James Rowberry was a staple at Cardiff, until he recently landed his first managerial post at his hometown club. Newport County. James was kind enough to speak to VFTN en route to Morecambe last week, on his time at Cardiff and his new vocation.
Congratulations on the new job. I went to a Newport County game recently and there’s a really nice community feel around the place. With you being from Newport and having a family history with the club, was it the perfect opportunity at the right time?
Thank you. Yeah, I think so. The opportunity came and it was the right place at the right time.
You’ve made a great start, winning your first two games. I know its early days, but how have you found making the step up, to being the man in charge, making the decisions? I imagine it takes up a lot more head space!
Yeah, it does in terms of thinking things through. When you’re winning, it makes it a little bit easier and with all the different managers I’ve learned from, it’s been a good transition.
League Two is also absolutely unrelenting. The Championship is about to benefit from a two-week international break, but League’s One and Two keep on trucking. As a new manager, is it hard to make your mark on the coaching side, when the games keep coming so thick and fast?
I think you have to look at different ways of coaching, on and off field. On the field, I’ve probably had five or six sessions with the lads to show them how I operate and off the field we’ve also had a few sessions. I’m making sure I use every opportunity to try and get my point across. The foundations are solid and already there with what has been built before, so I’m just adding layers to try and push things forward.
Going back to your start at Cardiff. It seemed to coincide with you getting your pro licence in your late twenties and you briefly worked in the academy, before quickly being elevated to the first-team. At that age, is it quite daunting having to train experienced professionals, or is it something that didn’t really faze you?
I would be lying to you if I said it didn’t. I wouldn’t say daunting though, just a challenge that you have to face. That was seven or eight years ago, so I was dealing with players that had Premier League pedigree and my experience at the time was quite limited. I would lean on lots of people, in and out of the game, to try and help me be the best that I could be.
That best thing that could probably happen to me at Cardiff was when Paul Trollope came in. That helped me develop and enhance as a coach because he put me under his wing. I’ll be forever grateful for that. Also to Scott Young and Danny Gabbidon because they took me up to the first-team when I was in the academy. Those three were really influential, but also Ken Choo, Mehmet Dalman, Vincent Tan and Steve Borley for the continuity of keeping me as a first-team member of staff.
As a first-team coach, what falls under your remit, on a day-to-day basis and also on a match day?
It changes with every manager. Under Paul and Russell Slade, I did a lot on the grass. With Neil Warnock, it was slightly different because he had Ronnie Jepson and Kevin Blackwell, but you build a trust eventually. That was the biggest transitional period for me as a coach, getting used to that and having to prove myself. When Neil Harris and Dave Livermore came in, they were great people to work with, as were Mick McCarthy and TC, who were great with me. Every one of those managers had a different way of working.
On a match day with Neil Harris, I would be watching with an iPad and I would relay things to the assistant manager because there is a hierarchical command and he would decide whether or not to pass that on to the manager. Sometimes an analyst might give you statistical data that you would dissect and decide if you needed to pass it on. There may be clips that the manager might want to see. Under Neil Warnock, I would sit in the stand with Ronnie, but under Russell and Paul I would be sat on the bench, so it depends on what the manager wants. You’re also involved in the warm-up and speaking to individual players.
When a club makes a new appointment, its adapt or die. I was lucky with Ken and the board, who ensured I was a fixed member of staff and I must be OK at what I do otherwise I wouldn’t have been kept on. I never had any conversations about being let go, so I was lucky in that respect.
There seems to be a perception that coaches all deep down want to manage, but I’ve spoken to plenty of coaches who are passionate about it and have no interest in making the step up. You’re obviously passionate about coaching, but were you always keen to try management at some stage?
Yes. I always played it down, but if I’m honest, managing was always in the back of my mind. Coaching is my passion though and I love developing people. I thrive off that, helping people and being part of their development. It gives me a real buzz and that’s why I get out of bed in the morning.
You worked with five very different managers at Cardiff, but I would imagine working with Neil Warnock is a daily masterclass in man management.
I’ve said this lots of times now in different interviews, but working under Paul Trollope was a pure coaching school and working under Neil Warnock was a pure management school. He manages the players, but also the supporters, the staff and the hierarchy as well. You take things from all the managers you work with to add it to your armoury and that hopefully helps you become a successful manager.
Is it difficult coaching a team that play in a way that is very different from how you perceive the game?
It depends on the players you have. If you’re a chef and you’ve got ingredients for a vanilla sponge, but try and make a chocolate cake, its not going to go well! The ingredients are your players. What I want my players to be are capable of the demands in transition, so we attack with pace and can get back and defend as quick as we can.
I’m quite fortunate at Newport that a style is already in place and has been evident for the last couple of years, so I’m just trying to add to that. There’s no right or wrong way to play football. That idea really frustrates me. There is a way of playing that suits the players you have and the opposition you’re facing.
Mike Flynn has been linked with the vacant Cardiff job, so out of interest, how would you describe the way Newport have played and play now?
Based on my first two games, in attacking and defending transition, we try to outrun the opposition both ways. In possession, we try to build from the goalkeeper, but that could be playing through midfield or bypassing them if necessary, depending on the opposition.
Paul Trollope had a reputation as a great coach, but failed to realise his vision in his brief time as a manager. His intentions were noble and progressive, but it just didn’t stick. Did that act as a cautionary tale for you, following that same career trajectory?
Paul was seen as a new manager, but he had a successful time at Bristol Rovers, getting them promoted to League One and managing maybe 250 games. It just didn’t work out for whatever reason at Cardiff, but he’s a great guy and I’ll always be grateful for how he helped me.
While you were at Cardiff, did you covet the manager’s job? Did you ever throw your hat in the ring or were you ever considered? Supporters have long craved a young, progressive manager and I always thought that you fitted the bill and were you elsewhere, you would have been the sort of name people would have been touting. There are people being touted for the role now that have a similar background and resume to you.
I never threw my hat in the ring and I thought it was the right thing for me to come away and develop. To use my experience somewhere else. My focus is now on Newport and no further than the game tomorrow.
Cardiff are going through a really rough spell at the moment. What is it like on the inside when things are going badly wrong on the pitch and nothing seems to work anymore?
There is a natural lull when you’re not winning games, but what I will say is that at Cardiff, they always give 100%, on and off the field. The focus is always there and players don’t lose matches on purpose! They work their socks off and they’re a good group of lads. I’m sure they’ll get out of this rut they’re in.
When you’re losing, you question yourself and your thoughts, but what I’ve learnt is that you have to stick to your beliefs and evolve them to try and get the right results on the pitch. It’s difficult when you’re in that situation and its good to get advice from players and staff, to turn a negative back in to a positive.
I know you have only been in the role a matter of weeks, but what have you already learned, about the role or about yourself?
I spoke to the chairman today. He asked how my work/life balance is and I said not very good! I probably need to improve that, but I’m lucky that my staff will take some of my workload off me and I’ve got great support. I didn’t bring any staff with me because I already know everyone here and it’s my hometown club. I just want the academy, the trust, the administration to know that they all have an impact on what happens on a Saturday. We’re all one club, not different departments. From my experience, that’s important.
What are your ambitions, for Newport and yourself?
For me, it’s all about progression. My focus at the moment is game to game and how do we get things right at Morecombe, then I’ll look at Swindon and Hartlepool away, but I want to have as much success as possible. With regards to myself, you never know what will happen in football. I won’t get carried away because a pat on the back is six inches away from a smack on the arse!