Bournemouth interim manager, 2021–
Bobby Robson had this amazing ability to make you feel 10 feet tall. Whatever the situation.
I remember this one time when I was at Newcastle, we were playing Manchester United at home. This was April 2003. United were going toe-to-toe with Arsenal for the title, and we weren’t too far behind.
Before the game, Bobby told me he wanted me to man-mark Ruud van Nistelrooy.
I used to get really, really, really nervous before games. I tried not to show it in the dressing room – I’d talk a lot and try to give off an air of confidence – but deep down I was absolutely sh*tting myself.
The night before, the morning of the game, eating the pre-match meal. All of it – it was terrible.
But then Bobby (below) gave you this confidence. When you stepped over that line, you were ready.
That day, United were on fire. Paul Scholes (below) was unplayable – he scored a hat-trick – Ryan Giggs scored, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer got one and Van Nistelrooy scored a penalty. We got beat 6-2.
Back in the changing room, the players weren’t happy. Someone asked why I’d been told to mark Van Nistelrooy. “There were gaps everywhere,” they said.
Bobby replied: “I’ll tell you what, though. Van Nistelrooy didn’t have a sniff, did he?”
There were also senior players like Alan Shearer and Gary Speed backing me, too. One time, we played Charlton away, and won 2-0.
“When Harry talked, he spoke sense. That made you want to play for him”
Alan came up to me after the game and looked me straight in the eye.
“You were absolutely outstanding out there.”
Imagine me, 23 years old and I’ve got Alan Shearer telling me that.
That kind of thing gave me so much confidence. I played some of my best football at Newcastle, mainly because I was just so confident.
Bobby’s enthusiasm was infectious. He spoke to you in a way that made you feel good. He was so honest with you.
It was similar with Harry Redknapp at Tottenham. There was so much to learn from him. He wasn’t one to put on session after session out on the training pitches. He left a lot of that to his coaches – Joe Jordan, Kevin Bond, Clive Allen; really good, experienced coaches he could trust.
But when he saw something and wanted to make a point, Harry would take over. When he talked, he spoke sense and people would listen. That made you want to play for him.
It was a real contrast to Fabio Capello – my final manager at Real Madrid.
My form at Newcastle had earned me my move to Real Madrid in 2004 – but they’d been watching me since my time at Leeds, when we played them in the Champions League.
I was loving life at Newcastle, playing regularly and playing well, but moving to Real was the easiest decision ever.
The best club in the world were after me – there was no decision to make.
The tough thing was that, when I got there, I was injured. Not playing was horrible, but as much as anything it was hard not being able to interact with the players on the training pitch. Only being able to do it in the dressing room made settling in hard.
It was vital I learned the language quickly, which I did, and in the next season I started playing games. Being able to speak Spanish certainly helped me then.
But the injuries kept coming. I had a problem where a muscle in my thigh had moved away from the tendon. They tried everything to get me back – even botox into my muscle to stop it moving – but I couldn’t get back consistently.
I don’t like to dwell on that too much, because it still hurts. I feel the pain of players when I see them get injured now. It’s the worst feeling in football, being injured.
I had five different managers in my two years at Real Madrid, so that didn’t help either, but Juan López Caro and Vanderlei Luxemburgo both valued me. They played me in big games and rested me in the less important ones. They saw me as good enough to start for Real Madrid.
Then, when Capello came in, things changed.
“‘When you go over to play the first team, make an impression,’ we were told. ‘If you're up against Hasselbaink, give him a kick’”
One morning we walked past each other in the corridor, and he told me Franco Baldini, the sporting director, wanted to talk to me.
Baldini then told me I could leave Real. I wondered why Capello hadn’t just told me himself. It was nothing like Bobby Robson.
All of that has affected how I coach. If a player needs to be told something, I will just be open and honest with them. I always want my door to be open, and I want the players to know that.
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.”
Bear in mind, I’m 17 years old at this point. So it was a bit daunting, but we took their advice and made a real impact. We’d beat the first team sometimes; we were that good.
Then David O’Leary came in, and fair play to him for having some balls and giving so many of us youngsters a chance and letting us flourish.
That was a great time. We were young, vibrant, exciting, fearless. And it was just like playing with your mates.
My one regret with Leeds was that we didn’t win anything. We can’t be remembered as a great team for that reason.
“I found towards the end of my time at Tottenham I was thinking about football differently”
It wasn’t until I got to Spurs that I won something.
Injuries had been cruel to me, but on this one occasion I was lucky.
I’d joined Spurs in January 2008, and I’d barely played for them by the time the Carling Cup final against Chelsea came around at the end of February. Michael Dawson would probably have played ahead of me, but then he got injured.
I started alongside Ledley King in central defence. We’d both had plenty of injury problems, but we were both fit to play. Ledley hadn’t been fit since I arrived, so the game at Wembley was the first time we’d ever played together.
It wasn’t an easy game at all – we were up against Didier Drogba. Neither of us had played much recently, and we both started getting cramp from about 75 minutes. And then it went to extra-time. We had to push through the pain and carry on.
I’d come through so much in my career before then – people telling me I’d never get back to my best, or maybe not even play again. So to pop up with the winning goal in a cup final was really special. I don’t actually remember scoring or running off to celebrate (above). It was just sheer jubilation and thinking: “I’ve done it.”
It was an incredible feeling, and a really proud moment.
I learned a lot playing alongside Ledley, just like I did with my other centre-back partners, like Rio Ferdinand, Lucas Radebe, Sergio Ramos, Emanuel Pogatetz, Iván Helguera. The list goes on.
