Wigan Athletic, 2015-16
I should have gone on holiday. Taken some time out. Done anything that didn’t involve taking another job.
But I wanted to right the wrong.
I wanted to prove that Wigan were wrong to sack me.
It’s not a good place to be. But life is all about learning lessons. Every experience you go through teaches you something.
As a player, I went through the whole spectrum: going on loan to Darlington when I was 17 and knowing I never wanted to be at that level again as a player.
Realising that winning is the only thing that matters at Celtic.
Playing through the pain of chronic injury from the age of 24, until it ended my career eight years later.
Being worn down by the constant threat of relegation at Wigan.
As a player, I learned a lot. But none of it really prepared me for being a manager.
I don’t think anything prepares you for that.
I was on my way home from Wigan's 2-0 defeat to Derby County when I got the phone call.
It was the chairman, asking me to go and meet him. I had heard Malky Mackay had been sacked on the radio, and just thought he wanted to talk to me about what he was going to do.
We had a good relationship. He’s very young, so closer in age to me than most chairmen would be, and we shared a love for the club.
He didn’t hang around.
“I want you to be the manager.”
“Are you sure?”
I’d retired from playing a couple of months earlier, but already had my A Licence and had been working with the club’s academy for over a year by then.
People said it came from nowhere when I was made Wigan manager. But, actually, I’d been on a learning curve for a while.
I knew it was about to get a whole lot steeper, though.
"We were almost down, so I wanted to set our stall out and put things in motion for the following year"
The night after my conversation with the chairman, I went home and called someone I knew would give me an honest assessment of the challenge ahead of me: Gordon Strachan, who I’d played for at Celtic.
I broke the news to him and asked what he thought.
“D’you want it?”
“Well, why are you phoning me, then?”
No messing. That’s Gordon.
The next day I stood in front of a group of players who a few months earlier had been my teammates. I suddenly went from getting the mickey taken out of me every day by Scott Carson, to being his manager.
Like I said, nothing prepares you for that.
I was lucky to have Graham Barrow as my assistant. His experience was so important to help guide me along. We had a strong relationship: trusted each other 100 per cent. He could say anything to me, I could say anything to him and we wouldn’t fall out. We’d have a real discussion and come to the right decision.
As a manager, having someone like that beside you is crucial.
When I took over, Wigan were eight points from safety with five games to go. To stay up, we probably needed to win four and draw one – minimum.
Given we hadn’t won a game at home since the beginning of the season, the odds were against us.
My first game was against Fulham on the Friday night, four days after my chat with the chairman. There wasn’t much time, but I decided to make big changes.
We were almost down, so I wanted to focus on how we were going to play in the future. Set our stall out and put things in motion for the following year.
"The message was clear: it’s happened. Now’s the time we come back. We’re rebuilding this football club"
In training that week, we did everything with the ball: playing out from the goalie, playing between the lines, controlling the ball. The players were really receptive to it.
We came away from Craven Cottage with a 2-2 draw. Our mental frailties cost us the win, but in terms of the way we played, I was really happy. So was the chairman.
We tried everything to stay up, but the reality was that it was going to be extremely difficult. It was almost a relief when we did get relegated, because then we could really start to think about the next season.
I’d already planned how I would help the players to put that season behind them.
A few months earlier in the NFL, the Seattle Seahawks had lost the Super Bowl to New England. The day after, Seattle’s head coach Pete Carroll got his team together and showed them a video that was set to some amazing words about coming back stronger.
I asked the media team at the club to clip up some Wigan footage to the same words that he used. The day after our relegation was confirmed, I sat all the players and staff down to watch it.
The message was clear: it’s happened. Now’s the time we come back.
We’re rebuilding this football club.
That summer was a big learning curve for me. We had to cut the wage bill, which meant getting rid of most of the squad, bringing in a lot of new players and learning how to deal with agents.
Overall, I think we did really well. A lot of the players we signed that year were part of the Wigan team that won League One last season.
The team changed, but the principles behind the way we were going to play stayed the same.
Never change the way you play – that’s something I learned from Roberto Martinez. He taught me that once you believe in something, you stick by it. If it’s not working, you don’t rip it up and start again. You find ways to make it better.
That doesn’t mean sticking by something that fundamentally won’t work. It means sticking by certain principles that you believe in.
Players can be fickle – as soon as you lose one game, they can start questioning everything. If you stay strong in your beliefs, that gives them the confidence to keep doing what you want them to do.
In the early part of the following season, I had to remind myself of that.
"There were moments that gave us a little bit of breathing space – and that gave us time to build. Once we did that, we were unplayable"
We lost our first two games before drawing 0-0 against Doncaster. We were awful in that game. The players were unsure of when they were playing out, unsure of where they should be. We should have lost.
Afterwards, there was a discussion among the staff: is this the right way?
Yes. We had to stick with it.
The players were still getting used to each other. Still getting to grips with the league. And I was still trying to find my best team. That was the hardest bit for me. I had so many new players, playing a certain style of football that needed time to coach. I needed to find the best players within that.
