Swansea City, 2021–
I never enjoyed playing in a team that didn’t have a lot of the ball.
Under Paul Lambert, in the Norwich team that won League One in 2010 and then earned promotion from the Championship in 2011, we did.
When we got to the Premier League, though, whether we liked it or not, we knew we wouldn’t have the majority of the ball. But we tried to stay exactly the same. We were so brave, so aggressive, so hungry – all characteristics I try to bring into my teams now I’m a coach.
Playing in the Premier League (below) was amazing. Loads of new ideas were starting to come into the league at that point; there were a lot of foreign managers, and a lot of things I hadn’t seen before or played against.
When you’re actually in the game, though, it’s sometimes difficult to really understand what’s going on. To know why you’re getting dominated so much, or why there is so much space to play in certain games.
It was the same playing for Scotland against the likes of Germany, or Antonio Conte’s Italy. They were incredible experiences that left me wanting to understand why, and to learn more. As a result, I ended up spending a lot of time watching those teams.
The Barcelona team of Pep Guardiola was the one that intrigued me the most, though. I remember watching them against Manchester United in the 2009 Champions League final (below). United were so dominant in England, and here was this team that made them look so ordinary, so average. It was incredible.
Guardiola’s Manchester City are still my favourite team to watch now. People always say you need the best players to play that way, and he has had the best players at Barcelona, Bayern Munich and now City. But you still need to convince the best players to run, to stay in their position and wait for the ball – to drop their ego and do certain jobs for the team.
"i want to enjoy watching my team. i don't want to stand there feeling sick for 90 minutes"
The teams I’ve always really admired try to be the best at both aspects of the game. They want to dominate the ball, but they are also relentless out of possession.
Even when I was playing in the Premier League, there were teams that were great with the ball, but you felt were quite soft without it. But to get both – to be the best in possession and the hardest to play against out of possession – is really, really difficult.
It is tough, and it is demanding, and it is relentless. But I think the joy you get from dominating the football and being able to express yourself with it is worth all of that.
My teams are always going to set out with that vision, that utopia of where you want to get to. I want them to dominate the ball, and I really don’t like it when the opposition have the ball for very long.
So we will start with that, then see where maybe we have to compromise, or flex, or adapt, and then see how close we can get to that dream. I just want to watch a team that I really enjoy watching, because if I’m going to be in this job – and hopefully I will be for a while – I want to stand on the sidelines and enjoy watching my team. I don’t want to stand there feeling sick for 90 minutes.
There is so much to be said for being well organised out of possession and for playing on the counter-attack, but it’s not what I enjoy. And I think the best way for players to really show the best version of themselves is to play as they did as a kid, when they dreamed of showing everyone how well they could shoot, pass, take people on. To do that, you need to have the football.
As clichéd or corny as it sounds, we always try and remind the lads that they are living the dream they had when they were kids. So many players forget that, and just don’t enjoy it.
"it was a real test of faith for pete, particularly after i lost my first four games"
To be honest, I’d already lost a little bit of that love for playing when Pete Winkelman (below) pulled me into the MK Dons kit room after we’d lost 3-1 to Tranmere in November 2019. By that point, my body was really giving up on me – back, hip, ankle, all sorts really. I was really ready for the next step.
I’d made it clear that I wanted to be a manager at some point. Pete told me that he had sacked Paul Tisdale, and that he wanted me to take the job.
Tis had been great with since me I’d joined the club that January. He let me into a lot of the coaching meetings, and I’d had a lot of conversations with him about the why and how of what he did as a manager.
I asked Pete how long he wanted me to take the job for, thinking it’d be a caretaker role.
He said three years.
It came completely out of the blue, a total shock, but Pete said he was always at his best when he just did things on instinct. And he had given plenty of other managers opportunities early in their careers: Paul Ince, Karl Robinson, Roberto Di Matteo.
It was a real test of faith for him, particularly after I lost my first four games.
"there's no point working on something if you're going to let the anxiety or emotion of a game take that away"
I’d said to the players from the off, though, that we weren’t going to be outcome-based. We weren’t going to focus on the results. We were going to focus on each step, each game, getting closer to the team we wanted to be. Yes, we needed to stay in the league – I think we were 21st or 22nd when we took over – but it was also about the identity of the club.
