Leicester City, 2008-10; 2011-15
I’m not somebody who shares my emotions a lot. That’s even more the case when it comes to my final season at Leicester City.
Because of the way it finished it was a difficult time for us as a family. It’s not the way you’d choose for your time at a club to end, but it’s one of those things you can’t change.
A lot of it I’ve just tried to move on from. It’s a part of my life that’s happened now. I know my part in Leicester’s history, but that’s all it is now. It’s history.
You move on because you have to. It was the same when I retired from playing. I knew I needed to stop – the last few years I’d played an awful lot of games with injuries. But was I psychologically ready to walk away? I don’t think I was.
Because of the type of player I’d been – or at least the type other people perceived me to be – there was an expectation that I would go into management. I wasn’t sure. I didn’t know whether I would do it – whether I could do it, or whether I’d have the opportunity.
I found the expectation a bit of a burden. There was a part of me that didn’t want to do it because of that.
A few months after I retired a phone call from the owner of Carlisle United – a club battling to stay in the Football League – changed that. Sometimes you just have to weigh things up and then take a risk.
I look back at that season with a lot of fondness. One of the things that struck me – and I still look out for this now – was the humility of the players. I’d just finished playing at Middlesbrough (above), a club that had spent millions on building an amazing training ground. Now I was working at a place where, every morning, my assistant John Halpin had to ring round to try and find somewhere for us to go and train.
"The kids ran out to the pool: ‘Dad, you’ve been sacked!’"
Before each session we’d go around picking up dog shit, to make sure it was clear for the players to train.
Yes, I found the job difficult, because I was inexperienced, and you could ask if I was really ready for it. But if you always wait for the perfect opportunity are you ever going to get it?
You couldn’t teach what I learned in the five months I was there.
Though it was certainly a close shave. One that could have been a lot more damaging if it hadn’t been for a goalkeeper scoring a winning goal in the fifth minute of added time in our last game of the season – saving us from relegation.
It was then another 10 years before my story with Leicester began.
By then I’d been an assistant at Stoke City, West Brom and Newcastle. I'd had a fulfilling experience as a coach educator for the Football Association, and I'd gone back into management at Southampton – somewhere I could see myself staying for a long while.
But when you’re involved in management you have to come to terms with the fact it’s not if you’re going to get the sack or leave. It’s when.
Sometimes there’s a natural sequence of events where it feels right to go, or there’s a recognition that it’s gone as far as it can. Occasionally things end before you’re ready for them to. They’re the ones that are more difficult to come to terms with.
"Change is inevitable, but whereas sometimes you need a strong hand, sometimes you require more of a subtle touch"
At Southampton there was a boardroom takeover. The chairman who came in wanted me to apply for the job I already had. We spoke about it over the phone, and I made my feelings clear.
We were on a family holiday in Cyprus shortly afterwards when I found out what that conversation meant. The kids actually found out first.
I was sitting by the pool when they came running out. “Dad, you’ve been sacked!”
The news was all over Sky. We just laughed about it because it was something I expected, but those are the type of things that affect how you think and operate from time to time.
While I was at Southampton, Leicester were relegated to the third tier for the first time in their history.
I became the sixth manager they’d had in 16 months, and I could sense it from the moment I went in, not just from the players but some of the staff, too. It was that feeling of: “I’ve heard it all before.”
If managers come and go so quickly, people go into survival mode. It becomes very difficult to ask them to pin their loyalty to your way of working. If you’re going to be gone in six months why should they side with you?
Everything is written in chalk. They’ll wipe it off when you’re gone.
"Sometimes you only change the culture by changing players"
It’s not straightforward to get people to change those attitudes. For that, you need a bit of patience.
Believing in what you do is one thing, but believing in what may be happening over a period of time is more difficult.
It’s not easy for people who are involved in it to get it, or believe it, or think that it’s the way forward, and you can’t force it. Change is inevitable, but there are subtleties involved in how you do it. Sometimes you need a strong hand, and sometimes it requires more of a subtle touch.
I was fortunate at Leicester, in that I inherited some outstanding staff at the club, as well as an open mentality. When you work at places where you don’t have that you realise it’s a huge gift.
The nucleus of senior players was good, and we brought in some young ones with the drive and desire to do well. It was a good blend – one that took us straight back up to the Championship.
That first year was probably the most enjoyable season I’ve had in football. Certainly as a manager.
For all of us it was a season in which we grew. That’s a bit of a crap word to use, but it’s probably the right one.
Our first season in the Championship ended with all the staff putting the season to bed with a couple of drinks in my father-in-law’s pub. We’d lost to Cardiff on penalties in the semi finals of the playoffs. Unfortunately that was my first stint at Leicester over.
"Some believe that batsmen in cricket have to play themselves back into form. There's an element of that with footballers too"
On that occasion it was my decision. Things happened off the field that I wasn’t particularly happy with.
It was probably a bit of bloodymindedness by me, but there are moral dilemmas I won’t back down on. I decided it was time for a change.
When I went back almost 18 months later, I walked into a Leicester City that was under new ownership and with a playing squad that had changed hugely from when I left.
