First-team coach, Rangers, 2018–
At first, I did everything I could to stay out of Steven Gerrard’s way.
He was the Liverpool Under-18 coach, and I was the former under-23s coach who’d been away coaching in Brazil for seven months and just come back to the club. I didn’t watch any of their games or hang around their training sessions – just out of respect. I didn’t want to make him feel awkward.
We had a friendly relationship, but it was limited to a quick hello or a brief exchange of views on players at the academy.
Then, one morning, he called me. I didn’t even know the number.
He asked if I fancied meeting up for a coffee. Said he wanted to pick my brains on a few things.
I’d already heard a rumour that he was going to Rangers. Just the previous day, someone at Liverpool had said he was going to ask me to go with him. I’d laughed it off. Now it was happening.
People always ask me: “Is Steven a coach, or is he a manager?”
Well, there are different types of coaches. You can be a tactician, a developer, a technical coach or a leader and motivator. He’s very much in the leader-manager role, and I’m very much in a development, field coach role.
It’s not exactly where I thought I would be at the age of 38.
I was 20 when I started coaching. Right from the start, I said: “I’m going to knock down every wall until I’m 40, and then at 40 I’m going to be a manager.”
I wanted to be a manager outside England. I was very clear on that. Back then, I felt that English players and coaches weren’t respected around Europe. Bobby Robson and Terry Venables were huge role models for me, because they had gone overseas and won that respect. That’s what I wanted.
At the start, it was an obsession.
But I don’t necessarily have that urge to be a manager now. In the previous 18 years before joining Rangers, I’d been a youth developer, an under-23 coach and a first-team coach.
"A young football coach has to break down a lot of boundaries"
Now I see myself simply as a developer of people. It goes back to my own days as a player.
I was a bit of a maverick. A left winger – like a really bad Chris Waddle. I had the haircut and everything. I was a good dribbler and had a good left foot, but I wasn’t great in the air for a tall kid and my right foot needed work.
When you’re a good young player coming through, you tend to get a lot of pats on the back. But I needed more clarity from my coaches. Maybe it wasn’t their fault – at that age, I was very muted. I couldn’t articulate what I needed.
I was 21 when I left football – frustrated that it hadn’t gone the way I wanted it to, and with my confidence at rock bottom.
When I went into coaching, I was determined never to let a kid feel how I felt at the end. I was always going to talk to them about the full package.
I started by teaching kids to play futebol de salão – futsal – in a church hall in Bromley. It was about an individual with a ball, learning skills, which was something I loved to do when I played. It all connected. I just wanted to make young kids do something they couldn’t do before.
It took all the pressure away from me playing the game. I fell in love with it all over again, in a different way.
After six months in the church hall, I got my foot in the door at Chelsea. It was a part-time role in one of their development centres, putting out cones for six-year-olds. But it was the start of a 10-year journey that ended with me working full-time at Chelsea’s academy, overseeing the under-14s.
When you’re a young coach, you’ve got to break down a lot of boundaries. By that, I mean you’ve got to gain trust in your work. That can be frustrating.
Now, it’s seen as a big plus that I’m a relatively young coach with a wealth of experience. If I’m honest, though, there were days on that journey when I felt I maybe wouldn’t get a position or move on, simply because of my age.
During my time at Chelsea, there was a lot of change in terms of the man at the top. When a new manager comes in, the under-18s and under-23s have to adapt because they’re the teams you’re trying to get players out of into the first team. The teams managers might keep an eye on.
The first time around, José Mourinho was very interesting in that respect. He shared a lot with the academy in terms of what he was looking for.
Carlo Ancelotti was also fantastic. Sometimes he’d come in and explain his plans for a game that was coming up. As a young coach, I was fascinated by it.
"I asked were we winning, or were the players winning for us?"
The philosophy at Chelsea continually evolved with the ingredients of the new managers coming in, but no one was allowed to overhaul what we were doing in terms of how we developed players. That was protected.
We had so much young talent. At one time, I had Dominic Solanke, Tammy Abraham and Ovie Ejaria all in my under-7s.
That was a talented group, but also a challenging one. They had so much energy, but that’s the thing I look for in young players. When they come on the astroturf or grass, I’m looking to see, do they want to be there? Are you having to calm them down rather than fire them up?
It’s no secret that the biggest problem at Chelsea was the pathway. But I don’t think that’s a Chelsea problem; it’s a football problem.
If players don’t believe in their pathway, it can really affect them.
