Liverpool Academy, 2012–
It took me a year to get my head out of my arse.
I’d gone from being manager of Exeter City, where my ego was defined by trying to win games, to managing Tottenham’s Under-18s, where the brief was very different.
The problem was that it took me more than a year to understand what was really required.
So why did I do it?
Because I felt like I needed to learn a different language.
Let me explain.
I was 35 years old and had only ever experienced one style of football. My playing career mostly took place in the lower leagues. And, as a coach, the early part of my career had been spent managing a game that was based upon hard work and, given the pitches and players I was working with, pragmatism.
The problem was that on TV I’d watch a different game, and I didn’t understand it. I didn’t speak their language. Didn’t understand how to play their version of the game.
I felt like I needed a re-education.
That’s not to say I hadn’t learned anything from my five years as a coach to that point. I’d started as player-coach at Leatherhead, where we had a budget of £500 a week and I was balancing my own books by working in a warehouse for £50 a day and coaching the local Under-10s on an evening.
I’d love to look back at that first job and say I got everything right, but I got so much wrong.
"The perception can be that going from senior football to youth lacks ambition"
Most of the mistakes were around dealing with players. At that stage, I probably didn’t have enough empathy. I was young and coming from playing professionally to playing and coaching in the second tier of the Ryman League. It was hard. But a bit of grey hair gives you perspective: now I look back and wish I’d dealt with players a bit differently.
What I did do was make sure that the team felt like a part of the club. In pre-season, we’d all help out with the pitch or paint walls. We didn’t have the budget to compete, so I knew we had to rely on spirit – and doing those sorts of things together helped.
After three years there, I knew coaching was the path I wanted to go on. It was a tough decision to leave, but when the opportunity came to work with Leyton Orient’s Under-18s, it felt like the right move.
The perception from the outside can be that going from senior football to youth lacks ambition, or that it’s the ‘safe’ option.
It’s something I’ve done twice in my career.
Orient gave me the chance to get into a professional set-up. And working with youth didn’t feel like a huge departure for me – I’d worked with local youth teams while I was still playing and had loved it.
Those experiences had been the ignition, really. The ones that lit the fire.
I joined Orient halfway through the year. At that stage I think they were bottom of the league, but I was able to galvanise them a bit and we turned things around.
Even so, when Exeter City came in for me nine months later, I’d have probably been the least popular managerial choice among every Grecian fan going. It was an enormous risk from Steve Perryman, who was the club’s director of football at the time. A risk I probably only fully appreciate now.
"It was a bit unfair when Sir Alex brought on Cristiano Ronaldo and Paul Scholes... that wasn’t playing by the rules"
When I went in, the club was a million pounds in debt and operating under a transfer embargo. It was a test. Could you go in and make the best of what was already there?
Whether it was down to youthful ignorance or confidence, I believed I could. If I was offered the same job now, I’m not sure I’d take it. At the time, the obstacles didn’t scare me.
Around four months after I joined we faced a different kind of test: an FA Cup third-round tie against Manchester United at Old Trafford (below).
It was good timing in that we had gathered momentum quite quickly. Sometimes a new manager coming in can give players that impetus, so we were in a good vein of form going into the game. But I made sure I prepared the players for every possible scenario: what do we do if we’re 5-0 down at half-time? How do we deal with it? What do we do if we’re winning? How do we manage that?
I also wanted to make sure that we weren’t going to be there as tourists. I didn’t want us to have our ‘day out’ and be on the end of a drubbing. If that was the only time the players were going to play at Old Trafford – if that was the only time I was ever going to manage there – then we wanted it to be something we could all be proud of afterwards.
We spoke about the idea that it could either be a Conference game or a Premier League game, and I knew which one we were more comfortable in. The question was: how long could we make it a Conference game for?
In truth, it was probably only about 20 minutes. After that, it became a Premier League game – one in which we knew we wouldn’t have the ball.
I thought it was a bit unfair when Sir Alex brought on Cristiano Ronaldo and Paul Scholes with half an hour to go. That wasn’t playing by the rules.
