Luton Town, 2016-2019; 2020-2022
“Right, you’ve wanted this job. Here’s your opportunity. Go and do it.”
Three days before Christmas in 2014, Sami Hyypia resigned as manager of Brighton.
It was a tough time for the club. The team had only won once in three months. They were in the bottom three of the Championship.
That was when Paul Barber and Tony Bloom pulled me in and gave me my chance. They gave me two games, but I’d been preparing for that moment for a long time.
I had first arrived at Brighton in the summer of 2013, as assistant head coach under Oscar Garcia. Oscar was a particular type of manager – he would work long hours in the office, watch game after game after game, he was football-crazy. He had a certain way of playing, but he also gave me a lot of autonomy – I was around the players, coaching sessions, controlling sessions.
When Oscar left at the end of the 2013/14 season, Brighton asked me what I wanted to do.
“I want to become a manager.”
I felt like I had learned a lot. I’d formulated a way of playing, of training, of acting, that I felt could constitute the beginnings of a philosophy.
“Sami was very unfortunate. Towards the end, you could see it was taking its toll”
“Okay,” they said. “You’re not going to get the job, but we think you should interview for it.”
So I went through the interview process. I had to go to the Landmark Hotel in London, sit in front of a chief executive and an external recruitment agency, and deliver a presentation to show them how I would go about the job.
“You’re not going to get it,” they eventually repeated. “We’re giving it to Sami Hyypiä. But stay here, educate yourself, do more press. You’re pretty much ready.”
Sami (above) and I quickly built a bond. We would go running together, often for hours a day, and talked a lot. It was brilliant for me to work with someone who was a legend of the game as a player, but also to see him implement a philosophy. Players wanted to play for him.
He was very, very unfortunate, though. The players grafted, but we didn’t convert our chances and any error seemed to cost us. Towards the end, you could see it was taking its toll on him.
As soon as the bosses said “Look, it’s you”, I went into manager mode. I prepared my first training session, decided what team I would select, what system I would play, how I would speak to the players.
“It started to rain like you’ve never seen. I thought of Steve McClaren”
I was thrown into it. My first game was on Boxing Day, at home to Reading (below). The first decision I had to make was whether to give the players Christmas Day off. So I did.
And it wasn’t a success.
Glenn Murray, against his old club, scored in the first minute, and then he got another before the half-hour. Then we lost Darren Bent to injury. I’m standing there, thinking: “What a baptism.”
I had put on a suit for the game, as a statement of intent. Everything had been thought through thoroughly. But then it started to rain like you’ve never, ever seen. I thought about Steve McClaren.
“I’m not moving from this technical area,” I thought to myself. “I’m going to stand right here.”
We got a goal back before half-time, and in the second half we were superb – I made a couple of changes and we really went at Reading. It felt like it was only a matter of time, and I think had we equalised in the 70th or 80th minute we would have gone on and won the game. In the end, it came in the last minute.
But that game showed I could do it. Not the day-to-day or on-the-pitch stuff, because that’s not that different when you’re a coach. This was about decision-making.
“They told me Chris Hughton was going to be made manager. I was fuming”
Three days later, we went away to Fulham (below) and looked like a well-drilled, organised, good footballing side. They were a good team, but we won 2-0 and never looked in any trouble. Substitutions at the right time, players who hadn’t featured much giving me everything – at the end of the game, in front of 3,000 travelling fans, I was very emotional.
I knew then that I really could be a manager.
I wanted the job, 100 per cent. I believed I was ready, but after the game the questions I was asked by the media made me think something wasn’t right.
I went home and my wife – she was my girlfriend at the time – couldn’t understand why I was so down after such an unbelievable win.
“I’m not going to get it,” I said.
I went in the next day and they told me that Chris Hughton was going to be made manager. I was fuming.
But Paul and Tony sat me down and were incredibly patient with me. They let me vent, then simply said: “You have to get over this quickly.”
I had to see it as just another step along the way, and get over my disappointment quickly. I went to speak to Chris, who told me how much faith the club had in me – he only brought one coach with him, when he had initially wanted to bring two – and it was really the best thing that could have happened to me.
