Head Coach, Southampton Under-23, 2017–19
I thought I knew what England would be like.
Tunisia is very influenced by Europe and European culture – particularly Italy, France, Switzerland – so I thought England would be similar to home.
The weather, the food, driving on the left! Everything was different.
It could have been really difficult, but I was lucky because my physical playing style suited the English game. That helped me hit the ground running at Bolton.
I was the first Tunisian ever to move to the Premier League.
At the time, I didn’t realise how big an achievement it was – either for me or for my country.
Bolton weren’t really known in Tunisia back then. People knew about the Premier League, but it was more Manchester United, Chelsea – the bigger clubs. Even so, going to England and joining the prestigious Premier League was huge for the nation.
Jack Chapman, the Bolton scout who also helped the club sign Youri Djorkaeff, Jay-Jay Okocha and Fernando Hierro, spotted me playing in the 2004 African Cup of Nations, which Tunisia won. My contract with my club in Tunisia, Espérance, was coming to an end and Bolton offered me a deal. I also had some offers from Germany and Qatar but I knew my style would fit with England, so it felt like a good move.
The northwest and the culture took some time to get used to, but on the pitch I fitted in right away.
Sam Allardyce was Bolton manager at the time. He was originally a defender, so he was able to help me adapt to the Premier League, learn what I needed to play there, and also to play my way into the hearts of the Bolton fans.
He was incredibly thorough in his management, and he was innovative. He went deep into what the future of football might bring.
On my first day there, Sam had Mike Ford, a psychologist who he worked with for years, to give me a test. The aim was for the club to understand what drove me, what my emotional state was and how I handled pressure. This was 2004. Sam was ahead of his time.
Then I had a meeting with the nutritionist to help devise a meal plan. Then I met the video analyst, and we worked out how to help me prepare for games – the types of clip that would benefit me most. All of this was to help the staff who I worked most closely with – and to help them get the best from me.
That was consistent with my entire time at Bolton. Sam would use Prozone to look at distances we covered, the effort we put in, the load the players were under. We had two or three debriefs a week, to make sure he was always on top of things.
Then, every week, Sam would have the video analyst go through clips of the upcoming opponents’ strikers with me. We’d go through their strengths and their weaknesses. There were charts, numbers, all sorts. That really helped me shape my game and prepare for life in the Premier League.
It also helped that I scored goals.
“When you have lots of young players who are focusing on themselves and their pathway to the first team, you have too much selfishness. Togetherness can make the difference”
We had an amazing Bolton team, with players like Okocha, Hierro, Gary Speed, Stelios Giannakopoulos, El-Hadji Diouf, Kevin Nolan and plenty more. We had players from all over the world – 15 different nationalities in the 2004/05 squad, after I joined. Loads of internationals and strong personalities.
Yes, we were direct, but we were direct with a purpose. It wasn’t just long-ball football, and it was really effective. We played to our strengths, and one of those strengths was centre-forward Kevin Davies. He would always win the first balls, and then we had great players around him to win second balls, keep possession in the final third and build from there.
We also worked on set-pieces a lot at that time, and I was effective at both ends. I have always scored goals throughout my career, and those I scored for Bolton got me extra attention. That helped me settle in, and meant I built a special bond with the fans.
The togetherness of that team, built by Sam, really stuck with me. It’s something that I took with me into my coaching career, in particular when I later worked with the Southampton Under-23s. When you have a lot of players who are focusing on themselves and their pathway to the first-team debut they are chasing, you have too much selfishness. Togetherness and a good team ethic can make all the difference, and it actually helps the individuals too.
In total I spent eight years playing in England, and there were aspects and values I learned from each manager I played under: from Allardyce and Steve Bruce (below) to Alex McLeish, Alan Pardew and Nigel Adkins.
It’s important to have people like that: people who have experience as players but have also been successful as managers. I found it meant I could focus on myself. I could focus solely on being the best player I could be.
“The final was a crazy day. We took over Wembley”
Some people said I took a step down when I moved from Bolton in the Premier League to Birmingham in the Championship, and then again when I went to Southampton in League One – to a team that started the 2009/10 season with a 10-point deduction after going into administration.
Every time, though, I had a manager with ambition. In my first season at Birmingham, Steve Bruce got us promoted to the Premier League; in my first season at Southampton, Alan Pardew led us to one position off the playoffs despite that 10-point penalty, and we won the Johnstone’s Paint Trophy. One year later we got promoted to the Championship under Nigel Adkins. A year after that, Southampton were in the Premier League.