But we did okay. Actually, we did more than okay: the game ended 0-0, meaning we were taking them back to our place for a replay.
"I saw how the dynamic between the academy and the first team can change depending on who’s in charge"
Around 18 months later, I left the club to become the Under-18s manager at Tottenham.
Ultimately, to be successful I think you’ve got to enjoy watching your team play. I got to the stage where I didn’t necessarily feel that. Of course, you’re proud of the effort and feel great after wins, but it felt like I was starting to learn just through mistakes, which is a dangerous place to be.
I wanted to understand how you could play a different version of the game.
The problem was, I’d never played it – or even had someone coach it to me. So I didn’t know how to coach it to players. I had the theory – I’d read a million books, seen a million demonstrations and been on every course going – but I didn’t understand it.
At that point, I’d been offered a couple of jobs in the league, but I could just see where those jobs were going to end up. I didn’t think I would carry on being successful.
So, I chose the option to relearn.
Tottenham’s head of coaching, John McDermott, was someone I knew loosely from my time at Watford, where he was director of the academy. I’d also gone to him for advice when I was at Leyton Orient, by which time he was working at the FA.
“I think I’m doing the boys a bit of a disservice here. I don’t have enough sessions. Could you come in and just explain a few things to me?”
He did exactly that. It’s only now that I look back and think maybe that was part of a job interview before the real job interview. Perhaps he kept tabs on me from then, to see how my career progressed.
"The question we asked was: what’s the earliest we knew someone was going to be a top Premier League player?"
It took me a year to adapt to being an Under-18s manager. A year to get my head out of you-know-where, to understand what the job was about and exactly what the brief was.
Tottenham had four different first-team managers during the six years I was there. That allowed me to see how the dynamic between the academy and the first team at a club can change depending on who’s in charge. Sometimes you feel like you’re an integral part of the club. Other times, you might feel like you’re a bit more out on a limb.
When I first went in, the truth is that I don't know how much we actually could have helped the first team, because I’m not sure we had the players who were capable of going in. What we did have, though, was some great younger ones who we worked really hard with.
There was no one who I ever thought was nailed on to make it, though. At 14, I felt that Harry Kane was probably middle of the group. There was also Ryan Mason, Harry Winks, Danny Rose, Andros Townsend – they all had their periods when you thought it seemed a million miles away for them, and others where you thought: “Oh my god, they’re going to smash this.”
The summit is just so high. They’ve got to climb a huge mountain to get there.
I remember having an interesting discussion around age with Liverpool’s former academy director Steve Heighway and Nick Marshall, who was academy manager at Nottingham Forest.
We were talking about the players who had come through while we were working with them – which isn’t a great conversation to be having with Steve Heighway.
“McManaman, Fowler, Owen, Gerrard, Carragher...”
Alright Steve, you win.
But the question we asked among ourselves was: what’s the earliest we knew someone was going to be a player – a top Premier League player?
We came to the consensus that, generally, it was around 16 to 18 years of age. There was one who broke that pattern for Steve. One who he said he knew was nailed on to be a top player when he was just 14.
That was Michael Owen.
"Talent can get you to 16, but I believe it’s character that gets you to 35"
But he was the only one. That suggests that, until that point, it’s a level playing field for everyone – because you don’t really know. There are too many factors involved.
At that sort of age, you don’t really know whether they can withstand pressure. Or what they’re going to be like in a senior environment or when they get a bit of fame or adulation. All you know at that point is that they have the potential.
It’s around the same age that I believe talent stops being enough.
Talent can get you to 16, but I believe it’s character that gets you to 35. I think you can play youth team football when you’re talented. But if you want to play to 35, then it’s about resilience, ability to withstand pressure, ability to evaluate a bit more honestly.
Everything rests on character. Character is what defines you when you leave your youth team days behind and enter the senior world.
How do you know if a young player has that?
Through prodding. Cajoling. Challenging, in the right way. It’s getting harder and harder for a coach to do that now... it’s getting harder for a lot of industries. But I think you’ve got to challenge and you’ve got to confront, as long as it’s done in the right way.
Your best players will certainly look back and realise it’s those occasions that helped prepare them for what’s to come. Because it’s very difficult to describe it to them when they’re young.
