Swansea City, 2014-2015
I couldn't sleep.
It was three days until the biggest game of my life. Swansea versus Cardiff. But instead of being out on the pitch where I had spent so many years leading the back line as captain of Swansea, I was going to be in the dugout.
Every night leading up to the game I kissed my partner goodnight, put my head on the pillow and lay there thinking. About training sessions. About the responsibility. About how much this game meant to the Swansea fans.
It meant no less to me. To really understand why, I need to take you all the way back to 2004 and to a car journey that I'll never forget.
It was the one taking me to my new job, as a Swansea City player. I'd turned professional at Southampton seven years earlier but struggled for game time. I went out on loan, searching for a club where I would get the chance to play regular football. I wanted to enjoy playing again.
When Swansea offered me that opportunity, I grabbed it with both hands. Now I just had to find the place.
I'd never been there before but was confident that a combination of hastily scribbled down directions and road signs would be all the direction I needed.
As I drove across the M4, a persistent drizzle spattered my windscreen. It was a miserable day. I got to a little town called Port Talbot, where the air hung thick – the rain now combined with smog from the town's huge steelworks.
When I spotted the floodlights, my heart sank. That must be the Vetch Field, Swansea's home ground.
As I got closer the signs told me otherwise. Not the Vetch Field after all, but Aberavon Rugby Club. Keep driving, Garry. It can't be far now.
I can't remember exactly how long I drove on for, but eventually I stopped to ask for directions. "Swansea? You've gone past it, love. Didn't you see the signs for Abertawe?"
Lesson one: Abertawe is Welsh for Swansea.
"The longer I stayed, the more that feeling for what the club was and what I was a part of just grew"
At the time I didn't see my stay in Swansea as a long-term thing. Ideally I wanted to play at a higher level. I already had. But for now, my main focus was on the upcoming season and getting to play regular football. I knew the manager, Kenny Jackett, would give me that opportunity.
I quickly realised that Swansea was a club in a hurry, too. The new stadium was coming and I sensed this was a club that wasn't going to hang about in League Two for long.
My first season ended in promotion. It was brilliant, but there were a few bumps along the way for me, personally. Three red cards meant I missed 10 games through suspension - not exactly what you want when you're going somewhere to play regular football. But it was a learning curve for me at that point. And obviously none of those were my fault...
That season we built a strong winning mentality. The whole city was on a high. It really felt like the start of something special.
Staying at a club like Swansea for 10 years, you become a part of it. Yes, Swansea is a city in terms of size, but it's a town in terms of structure and mentality. When you play for Swansea you live in Swansea. You can't commute unless you want to do so from Cardiff, which isn't the greatest idea.
Every day you interact with the community. With the fans. And every time I did so, I couldn't help but feel how much pride they had in the club. I started to care about it in the same way because I realised what I was doing it for. The longer I stayed, the more that feeling for what the club was and what I was a part of just grew.
I can look back on so many highs from my time as a Swansea player. But one day stands out in my mind above all the others. That's the day we got promoted to the Premier League in 2011. It just capped off the journey we had been on. The one that everyone had worked so hard for. We knew that we were good enough and now we had the chance to prove it. It was the icing on the cake.
We went through a few managers while I was at the club, but when I found out Michael Laudrup was coming in I was excited. We all were, especially the older ones who knew the type of player he'd been and the career he'd had.
To have someone of his calibre – a legend – coming to Swansea at this stage of my career was perfect. This could be someone I could really learn from.
"I was captain of the club. I'd been there for a long time. And they were asking me to do something to help the club. I felt I had to do it"
And I did. I wasn't playing as much as I thought I could under him but I was still involved. Still a part of it. I was already watching how managers talked, then. How they trained. How they set up, tactically.
I was doing my coaching qualifications by that stage, so it was fascinating for me to look at how Michael acted in his role as manager. There were some really good things, but there were also things that I thought I would probably do differently. That's the same as any manager. I just tried to learn as much as I could. Soak it up and put it into my memory bank.
With Michael in charge, we beat Bradford to win the League Cup in 2013. It felt like that last piece of the jigsaw for Swansea. Our first major trophy. We were all so proud of it.
I could never have imagined that, 12 months later, Michael would be sacked.
When it happened, we were two points off the relegation places. Stuck in a bad patch that we couldn't get out of. The confidence had gone and as hard as we tried we just couldn't turn it around.
