As a player, I was always very, very critical of myself. From a young age, I would be really harsh on myself.
If I’d missed a header, it would prey on my mind. I always wanted my passes to go to the correct foot of the player I was making it to, and with the right weight. If I didn’t do those things, I’d tell myself: “Come on, you’re better than that.” I wanted perfection. I want perfection when I work with young players now, too.
My early coaches instilled that in me, and it drove me to be better throughout my career.
I’d been spotted by Leeds as a teenager, and from the moment I went there on trial I absolutely adored it. I loved the coaching, how the coaches spoke to the players, and the emphasis on developing the players as human beings as well as footballers.
It felt like a huge move for me – away from Middlesbrough, away from my family and away from my mates – down to Leeds. It felt like miles and miles and miles away, when really it was only an hour and a half down the road.
“Injuries had been cruel to me, but this time I was lucky”
The coaches there were doing things with young players that were way ahead of their time. This was around 1996, 1997, and our coaches – Paul Hart, Eddie Gray and Ces Podd were the ones who had the biggest influence on me – had us playing two at the back, with four in midfield and four up front. We would keep the ball for five minutes at a time, getting the ball off the goalkeeper and knocking it around calmly in our own half.
We had a hell of a youth team at Leeds. There was a 10-year plan for us to progress to the first team under Howard Wilkinson and George Graham. There was me, Harry Kewell, Stephen MacPhail, Paul Robinson, Alan Smith and plenty of other quality players.
We’d play 11v11 against the first team quite frequently, and Paul and Eddie would make sure we were up for those games every single time.
“When you go over there, make an impression,” they’d say. “Make an impression on George and make an impression on whoever you’re up against. If you’re up against Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink, give him a kick. Be aggressive against him.”