Luton Town, 2019-2020
When I first met Roberto Martínez, I had exactly the same feeling as when I met my wife for the first time. I knew it was going to work.
We’re two people from very different backgrounds – and different cultures – who both believe in the same core values and want to set up a team in the same way. That made life easier straight away.
I was Roberto’s first signing at Swansea City. Arriving in south Wales, I found a group of players who weren’t playing to their potential. Outside influences were getting in the way.
It was a similar situation to the club I’d just left, Hamilton Academicals, where I’d cut my teeth as assistant manager for six months. Those six months taught me a lot about myself, and even more about dealing with players.
I discovered that I have a strong personality. There were things happening at Hamilton that I didn’t like and that I wasn’t afraid to do something about.
Ultimately, I found that players have to be led until they’ve earned the right to be trusted. Once that’s happened, you can work in a player-led environment – but only once they’ve earned the right.
In football, you sometimes have to play to your role. At Swansea, I was to deal with the outside influences while providing tactical and technical input to Roberto. It was important that I held my own ideas. Nobody wants an assistant to be a clone of the manager. Any good assistant needs to be an individual with their own style of doing things – someone who can handle every situation and have empathy with the players while being willing to assert themselves. Always, they need to be aware that they’re representing the manager and his philosophy.
Working with Roberto was exciting. Exhilarating. He proved to be intelligent, thoughtful, and highly tactical.
I always shared my thoughts. As long as I had good reasoning behind what I said, Roberto was willing to listen. You need that openness to succeed as a management team. Roberto trusted me to provide insight and feedback, and I trusted Roberto to listen to me and then make the right decision.
It was a powerful combination.
"We were on a journey together, and that journey won out"
As a management team, we were from the new school of coaching.
But while I was certainly 95 per cent new school, 5 per cent was from the old school. There’s still value in how things used to be done. Being old school doesn’t make you a dinosaur. It means you have standards; it creates characters, helps your players to become mentally strong.
As long as you’re fair with your players and always honest – no matter how blunt or brutal – they’ll accept it.
Then once they accept it, they start to flourish.
Swansea City proved to be a case of the right people in the right place at the right time. We were on an upward spiral, so when Roberto was given the job as Wigan manager and asked me to join him once again as assistant, it was far from being a no-brainer. My family was settled in Swansea and the club had asked me to take on the vacant manager’s role.
I’d always wanted to be a manager.
But I had such a powerful dynamic with Roberto. We were on a journey together, and ultimately that journey won out. I couldn’t let him down.
Wigan was always going to work out for us thanks to the backing of Dave Whelan.
A lot of clubs could take inspiration from his way of working. Assess the people you’re hiring. Are they good at what they do? Are they committed? Creative? Then stick by them.
With Mr Whelan’s backing, we had the comfort to work as we wished. Three times we were bottom, or joint-bottom, of the Premier League with 10 games of the season left. Three times we escaped relegation. The consistency of our work always came through in the end.
"We went from an extreme high to a devastating low in days"
Then, in our fourth season, it more than came through. We reached the FA Cup final against Manchester City.
Manchester City. The best team in the country. Carlos Tevez, Sergio Agüero, Yaya Touré, David Silva, Vincent Kompany. We were praying that we weren’t going to be embarrassed. But, at the same time, we knew there was an opportunity. If things went our way, we knew we’d get a chance to win.
I grew up watching FA Cup finals at 3pm on a Saturday afternoon at the end of the season. They were massive events. How I’d always imagined an FA Cup final... well, that didn’t turn out to be the reality.
We kicked off at 5.30pm with two games left in our season. Rain was coming down. It was a horrible day. Tactically, we knew exactly how we wanted the game to go. We’d beaten top-four teams with relative consistency in our four seasons at Wigan, and thought we’d be able to do so again.
Our chance came in stoppage time. Minutes later, when the final whistle blew, our reality was difficult to comprehend. It was a sheer buzz – an extreme high.
For about two hours.
I couldn’t get too carried away. We had a game against Arsenal three days later, which we needed to win to avoid relegation from the Premier League.
The day after our FA Cup victory, Newcastle and Norwich both won their league games. That put us in an even worse position. When we then lost to Arsenal on the Tuesday, the FA Cup victory couldn’t have seemed further away.
Our relegation was confirmed. It felt like something had died. We went from an extreme high to a devastating low in a matter of days. The pain was immense.
In such times, you can’t let your emotions get out of hand. You have to be realistic. The football world is not the real world.
Players who come into the game at 16 and retire at 35 don’t know what the real world is like. They lead a sheltered existence.
"Once I had a taste of it, I definitely caught the coaching bug"
If I’d had my way, I’d have also led that sheltered existence. But it wasn’t to be. At the age of 18, I was released by Millwall.
