Player, Brighton & Hove Albion, 2000-2005; Yeovil Town 2005-2012
My two favourite players were Clive Allen and Chris Waddle.
I grew up in a mining community in Wales, and everyone wanted to be a professional footballer. There wasn’t much to do – no PlayStations, no Xbox, no Sky Sports – so all we did was run around, playing football in a field in our village.
In the summer holidays, we were in that field for five, six hours a day. You’d only ever go home for a drink or your dinner. You played with your mates, and you dreamed of becoming a footballer.
Being from Wales, of course I wanted clubs like Cardiff and Swansea to do well, but I ended up supporting Tottenham. I loved Ray Clemence and Glenn Hoddle, but my favourites were Allen and Waddle – and they were managed by David Pleat, who I eventually got to know during my time as a player at Luton.
That 1986/87 season would have been their best year of that era, when Clive (below) scored 49 goals. They finished third in the league, behind Everton and Liverpool, and got to the semi finals of the Littlewoods Cup, as the League Cup was known then. They also got to the FA Cup final, which was about the only live televised game of the season back then. I remember watching from about 10am – you saw the players at the hotel, on the bus, all the lead-up to the game. It was so exciting.
A couple of years after that, I made it into the Wales Under-16 team and had an opportunity to go to Cardiff. I moved from the Rhondda Valley to Cardiff and was living five days a week in digs, but it was only 20 or so miles from home and it wasn’t difficult to see my mum and dad if I wanted to.
Things were different when I eventually moved to Luton. It was the first time I had really moved away, and I struggled with homesickness. It felt like a typical trait for young Welsh footballers back in those days, but I was still lucky – my parents used to come up and visit regularly, or we would meet in Bath, where my aunt lived.
The idea that a homesick young Welsh footballer’s next move would be from Luton to Spain seemed ludicrous, but that’s exactly what happened – and somehow it felt right.
“They used to drink a glass of wine four or five hours before kick-off. I went along with it”
Colin Addison (below, right) had coached at clubs including Derby County and West Brom, but he had also managed overseas, including at Atlético Madrid. By the 1995/96 season, he had joined Badajoz in the Spanish Segunda División – and the opportunity came about for me to go and join him there.
I learned so much from that season. On the pitch, I had to learn a different style of play, but as a person I learned masses more: how to prepare differently, how to eat differently, how to cope with the homesickness that had been bad enough at Luton.
I had to learn Spanish very quickly, too, because no one there really spoke English, and I learned a lot about the culture too – the food, the wine. They used to drink a glass of wine four or five hours before a game, to help with digestion. I just went along with it.
That season we just missed out on promotion, and I moved north, to Numancia. The manager there, Antonio Gómez, was the first coach I really encountered with such dedicated attention to detail in terms of how he coached and how we prepared. We had to be on the training pitch at 10.30am sharp every day, and everything around his coaching team was just so organised, so regimented.
We think of someone like José Mourinho bringing that same level of detail to his approach now, but this was 1996. It felt like a big thing to me at the time, and it is something I think has stood me in good stead in my own career as a coach.
We won promotion in my first season at Numancia, and after a really successful season I had the option to stay for another year. I never saw myself as someone like Michael Robinson, though, who had moved to Spain late in his playing career and then built a media career out there. I didn’t see myself staying and making a life in Spain, but I still needed the right opportunity before coming back.
“It was an eerie feeling. We could hear the celebrations outside, while we stood in silence”
Alvin Martin had just taken over at Southend, and the club were looking to build something. Alvin had been a household name as a player, and he had some good players there: Mike Marsh, who had been at Liverpool, and Jeroen Boere. They offered me a three-year deal, and I decided to take it.
It was a good decision, the right decision, although it was a mixed three years on the pitch. I had a good first season, but in the second year I found myself out of the team. I wasn’t happy – I always trained hard and I wanted to play – but on deadline day I had an opportunity to make a loan move.
The options were Bristol Rovers, at the time managed by Ian Holloway, or Scarborough. In normal circumstances, I would have gone to Bristol Rovers – a bigger club in a higher division and closer to home. But Colin Addison was in charge at Scarborough, and I felt I owed him something. I knew it was only going to be for a short period of time – at that time, deadline day was in March – and they were fighting to stay in the league. I thought I could go there and have an impact.
It was a crazy time. I went there as a left-back but ended up playing in central midfield because I was probably a better level of footballer than they had there at the time. I think they had been bottom of the league when Colin took over, but their form had really picked up and a few games before the end of the season, we beat Carlisle 3-0 at our place.
Going into the final game of the season, we were a point above Carlisle at the bottom. All we had to do was equal their result. We were at home to Peterborough, who had been chasing a place in the playoffs, and they were at home to Plymouth.
Our game finished 1-1. I’d come off with about 20 minutes to go, and just stood there waiting. When full-time came, the whole place erupted. Carlisle were drawing too.
“We were playing at Withdean Stadium, which was the worst place in the world to come and play football”
I remember it vividly. We went into the changing room, where there was a TV. It was an eerie feeling, because you could hear all the celebrations outside while we all stood in silence, waiting for actual confirmation that their game was over. It’s easy to say in hindsight, but there was just this feeling that things weren’t going to go right for us.
Everyone knows what happened: the Carlisle goalkeeper, Jimmy Glass, went up and scored a late winner. The late winner that relegated Scarborough from the Football League. I loved my time there – there was a real working-class humility to both the club and the town – but those final few minutes were tough to take for everyone involved.