I worked with Chris (below) for a year, and enjoyed it greatly. I learned a lot from him, and he is still someone I go to for advice now.
While I was there, the club knew they had somebody who would work incredibly hard for them. But they knew I was prepared to spread my wings, and they understood that there was always going to be an opportunity that, one day, I would want to take.
I knew what level I’d have to start at. I knew no one would really give me a chance in the Championship, so I was looking at League One, League Two. There were only a certain number of clubs you would really want to go for, though – at others, you knew you had no chance of succeeding.
Luton were a big fish with a good fanbase, and they were in a tight spot. They were one of the clubs I looked at and thought: “If this comes up, I want it.”
The job came up, and I went for it.
“We developed a simple motto: ‘How far can we go?’”
“If you employ me, this is what will happen,” I said. “Within four years, you will be a Championship club. And you won’t just be a Championship club – you will be a Championship club playing a certain way with a younger group of players than you have now. We will fill the stadium, we will recruit in a certain way, we will train in a certain way, and we will create a new atmosphere, a new culture.”
“You can’t do that.”
“I can do that, and I will.”
I got the job.
We had a plan for the first four months. The team was 18th in League Two, so we knew we had to get results quickly, but the chief executive and the board backed us.
We drew our first game, at home to Cambridge, won our second away at Mansfield, and suddenly there was a bit of euphoria about the place.
So we just built on that, and developed a simple motto: “How far can we go?”
“That summer, we acted quickly – but I needed to make a statement signing”
I wanted to see if we could sneak into the playoffs, and right up until the last few games we were in with a chance. But a few results went against us – we went to Barnet and lost 2-1, then had home defeats to Stevenage and Accrington – and by the time we were seven points behind with three games to go we knew we were just going to fall short.
We had implemented a culture, though, and started a change in environment that was only going to get better.
That summer, we acted quickly and the board backed me. We moved a lot of players out of the club – those who couldn’t play the style we wanted to play, or who simply weren’t going to get the opportunity to play – and we got our recruitment right.
First, we made permanent signings of Alan Sheehan and Glenn Rea – both players I knew personally, and who had made an impact as loan signings after I’d arrived at the club.
But I needed to make a statement signing.
“The first full season at Luton was brilliant, but it ended in heartbreak”
Late in the previous season, we had gone to Oxford. I thought they were the best team in the league that season, and they were ultimately promoted, but we beat them 3-2 and were excellent on the day.
Danny Hylton had opened the scoring for them after two minutes that day, and I knew that he could be a catalyst for us. I met him, presented our vision to him, and in the end he turned down two contract offers from Oxford – and offers from other clubs, for far more money – to join us.
We made other great signings that summer – Johnny Mullins, Jordan Cook – but Danny (below) was a marquee player. He was the one.
We built a really good culture through that first full season. It was brilliant, a great learning curve – but it ended in heartbreak.
We played Oxford again in the semi finals of the Checkatrade Trophy. We came back from 2-0 down to level the game – Danny Hylton got the equaliser after 82 minutes – but then on 85 minutes we switched off at a set-play and they won it.
Then came Blackpool in the playoff semi finals. We’d beaten them twice in the league – as comfortably as you could ever want at their place, and then 1-0 in a much tougher game back at Kenilworth Road.
“We didn’t win League Two, but we were the best side in the division”
We lost the first leg 3-2. The first was a poor goal, the second came from a set-play and the third came from a penalty we conceded from another set-play.
In the second leg (below), we were dominant – but we conceded the opener to a counter-attack before scoring three times either side of half-time to take a deserved lead on aggregate. A goalkeeping error helped them back into it, and then deep into stoppage time we got done with another set-play and conceded a calamitous own goal.
Set-plays and counter-attacks – they were a running theme. If you’d taken out the goals we conceded in those ways, we’d have won the league in January.
We knew we needed to change, and we did. That summer, we brought in a really experienced defensive midfielder – Alan McCormack – and changed our structure for defending set-plays.
