“There’s only one club for you son, and it’s Everton.”
I was watching a game at Blackpool when an old Scottish guy said those words to me, years before I ended up at Goodison. I nodded my head, smiled politely and didn’t really think much more of it.
But his words stuck with me. And they proved to be right.
The circumstances were difficult at first, because I was being lined up to replace Walter Smith. Walter was probably my biggest mentor, and a good friend – a person I could always phone for advice, or to swap ideas. I didn’t want to start talks with Everton before his future had been decided. In the end, a defeat at Middlesbrough brought Walter’s reign to a close, and it went from there.
I don’t think anybody can quite understand the step up that the Premier League represents. On the first day, I walked into the dressing room and saw Paul Gascoigne, David Ginola, Duncan Ferguson and Tommy Gravesen. It was full of international players. You can have all the badges, but nothing can prepare you for that moment. The question then is how you deal with it.
There were some big egos there, but you cannot just demand respect; you have to earn it. You do that by coaching, by showing on the training ground that you’ve got good knowledge of what you’re talking about. You also have to show that you're the boss as well, when it comes down to it.
By the time I arrived at Everton, I’d been a manager for four years – spending all of them at Preston North End. But my coaching education started long before I arrived at Deepdale.
You could say that I caught the bug early. When I was a trainee at Celtic, I spent the summers helping out at coaching courses. We were known as ‘runners’, but we were really guinea pigs: you would spend one day playing in midfield, the next at right-back, then at centre-forward, picking up all the nuances of each position. That might sound like a boring way to spend your holidays, but to me it was heaven. I loved every moment of it.
By the time I was 22, I was a fully qualified coach in Scotland. Then I went through the whole process again in England, because I was concerned the Scottish courses wouldn’t have the same clout south of the border. I don’t know whether there are many who have done their full coaching badges twice, but that’s what I did.
"Before the 1998 World Cup I wrote to every single country, asking if I could attend their training camps"
From that point, everything was research: I was listening, watching, picking out things I thought would be valuable to me later on. Every coach I had offered me something different.
Take Billy McNeill at Celtic. He had been an aggressive, powerful centre-half, and I think he saw something similar in me. I was nowhere near his level, but he believed in me. He would work with me individually, practising headers after training. He had massive stature at the club because he lifted the European Cup, but he still maintained that personal touch.
At Preston, I played under John Beck, whose style was really the opposite of what we do in football today. He was very much a follower of Charles Hughes (a former director of coaching for the FA and an early developer of long-ball tactics) and, while I certainly didn’t agree with every part of his approach, he had some great ideas: how to make the most of set-pieces, how to motivate your team. It showed me that every situation is a learning opportunity.
But the best coach I ever worked with was probably Andy Roxburgh, who ran the Scottish youth team when I was coming through. I was only a teenager at the time, but I could already tell that Andy was ahead of all the other coaches. He was always looking for fresh ideas, and was able to tell us about new skills he saw overseas.
That thirst for knowledge stuck with me. I remember going to the World Cup in 1998 as an observer, just so I could see how the best players conduct themselves. Before the tournament, I wrote to every single country, asking if I could attend their training camps. The only reply came from Craig Brown, the Scotland manager, who invited me out to Avignon to follow their preparations.
Your job as a coach is to go out and find something. Or hear something, or understand something. There are certain lessons you can’t learn in a classroom; you have to be out there. You have to be improving because, if you don’t, somebody else will. That month in the south of France, watching Scotland train and taking in a few World Cup matches, was an education for me.
By that time, I was already a few months into my managerial career, starting to put all the theory into practice. And, looking back, Preston was the ideal proving ground for a young manager, giving me time and space to develop my ideas.
I had gone to Deepdale near the end of my playing days, and soon became player-assistant coach under Gary Peters. When Gary lost his job, there was talk of me taking the plunge, but it was not a sure thing. The Preston public wanted someone with a big name, someone a bit more exciting. They wanted Joe Royle or Ian Rush as their manager – not David Moyes.
"I was brought up with Celtic, where you could never do anything but attack. I wanted to instil those values at Preston"
Fortunately, the chairman, Bryan Gray, saw things differently. There was a consistency to what Preston did; they usually tried to move everybody up the pecking order. Gary had replaced John Beck, and it was now my turn. At first, I was player-manager, but that didn’t last. I played terribly in a couple of defeats, so I took myself out of the team and concentrated totally on the management.
Preston were in a tricky situation, with relegation a real possibility, but I was lucky enough to know all the players already. I had been taking quite a few of the sessions under Gary and I knew what the squad needed from me. We stayed up, and that got everybody believing in the project. It gave us momentum for the following seasons.
One of the big tasks was getting Preston to play good football, attacking football. I was brought up with Celtic; there, you could never do anything but attack. That was just what the crowd demanded. I wanted to instil those values at Preston, and the players were keen to embrace them. It wasn’t the possession football that you see in today’s game, but we always wanted to get crosses in the box, feed the ball into the strikers’ feet. Those were the things we worked on regularly.
Promotion to Division One showed that our efforts were paying off, and we came so near to reaching the Premier League a year later. It was an incredibly tough season. Look at the three teams who went up: Jean Tigana’s Fulham, Graeme Souness’ Blackburn and Sam Allardyce’s Bolton, who beat us in the playoff final. Each of those sides stayed in the top flight for a decade, which is testament to their quality. But we came unbelievably close to getting Preston up.
