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 in my head, telling me: ‘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.”