Preston North End, 2021–
After playing Liverpool in a pre-season game, Jürgen Klopp came into my office for a chat.
He was impressed with how we’d set up; with my Bury team’s organisation.
We’d played three at the back because we didn’t want the game to become too open. We went 3-5-2 for the first time, and ended up getting a goalless draw.
Jürgen said we should be challenging for promotion if we played like that. Then he asked me if that was going to be our formation going forwards.
“It is now!” I replied.
I wouldn’t quite say I stumbled across that formation – I’d been toying with the idea for a while – but that performance cemented my thinking.
Obviously, when we played in League Two, we were far more attacking than we could ever have been against Liverpool.
My thinking was: “Why can’t a Ryan Lowe team play like Manchester City, Liverpool or Barcelona?”
"I knew I wanted to be a manager at some point. I just wasn’t sure how I’d get there"
I wanted to bring a style of football to League Two that had never been seen there before. I wanted the fans, who spent their hard-earned money to come and watch us play, to see eye-catching football. I wanted to attack with six and defend with four. It was almost gung-ho in style.
A lot of people said to me: “You’ll never get out of that league playing football like that.”
I managed to prove them wrong.
There was a game against MK Dons when we came back from 3-1 down with 20 minutes to go to win 4-3. It was absolutely incredible. From then on we went on a hell of a run, scoring loads of goals.
We were the top scorers in the 2018/19 League Two season, but conceded more goals than the team that finished 20th. We finished second, which got us promoted in my first full season in charge.
I’d been a striker as a player and scored more than 200 goals. I loved every single one of those, and I wanted my teams to be the same. I wanted them to score lots of goals and enjoy doing it.
When I was about 30, I started doing my coaching badges. I never thought I’d play until I was 39 – as it turned out I did – so I started planning for the future.
I wanted to be a different coach to those I’d had as a player in the lower leagues; I almost felt like I wanted to give something back to the game that had made me.
"I had a five-year plan that would culminate in me becoming a head coach, but things didn’t quite work out that way"
I knew I wanted to be a manager at some point. I wasn’t sure how I’d get there, but I started thinking about my philosophy early on.
I went through the badges in my 30s, and quickly got all the way up to my Pro Licence. My turnaround between A Licence and Pro Licence was really fast. I finished them within two years of one another. All of a sudden, at the age of 41, I was ready to make strides in the coaching world.
In January 2017, when I was 38, I signed for Bury for the third time, only this time as a player-coach. I’d only left them the season before, so I knew a lot of the players, and I wanted to go back and help them out. I did six months of that, mixing playing with coaching.
At the end of that season, I took up a development-coach position at the club. My plan was to stay in the professional game and work my way up. I had a five-year plan that would culminate in me becoming a head coach, but things didn’t quite work out that way.
Three months later, Lee Clark, the manager, got sacked. I got thrown in as caretaker manager.
I had six games. Two wins, two draws, two losses.
I wasn’t really sure if I was ready, though, so I took a step back and became player-coach again, this time under Chris Lucketti.
Then, a few months on, Chris was sacked.
"I’d quickly gone from one of the lads to telling everyone what to do. I told them not to call me ‘Lowey’. Now I was ‘gaffer’"
I was back in charge again.
I ended up finding my feet that time around. My philosophy started to come together. The chairman stepped back and told me to do what I needed to put my stamp on the team.
We picked up a few points, but the team was already in too bad a position in the league. We were relegated from League One.
After the season finished, I got offered a two-year contract as manager, and decided to take it.
I set about making changes to the squad. Reducing the wage bill was also a priority.
It was tough, because I’d very quickly gone from one of the lads in the changing room – one of their mates – to telling everyone what to do. I told them not to call me ‘Lowey’ any longer. Now I was ‘gaffer’.
Some of them were a bit sceptical about it, which I understood. They must have been thinking: “What have you done to deserve to be called gaffer?”
But I needed people who were on my side. Once I was given the job on a permanent basis, it was time for a clearout.
"It was a great time on the pitch, but it was all happening against a backdrop of financial trouble"
I needed good players to play the style of football I wanted to play, but I also needed the right people.
I had to make some really tough calls, moving friends on because they didn’t quite fit the bill. There is one player, who I considered a friend at the time, who I chose to move on. To this day, he still hasn’t spoken to me.
You have to be ruthless in this business, and I knew that. My assistant, Steven Schumacher, and I changed the squad significantly; we built a squad that bought into what I wanted to do.
The budget at Bury at the time was ridiculous for where the club was. There were too many players on big money, and we had to sort that out by moving a lot of people on.
I made some decisions that I think others might have avoided, but I was proven right in what I did because we ended up getting promoted.
It was a great time on the pitch, but all of this was happening against a backdrop of financial trouble. The club was in a bad way.
I had to deal with things you wouldn’t wish on anybody.
There had been problems all season, but after Bury got taken over in January 2019, the hope was the new owners could save the club.
"I wasn’t getting paid. There were times when I was genuinely concerned about my family"
But when the players and staff stopped getting paid, it became a real challenge.
The longer it went on, the more the players started to question whether they should carry on playing or not.
There were a few of them who wanted to down tools.
I told them I was behind them whatever their decision, but I knew how good a team it was. We’d had a great season so far, and had a real opportunity to get promoted. That was something that could never be taken away from them.
Down at that level, it was a real financial strain for some of those players. I left the decision up to the players, and they made the call to play on despite none of us getting paid a penny for four months.
We rallied together and built up such a strong bond as we won promotion. I’ve got a picture up in my office at Preston of the celebrations on the pitch with our families, and I know none of us will forget what we did.
But after that game I went home, lay on my bed and burst into tears.