With the experience I have now, I know I could have done it quicker.
There were moments that gave us a little bit of breathing space, though – and that gave us time to build. Once we did build it, we were unplayable.
Just before Christmas, we started an unbeaten streak that lasted for 20 games. As a manager, the biggest challenge during a run like that is guarding against complacency.
That was rammed home to me by Sir Alex Ferguson, who was publicising his book Leading around Manchester around that time. I bought tickets for the staff to go and hear him speak.
Complacency, he said, was “a disease”.
We were 14 games into our unbeaten run when we went to Colchester United and scored in the 94th minute to draw 3-3. I watched the players coming off, patting each other on the back.
I was raging. We should have won the game comfortably.
In the changing room, I went ballistic. Probably the worst I’ve ever been. I could see the players thinking, this guy’s mental, but I think they got the message: it wasn’t good enough. We had to get better. Had to improve.
We won our next five games.
"I met with the club doctor, who was close to Dave Whelan. As soon as I spoke to him I knew: I’m getting the sack here"
In our penultimate game of the season at Blackpool, we knew a win would secure us the League One trophy and promotion straight back to the Championship.
We started really badly. I had to do something, so after 39 minutes I took off Sam Morsy.
Making such an early substitution can have a really powerful impact during a game. When that board goes up and you’re playing that badly, 11 players look around and think, this could be me. It gives everyone a kick. I do it just before half-time knowing that whatever I’m changing, I can talk them through it at the break.
It’s not something you can use a lot though, because it’s dangerous in terms of losing players – the following week, you really have to cuddle the player you take off.
At Blackpool, it changed the game. I brought on Yanic Wildschut, who scored two goals in the second half. We won the game 4-0.
It was a really special day, but almost immediately work started on preparing for the Championship.
If I could live that summer again, there are a few things I’d do differently.
First, I’d be harder on the players. I’d set them a target of 100 points the season we won the league. We got 87. I should have recognised then: we’ve won the league, but we’re not as good as we think we are.
Second, I wouldn’t change as many players. That might sound contradictory, given what I’ve just said. And we made some really good signings – Dan Burn, Nick Powell, Nathan Byrne – but by bringing them in it upset the group we had and the spirit we’d created.
I should have just brought in one or two, stuck with the rest until January and done it all a bit more slowly.
I never felt my job was in danger that season, though. The first moment I got an idea something was up was when I got a text from the chairman: “Can you meet me at the stadium tomorrow?”
I’d never had that before. In the morning I met with the club doctor at training. He was close to Dave Whelan (the club's former chairman and grandfather to the current one) and always knew what was going on. As soon as I spoke to him, I knew: I’m getting the sack here.
Anger is probably the first feeling. Then you start to think, this is wrong.
"It felt like I was holding my finger in the dam to try and stop the water, but it just kept flowing out. I couldn’t stop it"
When I spoke to the club psychologist Lee Richardson – who I’d brought into the club – he told me that getting sacked is “like a death in the family. You have to grieve, then think about what you did, try to learn from it and move on.”
That’s a bit strong, I thought. But he was right.
It’s a really difficult time. Overnight you go from being 100 per cent motivated to waking up and thinking, I can’t be bothered doing anything. You try to go to the gym and go through the motions, but your motivation levels are at zero.
I should have taken more time to do what Lee said. But I got job interviews straight away. I wanted to right the wrong.
I went to Chesterfield. They were 22nd in League One at the time, but I got on well with their director of football, Chris Turner, and believed the team had potential.
Ched Evans was a striker who I thought could get goals at that level. We had Gboly Ariyibi and Jay O’Shea: dangerous attacking players who could create opportunities.
But within a few weeks of me joining, everything changed. Ched Evans was injured. O’Shea and Gboly were sold, and Chris Turner left in February.
By that point it was too late – I was in.
It felt like I was holding my finger in the dam to try and stop the water, but it just kept flowing out. I couldn’t stop it.
Throughout that process, I had to try and win games and develop a football club.
I was only at Chesterfield for eight months, but I learned more in that time than I did in 18 months as Wigan manager.
At Wigan, I had a history with the club: player, captain, survivals, FA Cups. I knew the club. I knew my secretary, the chief executive, the fans.
At Chesterfield, I wasn’t one of them. I needed to connect with the players more. Connect with the fans quicker. I needed to let them know who I was as quickly as possible, so they could buy into what I was trying to do.
That relationship with the fans can buy you time. In the beginning, that’s what you’re trying to do. Every result buys you another week. You try to keep adding those up to get you more time. But you can’t build anything unless you get that initial period to connect.
Very early on at Chesterfield, it felt like I was caught in a negative cycle that I couldn’t get out of.
I don’t regret taking the job, though.
It might have made it harder for me to get another one, but I know that I’m a better manager because of Chesterfield, not in spite of it.
Since leaving the club, I've taken my time. Spent time with other managers. Looked back over training drills I've run and games I've managed.
So, I've had my time. I've relaxed and got myself fitter. Now I know that I'm ready for another challenge, and to keep on learning.
Because like I said, life is all about learning lessons.