I started the next season feeling a bit low, which was probably inevitable. Clubs had started to come and pluck one or two of our players away: John Macken went to Manchester City and Michael Appleton left for West Brom. We were beginning to see the break-up of the team because we didn’t make the Premier League. And I was also getting phone calls about managerial vacancies.
I met with several clubs: Sheffield Wednesday, Southampton, Nottingham Forest, and a few others as well. They were all Premier League jobs, but I wasn’t sure about any of them.
I remember going to see Sir Alex Ferguson for advice after talks with Wednesday. He sat there, in his office at Carrington, and went through the whole squad, player by player. He was so knowledgeable. Eventually, he delivered his verdict: "No, David, I don’t think it’s that good a job."
So I returned to Preston and got back to work.
"I wanted to maintain Everton’s values, but also bring in a more modern culture, and that takes a long time"
Everton was different, though. It was the right job. And one that I went into with a clear idea.
I had made my mind up that I didn’t want players at the end of their careers, earning top money but with no resale value and no longevity. My plan was to get young, exciting, hungry players. I knew I couldn’t do it overnight, but the knowledge I had brought from the second flight meant that I knew there were three or four players in that league who I thought were hungry and could step up.
The best example in those early years is probably Tim Cahill (below). He arrived with a hunger, a determination and a toughness. Bill Kenwright and I had been down to watch him play for Millwall, and right from the first meeting Bill thought he had a great character. That proved to be the case, and he set a new standard in the squad from the moment he arrived.
The first few seasons at Goodison Park were up and down: we finished seventh in my first year, then 17th, fourth and 11th. But that was part of the process. It took time to change what was there: time to move people on, time for people to develop, and time to get players in. I think coaches recognise that these things can’t happen with a snap of your fingers. The problem is getting the owners to understand that.
The consistency we achieved at Everton after that came from stability. I had time to learn how the club worked, and had really got to know the people around me. Changing a football club is not something you can do quickly. I wanted to maintain Everton’s values, but also bring in a more modern culture, and that takes a long time.
If you look back at British football, we’ve seen some real dynasties. Think about Nottingham Forest: Brian Clough was there for 18 years. Sir Bobby Robson was at Ipswich for 13. And, of course, Sir Alex at Manchester United. What stands out is that those clubs, in the main, all had a high level of success during those periods.
For coaches now, getting to two years is an achievement. If you can keep winning, you might get five years. I just hope that some get to 10. I think we’re seeing less and less of it, but I hope it’s not going to disappear. I look back at my time at Everton with great fondness because they gave me the time to really shape the club. And I think we achieved remarkable things with what we had. It was an incredible journey.
"I learned a lot about football in Spain. I learned a lot about myself, too. It’s an experience more managers need to have"
When I went to Manchester United, I thought I was beginning another significant chapter in my career. Their interest came out of the blue, but I do think I fitted their blueprint for selecting managers. Take Sir Alex: he had been really successful at Aberdeen, but you wouldn’t have said that he was the biggest name out there back in 1986.
They had a history of picking people whose values matched the club’s. I was a manager who put faith in youngsters, knew the value of hard work and determination, and could improve players on the training ground. I believe that’s why Manchester United chose me. It was an enormously proud moment.
Sir Alex had completed 27 seasons at the helm, and the length of my contract told me that United had another long-term project in mind. United were one of the last clubs to have those principles: they didn’t chop and change managers like a lot of other teams. That is no longer the case, but I harbour no ill will. Ultimately, if you’re going to manage the top clubs, you have to win. I didn’t win often enough, and I totally understand that. It was a fantastic experience, but a disappointing one, too.
When the opportunity arose to go to Spain, I felt really fortunate.
I had always wanted the chance to work abroad. But, in all honesty, Germany would have been my first choice – I liked the way German football was organised, the professionalism.
When the call came from Real Sociedad, my first thought was: “My goodness, this could be a different type of player. How am I going to deal with it?”
But it was something that excited me. I was keen to get outside my comfort zone and broaden my horizons. And it turned out to be a brilliant experience.
Real Sociedad is a great club with a powerful philosophy: the majority of the squad have to have come through the academy. I found that really difficult to start with, but as I settled in I started to understand their values and the pride behind them. That policy might stop them ever becoming one of the top teams in Spain, but the club stands for something. I really appreciated that.
I learned a lot about football in Spain. I learned a lot about myself, too. It’s an experience that more managers need to have. We’re very good at importing the best coaches from other countries, but we can’t seem to get any British managers into jobs in the big leagues in Europe. I was one of the fortunate few.
It all comes back to learning, and I’m still as hungry as ever to improve my understanding of the game. This sport has changed so much in recent times, largely for the better, but there are challenges. What we don’t want is football played the same way by every team. If it becomes a chess match, we’re going to be bored. We have to encourage variation – in styles, philosophies, approaches – and give coaches time to implement their plans properly.
Football never ceases to evolve. I love following the new trends that develop. Seeing fresh ideas coming to fruition on the pitch.
Even now, two decades into my coaching career, I watch in the hope of seeing something I’ve never seen before.
Author: Tony Hodson