Stevenage, 2018-2019; Oldham Athletic, 2019-2020
You never know who’s watching you.
I always say that to young players I coach. You should always perform at your best because you never know who’s watching. You never know who might give you the opportunity of a lifetime. I learned that early on.
I grew up in Gafsa, right in the very south of Tunisia. It’s basically the desert, miles from everybody else.
There was no club from there in the top division of Tunisian football when I was growing up, so when I told people my dream was to make it as a professional footballer, they laughed.
Professional football was so far away from reality that nobody believed it was possible.
Then, one day, when I was about 14, I was playing on what was essentially a dirt track, with my brother and my friends. We were playing in bare feet.
This man came over to me at the end of the match, asked me for my name and address, and that was it. I didn’t think anything more of it at the time.
Then, three months down the line, there was a knock on my door. It was some people from one of the big teams in the Tunisian top division. They asked to see my father.
“We’ve seen your son playing,” they said. “We want to take him on.”
“No,” my father replied. “My son is not interested. He is going to concentrate on his studies. Football is just something on the side for him.”
I was gutted. Absolutely devastated. I thought I’d missed my chance.
But they were obviously keen, because they came back for me three years later. This time, I went for it.
From then on, I always told myself: “You never know who’s watching.” I’d been playing in bare feet and ended up at one of the best clubs in Tunisia.
“We’d go to the pub; everyone would have pints and I’d have coffee. People would look at me and wonder what I was doing!”
That attitude helped me find a way to England, too.
I moved on to a team called AS Marsa. We were a mid-table team in the top league – but cup specialists.
On one cup run, we made it to the semi finals and were playing a game in Sousse – a popular holiday destination in Tunisia. Burnley’s chief scout, Brian Miller, happened to be on holiday there at the time.
He came to watch the game – which we won – and he was impressed. Then he came to the final and watched me play there, too. Off the back of that, I earned a move to Burnley.
I moved in 1995, just before foreign players really started moving to England in big numbers. At the time, there were only Scottish and English people at Burnley.
I’d learned English at school, but the language is totally different in a dressing room. Every other word is a swearword!
Ted McMinn – a really funny guy who was very friendly to me when I joined – had a strong Scottish accent, and there were Scousers in there too, like David Eyres. So many different accents. It was quite daunting for a young man from north Africa, and a big change from what I was used to.
Burnley is a lovely place – I loved it there – but it can be very grey, very wet. In the winter, it gets dark at 4pm.
I’d also never been to a pub before. I was used to drinking coffee.
“There was a real positive to come out of my injury – I got my first opportunity to get started on coaching”
We’d go to the pub; everyone would have pints and I’d have coffee. People would look at me and wonder what the hell I was doing!
I learned quickly that it was important to adapt and, even though it wasn’t what I was used to, to embrace the culture – and that meant going to the pub even though I drank coffee when I went!
Embracing the culture extended to my game, too.
I had to become a more physical player than a technical player to survive. It was a real eye-opener for me at a young age.
The obstacles were huge, but my determination to succeed and move on in my career, to move around Europe, was so great that I made the changes I needed to. I totally changed my game during my time in England. I changed from a number 10 to a winger, and then to a centre-forward.
My progress was interrupted when I broke my leg. It was a shame, because I’d just started to settle.
I had two years out of the game and, looking back, that really stopped me achieving everything I wanted to achieve as a player. I still went on to play for another 10 years, but that definitely set me back.
However, there was a real positive to come from my time on the sidelines – I got my first opportunity to get started on coaching.
“I’d play for Doncaster on the Saturday, and on the Sunday I was taking the Burnley Under-16s to games”
I’d always had my career planned out to be a footballer and then to go into management afterwards, and I was incredibly driven. When I had that injury, I had a lot of free time on my hands. I saw it as an opportunity to grasp.
I got a head-start on everyone else; while I was doing rehab, I started doing my badges. I coached in the Burnley academy, doing three nights a week with the Under-12s, Under-14s and Under-16s.
Even when I got back to playing, I carried on with my badges. I ended up doing my A Licence at 29 years old.
I did it alongside some great names – Stuart Pearce, Brian McClair, Tony Mowbray – but I was the youngest of the lot by a long way. I was really young to be getting that qualification.
I carried on coaching after I got fit again, and carried on throughout my playing career. When I was playing for Doncaster between 1998 and 2000 – a time in my career I loved – I would train every day and, two or three days a week, I’d go home, get changed and go back to coach at the Burnley academy again.
I’d play for Doncaster on the Saturday, and then on the Sunday I was taking the Burnley Under-16s to games. Sometimes that meant two away trips in a weekend – to places like Carlisle, Preston, all over the place – and then back to training on Monday morning with Doncaster.
I spent seven or eight years coaching throughout the age groups at Burnley, and helped develop some brilliant young players who have gone on to great things – players like Jay Rodriguez (above), Marc Pugh and Richard Chaplow, who have all played in the Premier League.
It all meant that, when I got offered the Northwich Victoria job in the National League at the age of 36, I was ready.
“I could tell there were some players who just weren’t buying into our ideas”
I already had thousands of training sessions under my belt. I’d managed hundreds of games and taken hundreds of team talks. It might have been with 16-year-olds, but it is still footballers looking to you for guidance, looking for inspiration.
It was 2007. I’d been playing for Northwich Victoria for a few months and they were going through awful financial problems.
