable to senior players. I think the intensity changes and the demands change, but I do think that all my experience has made me ready for first-team coaching.
Working with Thomas has been fantastic for me, too. He comes in every day with bundles of enthusiasm and a smile on his face. He’s upbeat and he helps set the mood and the tempo of training, and anything going on at the training ground.
He has a development background as well, so learning from him has been great. He’s empathetic, really easy to talk to, and he knows his football incredibly well.
It’s the perfect environment for me. I don’t believe you ever stop learning, and working at the intensity of the Premier League has taught me so much. The staff and players at Brentford are great people to learn from. I’m just loving getting even more experience as a coach, and being in a first-team environment.
The team are doing very well now and I’m enjoying it all. Let’s see how far we can go.
Author: Ali Tweedale