With Markus Liebherr and Nicola Cortese having taken control of the club, Alan built the foundations of a really good Southampton side, with experienced players like myself, Kelvin Davis, Rickie Lambert and then lots of talented young players coming through. We gathered momentum in the second half of the 2009/10 season, and the latter stages of the JPT came at a good time. We were in great form and were winning almost every game.
We made it to the final, and that was a crazy day. We took over Wembley. The atmosphere was amazing – I spent half of the match smiling on the pitch because we went 4-0 up and we knew we were going to win (below).
Then Nigel came in, and he was the one who really gave me the desire and the drive to be a coach. He is just so positive, and he transmits his energy to the players. I’d worked under Roger Lemerre with the Tunisia national team, and he was the most serious manager ever. Nigel was the complete opposite.
He made you feel like every training session was going to be great. When the energy in the changing room is low, he perks everyone up. He really is a top manager, and he proved that with back-to-back promotions with Southampton.
“I was like a sponge. I took in everything I saw because I wanted to learn”
All of my managers gave me something to take into my coaching. They showed me how important it is to be a strong presence, to be transparent with your players – to be authentic, approachable and open.
I spent most of the 2011/12 season out injured, so naturally I started to think about what I was going to do after my playing career ended.
I started to think about the game differently. I started to notice what went into training sessions. I asked questions of the experts at Southampton, and started thinking about the technical and tactical aspects of the game.
I was like a sponge. I took in everything I saw because I wanted to learn. Southampton gave me the right environment to learn my trade, and I was able to help out with the Under-21s and learn what it takes to develop young players.
When the set-up changed across England, I worked as the Under-23s assistant, and learned from brilliant coach educators like Martin Hunter and Les Reed. But I also had the guidance of the manager, too, so I had help from Nigel, and then Mauricio Pochettino, Ronald Koeman, Claude Puel and most recently Ralph Hasenhüttl too. I was helping to develop players but, more than anything, I was also developing quickly myself. My international experience as a player and the fact I can speak a few languages helped me adapt to the different managers.
When I finished my A Licence, I was promoted to head coach of the Under-23s in 2017. That meant I had vast responsibility: to be a leader, to influence both players and staff, and to show the players how to achieve their objectives. Yes, it was about developing players, but winning was also important. The first-team coaches wanted developed players, but they also wanted us to create winners.
“The first thing I noticed was the huge gap in footballing terms. I had to use all of my knowledge and expertise to succeed there”
We had real success in both regards. We got promoted to Premier League 2 Division One – the highest tier at that level – and made it to the semi finals of the International Cup in 2018/19. That tournament was eventually won by Bayern Munich.
On top of that, I was able to help the club bring through the likes of Yan Valery, Jake Hesketh, Harrison Reed, Michael Obafemi, Will Smallbone, Jake Vokins, Nathan Tella, Dan N’Lundulu – players with Premier League quality. In 2019 alone, we had seven first-team debuts. That is something that fills me with immense pride. Seeing these players improve under you and go on to make their debut in the first team is an amazing feeling.
As much as I’d enjoyed that, I reached a point where I wanted to be a first-team coach. I wanted to work in that environment. It felt like my natural progression.
Southampton had struck up a partnership with an American club called Hartford Athletic, a new club in the USL Championship. They suggested I go over to Connecticut to get a taste of being a coach overseas. So, I took the opportunity to develop as a first-team coach, even if the fact it was abroad might have put some people off.
The first thing I noticed was the huge gap in footballing terms, and I really had to adjust to that. I had to use all of my knowledge and expertise to succeed there.
“I showed in my playing career that I’m a winner, and I’ve proven as a coach that I can create winners, too”
The year before I got there – 2019 – was their first year of existence, and they finished second from bottom. In 2020, my one year there, we finished top of our group and made the playoffs. It wasn’t easy, given all of the problems around the world in 2020 and the fact we were trying to establish a new team, but we achieved an awful lot there.
We brought in a local kid called Alfonso Vazquez and, after establishing a development plan for him, we started to integrate him into the first-team squad. We ended up giving him his professional debut; he later scored his first goal, at the age of 18, with his family watching.
Having done things like that, I left a legacy at Hartford and forged best practice for them to use going forwards. I’m very proud of that.
I’m the most capped Tunisian player of all time – I played 105 times for my country, played at two World Cups and captained the team, too. When I am in a position to honour, I am totally committed. And I’m the same as a coach.
I always try to challenge the people around me – that’s both players and staff. I want hard work from everyone because I’m a winner. Any task, any challenge I’m given, I want to achieve things and I want to win. I try to pass those values on to the players I work with.
I showed in my playing career that I’m a winner, and I’ve proven as a coach that I can create winners, too.
When you get everyone pulling together, anything is possible.
Author: Ali Tweedale