First-Team Development Coach, Portsmouth, 2023–
I came through at Fulham at a really exciting time for the club.
I can remember training with the Under-13s on a Tuesday evening, and seeing Kevin Keegan. He came in under Mohamed Al Fayed, and in 1999 the first team ran away with the Second Division title. Soon after that there was an influx of players like John Collins, Louis Saha (below) and Luis Boa Morte.
There was also a real buzz around Craven Cottage in those first years of the Al Fayed era, and the centre of excellence turned into an academy. It all fitted together really nicely.
Keegan wasn’t big in stature, but he had an aura and a presence. His personality and reputation shone a light on what Fulham was doing. That was enough to attract the players he brought into what was then the third tier of English football.
Chris Coleman was one of them. Watching him play from the stands at Craven Cottage made him my hero – my favourite player.
I used to watch him and think: “I want to be like that. Left-sided centre-half. Chest out. Driving with the ball. Organising.”
Fulham’s academy had stopped doing boot-cleaning, but I approached Chris to see if I could clean his. I used to question him every week about the game, and built a relationship with him. He was a big name, had a big character, and was very popular among the fans.
Jean Tigana arrived in 2000. France had won the 1998 World Cup and would soon add Euro 2000 as well. In addition to Saha, Steed Malbranque and Alain Goma led a French revolution at the club.
They were really professional. I trained with them as a 17-year-old, and the standard was amazing. Collins had played for Monaco and could speak French. He was an amazing player with a brilliant left foot, and was amazing with the young players. He was the consummate professional in the way he took care of his body; he made me want to be like that as well.
"By the time I returned to Fulham I’d played for three different managers"
He’d give the young players time and feedback, and show an interest in you. If he played for the reserves he’d run the show, but he would also make time to give you tips.
Tigana was a very good coach. He oversaw clear drills to get across his philosophy – the club started to play with a midfield diamond, and both this and the training drills filtered down to the youth teams. The patterns of play were the same – the club had a connected feel.
Tigana didn’t give much away – as a young lad, I couldn’t work him out – but he also had a presence. He was very calm, and very focused on technique, touch and manipulating the ball. He was a big advocate of total football.
In the summer of 2001, after the club had won promotion to the Premier League, Edwin van der Sar came in from Juventus. We couldn’t really believe we’d signed a player of that calibre. He was another who would give tips during games, and always lots of feedback.
As a youth player, I had had some excellent coaches – including Paul Clement and Paul Nevin, who both went on to coach in the Premier League. When Coleman was appointed to succeed Tigana in 2003, though, it filled me and other youth-team players with optimism. I was thinking: “This could happen for me.”
Chris was an honest manager who told you what he expected of you. I felt he believed and trusted me, which was good man-management. We’re still in contact – he’s been a coaching mentor since.
I was 19 when I played for Fulham in a League Cup tie at Wigan. On the journey back, Chris told me that Steve Coppell wanted to take me on loan to Brighton. He said that I could go there, play 15 to 20 games, and come back a man.
I got lost on the way to my first training session at Brighton, and arrived late, but Steve was really, really calm. The next day – my first game for them, against Rushden & Diamonds – there was also very little dialogue. He just said: “Enjoy yourself.”
"I really wanted to pinch myself when I was tracking back towards the Kop"
I felt really relaxed going into it because of that, and I scored. Two weeks later, I scored again, against Grimsby. That was good man-management again. Steve didn’t fill me with too much information. He just let me get out there.
A month or so later, though, Steve left for Reading. He was replaced at Brighton by Mark McGhee, who was a no-nonsense manager. Under Mark, I learned how to handle myself in League One, in terms of competing for second balls, being first to channel balls and being aggressive in duels.
By the time I returned to Fulham, aged 20, I’d played for three different managers, been in and out of the team, played away games against really direct teams, and experienced everything academy kids don’t get today. I’d really developed and matured.