I returned to Southend and had my best year there – and that got me a move to Brighton.
Micky Adams was building a side there, and he got his recruitment spot on. He knew who the best players were at that level, he brought them in, and he built the best side in the division.
We started the 2000/01 season as a Division 3 club hoping to get promoted, and two years later we started the 2002/03 season as a Division 1 – that’s now the Championship – club with the same group of players.
Micky set us up in a 4-3-3 that we never veered from; we were organised, we always outworked the opposition, and we always had 10 humble and reasonably talented players behind forwards – Bobby Zamora first, and then Leon Knight – who were natural goalscorers.
Micky left for Leicester in late 2001, after which Peter Taylor came in and continued the work that Micky had started – that’s what got us that second promotion.
We struggled under Martin Hinshelwood at Championship level, but Steve Coppell came in and towards the end of that season we were excellent – it was too late to save us from relegation, but that form continued into the next year and we were absolutely breezing the league when Reading, a big Championship side, came in for Steve. Mark McGhee had only been sacked by Millwall a couple of weeks before, but he got the job and managed to get us another promotion.
We were playing at Withdean Stadium (above), too, which was just the worst place in the world to come and play football. I remember a story when we got back into the Championship for the second time, with Mark as manager. I was really good mates with Bobby Zamora, who by then was at West Ham, playing under Alan Pardew.
I lived really close to the stadium, and one day Bobby calls me. “Look, we’re at the stadium!”
Pardew had brought them to the stadium so they could have a look at it before they actually had to come there to play us. He didn’t want it to be a shock. He didn’t want them getting there on the day and thinking: “What is this?”
“It was brilliant to be coaching a group of footballers who were so receptive and responsive”
I was 27 when I joined Brighton, and even though I ended up playing Championship football for them I knew I was never going to be a top Premier League player. That meant I definitely needed to be thinking about a second career, but I loved affecting people around me positively and had kind of stumbled on the fact that I was a leader on the pitch. I didn’t rant or rave, but I acted in a certain way and I think players followed me.
Dean Wilkins was a coach at Brighton at the time, and I really enjoyed taking part in and watching his sessions. I was already beginning to formulate certain ideas around coaching, so from there I started to prepare for my next career.
I left Brighton for Yeovil in 2005 and eventually started doing my badges. I was big on fitness, and I had gone in and done some work with the Yeovil women’s team. I designed a programme for them, a set of exercises I thought could improve them as a team, and then I was asked if I fancied helping out. I needed a team to coach, so it made sense.
The more time I invested in them, the more they gave me back. They were so receptive, and they really wanted to improve. It wasn’t about me coaching women or coaching men – it was just brilliant to be coaching a group of footballers who were receptive, responsive and committed. I loved coaching them, and to have that experience so early in my coaching career was invaluable.
“I knew I was already a better coach than I ever had been a player”
In early 2009, Terry Skiverton became player-manager at Yeovil and I became his player-assistant manager. We knew we weren’t going to be able to attract real quality – we didn’t have the budget, and it was too easy for players to go elsewhere. If you were a young player coming through at Tottenham, Arsenal or Chelsea, for example, you would generally choose to go to somewhere like Leyton Orient above Yeovil. Location was a big thing.
I know Harry Redknapp well, though, and he was managing Tottenham. He did us a favour and loaned us both Andros Townsend and Jonathan Obika. A host of other clubs wanted them, but I think Harry saw two young kids who wanted to play, and he saw in something in us as a coaching team. Townsend (below) clearly had huge drive and ambition, and Obika scored the goals that kept us in League One that season – so we will always be thankful to Harry for that.
Personally, I was discovering how difficult it was to combine playing with coaching. As time went on, it felt like my quality was diminishing in both roles. Terry would say to me: “Okay, you’re not going to play any more. You’re just going to coach.”
But we had a small squad. If our left-back was injured, then I would be needed to play – but I might not have been in full training for a couple of weeks and then suddenly I’m an underprepared, ageing player thrust into a competitive League One fixture. But if I trained properly, then I wasn’t having the impact on the team I wanted to have as a coach.
I knew I was already a better coach than I ever had been a player, and I wanted to progress. At the start of 2012, Gary Johnson came in as manager at Yeovil; Terry and I both moved down a level, and that gave me an opportunity to leave and develop my coaching elsewhere.
“‘Don’t be in any rush. Management can be over with like that’”
I went for an interview at Charlton, and was lucky enough to get the job as Under-21 professional development coach. Chris Powell was the manager, but Paul Hart was academy director and he had a huge impact on my mentality. He may look like one of the most miserable humans in history, but he is one of the most innovative thinkers I’ve met – my year working with him is when my philosophy really started to take shape.
During my year at Charlton, I had an opportunity to go into management. I was still in development as a coach though, and Paul told me I wasn’t ready.
“Get your tools ready,” he said. “Don’t be in any rush. Management can be over with like that.”
I listened to him, stayed at Charlton and had a great year before moving to Brighton – which is where, ultimately, I had my first taste of being a number one.
By then, I had learned that, as a coach, what you strive for most is to always have a group of players who have those qualities I described in the Yeovil women’s team: receptive, responsive and committed. If you have that, it doesn’t matter where you are or what level you’re at.
Then, providing your work is good, the results will be too.