Shortly after my playing career was cut short by injury, at the age of 24, I received a call from Craig Brown.
He had noticed me when I was playing up at Largs – then the Scottish equivalent of St George’s Park – and told me to do my coaching badges. He thought I was suited to coaching, even at a very young age.
I got started on my badges, and I loved it straight away, but I actually got drawn into the commercial world.
I was working my way up in that world – and earning good money, too. I was doing a little bit of scouting work on the side for Martin O’Neill at Celtic, but I was doing well in my work so I was fine sticking to that.
It was a few years before an opportunity to coach came along. Even then, it was just part-time stuff.
I went to watch a local team called Holbeach, and because the chairman knew that I’d played, he asked me to manage the team. It was as simple as that.
It wasn’t much, but I got the bug. I’d been out of football, but when you go back in it grabs you.
Not long afterwards, a slightly bigger team called Stamford came in for me. It was still just one night of training and one game a week. Nothing major.
We had great success. We won the league in our first two seasons, but each time the stadium was deemed not good enough for the league above – what was the Dr Martens League at the time, and is now the Southern Football League.
"Daley drew in big crowds and we got publicity in the local press, both of which make a huge difference at that level"
I made all kinds of changes at the club, and at one point made one of the most unexpected signings you’ll have heard of.
I went for dinner with Colin Hill, who was playing for Leicester at the time. He told me there was a player in their reserves who I should sign.
“Daley Thompson?” I said. “The decathlete?!” I couldn’t believe it, but I trusted Colin enough to go and watch Daley play.
He scored two and could clearly play, so we arranged a chat. I managed to convince him to sign – even though we couldn’t pay him anything.
He scored a hat-trick on his debut, and he absolutely loved playing for us. He would come up to Stamford the night before a game, pay for his own hotel and then play the next day.
His athletics career was done, and he was starting to do media, but he was in great shape. He could breeze past the big, non-league centre-backs he was up against.
He also drew in big crowds, and we got publicity in the local press while he was there – both of which make a huge difference at that level. Even though he didn’t stay very long, the attention he brought us and the money he brought in through gate receipts made it more than worthwhile.
"We beat them fair and square even though they were a far bigger club than us"
I started to get a bit despondent after our second title win, though. I was ready to leave. We weren’t going anywhere because the stadium wasn’t up to scratch.
Then, I had an idea to bring in some money. I decided to take a trip to London Road.
This was 1996. Barry Fry had just gone in as Peterborough manager. There was a lot of excitement around that at the time. I wanted to talk to him.
I drove to the stadium and managed to track him down. We’d never met before, but I asked him for a chat.
He was very generous with his time. I explained that I’d read about him when he was manager of little-known Dunstable Town. He would drive to places like Luton to arrange money-spinning pre-season friendlies. I wanted to copy him and arrange a friendly for Stamford against his Peterborough side.
He eventually agreed to us arranging for the first game of pre-season to be a friendly between the teams. It was going to be a huge deal for Stamford.
We got 5,000 people in to watch. We’d normally get 250 to 300.
It was a great day for the club. The money helped fund improvements at the ground, and we eventually managed to get promoted. What’s more, we actually played them off the park. We beat them fair and square even though they were a far bigger club than us.
"Some of these players had spent all day laying bricks. They didn’t want to run around a pitch for hours on end at training"
Afterwards, Barry took me aside. “Why are you at this level?” he asked.
He’d been so impressed by how my Stamford team had played that he recommended me for the Boston United job. He was the reason I got that next move.
At the time, I was still on a good career path in the commercial world. I hadn’t even been looking for another job in football. I knew very little about Boston, and hadn’t even been aware that the job had come up.
It was too good an opportunity to turn down, because they were a bigger club than Stamford.
I went in with the team fourth from bottom of the Dr Martens League, though. They were in a right mess.
I knew the league well, having done plenty of scouting there during my time at Stamford. We set about bringing in some players to improve the squad.
I also wanted to raise the expectations of the players. They needed to be fitter, and they needed to aim higher. I told them that in no uncertain terms, and worked them hard on the training ground.
Non-league training at the time was very much focused on running. Coaches would run their players into the ground. But all my sessions were with a ball.
"We had consecutive runs to the fifth round of the FA Cup, where we got knocked out by Manchester United and Stoke"
Some of these players had spent all day laying bricks. They didn’t want to come to training and run around a pitch for hours on end. I made them work just as hard, but it was always with a ball at their feet. That meant they enjoyed coming to training.
I always want to be on the grass. Throughout my whole career, even if I’m asking my coaches to take sessions, I’ll be out there for at least some of the day. I’ve barely had a day off the training ground in 20 years.
At Boston, I wanted more time with the players. I wanted more time on the grass. And it just so happened that the owner was planning on making the club a full-time operation.
I left the commercial world behind and went full-time as Boston United manager. The money was nowhere near as good, but I knew it was what I wanted.
We had a great time there. We went from the Dr Martens into the Conference National, and eventually into the Football League for the first time in the club’s history (above).
We took attendances from 700 or 800 to 7,000-8,000, and that helped build a stability the club didn’t have before. We spent a few years in the Football League following promotion.
Off the back of that success and the stability built at Boston, I got the Crawley job.
When I joined, they’d just avoided relegation from the Conference. Inside four years, I’d taken them up into the Football League, breaking just about every record there was to break along the way.
"as soon as Lee shot, fans poured on to the pitch from every stand"
Then we got promoted again, in our first season in League Two. We had two consecutive runs to the fifth round of the FA Cup, where we got knocked out by Manchester United (below) and then Stoke, who were in the Premier League by then.
From there I went on to Rotherham, who had just built a new stadium. I went up to have a look around, and it was so impressive that I was convinced.