For most of 2003/04, I travelled with the first team as the 17th man. I’d be getting warmed up, getting changed, and seeing the stadiums. Then, towards the end of that season, we travelled to Anfield, and I was in the squad of 16.
I didn’t have any idea I’d be coming on – it was just great to be on the bench – but quite late in the game Chris called me over. “You’re coming on. You’ve got to track Steven Gerrard everywhere.”
I got on the pitch, and soaked up Anfield for a moment. Wow. I really wanted to pinch myself when I was tracking back towards the Kop; after the hard work I’d put in, I felt I deserved to be there – and it was an amazing feeling.
Gerrard was one of the best players in the world at that time, and one of my favourites, but it was late in the game and I kept up with him on adrenaline. They don’t do box-to-box midfielders any more – you’re either a six or an eight or a 10 – but he did everything, and was one of the best at it.
I’d always been aware that I’d been in contention to become the first British Asian to play in the Premier League, and I wanted to inspire others to follow. It was definitely a huge motivation, but it also wasn’t something I dwelled on.
"in three turbulent years at QPR, I played for seven different managers"
It was exciting that it had never been done before, and that there could be a bigger purpose to it when I did. At times, I was almost bombarded with support from schoolteachers, parents and kids.
In time, everything became about what I could do to play league games.
Whenever I found myself out of the side, one of the responses would be: “He’s also an international player, and he’s got to take preference.” So in 2005, and after I’d already played for England at youth level, Pakistan expressed an interest in calling me up. In addition to the amazing experience of representing a national team, I saw it as another way of playing games at club level.
I made my international debut in December 2005, against Sri Lanka, and I got a lot of media attention. I tried to share that with the other players, and I also tried to share with them some of my experience as a professional.
The infrastructure in Pakistan was still developing and, while we played at a full stadium, the local leagues, academy set-ups and coach-education system required a lot of work. It wasn’t like in Japan, or South Korea, and it provided another insight into the respect in which the Premier League is held.
The following August, I still had a couple of years left on my contract when QPR, Barnsley and Luton made Fulham offers for me. I was 22. “You need to go away and play 50, 60 games in the next couple of seasons,” Chris told me.
QPR had history in the Premier League and were a London club, which meant I wouldn’t have to move. So I chose them, but in three turbulent years there I played for seven different managers.
I signed under Gary Waddock, and when he left I played for John Gregory. Mick Harford then took over, and I was put on the transfer list. When Luigi De Canio came in there was a bit of an injury crisis, so I came off the transfer list and started to play regularly, and got offered a new contract. When he left that contract offer was rescinded, and then I went out on loan – first to Brighton, then to Blackpool and later Bradford.
"At 30, I decided I wanted to have all of my coaching badges by 35"
But I’d started to keep notes on the managers I played for: their sessions, what I thought was good, and what wasn’t. In the long term, that instability, even if at the time it felt very uncertain, was good for me.
Paulo Sousa, Iain Dowie and Gregory, all of whom I played for at QPR, had good traits I’ve tried to take with me and attempt to use as a coach today. But the level of coaching detail in De Canio’s sessions, as a defender, was something I’d never seen. I loved them.
I had always been inquisitive about sessions, and kept journals and notes. Even at 18, I wanted to know why we did certain sessions – and I knew I wanted to stay in the game.
Towards the end of my career, I felt that once I was playing first-team football I didn’t get developed enough. My coaching had stopped, so I’d go to the park and do extra. It’s a myth that development is just for youth players – the role of development coach within first teams is something I believe is needed.
At 30, I decided I wanted to have all of my coaching badges by 35. I started to think really seriously about the next stages, even if I still didn’t expect my first opportunities as a coach, at Southern in Hong Kong, to unfold as they did.
I combined a business management degree with FIFPro and the UEFA Pro Licence while managing training, games and making time for my family. I was travelling from Asia to Europe on a consistent basis – I am a massive believer in not cutting corners and wanted to make sure I completed every step of the process.