The players – all of whom I knew, because I’d been a part of that dressing room – became a real part of that process, and they were with us from day one. So even after we lost that fourth game – at home to Rotherham, having been 2-0 up – there was a bit more evidence to show them where we were getting to. It wasn’t about trying something for four games and then switching to panic stations. We had to stick at it.
On all the courses I have done, through to the A Licence and Pro Licence, every manager who came in and spoke said one of the regrets they had was changing or going away from what they thought was important because of the pressure they felt when results weren’t going well. If I was going to get sacked, I wanted to get sacked doing something I believed in.
We were playing well and should have had a few results, but the players were growing in confidence in what they were doing – and a win over Oxford in mid-December was huge for us. It was at home, but they’d not lost in 18 games and they really got after us. The players were outstanding, though, and they really built belief on the back of that win. We did just enough, before the 2019/20 season broke for Covid, to get out of trouble – but the culture was built and the foundations were laid even in those first four games.
There were times, even then, when I’d get more angry winning a game if we went away from what we were trying to be, than I would be upset if we lost but stuck to what we were doing. I’m still like that now, and my players know it. I will always accept getting beat as long as they run hard and stick to what we work on. There’s no point in working on something if you’re going to let the anxiety or emotion of a game take that away.
The way we want to play is not easy, and it does take time – particularly for players who haven’t played that way before. It takes courage, huge courage, for a player who might have a few hundred games behind them to suddenly play this style. To ask players to be so brave in possession, and so all in on something like this really early, is not easy – and I’m really aware of that.
"it frustrates me when people don't believe players outside the premier league can play that way"
But it’s our job to be consistent with what we do, to give them as much detail as possible, and pass on as much courage to them as possible. We tell them they’re not going to get criticised for doing what we deem the right thing, or the brave thing, but you have to live by that. Because if I then start criticising them for trying to play in a certain area, and it doesn’t go well, then I’m a hypocrite, and not being honest or authentic to what I believe in.
And what I believe in doesn’t change. What we believe in as a group of staff doesn’t change, so why would we let results affect that?
In my first season at MK Dons, we conceded a goal away at Portsmouth, trying to play out from the back. We didn’t get it right, made a mistake, conceded, and it was straight on Sky Sports News: “How not to play out from the back!”
I used that with the players straight away. I showed them, and said: “How dare they do that to you. You’re in League One, away at Portsmouth, in front of 17,000 fans, and you’re brave enough to do that. Yes, it goes wrong, but the next action you do it again, and you do it perfectly.”
That was courage, and for them to criticise those players when they’d scored however many goals when playing out from the goalie that season – like, that hurts me. It frustrates me that they don’t believe players from outside the Premier League, or maybe just British players, can play that way. It annoyed me, it annoyed the players, and we used it a little bit as fuel, really.
In my second season, at a press conference before a game against Blackpool (above), I was asked about a Plan B. It was a question I’d been answering for four or five weeks, really. Like, we had a Plan B, and Plan C and Plan D too. We were trying to give the players solutions to problems that we faced all the time, because if you do something really well, guess what? Opposition coaches are really good and they can work out solutions – and then give you another problem that we have to then try and find a solution to.
"i absolutely loved that set of players at mk dons. it's so rewarding to see lots of them go on to do amazing things"
But what the person was insinuating – which is like the archetypal British culture – I guess, is that people wanted to see the ball thrown forward a bit quicker. It was like, stop all the tippy-tappy stuff and passing it back, and just get it up there – because you can do it in one pass rather than 100 passes.
But we didn’t have anyone that big to play it up to, and unless you have someone who really specialises in that role, and the team buys into that story, then for me there’s more risk in doing that. We really believe in something, and our job is to make Plan A better. Because if you’ve got Plan A, and then the next plan, Plan B, is to do the complete opposite, then you don’t really believe in Plan A, do you?
