Caretaker Manager, Huddersfield Town, 2019
There was not one thing about that week that made me think this isn’t for me.
It wasn’t the best circumstances, in all honesty; taking over a team that was bottom of the Premier League with two wins from 22 games, and the small matter of a game against Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City coming up on the Sunday.
This was January 2019. Huddersfield had just sacked David Wagner, and the board asked me to take the team for the upcoming match as caretaker manager.
I had no hesitation at all in saying yes.
It was a really weird situation, though. I’d loved playing for and working with David and his assistant Christoph Bühler and, just like so many members of the squad, I was sad to see them go.
It was an emotional group. We had a bond with David and Christoph. So, the hardest part of the week was the first meeting with the players.
David had just said his goodbyes, and then suddenly the spotlight was on me.
I told the players we all knew results hadn’t been good enough, but they still had a job to do. I told them they were still part of this club and they still got paid to do something that they should love. We had to focus on the game at the weekend.
I had to try and bring some smiles to their faces, because there will have been some players who were wondering if they were to blame for David’s departure.
“The main piece of advice I was given was to go and enjoy it. And I did”
But then there were others who saw an opportunity; players who hadn’t been playing who thought they might now have a chance.
I brought some new ideas, a bit of freshness to training. That, along with a bit more motivation in some of the players, meant the week – once that first meeting was out of the way – was a complete joy.
“You’ve got nothing to lose,” I was told time and again ahead of the game.
City were fighting for the title with Liverpool. This was one of the best teams in Premier League history. They won the league that season with 98 points.
So, we were playing a team that was winning most weeks, and we were live on television. The main piece of advice I was given was to go and enjoy it.
And I did.
The game was as difficult as you’d expect, and we lost 3-0 (above).
I loved every single part of that week, though. From doing the media to trying to pick up a team that was hurting, it was all amazing.
Having my own team and putting together a game plan that was then put into practice – and you could see elements of it out there on the pitch against one of the best teams in the world – was so rewarding.
“As I walked down the wembley stairs, medal around my neck, I knew my playing days were done”
Yes, there were tough parts. Standing up in front of that squad – which had a few internationals of its own – was nerve-wracking, and not showing any nerves was a challenge in itself.
But that was it for me. I’d caught the management bug.
I wouldn’t say I always knew I’d wanted to go into coaching. When I was in my 20s, I always thought my playing career would end and I’d leave the game. I thought I’d just play golf after I retired! But by the time I stopped playing, I was excited about my move into coaching.
My final game in the squad as a player was the Championship playoff final for Huddersfield against Reading at the end of the 2016/17 season. We won on penalties to get promoted to the Premier League (below).
It was such an emotional day. The playoffs make the season so long – it’s something I got a lot of experience of during the course of my career – and can be really draining. To win them and get promoted is an amazing feeling.
As I walked down the stairs at Wembley, medal still around my neck, I saw my family and my agent.
“Well, that’s me done,” I said.
They looked at me in surprise and told me to just go and enjoy the day.
But I knew then that, with the team going into the Premier League, at 35 years of age, there’d be players more deserving of a place in the team than me.
I knew my playing days were done.
“We had some great times and some great games. We went to Bayern Munich – and won”
David and Christoph (below) had been a huge influence on me in terms of the coach I became. They taught us to play the game in a completely different way to what I’d seen before.
They also opened my eyes to a completely different style of management, coaching and analysis – particularly how it can all be blended together to create something special on the pitch.
Once the dust had settled after the playoff final, I had a really open conversation with David. We decided that I would do pre-season with the players and down-train, which was important for me. I’d been doing it my whole life.
After that, I quickly moved on to learning the ropes. I shadowed David and Christoph; I followed things in the media department to see how that worked; I saw how the sport science department went about their business every day; and I spent loads of time in with the data-analysis team. That was something David and Christoph were very, very big on, and it was a big part of our success at Huddersfield.
It was important for me to understand how they coded things, how they worked out trends in the opposition and how they presented their findings for others to understand it all easily. I learned a lot.
Then came another open conversation with David – I really valued how open he was with me, and that’s definitely something I’ve taken into my coaching. This time it was about how I would be involved.
He offered me the Under-19s or the Under-23s. He told me he thought the U19s were a better group of players, but I decided to go with the U23s, purely because it was closer to the first team.
David left me to it. There was no micromanagement. He trusted me to get the team playing the same way as the first team.
“I think there’s something in the locations that are most conducive to building a special team bond”
We had some great times and some great games. We went to Bayern Munich – their training ground is amazing – and won. We went all over Europe and did well. And plenty of players made the step up to the first team under me.
It was great exposure for me, and a great way to transition into coaching.