It’s not a normal job. And you’re not doing it at a normal age.
While other kids are able to assume responsibility at 25 or 26, you’re sometimes asking for boys of 18, 19 or 20 to do a man’s job. Preparing them for that is different compared to a boy who goes through school, sixth form, university, then maybe has a gap year or goes travelling. Then, at some point, he decides to go into a job.
That’s quite a nice flight path into adulthood.
In football, it’s more of a jolt. It’s very much sink or swim. But if you want youth to get their chance in a senior environment, then that’s not going to change. All these factors are there, whether you like it or not.
It’s the academy’s role to prepare them for that.
"Diversity was a focus for me. I didn’t think we were representative of what football in England was about"
Stepping out of management to learn a different version of the game was one of the best career decisions I’ve made.
I learnt from so many good people at Tottenham. I consider John McDermott to be the best in the business at doing what he does. I was very lucky to spend the time I did with him.
He taught me about standards.
That’s not just standards of actions. It’s standards of thinking. Standards of my thinking as a coach, and being able to pass those standards on to the players I was working with.
When I got a phone call from Brendan Rodgers asking if I wanted to become the Under-21s coach at Liverpool, there was a lot of soul-searching. It gave me a huge decision to make. But, ultimately, I felt like it was the right moment to take on a new challenge.
In the end, I was only with Liverpool’s 21s for two years before becoming the academy director in 2014. That step presented another period of adjustment for me. Of course, I missed working with that group, but the truth is that I still coach. The only difference is that I don’t have responsibility for a specific team – I’ll work with every group from the Under-9s to the Under-23s.
As academy director, I had a very clear vision of how we could change things.
"When Jurgen arrived, I saw straight away that he’s exactly the same off the screen as he is on it"
My priority was to focus on quality because I felt that the groups were all too big, which wasn’t fair on any level. It wasn’t fair to the boys who shouldn’t have been here, because they could have been playing regularly at other academies. It wasn’t fair on the club, because we needed to be dealing with groups that were more representative of what we were about. And it wasn’t fair on the coaches, who were managing large groups rather than actually coaching players.
Diversity was a focus for me, too. I didn’t think we were representative of what football in England was about, so I was very keen to change that. That meant changing our approach to recruitment – our eye for recruitment. And having a better feel of our identity and the type of football we wanted to play.
It was a style that was more athletic. Encouraged more mastery of the ball. Allowed more freedom for players to explore different areas of the pitch and rotate. A style of football that we thought could sustain the academy for years to come.
When there’s a managerial change at first-team level, there’s always a bit of anxiety initially, because you’ve built a relationship with a manager and a set of staff. But that’s part of the game. Seeing four different managers in six years at Tottenham makes you very open-minded. You see it as an opportunity to learn.
When Jurgen Klopp arrived at the club, I saw straight away that he’s exactly the same off the screen as he is on it. There’s not a face for the camera and then a face for other people – he’s exactly the same, which I love.
I met him on the first day he arrived at the club, and from moment one he’s had the same personality, same laugh, same enthusiasm.
It’s that authenticity that I think helps him to have such a big impact on players. Ultimately, he’s very good at understanding people: what makes them tick and their demands. He’s a very good communicator, too. You can see that by the way he holds himself with the press, but you also see it transfer very easily on to the training ground, and in conversations with everyone around the club.
I’ve been very fortunate here. The managers I’ve worked under have been big believers in what the academy can produce – neither have just talked a good game. And I’ve been incredibly well supported by ownership.
Both those things have helped to create an academy that is built on stronger foundations. One that I think will be more self-sufficient in the years to come. We’re getting better at what we do with the younger ages, which means the need to recruit at the age of 15, 16, 17 is going to decrease. I believe we’ve got players here now who will go on to play for the club.
I really enjoyed my time managing at Leatherhead and Exeter, but as long as I have the choice, I would always prefer to work with youth. Helping to develop them is what I enjoy. What I think I’m good at. And what I have a passion to try and improve at.
That’s what keeps the fire burning.
Author: Tony Hodson