We had the most horrific start to a season you could imagine. We took two points from the first 15 games in the Conference. No wins, 13 defeats.
The club was in administration. It was basically about to go bust. Neil Redfearn, the previous manager, left, and then the chairman rang me.
“You’re the most experienced person here,” he said. “I don’t know how long the club is going to survive, but can you take over the team?”
I knew I wanted to be a manager, but I also knew that if I took this job – a really, really tough one – and I failed, I might never get another chance. Lots of new managers don’t get a second job after failing first time around.
But I still couldn’t turn down the opportunity.
I put everything l had into that job. I put my heart and soul into it. And it worked. We won 11 of the remaining 30 games of the season – including an 11-game unbeaten run – and survived with a game to spare. I won the Conference Manager of the Year award for the way I turned the season around.
Was I as strategic or as structured as I am now in my work? No way. I think it was sheer determination that saw me through; the insistence I wouldn’t take no for an answer.
I learned how to galvanise a group of players who were down, how to build confidence, how to sow the seeds of hope. Players look to you for inspiration, and I learned how to provide that.
“We were absolutely flying – and that was the main reason I took my time to get back into management”
Unfortunately, Northwich then ran into more financial difficulties, which led to relegation after I’d left.
The firefighting job I did set a precedent for my subsequent roles.
I joined Graham Westley’s staff at Stevenage – where I’d played for three years – when they were struggling really badly; 19th in the Conference. He had seen the job I’d done at Northwich Victoria and asked me to join his staff.
When I got there, we had a really big squad – about 30 players – and I could tell there were some who just weren’t buying into Graham’s ideas.
“You have to be radical,” I told him. “You’ve got to get everyone in the squad behind you.”
Graham (above, right) then had some really difficult conversations, and seven or eight players were out of the squad straight away. We turned the season on its head.
We went on an 18-game unbeaten run, snuck into the playoffs – though we lost in the semi finals – and won the FA Trophy at Wembley (above). The next season we won the Conference, getting Stevenage into the Football League for the first time in their history. And they’ve stayed there ever since.
I spent a period as Stevenage assistant manager, playing an integral role in their rise from the Conference to a team in the League One playoffs. We were absolutely flying as a management team – and that was the main reason I took my time to get back into management myself.
Having progressed in my coaching career from academy level to assistant manager, I’d gained experience in how to drive teams by focusing on player development, strategic man-management and the creation of a positive environment across a club. I took all of that into my second role as a manager.
That job was with Southport. They’d already offered me the manager’s job in 2006, when I was playing there, but I knew I wasn’t ready back then. The chairman really liked me, though, and he gave me the job in November 2015.
“Everywhere I’ve gone, I’ve improved results. People always ask me what it is I do to change things”
The club were in the relegation zone in the National League, with three wins from their first 19 games. They’d only scored 15 goals. Again, I turned things around.
We had the fifth best record in the National League during my time at Southport, including a six-game winning streak, and they were safe from relegation by the time I left to be closer to my family and my newly born daughter.
It was the same story at Nuneaton, where I went next. They had four wins from 15 and were fourth from bottom when I took over, but they were not only safe from the drop when I left – they were chasing the playoffs.
The opportunity to go back to Stevenage as manager (below) came up in March 2018, and that was a club that obviously had a special place in my heart. It was also a chance to manage in the Football League.
The theme of getting teams out of trouble continued.
I took over with Stevenage 16th in League Two but they were far, far closer to the relegation zone than they were the playoffs. I made it clear to the owners that I thought they should be aiming far higher.
In my one full season as Stevenage manager, we missed out on the playoffs by a point – and it was only a point because Newport scored an 87th-minute equaliser on the last day of the season. That was despite us having one of the lowest budgets in the league.
Everywhere I’ve gone, I’ve improved the team’s results – improved their points-per-game rate by at least 50 per cent on every occasion. People regularly ask me what I do to have such a positive impact.
“I want to stay at a club long enough to build a legacy”
I’ve got a big personality. I walk into a new dressing room to lift spirits, give players confidence and belief, and make it clear I’m there to lead from the front. It’s so important to spread positivity from the start – that’s the first thing I focus on.
I make sure I’m approachable as a manager, and I aim to build a culture that promotes hard work, teamwork and a commitment to collective objectives. I create a winning atmosphere by communicating a vision that inspires and empowers the team.
The personal touch is huge. You have to make every player feel important – spend time with each of them, get to know them. Both players who are starting and those who are out of the team – spend the same amount of time with each of them, and make it clear you are there to make them better players.
But you have to be clear with the group that you’re not coming in with all the answers. It’s going to be a collective effort to get to where they want to be as a team, while on an individual basis they need to put in the effort if they want to get everything they can from their careers.
I’ve proved I can win football matches, but I do believe that managers should be given time to bed their philosophy into a club. Managers should be judged based on what they have achieved relative to the resources available to them.
In the lower leagues, the teams that are successful are the ones that either have the biggest budgets or those that have shown patience with their manager.
Accrington and Wycombe are two recent examples who have persisted with their managers – John Coleman and Gareth Ainsworth, respectively – and enjoyed great success with them. In Gareth’s second season, Wycombe avoided relegation from League Two on goal difference, but did they sack him? No. Six years later – in 2020 – he took them into the Championship!
I haven’t yet had the chance to stay at a club long enough to build a legacy, and that’s what I want from my next job.
I want to take my time to find the right project for me next. When I find it, I want to make it last.