It turned out to be the best thing that ever happened to me.
I found work as an insulation engineer, putting insulation on pipes while grafting in non-league football. That grounding taught me the power of being real. It allowed me to evaluate myself and what I wanted in life. What I wanted was to coach.
So when I saw an advert for a Newcastle United football in the community role, I went for it and was given the job.
I was on the lowest rung of coaching. It wasn’t glamorous – putting out cones and coaching young kids in and around the suburbs of Newcastle. But once I got a taste of it, I definitely had the coaching bug.
Over the next 18 months, the scars from my release were healing. My non-league career was in full swing and I got my preliminary coaching licence, now the FA Level Two. My sights were all set on progressing as a coach.
But all immediate plans were put on hold when, after five years in non-league, I signed professional forms with Doncaster Rovers.
As a pro, I never allowed myself to get stuck in the football bubble. I knew how difficult the real world was, so I continued to take an interest in coaching. I took my A Licence at Lilleshall with my great friend Darren Moore, then later on in my career I spent four years working with the Under-14s at the Middlesbrough Academy.
I’m sure I made tons of mistakes with those Under-14s. You have to make mistakes to grow as a coach. I experimented with different systems, shapes and sessions.
Every session, I went in with the confidence that I could understand and improve the players I was working with. It’s a belief that I’ve never lost – even when working with some of the best players in the world.
"There was never any thought given to taking an easier route"
With Belgium, I had the opportunity to do just that.
The job came at the right time for me. Together with Roberto, I’d done 265 consecutive games in the Premier League over seven years.
Coming off the back of three years at Everton, following on directly from Wigan, I needed something fresh. As a coach, I’ve always been totally committed, working flat-out for 12 hours a day, seven days a week and choosing to live for the game. But Everton demanded that as a minimum. At Everton, you can’t survive with anything but total commitment to the club. It’s a wonderful club, a proper football club that gave me nothing but amazing memories. But, ultimately, you’re in a pressure cooker of expectation.
Belgium was different. The squad was full of world-class players, and the 2018 World Cup was approaching. As challenges go, they don’t get much bigger.
This was what I’d been working towards for 11 years. Over those 11 years, I’d experienced the highest of highs and the lowest of lows, learning to deal with them in the best way possible.
From the moment the World Cup draw was made, we knew we’d get Brazil in the quarter finals. As early as January, Roberto told me: “I know how we’re going to play against them. I know their style. They’ve kept the same manager.”
Ahead of the England game during the group stage, there was never any thought given to taking an easier route to the final. We’d instilled a winning culture. To be a winning team, you have to win no matter who you play against. You have to build that bond and do everything you can to make sure you become the best team in the world.
Moulding players into Belgium’s way of playing has to be concentrated into short periods of time. We both moved to Waterloo in Belgium and spent much of our time watching Belgian players all around Europe. How do they fare against a deep block? Can they handle transitions? Do they need the stimulation of a big game to reach their full potential? At international level, you need so much detail.
"If everyone contributes and everyone is satisfied with their contribution, then you know you’re going places"
You see your players five times a season. We went from the middle of November to the end of March without seeing them. In those valuable moments when you do work together, it’s a case of finding a middle ground that suits all their styles. Pep Guardiola works differently to Jürgen Klopp, who works differently to José Mourinho, who works differently to Antonio Conte. How could we find a system that suits all of our players? Old habits die hard, especially if you don’t have a clear set of tactics in place.
In Russia, we won our group, then managed to hold our momentum in the round of 16 against Japan thanks to a couple of effective substitutions. We were into the quarter finals against Brazil, just as Roberto had predicted.
The day after the Japan game was a write-off. Our players needed to rest and recover. The following day was another recovery day. Then it was the day before one of the biggest games of our lives, and all of a sudden we had 20 minutes to prepare our players. We couldn’t push them too hard and take too much out of them physically.
Twenty minutes. Twenty minutes of work on shape and style of play. A culmination of everything we’d learned over an 11-year period, followed by so many questions from our players.
The next day we faced the greatest football nation of all time. I walked out into the stadium and couldn’t believe my reality. But I knew that I’d earned the right to be there. That I was good enough. That I could contribute. At the end of the day, that’s all a manager looks for from their players and staff. If everyone contributes and is satisfied with their contribution, then you know that you’re going places.
It was no fluke that we won.
From non-league to a World Cup bronze medal. My grounding has allowed me to always remain true to myself. To remain real. I’ve been fortunate to have coached some big stars – to have worked alongside a top manager – but I’ve never let the experiences affect me.
That’s the beauty of the journey. I wouldn’t have got this far without having to fight my way through the leagues. I wouldn’t have done what I’ve done as an assistant and what I’m going to do as a manager without remaining real.
I wouldn’t have it any other way.