By this stage, I’d also already played for Muangthong United in Thailand and Pahang FA in Malaysia. Football is really big in both countries, and some of the clubs are run very professionally. I was always asked about how they could improve and my ideas were always taken on board, even if they weren’t always used.
The off-field culture in Asia was something that I really needed to adapt to. I saw a lot of players from Europe, Africa and South America have their contracts terminated simply because they didn’t embrace what was in place.
"the owners told me i could continue as player-head coach, or the club was going to fold"
It’s not hard to learn one or two words of the language – it goes a long way – or to try the local food if you’re having lunch with the team. These things can help you to earn respect.
Thirty years ago, Japan made the decision to develop their own youth system, and their own players. Today, they have players all over Europe. Other Asian teams are realising that, so every year they’re getting a little better.
If you’re in Korea, it’s not dissimilar to the Championship: big, physical players; direct, quick, strong. But in other regions, like Japan, it’s a very technical, skilful game. The players are not the biggest, but they’re so quick and technical. In southeast Asia – Malaysia, Thailand, Vietnam – there’s a combination of the physical and technical, and some very, very gifted players.
I arrived at Southern in 2017. In addition to playing, I was working with their Under-18s and doing some development coaching with the first team and Under-23 international players. But, like in so many other places across the world, the pandemic changed everything.
Our revenues had come from China, but we suddenly had travel restrictions and our budget needed to be cut. The owners considered folding the club.
“Either continue as player-head coach, or the club’s going to fold,” they told me. “We’ve got no budget to do it any other way.”
Aged 37, I still felt I could play for a few more years – but I decided to take on the challenge. Both local and overseas players would have been losing their jobs, and I didn’t want to live with that.
I also saw it as something that could be an amazing learning curve, but it wasn’t part of the plan. I’d wanted to enter the development side with young players before becoming a head coach.
"The rules in Hong Kong were very, very strict, so I wanted to make training the most enjoyable period of the players’ day"
It was a really exciting period, though. The squad got stripped down to 14 players, three or four of whom I’d had in the club’s youth cup-winning team. We also gave loads of debuts to young lads, and brought in senior pros who’d been written off and had a point to prove.
On the field, if I was putting on a defensive session, I could lean on what I’d learned from Peter Taylor at Bradford, or Chris Coleman at Fulham. For sessions that focused on midfielders, I might go back to the notes I made on Stuart McCall. The basics of the game never change.
Off the field, I was heavily involved in recruiting, budgeting, managing upwards, speaking to the media, planning training, team selection and delivering team talks. It was very time-consuming, but it was also an amazing experience. We didn’t have an analyst, either, so I learned how to use Coach Paint, and made use of Hudl to cut the pre- and post-match video, as well as providing the players with individual and unit feedback clips.
I also went from playing with the players, as their captain, to dropping them and needing to have difficult conversations. I was trying to find a balance between being their coach and their mate, and I was trying to keep everyone happy. In my second season, I realised I simply couldn’t do that.
I found it fascinating to try and learn the language in Thailand and Malaysia, but Hong Kong being a former British colony meant that English was more widely spoken. Even then, it had been important to learn some Cantonese. We had players from Brazil, Spain, Japan, China and Hong Kong, so it helped not only communication, but with team spirit.
I also knew that I needed to perform as a player. I couldn’t make mistakes, but I thrived on that. Once I established boundaries and the players realised I was making fair decisions – that I wasn’t just picking myself; there were times I took myself off, and played other players – I got that respect.
The effects of the pandemic meant that there came a time to park up the tactical and technical aspects of the game, and really focus on the humans. I went really heavy on the social dynamics and the players’ psychology. How they were feeling, and their wellbeing.
The rules in Hong Kong were very, very strict, so it was about trying to make training the most enjoyable period of the players’ day. That provided me with another good learning curve.