Every player reacts differently. Some lose motivation and focus quicker than others. As adults, we have to be the ones to show we can open the door.
I reached a point where, when it came to recruitment, maybe I wasn’t believing what I was saying to parents any more. After all, they see what we see – players not getting through, even though they’re top.
My wife thought I was joking when I came home from work one day and said I was leaving Chelsea to go to Liverpool.
It meant taking a big pay cut. Moving home. All when we’d just had a baby – our first boy, Henry.
But I needed change. A new challenge.
At Chelsea, I felt we had the best players so we all won. Every coach won. I’d started asking myself – were we winning, or were the players winning for us? I needed to explore that.
As soon as I went to Liverpool, it felt different.
"At right-back was this kid who stuck out – the kid was Trent"
It’s a smaller city than London, so you feel the noise of the fans. You feel how they’re feeling.
There was a big pull of bringing players through. I think it goes back to the likes of Jamie Carragher, Michael Owen, Steven Gerrard, Steve McManaman. The club has always done it, and they wanted to continue that.
The Scouse people are so proud. They want to see one of their own get on. They almost demand it.
As academy coaches, we always ask: what’s going to stop a young kid from making that breakthrough? Is it going to be athleticism? Is it going to be physicality? Is it going to be technique? Is it going to be their mentality? What’s going to stop this kid going on?
Then it’s up to you to talk to them about it. You can often fall into the trap of being frustrated with a young kid for not doing something. Not eating right; not sleeping well. But sometimes it’s not ignorance. It’s knowledge.
Taking the time to put it across to them in a way they can receive it is huge. Once they get to the age of 15 or 16, and they’re actually going to do this as a job, it’s about making them aware of what might hold them back. Asking them: what are you doing about that every day?
During my first period at Liverpool, I think we had 18 academy boys make their first-team debuts. One of those was Trent Alexander-Arnold (above).
I remember going to watch the under-14s play Manchester United on my very first day at the club. They won 4-1, and at right-back was this kid who stuck out straight away – Trent. He was a bit erratic. One minute, he couldn’t receive it; the next, he’d twist and turn past two and hit a wonderful cross. He was all energy. I liked him.
I watched all the age groups through from the under-10s to the under-16s play that day, and Trent stood out above the rest. He had something different. When you watch academy teams now, you can sometimes see a lot of clones – he certainly wasn’t that. He seemed to see the game differently to the boys he was playing with.
Working with him was interesting. I was going through some old videos recently, and you can see he had a lot to work on when he was 15. But he was a learner – every day he got better. It wasn’t like – wow, that’s a talent now. It was – wow, what could that become?
It was a special time to see so many boys make it through. Credit has to go to the managers, because they’re the ones who open the door. Initially, that was Brendan Rodgers, who had replaced Kenny Dalglish by the time I started. Then it was Jürgen Klopp.
As soon as he arrived at Liverpool, he made an impression on me.
"Jürgen takes you to a level that you didn’t know was possible"
On his first day at the club, he came to the academy. I was with the academy manager Alex Inglethorpe and Pepijn Lijnders when someone told us Jürgen was in reception. As we walked up the stairs, I was nervous – how am I going to say hello to this guy?
I didn’t even get the chance.
“Hey you, what are you still doing alive?”
Klopp was talking to me. I had no idea what he was on about. I’d never even met him before.
“How did you eat that spaghetti Bolognese?!”
Then it clicked. He’d seen the YouTube videos from Liverpool TV showing the Come Dine with Me experience I’d started doing with the under-23s, to get to know them better. Whenever a player moved from living with a local family into their own apartment, they had to have me and my assistant round within two months, to cook us a three-course meal. Straight away, Jürgen had put me at ease.
His personality is unique. I don’t think anyone else can copy it. He doesn’t take himself too seriously, but at the same time he’s got the other side to him so he’s still got the players on edge.
You can become exhausted working for Jürgen because of the energy he demands out of you, and the way he plays, but with that he takes you to a level you didn’t know was possible. That’s quite a nice thing for a player to experience.
I know the young players who went up hit a boundary they never knew existed. Once they got past that, it was like a new-found fitness – and with that came a new level of confidence.
We spent the afternoon with Jürgen on that first day, talking about some of the academy players and watching sessions. After that, I didn’t see him for a while. I’d ask Pepijn: “What does he want? What’s he doing with the first team?”
