Bristol City, 2016-2020
I was a 31-year-old rookie who had never managed before.
And I was being chucked into an Oldham Athletic side fighting for its life in League One. To me now, it seems like madness.
But I was fired with enthusiasm. And, more importantly, I was ready.
I was five years old when my dad, Gary, started his managerial career at Newmarket Town. From then on, I had a front-row seat from which I could see what football management involved.
When he moved to Cambridge United – initially as assistant manager to John Beck – I was the little kid who used to ball-boy and hide in the skip at half-time during John’s team-talks. It was a fascinating insight into the world of senior football.
That’s where I learnt how to win. And, importantly, how to gain slight advantages wherever possible.
If we were winning, I was the ball boy who had to throw the ball away from the opposition and slow the game down. If we were losing, then I had to get the ball back very, very quickly.
At home, I saw the pressure that was on my dad. In the early days of his management career, money was tight. Every game was the be-all and end-all for the family in terms of the finances. It was tough.
But we’re lucky: football runs in our blood. A lot of our family are in the game, whether as scouts, players, managers at non-league level and league level. That means you have a support network behind you that really understands what it’s like. One that knows about the mental trials and tribulations you have to go through.
As a player, I experienced my share of those.
"Players want to understand the ‘why’. That becomes a very important part of the job. Half the time, it’s like a sales pitch"
I was small. In an era when it was fashionable to play a lot of tall players and the game was very direct, it was difficult. I ended up dropping down the levels to become a regular.
On top of that, around 300 of the 500 games I played were for my dad, at Yeovil Town and Bristol City (above). That obviously comes with its own questions of nepotism.
It wasn’t always easy, but it builds resilience. Creates character. And it stood me in good stead for the inevitable changes and pressure that are part of being a manager.
I was in my mid-20s when I started to think about following in my dad’s footsteps. I had a 10-year plan to evolve as a coach and finish my playing career at the age of 35, with my Pro-Licence and all the badges ready to go.
I’d spend almost every international break travelling around to different clubs. I got into Barcelona, went out to Russia and Latvia – it was interesting to see the way different nations and cultures nurture their young players.
I did as much coaching as I could, too. Taking the Under-14s at Bristol City proved more useful than I realised at the time – that was where I first saw a young Joe Bryan running around and performing very well.
Those hours on the grass were key. It’s the little things, like the areas and pitch sizes to make sure the session is correct. It’s your voice: how you influence and enthuse others to play the tempo and style of session you want.
Doing your badges only gives you a small part of the coaching experience. There are so many elements to it. You have to teach. You have to inspire.
With modern society the way it is now, players always want to understand the ‘why’. That becomes a very important part of the job, too – half the time, it’s like a sales pitch.
Back in the day, coaching was almost a more militant role: you’d break a player down, rebuild them, and then you’d tell them what the philosophy was. If they didn’t adhere to that, more often than not, they were out. And if they were out, that normally affected their family and mortgage.
Now, almost every player is their own enterprise. It’s very different. Coaches have to adapt.
"Emotional intelligence is important. It’s about being able to read people and shift your patterns to what’s required on a particular day"
I was four years short of my plan when I retired from playing at 31 and signed a 10-game contract to manage Oldham (below). At the time, there was total uproar that the club had chosen me.
It helped that I had backing from some high-profile people in the game who recommended me. But I think I impressed in the interview, too. Preparation is key for me, so I made sure I went to watch Oldham for five or six games in advance. I knew a lot about them.
I made sure I ticked every box.
People talk about my PowerPoint presentations, which are supposedly legendary. It’s funny, because I’ve had three interviews with clubs and never once used one.
The interview process is about the emotional intelligence of each coach. Being able to adjust to the theme and get across what you’re about in an effective manner.
It’s a big part of management too, because it’s about being able to read people and shift your patterns to what’s required on a particular day.
It could be I’m talking to a player who I’m leaving out. Or a young player who’s not performing very well and needs a stern talking-to. Or wriggling into a certain situation in a board meeting or interview.
Some people can do it. Some can’t. But I do believe you can learn and you can coach it.
"Whether it’s tiddlywinks, ping pong or whatever, me and my dad are always competitive. I wanted to beat him"
I like to think I was a leader when I played. But, when you’re a manager, it’s a different kettle of fish. Suddenly you’re an educator. You’re also a leader who needs to make the players feel like they’re confident.
Over the years, there are times I’ve got that wrong. I’m very passionate and I care, and sometimes that passion tips over too far. I think the players generally know it’s always for the right reasons, though.
I still remember my first conversation as Oldham manager. It was with Chris Iwelumo, who was a very good friend of mine.