"I accepted the portsmouth job over offers I’d received from clubs in the Premier League"
Just like in England, if you lost you’d get abuse on social media. The fans would be unhappy, and the bosses would want to know what had happened. The more traditional forms of media are also similar to in England, but they weren’t as harsh with me because I’d played and been successful in the region before then.
In my first season we finished fifth, which was a good achievement. In the second, we simplified the game, had a very clear process and encouraged a player-led environment. I was having lots of informal chats with the players, and created sub-groups to delegate responsibilities and ownership to other staff. The aim was to create harmony, good group dynamics and the right culture.
I would engage with the players about what formations and partnerships they felt would get the best from them. They had a voice and felt empowered, and so they engaged more. Just before I left we were top of the league with that same budget. Getting the right people aligned, and with consistency in the right processes, you can succeed.
There are times when the coach needs to take control, be assertive and give direction, but at others you can sense and feel that the group’s itching to be heard and wants to be involved. Sometimes we underestimate what the players know – their knowledge is very, very good, and they can have better ideas.
Involving them in some of the tactics can also give them accountability. Inevitably, we started to score more – they had believed that was the way they would. But you couldn’t do that all of the time. It can depend on the group.
I reached the point where I was enjoying preparing for and reviewing games more than I was enjoying playing in them.
I was more excited about developing the players I was working with, and how they were improving, so I had to be honest with myself. In May 2022, after clocking up more than 500 career games, I retired from playing with no regrets, and returned to England excited about the next chapter.
I applied for the vacant Under-18 lead coach role at Portsmouth after Geoff Noonan, a coach developer at the FA, informed me that the position was available. Geoff and Jim Hicks, the head of coaching at the Professional Footballers’ Association, both went the extra mile to help me complete my youth modules.
"The aim is to try to end up working at the highest level possible, but I don’t believe in taking shortcuts"
The following month Greg Miller, the academy manager at Portsmouth, called to offer me an interview. After a thorough process, I was offered the job – and I accepted it over offers I’d received from clubs in the Premier League.
I wanted to work my way up, instead of going straight in. A lot of Premier League clubs had processes and very good protocols already in place. At Portsmouth, I could have more of an input, contribute to the curriculum, and add more value.
Michael Beale is another mentor, and he is always talking about not rushing, but doing it the right way. I spent lots of time with Michael during my Pro Licence, and went to watch him coach while he was with the Liverpool Under-23s. He always made time to share sessions and give advice whenever it was needed, and I love the journey he has gone on. It has really inspired me to learn my trade and not be in a rush.
For the last five years, I have also spent time at the Fulham Academy during my off-season. I would shadow Steve Wigley, who is a fantastic developer of young talent. I spent time observing his sessions and picking his brains, and one time even travelled with the Fulham Under-18s for a game against Brighton. Steve has had a fantastic coaching career and has always had an open-door policy for me.
The aim is to try to end up working at the highest level possible, but I don’t believe in taking shortcuts. I’m not in a rush to return to a position as a head coach – the development side of the game is where my heart’s at, and I don’t see Under-18s football as a stepping stone. It’s a great place to put on sessions and refine them.
I’m fully developing myself as a coach, and want to work with coaches who can develop me. This season, I have really enjoyed working closely with the first team – with John Mousinho and, more recently, Jon Harley. John has helped to create a feel-good factor around the club and gives the players the licence to express themselves and play with freedom.
Personally, I’ve really enjoyed the process of planning and reviewing games, as well as the individual and unit-development work. Being involved in the FA Cup third-round tie against Tottenham in January was fantastic, too. The build-up to the game focused on our defensive shape and structure behind the ball, so to lose so narrowly – 1-0 – was credit to the players.
Standing next to Antonio Conte on the sidelines was a hugely inspiring experience, too. It reinforced that the Premier League stage is still the next big dream.
Author: The Coaches' Voice