West Bromwich Albion, 2018-2019
Would I do anything differently?
I’ve been asked that question a lot.
When I first left West Brom, I did go through a period of thinking, what did I do wrong? But now I’ve had time to look back and reflect, I know that I wouldn’t do anything differently. I really wouldn’t.
That doesn’t mean I harbour any animosity towards the club. Actually, it’s the opposite. I’m grateful to them for giving me the opportunity. The only reason people talk about what we did is because I had the chance to turn those players around.
Having no regrets is something that my dad drummed into me a long time ago.
I was 16 when I left home in Birmingham to go for a one-week trial at Torquay. Before I left, dad said to me: “Son, when you come back and see me, whether it’s in one week, one year or 10 years, just make sure you come back to me with no regrets.”
All week, those words were stuck in my head. So, you can imagine what I was like on the pitch; I gave it absolutely everything, and it worked. Torquay signed me on as a scholar, which later turned into a two-year professional contract.
That attitude of trying to seize the moment and making the most of the opportunities in front of you is one that has always stayed with me.
Sometimes, those opportunities come along when you least expect them.
I was playing for Portsmouth (above) when West Brom first came calling. The first I heard about it was when my manager Graham Rix tapped me on the shoulder as I was about to get on the team bus to travel to a game at Grimsby: “You’re not travelling today.”
I was the captain. I’d just done all the team play. I was gutted.
He said: “We’ve accepted a bid for you. Go back home and await further instruction.”
I started to walk away, then turned around and said: “Gaffer, can I ask who it’s from?”
“Yeah, West Brom.”
"I had a long playing career – 20 years. But for more than a decade of it, I’d also been thinking about life after football"
When I was at secondary school in Birmingham, we’d had a new astroturf pitch laid and, one day a week, the West Brom lads used to come and train on it. Whenever they were there, I was straight out of the classroom to stand by the fence and watch. I would look at the technique; the passes; how they chipped the balls; the timing of the runs; how they held people off.
I was mesmerised.
It was the one day a week when I never went for school lunch. My friends would come out and say: “Come on Daz, we’re going to Greggs.” But I wouldn’t leave that spot for the whole hour.
The deal took a while to go through, but the minute I got into the West Brom dressing room, I knew it was a solid one. From the very first training session I saw there was a real culture of hard work at the club – when they trained, they really trained. That team was relentless. Game after game, we were able to produce. A lot of that came from the manager Gary Megson – he never let up on us.
Sometimes you win a game and you can get lost in the moment. But with Gary, as soon as the game finished, it was done. Bang – on Monday morning we were back to it again. There was no hangover from the game; it was instant.
That drive came from the group as well. The standards were clear, and we knew we had to keep them game after game, home and away. I’d been part of a promotion-winning team before, at Bradford City. But at West Brom there was something for me that said if you want success, this is the way to get it.
I had a long playing career – 20 years in total. But for more than a decade of it, I’d also been thinking about life after football. I knew that when I finished playing, the next best thing for me was to coach.
It started when I was playing for Bradford City, when myself and Wayne Jacobs would do some coaching in the academy. After that, at every club I went to, I'd make sure I got some coaching hours in.
Every summer, I'd get stuck into a coaching course – B Licence, A Licence, Pro Licence, the Leaders in the Game diploma. I can’t remember one summer where I sat back and did nothing.
I even went back to university to study for a degree in physical education. I was still doing it in 2012 when I got the offer from Mark Harrison to go back to West Brom as the under-18s coach. When I asked him if I could still finish my degree, he laughed: “Darren, this is a full-time role. You’ll see...”
Then I spoke to my university lecturer: “Is there any way I can still do it?”
He said: “Darren, what are you thinking? You’re a coach – a full-time coach. This is what you wanted to do.”
"It was a different environment to what I was used to. The pressure. The adrenaline. The feeling of being on the front line"
They were right. It was impossible. West Brom’s academy went into minute detail in terms of coaching. That’s what made it the perfect place for me to develop as a coach. It gave me the opportunity to work not only with the under-18s but also with the under-23s and the first team. Every week, I'd also do some position-specific work with the younger ones – ynder-12s, 13s and 14s.
That variety challenged me, because how you communicate and how you coach is completely different with a 12-year-old than with a first-team player. The information they need is different. The vocabulary is different. It’s a different concept of coaching.
It was Tony Pulis who initially gave me the chance to work with the first team. I’d been Tony’s captain at Portsmouth, so he knew me as a player and must have trusted me because he gave me the responsibility of doing the set-plays. That was incredible pressure.
I remember going to Goodison Park for a game against Everton and having Tony turn around to me and say: “You make sure they don’t score.”
Standing in front of 30,000 people. Instructing the first team. It was a completely different environment to what I was used to with the academy. The pressure. The adrenaline. The feeling of being on the front line.
But all of a sudden, the player part of you kicks in. All of your experiences come back to you. You know what they’re going through on the pitch because you’ve been out there. You’ve experienced it. It’s in your blood.
