Bolton Wanderers, 2016-2019
We’re in a massive challenge right now at Bolton.
But you can’t run around a football pitch with a sign on your back saying: “We’ve got problems.”
In a couple of years, no one will look back and really understand the kind of problems we’ve had as a club. No one really wants to know now. So we’ve got to make sure that, whenever we cross that white line, we do ourselves justice.
It’s important that we don’t use it as an excuse.
We all knew this was going to be a tough journey. In the first meeting I had with the chairman Ken Anderson, he told me the club had challenges. I thought long and hard about whether it was something I wanted to take on.
I’d been on a good run at Bradford, but I felt the time was right to move on. I was ready for a fresh challenge, and Bolton presented a huge one.
By that point in my career, I felt I was well-equipped to handle it. That’s what experience does for you – it makes you better at dealing with situations of adversity.
During my time as a player, I learned a lot. Watched a lot of managers. Spent time in a lot of coaching sessions. But nothing can prepare you for management. Nothing.
At first you think: “It can’t be like this all the time.” But it is.
You lie in bed at night, thinking about what team you’re going to pick and what training session you’re going to do. It’s constant. And it completely takes over your life.
Mentally, the demands on you are huge.
"When you haven’t got the resources money-wise, you have to find the marginal gains"
During my playing days, I always felt I was learning to be my own sports psychologist. As I got older, I was understanding how to get myself in the right state to play at my best. Because of that, some of my best seasons came when I got to 30.
I always felt that, if I’d had help in my early 20s, I would have been a much better player.
As a manager, I don’t know why you wouldn’t look to use tools like sports psychology or performance coaching as a way of getting the best out of yourself and your players.
When I went into my first management job at Colchester, I didn’t even need to go looking for a way to do that. It found me.
Sam Kotadia (above, left) was fresh out of university and looking for somewhere to start his career in high-performance coaching. I was a new manager, looking for ways to make improvements at a club with the lowest budget in the league.
It was a no-brainer.
Colchester had come up through non-league and, in terms of the playing side, the way the club was run was quite old-school. That’s one of the reasons the job appealed to me: I knew exactly what I wanted to do there.
It needed modernising. Over time, I wanted to bring in sports science, strength and conditioning, sports psychology – all those things make a difference. When you haven’t got the resources money-wise, you have to find the marginal gains.
"If I read a manager talking about ‘a must-win game’, straight away I think there’s going to be a nervousness in that team"
Sam was someone from the outside. Someone who wasn’t in the dugout or spending large amounts of time in the dressing room. I felt it was good to have somebody like that around, flitting in and out, observing things. Someone who could see the wood for the trees.
The subtle influence he had on the group was good. But it wasn’t just about the players. It was about educating the coaches, too.
Actually, that’s the key. It’s no good Sam working with a player and the coaches ruining all that work by the way they talk to players.
Even now, if I read quotes from a manager talking about ‘a must-win game’, straight away I think there’s going to be a nervousness and tension in that team.
There’s got to be a way of winning that’s not about the winning. It’s about how you’re going to win.
As part of that, what you say to players is so important. With my staff, we probably spend as much time discussing what we’re going to say to the players as we do the content of the coaching sessions.
In some cases, saying less is best. You’ve got to make sure players aren’t going into games with their head scrambled. It’s about getting the right messages over to players without putting too much pressure on them.
Colchester were in the relegation zone when I took over, but by the end of the season we finished 12th in League One – which was then the Second Division. It was the club’s highest position in 23 years.
Over the next three years, everything I wanted to do gradually came to fruition. It sounds easy when you put it like that, but it was hard work.
And there were some periods when results didn’t go so well.
The chairman, Peter Heard, was someone I learnt so much from. If you lost, he was great after the game. If you won, he’d get your feet straight back on the floor. He was very good at that.
One particular time, he called me up to London to see him. We were on a bad run and I thought: “Oh god, I could be in trouble here.”
Instead, he just asked me: “When was the last time you had a day off and a game of golf?”
“I don’t think I’ve played golf once since I’ve been manager.”
He detected that I was probably in a period where I couldn’t see the wood for the trees, and told me to take a day off. I went to play golf with my dad and came back a different man – it was just what I needed.
"To take Bradford City out of the league would have been a disaster for the club – it might not have come back"
You have to find ways of dealing with the anxiety and the pressure.
Sometimes it’s as simple as keeping my phone off until 1pm – that can be enough for me to clear my head. Sometimes it’s walking the dog, going for a run or driving somewhere for a pub lunch with my wife.
It's so important to do that. Often, those are the times when I have my best thoughts; it allows me the space to have a bit of clarity.
I don’t need much to clear my head. A day is often more than enough.
Taking Colchester up to the Championship in 2006, for the first time in the club’s history, was incredible (above). I still get goosebumps when I think about the game where we clinched promotion.
It was against all the odds. It really was, because we didn’t have anything. We were the lowest-paid team, playing in an area that’s a long way from anywhere. You wouldn’t believe me if I told you some of the lengths I had to go to, to attract players...
It was an incredible journey. One of my best achievements.
"If you are a Pep Guardiola you can say: ‘This is how I’m going to play and anyone who doesn’t fit into that, I’m going to move on’"
When I look back at the experiences that have really helped to build my resilience as a manager, I can’t overlook my first season at Bradford.
The club were down the bottom of Division Two when I took over. To take Bradford City out of the league would have been a disaster for the club – it might not have come back. It was probably the most pressure I’ve felt as a manager.
Living through that taught me a lot.
It prepared me for walking into a team that had just been relegated, as Bolton had when I arrived in 2016.