Rotherham were below Crawley in the league when I took over, but they were ambitious and the stadium proved the chairman – Tony Stewart, who I now consider a dear friend – was invested in and committed to the project.
It didn’t start well at all, but Tony told me not to worry about my job. He started thinking about next season.
I still held out some hope of promotion, though, and I didn’t allow my players to let up. We were down in ninth at the end of January.
Then we went on an incredible run up the table. We stormed up into the automatic promotion spots. We ended up needing a win against Aldershot on the final day to guarantee promotion.
We scored midway through the second half, and then with Aldershot pushing for an equaliser, we broke up field. Lee Frecklington went around the goalkeeper to make it 2-0 in the 90th minute.
The referee later told me it was the only time in his entire career he hadn’t even seen the ball go into the net. As soon as Lee shot, fans poured on to the pitch from every stand (below).
"At 2-0 down, I brought on a right-back for a striker. It changed the game completely"
The scenes were just incredible. It took me an hour to get to the dressing room after the final whistle. I got completely mobbed. Moments like that, you just never forget.
We knew we’d have to be much stronger the following season, and we strengthened well. We became a far better team, and we were at the right end of the table at the end of the season.
Wolves got 103 points, though, and Brentford got 94. Those two teams were just too strong for the rest of us, and they took the automatic promotion spots. We snuck into the playoffs.
After beating a really strong Preston outfit in our semi final, we were flying. We had Leyton Orient at Wembley in the playoff final, who we had beaten in the league a few months earlier.
Forty minutes into the game, though, we were 2-0 down. It couldn’t have gone much worse. We were staring at such a disappointing defeat.
At half-time, I decided to bring on a young right-back – Richard Brindley – for my striker. A lot of the fans couldn’t believe what they were seeing. They thought it was a defensive move.
But I wanted to get James Tavernier – who had been at right-back – further forwards, and my right midfielder up front. James had the ability to be my most dangerous player, but he just couldn’t get into the game in the first half.
It changed the game completely. I told James he had no defensive responsibility at all. “Get forwards whenever you can,” I told him.
"I struck a deal for a goalkeeper who had played in the Champions League that season"
Alex Revell scored a tap-in, and then he scored one of the best goals Wembley has ever seen. From about 40 yards, he smashed the ball on the bounce, and it flew over the keeper and into the net. Our end erupted in the stands.
We took the game to penalties, and became one of the only teams to win a playoff final after having been two goals down. Rotherham – and I – were up in the Championship.
I’d come so far from the days at Holbeach, Stamford and Boston. As soon as I was there, I felt I belonged there.
But I was in for a shock.
In the Championhip, our very good players suddenly became good players. Our good players became not good enough.
We weren’t getting swept aside, but we were struggling for points. We lost five and drew two of our first nine games. Narrow defeats, but defeats nonetheless. We were in and out of the relegation zone.
Tony Stewart was thinking about the Premier League. He told me relegation would be a disaster. So, we dived into the loan market.
I struck a deal for a goalkeeper who had played – and kept a clean sheet – in the Champions League that season: Arsenal’s Emi Martínez.
I told him the way to shine as a goalkeeper was to join a struggling team. I told him Arsène Wenger would only hear reports about how many saves he had made. He ended up playing a huge part in the last part of our season, and he was a big part of the reason we stayed up.
"After the game, Sean said to me: 'We just found a way to win.' I loved that"
It was another massive achievement, and another one I was sure to enjoy.
After I left, an even bigger opportunity came up. One I just couldn’t turn down.
I got a call from Massimo Cellino at Leeds.
We had a couple of extraordinary meetings, in which we discussed how I would approach the role.
I knew all about the many talented youngsters they had coming through, because I’d tried to sign a few of them on loan at Rotherham. Players like Sam Byram, Charlie Taylor, Kalvin Phillips and Lewis Cook. Really top players. I wanted to give them more of a chance.
I also wanted to play two up front. I wanted to give Chris Wood a strike partner. I wanted to play attacking football, as I had done wherever I’d gone before.
He eventually offered me the job.
I would have taken the job whatever the circumstances – this was Leeds United, after all – but I wish I’d understood a bit more about the challenges I was going to face. The main thing was that Massimo was trying to sell the club, so there wasn’t going to be much to invest in new players.
We finished in mid-table, but there was so much potential there. Our position didn’t reflect the quality of our performances.
Unfortunately, at the end of the season the club was sold, and the new owners wanted something I simply couldn’t give them. They wanted someone who had managed in the Premier League.
"Everywhere I’ve gone, I’ve got the maximum out of the squad"
One valuable lesson I learned from my time at Leeds was from Sean Dyche. His Burnley side beat my team 1-0 at Turf Moor, but we battered them. Chris Wood missed a load of sitters for us.
After the game, Sean said to me: “We just found a way to win.” I loved that.
I think that’s what I’ve always done, but it was the first time I’d heard someone say it in such simple terms.
My teams, wherever I’ve gone, have been hard to beat, but totally unrelenting in attack. “Unrelenting” was the word Nick Barmby used to describe my Crawley team when we knocked his Hull side out of the FA Cup.
It was the same at Mansfield, Peterborough and Gillingham. I make sure my teams work hard, and we never let our opponents settle.
Everywhere I’ve gone, I’ve got the maximum out of the squad. I’ve had to adapt to such different circumstances and the way the game has changed over the years. I’ve certainly become more mellow.
But I’ve always maintained my enthusiasm for coaching. I instil belief in my players, and I’ve shown over the years I can spot a good player.
I’ve been fortunate to work for some great owners, and to have had a couple of projects to work on.
You never get a level playing field in football, but I think I’ve shown I can get the best out of the resources available.
My teams punch above our weight. We find a way to win.
Author: Ali Tweedale