When I look back at that time as a coach, I realise how valuable the experiences were that I was getting. I look at the array of managers who came to the club – Steve Clarke, Alan Irvine, Tony and then Alan Pardew. I had the opportunity to watch them work. To travel with them in the first team. To be with them in the dressing room and listen to them prepare for games.
It was absolutely crucial to my development to see them work under pressure.
But I never once thought about doing the job myself. All I thought was: “I want to be a really good coach, and I want to be working in the Premier League, coaching some of the best players.” That was my dream.
I also think that, before you become a head coach, there’s a coaching background you’ve got to feel and understand. My route was the under-18s, the 23s, and almost three years as the loans manager. That allowed me to find out how managers operate at Championship, League One and League Two level.
I wanted to see the resources they had to work with – the constraints they were under. At West Brom, we had 20-plus staff. At League One or Two level, they might have six staff. How did they make it work? I wanted to see all those bits in the game.
Along with observing the managers at West Brom, those three years were pivotal in terms of preparing me for the unexpected opportunity that was to come.
"Alarm bells were ringing, saying: ‘We’ve got to stop the rot’"
It was Bank Holiday Monday when I got a phone call from West Brom’s technical director Nick Hammond, asking me to come in for a meeting.
When he told me that Alan Pardew had gone, I was gutted – it was Alan who had given me an official first-team role. I was surprised, too, because with six games of the season to go, I’d been convinced nothing was going to change. I thought Alan would have the job to the end of the season, and then be tasked with trying to get them straight back up from the Championship.
Nick said: “We want you to take it, and, no matter what happens, you’ve got the six games to the end of the season.”
After two days, I got my head together and stepped up James Shan from the under-23s to help me. I also asked if I could bring in Wayne Jacobs, who I’d played with at Bradford. I wanted him as a sounding board. He understands the game inside and out, and was emotionally detached. When you’re in the cauldron of it, you need someone who’s a bit on the outside of things.
I would have Wayne sitting up in the stands. On the touchline, it was myself, James and goalkeeping coach Neil Cutler.
The next morning, I had a 9am meeting with all the staff at the training ground. I wanted to reassure them. To let them know they were all doing a fantastic job. That all I needed was their support, so we could move forward together. I told them: “We’re going to change this, and we’re going to show what can be achieved when we all come together.”
At 10.30am, the players arrived. This was a team that had lost a lot of games. Alarm bells were ringing in my head, telling me: “We’ve got to stop the rot.”
Because rot had set into the club. When a losing mentality sets in, a club can start to spiral.
The biggest thing for me was to settle everybody down and give them the confidence to know we were a good team. A good club. Let’s take off the shackles that have hemmed us in and show everybody what we’re all about.
I told them: “We need some courage now, and I know you’ve got courage because there are only 500 players worldwide who can play in the Premier League, and you’re part of that. So you can’t tell me that, out of the millions of people in the world, you haven’t got courage. You’ve just got to go and show it.”
I knew they were a good group of players and could handle the Premier League. The way I saw it, it was just about switching the lights back on.
"The big thing for me that day was seeing the players’ faces in the dressing room. I’d rewind again, just for that moment"
A few days later, we had our first game, against Swansea at home. We came away with a draw – which, for me, was a great point, because that point stops the rot. You can build from it.
The next time I came into the training ground, there was a different feel around the place. Usually, on a Monday morning, there was a sombre feeling about it. We’d put Sky Sports News on in the canteen only to see goals going in against West Brom. Again. This time, that feeling had gone. There was an energy about the place.
We had a week to prepare for the next game, against Manchester United at Old Trafford, and the message was clearn – we were going there to win. “Everything we do this week is in preparation to win on Sunday.”
We went to United with a game plan, and that wasn’t to just sit back – no chance. We went there to try and implement our own playing style and philosophy on them, and they did that. Every player, to a man, did it.
We won the game 1-0. James and I had got a result against José Mourinho – one of the best-known managers in the world of football. But the big thing for me on that day was seeing the players’ faces in the dressing room. The joy of winning was just incredible. I’d rewind again, just for that moment.
I know what I said earlier about not having regrets, but I'll admit – I do have one from that day.
After the game, as I went upstairs to do the media, someone stopped me and said: “Darren, would you like to see Sir Alex Ferguson? He’s in here.”
I tucked my T-shirt into my tracksuit bottoms, wiped the sweat off my brow, and rubbed my hands on my trousers to make sure I didn’t have sweaty palms. A swig of water and I was ready to go in. Just as I was about to knock, my head of media stopped me: “Darren, we’ve got to do the media first. We’ll come back and see Sir Alex afterwards.”
As soon as we were finished, I went back down to the room and knocked on the door. When I pushed it open, there was no Sir Alex. Just a lady in there clearing the table. I said: “Sir Alex?”
“He’s just gone, love. A couple of minutes ago.”