“I was so proud to play for Boro – but it was even more special for my dad. He is a massive, massive fan”
I was always watching them and taking bits from their game. Even as a youngster I used to study Lucas, David Wetherall and Robert Molenaar at Leeds, and try to copy them.
But I found as I passed 30 years old, towards the end of my time at Tottenham, I started thinking about football differently. I wasn’t so much learning for myself as trying to understand the whole game more.
I could tell I was thinking about it more in my spare time. And I was enjoying it, too.
When I went to Middlesbrough for the second time – in 2012 – Tony Mowbray started bringing me into his office and talking to me like one of his coaching staff. Then I saw Aitor Karanka in action, and that was something else.
His planning was something I hadn’t seen before – and not only the sessions he put on and what we worked on, but the timing of everything. How it all fit together. It was amazing, and I really liked the look of what he was doing.
After I finished playing at 36, I got a call from Michael Edwards, who had been an analyst at Tottenham during my time there, and later became Liverpool’s sporting director.
He knew I loved my video sessions with him at Spurs, and he offered me the chance to do a bit of recruitment work for Liverpool – specifically, focusing on players in Spain and Portugal.
I dived straight in and I loved it. I learned so much about that side of recruitment – being able to really tell if a player had a good game – and it gave me another skill going forwards.
“I had a dry mouth. Sweaty palms. I was really nervous. But being thrown in at the deep end was great”
I knew my ultimate goal was to be a manager, though, so when I got the chance to go back to Middlesbrough as a coach, I had to take it.
It was also the chance to work at my boyhood club. I decided as quickly as I did when I got the chance to move there as a player back in 2006 (below).
After the conversation with Franco Baldini at Real Madrid, I needed to go back to where people knew me, to where I felt comfortable. And I got the chance to fulfil a lifelong ambition and play for my boyhood team.
I’d gone with my dad to every home game from the age of six as a child. I was so proud to play for them – but it was even more special for my dad, who is a massive, massive Boro fan. For him to see me walk out – sometimes as captain – was incredible for both of us.
Gareth Southgate had only just finished playing the season before, and he was the manager when I arrived. We had a really good team with lots of quality, but it was a massive job – going from playing one year to managing the next.
He had some really tough decisions to make, and he was doing it with players who were his mates. He’d been playing with them a few months before. He made some bold calls, including choosing to leave Gaizka Mendieta and Ray Parlour out. These were big players. It’s only when you look back that you realise just how tough a task he had, but he did a really good job.
I had a not too dissimilar situation myself later in my career.
I worked as a first-team coach at Boro under Steve Agnew. Then, when Garry Monk came in, I moved down to the Under-18s, before Tony Pulis brought me back to the first team (below). Both with Steve and Tony, I was a senior member of staff coaching players who had been my teammates – and my mates – not long before. It’s a really tough balancing act.
“It was early in my career but, if I had any ambition, how was I going to turn down the chance to manage Boro?”
Tony Pulis gave me a lot of great opportunities. One time, we were having lunch just before a team meeting. He turned to me and said: “You’re taking this meeting.”
I don’t care who you are, or what coach you are. If it’s your first meeting in front of the first team, you’re going to be nervous.
I had a dry mouth going into it. Sweaty palms. I was really nervous. But being thrown in at the deep end was great. I took the meeting, and it turned out to be the first of many.
When Tony left, I had a chance to go for the manager’s job. It was early in my career but, if I had any ambition to be a manager, how was I going to turn that down?
Not only that, but for my boyhood club, a big club like Boro. It was a no-brainer.
I absolutely nailed my presentation in my interview and the buzz from that was incredible. I’d earned the chance to manage Middlesbrough (below).
“I was happy to take a step back from management and take the opportunity to try and progress as a coach”
Unfortunately, we started slowly, and we were always playing catch-up from then, so that was difficult. Looking back, I wish I’d had a bit of grey hair among my staff – someone who brought a bit more experience to help me, Robbie Keane, Leo Percovich and Danny Coyne out. There were certain things we didn’t have enough experience of.
Then there was lockdown and the postponement of football due to Covid. I had seven first-team players who were out of contract in the middle of it; they had to decide whether to help the club out and play, or choose to not risk injury ahead of their next move.
Don’t get me wrong, I understood the dilemma. I would have had a decision to make in their situation, and some of them chose not to play. That hurt us, and made our thin squad even thinner.
I will learn from the things that went wrong, and I will take the positives from it. My first job in management didn’t go perfectly, but to build up a rapport with so many people across the club, to whom Middlesbrough means so much – that really drove me.
I wanted to deliver for them, and I will take their passion with me forever.
After a bit of time out of the game, I did an interview saying I wanted to get back into football – not necessarily in management – and Jason Tindall read it. He called to ask if I fancied coming down to Bournemouth to help out a bit.
I saw it as a great opportunity to come and learn from different coaches, many of whom played a role in a really successful period in the club’s history under Eddie Howe.
I was happy to take a step back from management and take the opportunity to try and progress as a coach.
It’s important for us to take one game at a time – and that includes me as interim manager (above). When I’m told to take the team, I will. When I’m told not to, I’ll step back again.
I told the players it’s been a difficult time for everyone, and we now need to start pulling together. There’s a really talented squad at Bournemouth. We have a lot of individual talent, but a team’s always going to have the potential to be stronger than individual talent.
They’re a great bunch, and they’re willing to listen. That always makes a coach’s job that much easier.
I’ll keep on doing my bit to help get the best from them, like so many great coaches helped get the best out of me.