So much of football is cultural context. Brazil have a certain style of play, which revolves around their attacking players, expressing themselves and dominating the ball. Spain like to play close distances and build up with short passes, while Germany will be very vertical but controlled. In Britain, over time, it’s been about fight, being the underdog, rolling your sleeves up and working harder than everyone else – get it wide and get crosses into the box.
That’s changing now, because of all the different influences in the Premier League – but it takes time to change people’s vision of how they see the game, doesn’t it? It still feels like when things are going wrong or if in doubt, the first thing criticised is that you pass the ball. But if a team is getting it forward more and not getting results, is that more acceptable than them trying to play out?
If we played that way in a different country – Spain, maybe, or Holland – it wouldn’t be as much of a problem because it’s much more accepted. But here, it is seen as more of a problem because of the risk associated with playing out from the back. Fortunately, both at MK Dons and Swansea, we’ve been at two clubs where it’s been much easier to implement because of their identity and the managers they have had before.
Leaving MK Dons was so difficult, and I was very honest at the time about not wanting to. We’d taken 18 months to get the club and the team to where we wanted to, and I absolutely loved that set of players. I still do – it’s so rewarding to see lots of them going on to do amazing things.
"if you haven't got money, you need time – and time is the most valuable commodity in football"
But the fact that it was Swansea, and the history they’ve had with managers, and the style of play, was a big reason. The club has a history of giving people time, of doing things in a certain way, of wanting a certain type of manager – and that all goes back to what Roberto Martínez (above) started a long time ago. When I spoke to the ownership, they wanted to get back to a real, clear way of playing, to dominate the ball, to develop players and help the club sustain itself. It was a long-term plan. The minute they said that, it was decision made.
The most difficult bit was to set expectation among the supporters, because they’d been in the playoffs two years in a row. In the second year, they’d lost to Brentford in the playoff final. But it was the last year of parachute payments, and then Steve Cooper, who had done a brilliant job, and a lot of players left.
The team inevitably then looked very different, and we were brought in to give a different identity and bring our style of play. We were really clear with the players about the expectation of how the team needed to look, and that we would focus everything on that and not league position.
They understood that really quickly. The supporters, I think, took a little more time, but I tried to be clear and honest from day one that the club was in a very different financial position to what it had been the previous three or four years – and that expectations probably needed to be aligned with that. Since then, on the whole, they've been brilliant, and really with us.
If you haven’t got money, you need time – and time is the most valuable commodity in football. And if you’re not going to buy, then you have to build. We wanted to build with as much detail and care as possible, to get to where we wanted to be.
We started with one win in our first eight league games, and by the time of the international break in October we’d only won one home game in the Championship. Cardiff were the next visitors, and that was a huge game for us. We’d had a couple of brilliant weeks over the international break, though, so we went into it feeling really good about the work the players had done. Then it was just hoping that we could manage the occasion, and be the team we wanted to be while dealing with the anxiety and emotion of the game.
"that's the best bit for me: playing a part in growing and developing the people you work with"
The atmosphere was amazing, and the players were brilliant on the day, which helped us so much – particularly with the supporters, in terms of their understanding and belief in what they were seeing.
We won 3-0 and it was a brilliant day – a really brilliant day. But the best day I’ve had with Swansea was the away game at Cardiff later that season, when we won 4-0 (above). I sat on the bench with Matt Gill, watching the rest of our staff and players and fans enjoying it. It was really a beautiful moment for us, because we did it our way. We went there and played the way we wanted to play, and it’s the best feeling when we do that and win.
I know a lot of managers say they feel relief at the end of 90 minutes, but when the guys win by sticking to what we’re doing, I don’t feel relief – I feel grateful and proud.
That’s the best bit for me: watching the people you work with, and hopefully playing a part in them growing and developing, and continuing to be as brave as they have been.
I know that’s not tangible. It’s not like I’m saying I want to finish on this many points or score that many goals, but that’s not really how my mind works.
Do we want to finish as high up the league as we can? Of course. If we are able to do that and impact the top end of the league and the playoffs, then brilliant. But I don’t spend too much time obsessing over that stuff.
If we can improve the players we have, improve how the team looks and functions, and improve the way the fans feel about that team, then I think we’re on the right track.
Author: Tony Hodson