"I’m going to ask one more thing; it’s going to be more mental”
I was gutted. To have a few words from the greatest manager of all our generations would have been so valuable for me.
That game was a big one for myself and the players, but it wasn’t until the penultimate game of the season that the fans really felt they had their club back.
That 1-0 win against Tottenham was probably my most rewarding result. Spurs were playing some unbelievable stuff at the time and we’d had four games by then, so Mauricio Pochettino had seen my West Brom and knew what was coming.
The tactics changed for that game, though. We sat a bit deeper and were really compact. For 70 minutes, the players were remarkable. Then we brought on two players with quality as good as anything in the Premier League in Daniel Sturridge and Nacer Chadli, and the pendulum swung.
When we scored, the Hawthorns erupted. But I stayed calm, because I knew there were two things that had to happen for us to go into the last game of the season with some hope of staying up. Number one, we needed to get a result. But number two, we needed a draw in the game between Swansea and Southampton, which was being played a few days later.
I didn’t watch that game. I was driving home from the training ground when someone called me and said: “Have you seen the result?” Just from the tone of their voice, I knew it wasn’t the result we needed. With one game to go, we’d been relegated.
When the players came in for training on the Thursday, I sat them down and said: “What you’ve done is remarkable. Be proud of what you’ve achieved. You’ve given the fans their club back. You’ve given the club hope. But I’m going to ask you one more thing, and it’s going to be more mental than physical. We’ve got a game on Sunday, and you owe it to yourselves, to the fans and to your families, to bow out in the right way.”
Things didn’t go our way against Crystal Palace on the Sunday. But the commitment and desire the players showed that day meant that, despite relegation, they finished the season on a high. As a football club, it was back to what we’d known it as – which was really pleasing for me.
After the game, I got on the team bus to head back to the Midlands and, I kid you not, the minute the coach touched the M1 I was asleep for two and a half hours. Mentally, I felt that was me done. I’d done the best I could. Now, I was ready to hand back the reins.
But over the following days, the media were running all sorts of stories saying I had to get the job permanently.
From the moment that happened, the work was non-stop. The club had been in the Premier League for nine seasons, and now we had to make sure it was ready for a league that presents a host of different challenges. A league where you often have 24 or 48 hours to prepare for games. A league where you can lose a dozen times but still get promoted. A league where draws don’t count for much – you need wins.
"My ambition at the start of the season was to score 100 goals. The only way you do that is by playing attacking football"
It’s a different animal compared to the Premier League.
From being a team that sat back and defended in the Premier League, I knew we had to be a team on the front foot in the Championship. I was a defender by trade; I like keeping clean sheets, but I also like my teams to be attack-minded. I want them to play open, front-foot football. I want players to express themselves, and have the freedom to make the right decisions.
Our pre-season was detailed for all those things.
We played against Barnet, Swindon, Coventry – all lower-league teams – because I was looking for my players to do two things. One, be dominant with the ball; two, when you lose the ball, to go forward, to press the opposition and get it back.
It was about changing the mentality of the players so they knew this is what we’re about. My ambition at the start of the season was to score 100 goals. When I left, we had 70 and there were still games left to play. I’m not saying we would have got the 100, but it outlines what the mentality was. The only way you do that is by playing open, expansive, attacking football. By playing different shapes and formations that will catch the opposition out and allow you to get your nose in front.
During that pre-season, we didn’t have a technical director or a recruitment department. Even my assistant manager didn’t arrive until a few days before the first game of the season – it was just me and James. That’s why, when I look back, I’m overwhelmed by the achievements at West Brom.
If you look at the results, they speak for themselves. That’s why I say I wouldn’t do anything differently. Why, given another opportunity, I’d take the same open approach. Make sure that all the players know what I’m asking of them. Build a strong connection with my staff and every department. Be connected and committed to the club.
That buy-in from everybody was key to us getting the success that we did. It shows what can be achieved when everyone is on the same page. When we took over, everybody was saying: “West Brom won’t win another game in the Premier League.”
I left the club in a healthier place than it was when I was given the honour of leading it. As a player there, I think I had a positive impact, too. So I associate my experiences at West Brom with nothing but good times. Despite the manner of how that period ended, it doesn’t detract from the fact it was a positive time for me – one that taught me so much.
After I left, some experienced managers rang me up and asked: “How do you feel about the job? Would you give it a go again?”
My response? “Without a doubt.” We all understand the industry and the business, but it’s the love of the game that draws us back in. I enjoyed working on the front line. Enjoyed seeing a group of players perform and get results from the things we’d worked on in training.
It’s a real joy when you walk into the training ground on a Monday morning and see the smiles on the faces of everybody. Ultimately, when a club does well and has the right culture, it sends ripples of positivity into the community. Those are the things I like – the positive messages football can give, and how it can serve.
So no, I wouldn’t do anything differently. I gave it absolutely everything, as always.
And I have no regrets.
Author: Tony Hodson