England Under-20s; Charlton Under-23s
It was the day before the transfer window closed in 2006.
I got a call from my agent to say that Gareth Southgate had been in touch and wanted to bring me to Middlesbrough.
Along with Jonathan Woodgate and Robert Huth, I was going to be among his first signings. So I booked what turned out to be the last available flight from London for the following day – which meant Huth had to drive up.
Iain Dowie had told me I didn’t have a future at Charlton, where I’d spent the previous five years, and wanted to sell me to another club where a mate of his was manager. But I’d decided to hold out.
It was a bit surreal at first. I’d joined Charlton from Wimbledon, so I’d always been in a bubble in south London – and Middlesbrough’s training ground was one of the first new training complexes.
You start thinking: “This is different. This is big.”
There were a lot of big personalities at the club – quality, international players – and it felt a good time to go. We’re talking Gaizka Mendieta, Mark Schwarzer, Ray Parlour, Yakubu and Mark Viduka (both above). Gareth wanted some more senior players around the squad he had inherited.
The difficulty for him was in going straight from being captain to manager. Some people might get a little warning, but as soon as Steve McClaren left to take the England job, the club had told him they wanted him to take over. He was club captain, and so well respected, but in that situation relationships automatically change. You have to manage those you were playing alongside without having the chance to grow into it.
It can’t be easy starting out as a manager in the Premier League. If you’re not looking over your shoulder and getting relegated, you’ve had a good first year.
"As a coach, you chop yourself up into different people"
Not that you could necessarily see he was capable of achieving what he has. It can take longer than a year, and he probably learned a lot from his time managing at Middlesbrough – but it’s part of the journey that has made him successful.
Gareth’s very honest in his approach and his communication. If you’re not playing, he’ll come and tell you why. He won’t hide it. You can see with the national team now that communication is one of his strengths.
It’s partly how you earn that respect – both with the results you get, but also the understanding, knowledge and relationship-building.
When you see yourself as a coach or manager, you are so many different personalities – and since I’ve been involved in the England set-up, I can see how he’s changed.
You’re like a father, a big brother, a role model, a mentor, a coach – you’re dealing with the media – and Gareth’s probably grown in all of those.
You have to chop yourself up into different people – change your stripes – because you’re dealing with different players at different stages of their careers, who are sometimes playing at different levels.
That’s the transition – playing to coaching. The roles I’m in now, both with Charlton and England, these are the things that come with it. It’s the way you chop yourself up, because you’re managing young men or older boys to wherever they want to go. Not just as a coach, but as someone who can help that person and give them an opportunity.
"Chris is calm and honest – able to communicate really well"
It’s those personality traits you take from certain managers. With Ian Holloway, you see his enthusiasm and love for the game; with Terry Burton, the way he coaches and talks to you; with Nigel Pearson, his authority and ability to get to the point.
That’s how you’ve got to be as a young coach. You take those little bits from each and every one of them in how you want to be as a coach or manager, and how you want to play the game.
When I started the coaching process, it was about trying to get as high as I can. That’s exactly what I had wanted to do as a player, and I was fortunate enough to do that. I finished my Pro Licence in June 2018, having spent around three years largely at St George’s Park, where you can see the England DNA is being created.
When you are working with groups between 17 and 21 years old, you’re within that football development cycle – you can see it happening. You’re also meeting new coaches, working with different coaches and managers, and picking the brains of the next person – because everyone has had a different experience or is at a different stage of their career.
James Beattie, Nicky Butt and David James – good players, and coaches and managers in different areas – were all there at the same time as me, together with heads of recruitment or sporting directors.
Being there is actually what led to me getting involved in the England set-up. I’d had a conversation with Matt Crocker, the FA's head of development coaching, who I’d been with when I was playing at Southampton. Later I was encouraged to apply for a role, which led to me working as the under-18 out-of-possession coach.
I then worked with the under-20s – with a different coaching staff, different age of player, different quality of player. So you’re always learning and picking up new bits – if not from the players, then the staff.
"Charlton Athletic will always play a massive part in my life"
That role has also meant me working again with Chris Powell, a former teammate and later my manager at Charlton. You can see why it works with him there – Gareth’s got an old teammate and someone he’s known for a long time, and who can talk to the players how he talks to them. Neither Chris nor Gareth (both above) are brash people.
Someone with the same mindset and mentality can get the same messages across as the manager. Chris also has that calmness about him, not to mention those qualities of being honest and able to communicate really well.
Chris actually brought me back to Charlton, one of my homes, in 2011. He was reshaping the squad to challenge for promotion, and I was training with them. Because I had other clubs interested in me, I asked if there was a chance of a contract – he told me he’d already spoken to Charlton about it, and that that was the plan.
It fitted. In no way was it a ‘mates’ rates’ thing; he knew what he wanted to achieve and he wanted a bit of experience – which, in me, Yann Kermorgant and Matt Taylor, was pivotal to us getting that promotion.