I was out with an injury when the first phone call came. It was two days after the team had lost 2-0 to West Ham on the weekend – not a great result or performance. The Monday after the game my phone rang. It was Swansea's chairman, Huw Jenkins.
"Would you be ready to help Michael?"
What did he mean? At that stage I wasn't sure. There wasn't any indication or clarification that Michael was going. Anyway, I said yes. I was prepared to do anything for the club.
"Whatever you need me to do."
That was it. I had no idea what was about to unfold. The next day I was called into a meeting with the chairman. He asked me again, would I be willing to "help Michael with training and stuff like that?"
I didn't really feel comfortable with the situation. But if it was what Michael and the club wanted, then of course I would do it.
Within 24 hours, the news was out. They'd decided to move Michael on. Suddenly everything became a bit clearer.
"Could you take training?"
At that point, what do you do? I was captain of the club. I'd been there for a long time. And they were asking me to do something to help the club. I felt I had to do it.
"I made a conscious decision to use emotion to get the best out of the players. I knew it would be a trigger for them"
Management wasn't in my thoughts at all. Though I wasn't getting as much game time, I was still a player. Still a captain. I had a year left on my contract at Swansea and was coming up to my testimonial year. I'd been hoping to use that testimonial as a send-off, so I could go to another club and try to finish my career on a high.
But football changes quickly. You have to be ready to adapt.
I had three and a half days to prepare for the most important game of the season against our local rivals, Cardiff. Three and a half days to get my head around this new role. Three and a half days of zero sleep.
During that time, I just tried to be a captain. There was no point coming in and pretending to be a manager. I didn't want to be doing what I was doing, but I felt obliged because of my relationship with the club.
I made it really clear to the players from the start: "Yes, I have to decide the training and select the team, but I'm not trying to be a manager."
I think they respected me for that.
They also knew what I was like as a player. I was always up for a laugh in the changing room, but when it came to training I was serious. Worked hard. And they knew I would expect the same from them.
The players understood what the end goal was, too. It wasn't for me, it was for all of us and for the club. To make sure we got away from the relegation zone and finished the season strong, in the Premier League.
But first: Cardiff. At the time it felt like the worst fixture we could have had. We weren't playing with confidence, everyone was a bit low and we were up against our bitter rivals who had already beaten us at their place earlier in the season. If we lost, it would be the only time that one of the teams had done the double over the other in the league. History was on the line.
I made a conscious decision to use all that emotion to get the best out of the players. In the days before the game I talked a lot about the history of the club, about that fixture and about the fact it was on our pitch, in our stadium. I knew it would be a trigger for them.
Sometimes you can use emotion too much. When you do that it brings anxiety and a negative performance, but coming in to the game I felt we were at just the right levels.
I felt like a zombie. I'd barely slept, getting an hour or two a night for those days leading up to the game. It was the feeling of responsibility. Being captain, I had always taken responsibility. I think managers liked that about me. But this was different.
It's probably the biggest responsibility you can have for a football club. Especially one you actually care about.
"It felt like my life was moving at a million miles per hour and all I could do was cling on. I'll probably never go through a tougher period in my life"
I got dressed in my club tracksuit. No suit. I didn't want the players to think: "Hang on, who's this? Who does he think he is?" I wanted them to be able to relate to me. To still think I was one of them. To know that I was with them, that we were all in this together. It was us against everyone else.
The players were ready. I knew it as soon as I saw them coming in from the warm-up. At that point, I relaxed. I could see it in their eyes. Their senses were heightened. I just knew it would take Cardiff something very special to beat us that day.
As a manager now, I wish you could bottle that feeling and put it into players for every game, because that's when you know you're going to get a performance.
It worked out that way. We won 3-0 and were excellent from start to finish. To do it against your local rivals – well, there's probably no better way to start.
One down, 13 more games to go. I was a novice. Thrown in to the lions' den.
With one game to go, we were safe and I was back in the chairman's office. If I wanted it, he said, he wouldn't consider anyone else. The job was mine.
I still had a year left of my playing career. I could carry on and enjoy that. Or I could take this step. Since the age of 26, when a serious knee injury had threatened an early end to my career, I had been planning to go into coaching. I thought it would be a different path, though – maybe starting in the academy, getting some experience before working my way up.
But this was a Premier League manager's position. How do you turn that down?
I said yes. Let's go for it.
Yes, I could do it and never be seen again if it went badly. But that didn't bother me. I've always liked doing the things that other people tell you aren't possible. When everything is against you. This was an opportunity that might never come again. I grabbed it with both hands.
Author: Tony Hodson