We all knew in our hearts that the financial problems Bury had were too big to recover from. For me, it was a question of: “Where do I go from here?”
"from a selfish point of view, I wanted to finish the season, win promotion and have a celebration with the fans"
I wasn’t getting paid, and there was no sign of that money coming in. There were times when I was genuinely concerned about my family’s future.
I’d got Bury into League One, so I wanted to stay there – but when Plymouth came calling, I couldn’t turn them down, even though they’d just been relegated to League Two.
I loved the owner’s vision for the club, and I’d seen how good the fans were. I saw it as a great opportunity to get to League One a year later.
The club was a bit of a sleeping giant. It was far too big a club to be down at that level.
I’d spent most of my playing career in the northwest – my biggest adventure was a year at MK Dons, and I got the train there and back and a lot of the time! I had opportunities to stay local, but taking the plunge of leaving my family behind – a sacrifice I found very tough – and going to work down there turned out to be one of the best decisions I’ve ever made.
I got a really good feeling from the club. They wanted to become a sustainable Championship club within five years, so I felt they matched my ambitions.
I brought five Bury players and three backroom staff with me, and used my Bury blueprint to bring the same success there.
We grew into the season and, by the time the season got curtailed due to the Covid pandemic, we were in the top three. As a result, we got promoted on points per game.
"when Preston North End came calling, it was just too big an opportunity to ignore"
Of course, there were bigger things going on in the world, and it was the right decision to stop the season. But at the same time – from a selfish point of view, at least – I wanted to finish the season, win promotion and have a celebration with the fans. I’d heard about how the entire place goes green when Plymouth achieve something, and I wanted to experience that. But it wasn’t to be.
We were one point off top when the season was ended. Regardless of whether we would have won the league or not, it was a huge achievement – and it meant I had two promotions in my first two full seasons in management.
The following season – 2020/21 – we established ourselves in League One with the same budget that we’d won promotion with. That was another big achievement.
Then, in the summer of 2021, we recruited and planned with the aim of challenging for the playoffs. We did that very well and started the season in great form.
Then Preston came along.
I’d had conversations with the club before about my future, and they respected that I’d want to be allowed to go if a Championship club came in for me. They said they’d never stand in my way.
So, in December, with my Plymouth side sixth in the table, only three points off third and in with a good chance of promotion, my entire focus was on them.
But when Preston North End came calling, it was just too big an opportunity to ignore.
"our attacking numbers went up: crosses, penalty-area entries, expected goals, shots. You could see we were getting better"
I wasn’t looking for a way out or anything like that, and I would never have spoken to Preston if I hadn’t been completely certain they wanted me to go there. How I left Plymouth could and probably should have been handled better, but I’m still very proud of what I achieved there.
I’d missed out on two and a half years of my children growing up, so the chance to move back up here was a bonus. But Preston just felt so perfect that, even if it had been 200 miles away from my family, I would have taken it.
I came in with the team 19th in the league, only four points off the relegation zone. My aim wasn’t just to avoid the drop, though. It was to finish in the top half.
We were bold and ambitious from the start. I wasn’t told I had to get the team into the top half, but I set myself that goal.
We were even more attacking than we’d been at Bury or Plymouth, going with a much more attack-minded 3-5-2 than at either of my previous clubs.
We spent the first two days of training on patterns of play, and inside an hour on the Saturday, we scored the perfect Ryan Lowe goal. It was some feeling to see that happen.
I told the players the shackles were off, and I wanted them to be an attacking team. As the weeks went on, all of our attacking numbers went up: crosses, penalty-area entries, expected goals, shots. You could see we were getting better.
"my teams are built on hard work. Anyone who isn’t ready to work hard won’t be in my plans"
In January, I wasn’t given much to spend. I was told there was a strict budget to work within, and I stuck to it. I’d seen at Bury what can happen if a club goes beyond its means, so I am always going to keep to what I’m given.
There were a few outgoings to create space for a couple of deals – one free signing and one loan – but otherwise it was a quiet January window. We were playing well anyway, so we didn’t feel too much needed changing.
We had some great results in the second half of the season, including beating West Brom, Stoke and Bournemouth, and coming back from 2-0 down to draw with Sheffield United when we were down to 10 men. We ended up finishing level on points with Coventry in 12th, which was a huge turnaround. Just in the time after I took over, Preston had the ninth best record in the league.
In a lot of those games, I could see my stamp on the team. I could see my style of football.
As well as having a brand of football I want to see, my teams are also built on hard work. Anyone who isn’t ready to work hard won’t be in my plans.
I’ve told the players that if anything isn’t right, I won’t be changing the formation or style of play; I’ll be changing personnel. That’s my challenge to them and, so far at least, they have done what I’ve asked of them.
We’ve done well, but I know we could have done even better. We’re seeing improvements on the pitch and getting more fans through the gates than before.
"the best way for me to get to the Premier League is by taking a team like Preston up there"
But I still want more.
I know we’re not a club that can go out and spend £40m or £50m a year in the transfer market. We’re well-structured and have a budget we make sure we stick to.
At Bury and Plymouth, my teams overperformed compared to their budgets. That’s exactly what we’ve got to try and do at Preston.
What the likes of Luton, Huddersfield and Millwall showed in the 2021/22 season is that it’s possible to do that. Based on finances, those three clubs shouldn’t be anywhere near the playoffs. They overachieved because they have a style and an identity – and they’re coached well.
There’s no reason Preston can’t be like them.
My long-term ambition is to manage in the Premier League, and the best way for me to get there is by taking a team like Preston up there. The owners and I share that vision.
This club has such a great history, but has never been in the Premier League.
We want to bring the good times back to Preston North End.
Author: Ali Tweedale