Wimbledon and Charlton will always play a massive part in my life, so to be back and playing a part was great. Seeing what we did to get promoted – winning the title with 101 points – you think it must be easy, but it really wasn’t. It comes with ups and downs, and working with Chris that year was brilliant.
The coaching journey then started in 2012, when I got the opportunity to come in and work with the under-16s. I wanted to continue playing but I was 35, so taking the under-16s job at Charlton – a club back in the Championship and one I know so well – just seemed the right thing to do instead of putting it off to prioritise playing for another two or three years, when the opportunities might not have been around.
"Over the course of that evening our baby daughter was lost"
I was in almost four times a week, around the first team with Chris, and the boys and the academy with Paul Hart and Steve Avory. Getting to experience both really helps in the earliest stages of a coach’s career.
It was more than a decade after my first spell at Charlton. That had started in 2001, after which I’d spent five years at the club as a player in the Premier League, almost entirely under Alan Curbishley. There had been a chance of me going there the year before, when Wimbledon were relegated, but I got injured.
There was interest from elsewhere, but I was going from one family-orientated club to another. It was on my doorstep, being a southeast London boy, and it was the right move to somewhere that had both a pathway of bringing young players through and an understanding of what the fans wanted.
You get the ups, but all of a sudden you’re down so quickly. A few months into my first season at the club, we played West Ham at The Valley on a Monday night; I had invited the scout who first got me to Wimbledon to the game, and I scored two goals in a 4-4 draw. The next afternoon, my now wife went into labour, and, over the course of that evening our baby daughter Jada India was lost.
You don’t know how to deal with it or what to do. You look at blame, and everything that comes with that. I spoke to Curbs, and even the club chaplain Matt Baker, who still remembers it. How and where do you come back from that? What do you do?
I had two weeks off and I remember coming back one day, just to see the boys. Curbs said: “Go and have a run on the treadmill – just get it out, you don’t know what it can do for you.” It was the longest run – and it released all of these emotions and feelings.
I got a lot of support – not just from the people at the club and the fans, but from players I’d played with and against. Ultimately, though, once you do get that support from everyone else, they just get on with it. You’ve still got to try and deal with that tragedy.
"The majority of the squad only knew how to play one way"
I wanted to be around my family, but I needed to get back to work. The loss was never going to go away; it’s always going to be with you and affect you in some capacity, but I wanted to get back to playing football.
Coming to Charlton as the club’s record signing, and scoring the amount of goals I did over the years, is what you want to do as a footballer. You were kept on your toes, too, because the team was improving and going through a transition where better players were coming through the door. Your place was always under threat.
You’re competing with better players, but you always want that competition – particularly, in my case, having been relegated with Wimbledon (below) in 2000.
You never want to go into a season thinking: “This isn’t going to be great.”
In that relegation season with Wimbledon, though, it was: “Right. We’re going to have to get our heads around it.”
Joe Kinnear, who had given me my debut, had gone, and Egil Olsen took over. The old guard was gone and we lost our identity as a club, and even as team. It was difficult, because the squad we had was so used to playing in a certain way. We were used to doing things with the players we had to, all of a sudden: “You can’t do that, you’ve got to do this.”
The majority of the squad only knew how to play one way – getting in people's faces – but that changed. It became: “No, we don’t want you to get in their faces; we want you to be zonal, so run there, run back, run there.”
It was a massive ask for us.
"If you can’t impact a career, you still want to impact a young life"
There was also a lot of recruitment, and sometimes you need those who understand what the Premier League is all about. We were always the small boys in the Premier League; when you don’t get the balance right, especially with the quality in that league, the inevitable is going to happen.
Adversity is something you have to deal with in football and in life, however. I faced more of it in 2011, when my finances were mishandled. I was trying to plan for the future, but something went wrong. I ended up going through bankruptcy.
It was life-changing, yes, but my wife and I still had our health and our kids – and it’s then about how you come back from it.
Did it have an effect in terms of what I would have liked to have done in the future? Yes, but I had to move on.
Sometimes I laugh and joke with my under-23 boys now, even those who are in accommodation. They earn what they earn, but some are living at home. So I ask if they give their mum a little bit of change as a thank you during the week for washing their clothes or making their rooms – even though she shouldn’t be doing either.
Part of it is life lessons and experiences – it’s great what you may have now, but you’ve still got to be thinking about later on, because the reality is a lot of these young players aren’t going to have careers as long – 18, 19 years – as I and many others did.
“If you’re out of a football club in a year, if you haven’t got that little bit of money you’ve got now, what are you going to be doing?” I ask them.
You’re trying to educate them not just in football, but in life and their responsibilities.
I came through the pathway and into the first team at Wimbledon. Now it’s down to myself and the other coaches working with young players to try and get them there. If, at the end of it, that player is moving on, you’ve hopefully had some sort of influence in that next step.
It would be great to play a big part, to have an impact, in every young player’s football career. But, if they end up not playing football any more, you still want to feel that you have made an impression or had an impact on their life.