It sounds so simple, but in management the only thing that matters is winning.
I didn’t always know that.
As a young and optimistic manager, I wanted to see my teams play the way I wanted football to be played. Results, I’d hoped, would come if my team played good football.
But the result comes first, and sacrifices need to be made for the result to be made a priority. Winning games early on buys you time to implement your ideology, bring in better players, work on things on the training ground, and get better as a team.
I learned the hard way.
When I first went in as Walsall manager in May 2021, promotion within two seasons was the aim. So, in the first season I focused on establishing an identity and bringing in players to fit that identity. The thinking during that first season was to consolidate, signing players on two-year contracts, and then the promotion push could start.
That isn’t to say I wasn’t focused on winning matches straight away – of course I was – but I wanted to get my team playing my way. That was the main aim for the first season, as was agreed with the club when I joined.
I’d also just enjoyed two years as a coach in the Tottenham academy. Obviously, academy football is very different to first-team football. In that role, winning games was secondary to producing players who could make the step up to the first team.
I was still very inexperienced and very much an idealist in my approach. I hadn’t been in management long at all when I got the Walsall job.
"I could go and have a chat with Sam Allardyce or Harry Redknapp or Sean Dyche to learn about what we were doing"
I’d had a bit of a shock introduction to it three years earlier.
I had been signed for Swindon Town by David Flitcroft in the summer of 2017, but halfway through the season he resigned. The chairman asked if I would take charge of the team for the weekend’s game against Cheltenham.
I turned him down at first, but he insisted.
I was enjoying my football then, playing in League Two as my career wound down, and starting to think about how exactly I’d move into coaching.
I'd started my coaching badges at 29, when I was at West Ham (above). After seeing too many of my teammates come to the realisation too late that they wanted to do something after playing, I decided I needed a plan. I knew that that part of my career could easily last longer than my playing career, so I wanted to make something of it. I wanted to be ready when the time came to retire from playing by completing my Pro Licence.
As a Premier League footballer, it was great. I could go and have a chat with Sam Allardyce or Harry Redknapp or Sean Dyche or whoever else – top coaches I was playing under – to learn about what we were doing, and why we were doing it. I’d had plenty of time to think about becoming a coach while playing under some of the best in the business.
But the Swindon job still took me by surprise. I wasn’t really ready, but I was thrown in. The week was complicated further when, after deciding I shouldn’t play on the Saturday, and doing all of our preparation for the game without me in the team, we got an injury. I had to start the game.
"I felt like I got a two-year degree at Tottenham"
To be honest, it was a nightmare. We started well enough but went behind to a free-kick, and then my mind was all over the place. I was trying to think about and make substitutons while playing. I had to tell teammates to go down for treatment so I could run across the pitch and chat to my coaches. I can’t explain how difficult that was.
We lost the game 3-0 and I went back to playing, but I stayed on as a coach under the new manager, Phil Brown.
My one game in charge of Swindon hadn’t given me the bug to become a manager – quite the opposite, really! It just gave me more hunger to learn and develop as a coach. Just like when I was a player, I was ready to work harder than anyone else to become the best coach I could be.
After a season and a half as player-coach at Swindon, I felt I was still physically capable of playing on for one more year. But something changed my mind.
I’d missed out on being a player at Tottenham by the finest of margins, and they’ve always been my team. So, when I got the chance to go there as a coach in the academy in 2019, I didn’t think twice about it. This wasn’t the kind of opportunity I was going to pass up.
I had an incredible time there. Everyone knows about the facilities they have, and it was great to use those, don’t get me wrong, but the coaches they have in the academy were something else. I felt like I got a two-year degree there. I learned so, so much every single day, and I just loved going to work.
"It was a powerful moment when we saw Ryan up against Pep Guardiola at Wembley"
John McDermott, Paul Bracewell, Chris Powell, Wayne Burnett, Ryan Mason, Stuart Lewis, Bradley Allen, Nigel Gibbs. Those guys know so much; they see the game in a different way to anything I’d seen before.
They showed me how to design and deliver training sessions in a way I hadn’t seen before and – crucially – in the knowledge that you might have the next Harry Kane on the pitch.
I was still relevant enough that the players understood and respected what I’d done in the game. That gave me an edge. Of course, that’s not to say you can’t do it without a playing career, but it did help me build relationships with the players. I was also physically able to join in and to demonstrate what I wanted from a session. Being able to play in the small-sided games also helped!
My first year at Spurs was an eventful one for the first team. Mauricio Pochettino was sacked early on, so I didn’t get to spend too much time with him, but José Mourinho came in. He was fantastic to all the academy coaches.
He would always give us lots of detailed feedback on the players who went over to train with the first team, and he was more than happy for any of us to go over and watch him and his staff taking sessions. There had always been a very tight relationship between the academy and the first team at Tottenham. José continued that, and gave a decent number of our players their first-team debuts.
I worked closely with Ryan Mason, which was great for my development. He understood what it took to be a Tottenham player, because he’d been there and done it. There were great lessons for me to learn from him.