I loved being part of a group again, and building together towards a common goal. Being part of an ambitious group, striving and battling together; that is something I enjoyed and felt the benefit of throughout my career.
Malky Mackay was brilliant at building that kind of bond. What he created in the dressing room at Cardiff was unbelievable.
There was an honesty in it. We led the dressing room pretty much ourselves, because he allowed us to do that. He trusted us.
We created a bond on and off the pitch, and that included our partners and families, too. When you move to Cardiff, you fully commit. You don’t move nearby and travel to and from. I think there’s something in the locations that are most conducive to building a special team bond.
Malky did a great job of facilitating that, though. He was only with us for two years, but he really got us fighting for each other. He took that Cardiff team to the next level.
In the two years before he got there, we made the playoffs twice in a row, but fell short. In Malky’s first season in 2011/12, he took us to the League Cup final – where we lost to Liverpool on penalties – and we got into the playoffs again. Then, the year after, we won the Championship and – finally – got promoted to the Premier League (below).
“When I was younger, I used to imitate DUNCAN Ferguson. All of a sudden, here I was playing against him”
There were no egos in that team; there was such a togetherness. We’d get off the team coach at the same time – everyone would wait until every single person was ready before anyone got off. Everyone wore exactly the same, so there was nothing special about any individual. We were all buying into that message of the collective.
We’d been together a few years by that point, so we knew each other’s strengths and weaknesses, and worked so hard as a team that it mattered less if any individual wasn’t quite at it in any particular game.
We made our home ground a horrible place for visiting teams to come to. We had a grit and determination about us. The fans got right behind us and we had some really tough players.
We could win games by dominating and we could win games by grinding out a result. We got on a roll and the wins kept on coming. The Championship season feels really tough through November, December, January, but if you’re still up there after that, it starts to go much quicker. We ended up winning the league by a distance.
That was the second of three times I won promotion to the Premier League. The first had been much earlier in my career.
I’d spent some time on loan from Fulham at Oldham with Iain Dowie, then when he moved to Crystal Palace he got me in on loan again. This was back when I was still only 20, 21. I played a fair bit and we got into the playoffs.
But then my loan deal ended before the final. Chris Coleman wanted me back at Fulham, who were already in the Premier League, but Palace wanted me on a permanent deal. Iain had taken me to Oldham and to Palace and now wanted to sign me permanently, so I had a good feeling about taking that risk.
I signed just before the playoff final, so I went down to the Millennium Stadium in Cardiff and watched Palace beat West Ham to get promoted.
I didn’t play as much as I liked the following season, but I did get to test myself against some amazing strikers: Didier Drogba and Adrian Mutu for Chelsea; Nicolas Anelka for Manchester City; Kevin Campbell and Duncan Ferguson for Everton.
“He dropped in some other names of players he had made captain, including David Beckham for England”
When I was younger, I used to play with my collar up to imitate Ferguson. All of a sudden, here I was playing against him.
He came on late on in the game. All that was going through my mind was: “You’ve got to win the first header.”
It was one of those moments that you can’t really believe is happening when you’re in it, when the hairs on the back of your neck stand up. I was lucky enough to have a fair few of those in my career.
I was a captain throughout my career. I never felt the armband was a burden – it was really special to put it on and be a leader on and off the pitch.
Peter Taylor was the first one to make me captain. He replaced Iain Dowie as Palace manager in 2006, and on his first day he sat me down.
“I tried to sign you when I was at Hull,” he told me, which I obviously saw as a good sign.
“I see you as a leader,” he carried on. “The way you carry yourself, on and off the pitch.” Then he made me captain, and also dropped in some other names who he had done the same with, including giving David Beckham the England captaincy for the first time. That was huge for a young player like me to be told that.
I never found it daunting being a captain, even when I was younger. I never told anyone what to do – I wasn’t authoritarian – and being a leader came quite naturally to me.
“I love the feeling of being in something together; of being ready to do anything for your teammates”
I played my best football at Cardiff. For a centre-back, it’s all about partnerships – anyone who says otherwise is lying!
I had a great relationship with Ben Turner. He was a big guy, a big character and an absolute rock at the back, so he made it easier for me.
Relationships and team spirit are so important to a team’s success. The togetherness we had at Cardiff helped us get over the line after the disappointment of falling short in the playoffs three years in a row. It was the same with Huddersfield when we got promoted to the Premier League.
I love that feeling, of being in something together; of being ready to do anything for your teammates.
Coaching every day and being part of a unit gives you that. You have your smaller coaching group, and then you have the bigger group with the players. It’s a special feeling to build bonds in a squad and see them developing.
It’s so rewarding to put a plan together with your staff and then put it into practice with the players.
I absolutely love it.
That week in charge at Huddersfield was a confirming week for me.
Now, there’s no doubt about it: I’ve caught the management bug.