I had to sit him down and say: “Sorry, son, I think your legs have gone.”
I think he was quite shocked by that.
I still needed him, because he’s an unbelievable personality. I wanted him to act as a leader, and to be my voice in the dressing room. It shows what a great lad he is that he took what I said and gave everything he could to the cause, both on and off the pitch.
Going into the job, I had a 100-day plan that detailed everything: how I was going to embrace the staff, how I was going to set the tone with the first-team group, and the sessions I was going to put on.
In my seventh game as a manager, we faced Yeovil Town – my dad’s team (above).
At the time, Yeovil were flying high, looking to get automatic promotion. We really needed the result to help us stay up.
I think it was worse for him than for me, to be honest. It was certainly a difficult week for my mum.
For me, it was just about winning. Whether it’s tiddlywinks, ping pong or whatever, me and my dad are always competitive. I wanted to beat him, and I wanted to get the right result for the club.
His attitude would probably have been different. As a parent, I know that if I ever came across that scenario with my kid, it would be very difficult.
"We had to get rid of the old guard and bring in a group of bright, young players who were willing to achieve success, but who also had the potential to be sold"
I think 80 per cent of him would have wanted to win, but there’d have been 20 per cent in there that wanted to see his son kick-start his career.
We won 1-0, and got the result that was so important to us staying up. And Dad still ended up getting Yeovil promoted via the playoffs, so it worked out well for both of us.
That first season was a firefighting exercise, really. But once we had the results we needed, the plan completely changed.
The club needed to survive financially. It had to be sustainable.
Then it became about nurturing young players and selling them. We had to get rid of the old guard and bring in a group of bright, young players who were willing to achieve success, but who also had the potential to be sold. We brought in Jonson Clarke-Harris for £4,000 and sold him for £400,000. We sold James Tarkowski to Brentford for £400,000. Jose Baxter to Sheffield United.
It’s not easy to lose your best players, but it kept the club going.
We had a couple of cup games that helped, too. I remember one in the FA Cup, where the draw for the next round had already been made. If we won our second-round replay against Mansfield Town, we’d be playing Liverpool at Anfield.
That game would be worth somewhere between £400,000 and £600,000 to the club. The owner made no secret of just how important that cash would be to the club.
“Listen, if we don’t get the Liverpool game, we can’t pay the players for the next two months.”
I never felt so much pressure in my life to get a win.
We went 1-0 down to Mansfield, but came back to win 4-1 and get the tie that secured the short-term future of the club. People sometimes forget just how tight money is down at those levels.
It was a job that taught me so much. Okay, we didn’t have fortunes, but we had plenty of spirit.
"You have to treat this job like you’re going to be here forever, but know that you could be gone tomorrow"
We were ducking and diving. Wheeling and dealing to try and get loan players in. The training ground wasn’t great, so I learned to adapt my sessions quickly.
It was a brilliant way of learning everything about the intricacies of a club. Whether that’s wages not getting paid or desperately trying to create a value for young players just to keep the club going. At the same time, you’ve got to make sure the fans are enjoying the football and that you’re getting results.
I always knew, though, that at some point in my career, if it was going to be successful, I wanted to manage my old club, Bristol City.
That was always the dream.
After a spell with Barnsley, I came to Bristol with another plan. This one, to build an identity that runs all the way through the football club, and to be here for as long as I can.
That’s not always easy in football, but I think you have to treat this job like you’re going to be here forever – but know that you could be gone tomorrow.
In my first full season as Bristol City manager, we went through a really difficult spell. Results weren’t good. It was the worst run in the league in the club’s history.
We had some internal feud problems within the squad – the sort of stuff you can’t go public with at the time. As the manager, you have to be the shield. My job is to take those punches on the nose for the greater good.
Performances weren’t as bad as the results, but we’d recruited young talent and with that sometimes comes low self-esteem. When you’re going well, it’s great. But when you’re not, it can be a problem.
Confidence levels can drop. It was up to myself and the staff to see us through that period. To retain the focus and the belief, and continue to work hard.
We had to make some tough decisions – but, eventually, the tide turned.
Sometimes the decisions you make are for the greater good, not just for the short-term. We’re a club that’s desperately trying to nurture and develop our young players. One that doesn’t have the luxury of having proven decision-makers in their prime.
It’s something that’s quite enjoyable, actually, because when you see the work put in on the training ground come to fruition on the pitch and win you games, it gives you a great feeling.
The other day, I watched a video of our Under-12s scoring four goals against Cardiff, and every one of their goals was in the same pressing style we’re playing in the first-team. That’s the stuff people don’t see.
That's the stuff that shows the identity building is well under way.
And I’ve got a front-row seat to all of it. That was always the dream.