The next year, we didn’t win League Two – John Coleman did a great job at Accrington Stanley – but we were the best side in that division.
“We went to Swindon and won 5-0. The players were gutted – they wanted 10”
We sold Cameron McGeehan to Barnsley, Isaac Vassell to Birmingham, and Jack Marriott went to Peterborough. Those sales brought in well over £2m, which meant we were able to recruit.
James Collins, Luke Berry, Elliot Lee, Harry Cornick, Jack Stacey, Andrew Shinnie. They were all players we would have bought had we been promoted to League One, but we signed them anyway. We were still a League Two side, but we had formulated a plan to be a Championship side by 2020 and we recruited with that in mind – we were building for the Championship.
And we were outstanding. We beat Yeovil 8-2 in the first game of the season. We beat Stevenage 7-1 and Cambridge 7-0. There was a hunger about the whole team.
I remember one game, at home to Swindon. We had a man sent off in the first half, and went 1-0 down to the resulting penalty. We still thought we could win it, so we went for it and ended up losing 3-0.
The reverse fixture at their place was on Boxing Day, so we got the team in on Christmas Day. At half-time the day after, it was 0-0 – but we were the better team, and in the second half we showed it.
We won 5-0, and missed a chance in injury time to make it six. The players were gutted. They wanted 10.
That group had such a desire, and they were playing a brand of football that raised my reputation through the roof. It wasn’t just winning games, it was how we were doing it. At home, we felt like we were untouchable.
“I had worked at Championship clubs, and this was a Championship side”
That continued into League One.
I knew the squad was young, hungry, athletic and had a lot of goals in it. When we went up, I came out to the press and made it clear that we were on schedule.
“We’re not consolidating. We want to go straight through.”
I saw it with my own eyes. I had worked at Championship clubs, and this was a Championship side. I watched training sometimes, and the quality they had was breathtaking – it belonged in a different league. But they were good characters too, and they were doing it with humility.
After saying all that, we had only one point after three games of the new season.
We went to Fratton Park on the opening day and tore Portsmouth apart. Somehow, we lost 1-0. Jamal Lowe scored early and then they defended for their lives – how we didn’t win by three or four, I don’t know.
Then we drew 1-1 at home to Sunderland, who had just come down from the Championship, and lost 3-1 at Peterborough – we could have got something out of that game, but they were ruthless on the counter-attack and the better team in the first half.
After that we got our first win at home to Southend, and then we went on a run where we only lost one more game until the middle of October. That ended at Barnsley, who along with us were the best side in the league.
That was the last league game we lost before I left Luton in January 2019.
“It was the most difficult decision I have made in my professional life”
We’d had a number of opportunities to leave, and it had never crossed my mind because I was so sure we were heading for the Championship. We wanted to kick on.
It was going to take something special for us to leave. A Premier League club was never going to come in for us, because that’s not the done thing.
But Stoke City was about as big as it got in the Championship. The backing they have, where they had come from – we just felt like we couldn’t turn it down.
It was the most difficult decision I have made in my professional life, and I regret wholeheartedly the way it was handled. That’s not to say I’d have made a different decision, but it was a whirlwind and I look back now and know I could have handled things very differently.
My time at Stoke (above) was a massive learning curve. I still appreciate being given the opportunity – it’s a wonderful club with passionate owners who are shaped not by the money they have, but where they come from. They wanted to see the club return to the Premier League, and they thought I could achieve that for them.
I was given enough time and I should have found a way to get the results that would have enabled me to change the things that needed changing. I understand people thinking that we failed there, but as a coach I have to take all the positives I can from the experience and learn from that.
My philosophy remains unwavered, though. I know I will have to tweak certain things to adapt to different environments, but your philosophy is not your preferred shape or how you want your teams to play – it’s how you act, how you train, the culture you create. It’s a lifestyle.
And, in my case, that philosophy is better now than it was a year ago. It’s come through a test – a real tough test. But I’m looking forward to the next challenge.
Author: Tony Hodson