On paper all of us agreed – good side. But we quickly found out that the reason it was a good squad of players that weren’t getting results was because they were precisely that – a good squad on paper.
We recognised pretty quickly that we needed to change things, both in terms of the players and the culture. Sometimes you can only change the culture by changing the players.
It’s something that evolves over a period of time, which can be one of the difficult things as a manager. It’s not always just about the results – you can get quite low when you can’t see a shift in the mentality.
We got there in the end, but it took patience. A manager’s best work is often done when the results are shit. When everybody else is moaning – that’s when you’re probably doing your best work.
The summer after I went back to Leicester we signed Jamie Vardy. He was coming into the professional game late, from non-league. We’d spent a million quid on him, but my expectations of him being game-effective in the first year were relatively realistic.
"One of my strengths is actually to manage under pressure"
He has said himself that he struggled with self-doubt in that first season – we had to find a way of helping him through that. It’s difficult to get the balance right of knowing when to keep a player playing through a bad spell.
In cricket there’s a school of thought that batsmen have to play themselves back into form. There is an element of that with footballers, too. If a player has a bit of a difficult time and knows he’ll be taken out of the firing line every time then all you'll ever have is a player who’s either in form, or one who’s in a total loss of form.
Strikers judge themselves by how many goals they score. You can say, “You’re doing exactly what we need when we don’t have the ball”, but it’s hard for them to believe.
It is a calculated risk sometimes when you say: “I’m going to keep playing you.” It could have backfired with Jamie, but we believed he could succeed.
That season we lost narrowly in the playoff semi finals again. My message to everyone – staff, and players – after that game was simple. Make sure that when you come back the disappointment is gone.
None of us – me included – could come back with anything other than a positive intent for the following season. If we returned with any lack of clarity as to what we needed we’d have had a nightmare.
From the first day back we talked about promotion. That’s what everybody expects you to get, so why be afraid of it?
We started that season well, but it was around Christmas that we really hit the run of form that got us promoted. Between mid-December and April we didn’t lose a single game.
"In football there are lots of different ways of finding success"
Gaining momentum is hard, but once you’ve got it it’s about not messing around with things too much. We used to work at what we did – we’d plan for what we’d do in games. But if I’m honest, one of the big things in that season was feeling that the players were confident.
We’re not talking about technical stuff here. We’re talking about managing the mood – allowing people to feel good, and to drive it themselves. What they need from the staff is structure, and the belief that what we are doing is alright.
I thought we’d do better the following season, in the Premier League, than we did. We’d constructed a team that we thought was good enough to get there – one we thought might be good enough once we were in it, too.
Some of the games we expected to do better in we drew. We were losing at home. At times it was a struggle to find a rhythm that allowed us to win games. In every league in the world, when you go from the second division to the top you get punished by players who have that extra bit of quality.
Even in tight games when we played pretty well we just couldn’t get over the line. All year we knew we were competitive, but we were losing by the odd goal and sitting bottom of the league.
My position came under intense scrutiny at times. I suppose you cope in different ways – publicly, I obviously didn’t manage it very well.
People might argue differently, but I will say that one of my strengths is to manage under pressure. Though everybody has a saturation point.
I was in the pub having a drink with my mates when the story of me being sacked went around, and I was back in work the next day. Those are the type of things you just have to deal with.
"The way it finished at Leicester City didn’t sit right with me"
You have to try and get some sort of perspective as to what it actually means. It’s a job.
I’m very careful with the words I use – I don’t say I love it. There are parts of it I do really enjoy; there are parts of it that stimulate me intensely. There are things that really irritate me about it; things about myself that irritate me. But you have to come to terms with who you are and what you are.
I don’t try to impose, what I believe as being the most important things, on how other people work. Likewise, I don’t expect them to do that to me.
You have to try and do it in a way you feel comfortable with. One that you believe in, and is appropriate to the people you work with. One of the beauties of football is that there are lots of different ways of finding success.
The way it finished at Leicester didn’t sit right with me, and I don’t believe it did with Khun Vichai (Srivaddhanaprabha – the former owner of Leicester City, above), either. So when we later agreed to meet and discuss the job at OH Leuven in Belgium – just the two of us, with no agents involved – it was very personable, and very straightforward.
At times I must have been somewhat of a conundrum for him, as my stubbornness and forthrightness on football matters was always balanced by my absolute respect for him as my superior. I will always be eternally grateful to Khun Vichai for the opportunity to reconnect, and to work together a second time.
His love for quality wine is well-known. He once presented me with an incredibly expensive bottle, which at the time I was almost embarrassed to accept. He insisted, and told me to celebrate with it. I still have it.
I have never really known how I would celebrate with such a prized gift. But I do now. I will open it, and savour it with my family. We will toast the fact that we are all grateful that our paths have crossed with Khun Vichai. Our lives are all that much fuller for the experience.
I will miss him. We all will.
People assumed that I was in Leuven to find a job back in England. But if you'd asked if I'd be back in England one day I wouldn't have known, and couldn’t have told you.
I’d regardless have been sure that I'd have been better equipped, because I would have had another experience that gives a bit more variety, and a different perspective on how to view things.
You move on, because you have to.
Author: Tony Hodson