The first day I went in was the morning after England had lost to Iceland at the Euros.
“Look lads, what I want to do is to give us an identity and be everything England weren’t last night. A clear way of playing. Attitude, commitment, desire.”
Those basic things were what we needed to rebuild the connection between the supporters and the players: honest effort and commitment.
Throughout pre-season, my aim was to find a clear identity of how we were going to achieve that.
A lot of managers talk about their philosophy. I’ve got a lot of opinions on that, because if you are a Pep Guardiola and you’ve got an open chequebook, you can say: “This is how I’m going to play and anyone who doesn’t fit into that, I’m going to move him on.”
If you’re not in that privileged position, you’ve got to find a way of playing. It might not be the way that ideally you want to play, but you’ve got to find a way that suits your group of players. That gets the best out of them.
"In the January window, you either pay a player over the odds, or you get the players no one else really wants"
When we came into this club, so many people had said the players were the worst group of characters they’d ever dealt with. A load of bad eggs.
We found that wasn’t the case. They were actually a good group of lads who had really bonded through the adversity of all the problems at the club.
We went to Sweden in pre-season and I came back thinking: “I’m not sure we’re good enough as a team, but in terms of the lads – they’re a good set.”
That season, we went straight back up to the Championship. But it has been an almighty battle to stay there.
When you’re fighting relegation for so many months, as we were last season, the defeats can be hard to take. But you’ve almost got to accept that they’re going to happen and move on from them quickly.
You can’t let them bring you or the training ground down too much.
If you are what we are in terms of resources, and you’re competing at the level the Championship is now, the reality is that you’re going to get beat. As much as we didn’t like it, as a staff we learnt to move on quickly. To always be looking for the solution for the next game.
"There are things you would say on a Sunday that you definitely wouldn’t say on a Monday"
In January of last season, we started to find a way to win. We were picking up results. Then, on the last day of the window, we sold our top scorer, Gary Madine. We had 24 hours to try and bring in a replacement.
But in the January window, you either pay a player over the odds, or you get the players no one else really wants.
That was a low point.
The next day, the training ground was so flat. But we sat the players down and told them: “We believe we’ve still got the players to stay up, and we’re going to fight tooth and nail to achieve that.”
As the manager, you always have to think about how you are presenting yourself to the players.
That’s why I don’t like coming in the day after a game, because emotions are running high. There are things you would say on a Sunday that you definitely wouldn’t say on a Monday. I need Sunday on my own, with my family, so that by Sunday evening I’m working things out. Putting them in perspective.
The final week of last season was a mad one. We’d lost to Burton away and the fans had really turned on us all.
The day before the last game against Nottingham Forest, I pulled all the lads together on the training pitch. There was an incredible amount of tension.
“Listen, if we go down tomorrow, we’ll all still be alive the morning after. We’ll still have our health, our families. We’ll all be going on a holiday. It’s not the end of the world. What is important, is that we are ready to go full out to try and get a result.”
We thought long and hard what team to pick for that game.
"Despite all the problems, we’ve had two amazing last days of the season – getting promotion and that day last season"
We had a player, Aaron Wilbraham, who the fans didn’t like. He was a 38-year-old striker, coming towards the end of his career. We’d signed him because we didn’t have any money and he was a good character.
But the fans never really understood him. They also absolutely loved one of our other strikers, Adam le Fondre, who at times we found difficult to fit in the structure of the team.
During the week, I had many chats with the staff – and we decided to leave Le Fondre on the bench and play Wilbraham in this big game. I knew that, if it went wrong, the repercussions would be incredible. In my heart, I felt that it was the right call.
It was probably the biggest single decision I’ve had to make.
This is no word of a lie: I was envisaging him being carried around the pitch shoulder-high after the game, having scored the winning goal. I had that picture so clear in my mind.
And it happened. Wilbraham did score the winning goal, there was a pitch invasion, and there he was, being carried around the pitch. Just like I envisaged.
Before the game, I told myself that, if we won, I’d go into my office to look at the other results first. At the whistle, I turned to my assistant Steve Parkin. He was saying: “We’ve done it, we’ve done it!”
“Are you sure?”
I walked off and went in my office to put the TV on. I was watching the results come through when the picture changed. Suddenly I was watching the pitch invasion outside, at our ground.
I was just stood there on my own with a beer.
I left it about five minutes, then thought I had better go out and join in. I wanted to be sure – someone could have scored a last-minute goal.
It was an incredible day. Despite all the problems Bolton have had, we’ve had two amazing last days of the season – getting promotion, and then that day last season.
It was a summer’s day, so on the drive home I said to my wife: “Let’s send a message out and invite all our friends round.”
The next thing I know, I’m in an old pair of shorts and T-shirt, cleaning the garden furniture on my hands and knees. Not quite how I envisaged celebrating staying up, but it was a brilliant night. It’s great when it goes your way.
"I told them it could be a rocky road when they signed. This is part of it"
At the moment, we’re in another massive challenge.
Fundamentally, Bolton is a great club with tremendous history, a great stadium and a great training ground. But it’s been a tough journey. For the chairman as well: he openly admits he became the chairman almost by default, and hasn’t got the money to compete at this level.
All the time, we’ve had to find a way to keep our heads above water.
I speak to the players – sometimes as a group, sometimes individually – to explain the situation that’s going on. But I also remind them that I told them it could be a rocky road when they signed. This is part of it. We’ve just got to deal with it, and it will get resolved.
Things get resolved in football.
I truly believe that this club, once it gets bought, will come back and be a Premier League club again one day.
Until then: no excuses. Once we cross that white line, we do ourselves justice.
Author: Tony Hodson