Soon, things started drip-feeding through. I never stopped asking questions, though. Because I didn’t want to be doing something different. Whenever he watched my under-23s, I wanted to make sure we were playing similar to him. I wanted him to see players who would fit into his team.
Over the course of my time at Liverpool, I realised something. I’d got there as a good coach – but, really, it had very little to do with coaching. It had more to do with how I managed people. Whether they would take the message from me. How motivated I could get them.
"Any good period in my life has coincided with me being in a learning zone, and out there, in Brazil, that zone was huge"
The fact that you can coach and know the game helps, but it was about that relationship.
I’d done a lot of studying on open questioning and become used to having open conversations with the boys. In that scenario, I learned you have to have no ego, because not everyone in the group will take to you. You have to spread that around your staff.
I was determined not to lose that ability to communicate when I left Liverpool to become assistant manager at Sao Paulo in Brazil. I didn’t want to fail because of the language.
Before I left, I took 17 hours of Portuguese lessons in two weeks. But once I got there, I didn’t take a single one. I just started talking. I wasn’t afraid to make mistakes or laugh at myself – which was good, because it happened pretty frequently.
I used to get the words “casado” – meaning married – and “cansado”, tired, mixed up all the time. I’d say to players “muito casado”, and they’d laugh because I was saying I was very married. Well, I was actually very married – but I was very tired as well.
Any period that’s been good in my life has always coincided with me being in a learning zone. Out there, I was in a huge learning zone.
As a youth coach, I’d always been conscious not to be too tactical. So working with Sao Paulo’s first team was the first time I was able to merge what I loved doing – development – with tactics, which intrigued me most. If I could do that successfully, I knew I could hit the jackpot.
I wasn’t only developing players in Brazil. I was developing myself, too.
Over lunch or after sessions, I’d have a lot of conversations with the boys about their backgrounds. I found out that most of them didn’t just want to be players; they needed to be players. There was a necessity because of poverty – they were trying to do it for their families.
In England, most of the boys I’d worked with would still have a nice life if they didn’t make it. When I spoke to these boys in Brazil, it became clear that wasn’t the case.
You realise then that the boy’s ambition is more than his team, and that money is not necessarily evil. If that’s what motivates someone and it’s for the right reasons – for their family – then I think it’s a beautiful reason.
"Steven likes to stand back and see the whole group. I like to get right in the middle. His strength’s my grey area; weakness"
Initially, things went fantastically well at Sao Paulo. I think we lost one in the first 20 games, and the training and day-to-day life was a dream. Unfortunately, in Brazilian football, finances are often an issue – and our club was in debt.
Nine of our starting team were sold and, just like that, the project changed. I found that really difficult because I was used to building; to developing. When our team kept changing, I realised it wasn’t going to be a long-term project.
In the end, I was there for seven months. But it was seven months of learning every single day. Seven months of developing into a more confident coach. It was also seven months that stopped me from saying an immediate yes to Steven Gerrard’s invitation to join him at Rangers. I thought I needed to ask more questions.
“We don’t know each other,” I said as we chatted over coffee that day.
“Come on,” he said, “I do know you. I’ve done my background, and I think you’ll really suit me.”
He was right.
Steven’s a very talented field coach, and he’ll dip his toe in here and there, but he likes to stand back and see the whole group. I like to get right in the middle.
That means he’ll see things I never see. My grey area, or my weakness, is definitely his strength.
We’ve had a good start at Rangers so far, and that’s something I put down to his personality and how he holds the group when he communicates.
He’s very honest with them. Shoots from the hip. Doesn’t hide anything.
I think we put on decent training every day, but that’s nothing if the players aren’t buying into the message or don’t have a trust in the staff.
As well as Steven, we’re fortunate to have the wisdom and experience of Gary McAllister. The Liverpool academy connection, with technical coach Tom Culshaw and head of performance Jordan Milsom, means we’re in sync with our ideas.
I’ve found the perfect environment and manager for me. Steven enables me to coach and to share my ideas with him, and put that into the team. He includes me in everything, from recruitment to how we should change things at the training ground, and what I think about the presentation for the game.
For now, that gives me everything I need. I’ve still got the dream of managing outside England one day. I’d still like to be an under-18s coach – the one job I’ve never done – and, when I’ve got a few more grey hairs, I’d like to be a head of youth.
But I’m not chasing these things.
I’m not exactly where I thought I’d be at 38.
I’ve already gone well beyond that.
Author: Tony Hodson