"I needed conflict, and people who were willing to have difficult conversations and challenge me"
When José eventually left and Ryan got the opportunity to lead the first team, it was impossible not to be overjoyed for him.
That said, it wasn’t just a proud moment for him. It was a proud moment for all the academy coaches. He was taking what we’d been doing in the academy and was now doing it with world-class players. It was a powerful moment when we saw him up against Pep Guardiola in the League Cup final at Wembley.
I’d learned so much at Spurs. Not just about coaching, but also about interacting with players and developing them in certain ways: “What does this player need for League Two? How can we help this player step up an age group?” Ryan played a big part in that. I’m sure he’s going to be a fantastic manager.
My plan had always been to stay at Tottenham for three years, but after two Walsall came calling. They offered me the manager’s job.
I did a lot of thinking about it because, to be honest, I wasn’t sure if I was ready. But then my wife and I sat down for a chat.
“You always backed yourself as a player, didn’t you?” she said. “So, back yourself now as a manager.”
And that was that.
"The optimist in me thought my philosophy would be the solution, as it had been earlier in the season"
I was excited, but also anxious about becoming a first-team manager. But I knew it was a natural human reaction to a major step in my coaching career.
I quickly sought to get people around me who brought expertise and experience that I didn’t have. That’s something I learned about from Harry Redknapp, who was incredibly self-aware. He knew that the people around him had to have different skills to him.
I knew I needed voices; I needed conflict and people who were willing to have difficult conversations and challenge me.
I also signed a young goalkeeper, Carl Rushworth, on loan from Brighton because we wanted to play out from the back. We played a fluid 4-3-3 formation, encouraged our players to want the ball and looked to play through the thirds.
To begin with, results weren’t brilliant, but the performances were good. And my faith in my philosophy and processes was repaid when we got our first win of the season five games in.
Our form then picked up. The players had taken on my ideas, and we were scoring goals.
We went on a fantastic run through October, going unbeaten for the whole month, and by the new year we’d extended that run to only two defeats in 13 games. By that point in the season, we were in the top half of the table, six points off the playoff places. I had total faith that my philosophy was ideal for the group of players and that they had grasped it well.
"As a manager, when matchday arrives you get this knot in your stomach"
Then, things started to go against us. We were missing chances we’d been scoring; we were making bad decisions; mistakes were costing us where they hadn’t been before; we lost one of our most important defenders to a lengthy ban. None of those should sound like an excuse – they’re not, and I take full responsibility for what happened – but those fine margins cost us dear. We started losing games.
I still wanted my philosophy, my style of football, which we’d worked so hard on, to be what got us out of trouble. In hindsight, though, Plan A wasn’t working any more, and I should have looked for a Plan B sooner. The optimist in me thought that my philosophy would be the solution, as it had been earlier in the season.
But we lost seven games in a row – four of them by just one goal, and in five of them we conceded a late goal to lose it or on the break after we’d been chasing an equaliser. Those in charge at the club decided that was enough and I got the sack, six months into my first full season as a manager. I think I could have turned it around, but it wasn’t to be.
There is no part of me that regrets taking that job. There are certainly things I’d do differently now that I’ve had a good chance to reflect on what went wrong, but it was an incredible learning curve for me as a young manager. I’m better off for it.
I’ve worked hard to improve myself since leaving. I’ve had lots of open, honest conversations with players, managers, lots of people in the game. I’ve visited clubs in Europe in the men’s and women’s games, looking for new trends, and attended a lot of matches.
I also spent time doing research into what it takes to get promoted from League One and League Two. Where do promoted teams score their goals from? How many players do they use? How many goals do they score from set-plays?
That will help me going forwards in knowing not only how to get promoted, but also how to recruit and where to improve my teams.
"I’ve learned I’m a good guy, and that it’s impossible to please everyone all the time"
Having stepped back from the game for the first time in more than 20 years, I’ve realised some things about myself.
Monday to Friday is the fun, stress-free part. You’re out on the grass, coaching the players and working on your upcoming game plan.
When matchday arrives, though, you get this knot in your stomach. Something so important is about to happen, and you have little chance on the day to influence it. As a player, you knew you could affect it, but as a coach you only have these tiny windows. Even then, it’s largely up to the players to put what you tell them into practice.
That makes the feeling when you win as a coach so much better than as a player. It really is crazy how much better it is!
But at the same time, as a player, I used to enjoy victories, whereas as a manager my mind turns to the next game immediately. Being able to do that after a defeat – and not dwell on the result – is something I need to get better at. I think it’s a learned skill that will come with more experience.
No doubt about it, I’m a better manager now than when I started out. I’ve learned so much already, and I’ve learned so much about myself, too.
I’ve learned I’m a good guy, and that it’s impossible to please everyone all the time. I know not to worry about pleasing everyone too much, and I’m capable of making tough decisions when needed now.
It all means I’m ready for whatever football throws at me next.
Author: Ali Tweedale