So, you’re back in Cardiff. When I spoke to you last Christmas, you rang me out of the blue because you were back home, at a loose end and we were all locked down, so there was no golf! When I posted our chat though, some people were suspicious of the timing. Neil Harris was really struggling at the time and people felt like that was you putting your hat in the ring, despite me trying my best to explain why that was not the case. I’m going to put you on the spot now though! Has the club approached you about the manager’s job at any stage? After Warnock, Harris or McCarthy?
My follow up question was going to be would you tell me if they had?!
I can’t. I don’t believe in doing that. There are certain things that should stay private and I’ve got a good relationship with the people there.
Right, now that’s out of the way, I wanted to talk about your time with the academy. We didn’t really cover it in any real detail last time, but it’s become a massive focus this season. Like lots of clubs, Cardiff have no money and that has fortunately coincided with the breakthrough of several academy players, whether by design or necessity, and they’ve all done great. You had a lot of these guys in your Under-18 league winning side, but to start at the beginning, how did you end up coming back to the club? Were you asked or did you volunteer your services?
After I retired, I wanted to take a year out. I had a great summer and I was finally able to go on holiday while the kids were off school. It got to around October, start of November and Steve Borley got in contact with me. I know Steve very well and he asked if I would be interested in helping the academy as a sort of mentor. I knew I wanted to go in to coaching eventually, but I wasn’t sure what I wanted to be doing, so I said I would have a look to see what it was like. Then for a year or two, with my own free time, I was there three or four days a week. I never got paid.
There are good players in Cardiff and always have been. A lot of us had to move away because there was nothing in place at the time, but growing up in Trowbridge, there were so many good footballers. When I was there, Trowbridge Juniors won the cup and this is a school with about 200 kids, if that. How is that possible?! It wasn’t just me, I had good players with me and I played against loads of talented, young players. I believe we haven’t ever made the most of that.
There are some kids that haven’t got the support network to get them from A to B. That can’t be their fault, so what are we going to do about it? I don’t like the thought of kids missing out because they can’t afford to play. Football should always be free and enjoyed by everyone. Some parents can’t afford it and they’re getting penalised. Over the years, it’s got better, but we’re still nowhere near where we need to be and we’ve hugely let this area down. There will always be one or two that gets through, if you’re exceptionally talented. I know Aaron Ramsey really well and he’s got good parents. Not every kid has, but we shouldn’t lose or penalise them because of that. They should get the same opportunities as everyone else, but we have to put more effort in. I’ve never seen anyone as talented as Leon Jeanne, but he didn’t have the right network around him.
We should know about everything. What are these kids like in school? If there’s a problem in school, ring me and we’ll take football away from them if we have to. Football is a privilege that you have to earn. If you’re going to misbehave and think you’ll get away with it, that is not going to happen. People won’t like it and some parents think their kids are never wrong. We have to be on the ball and if we get it right, you have a massive pool of potentially brilliant players and not all clubs have that luxury.
What roles did you fulfil at the academy while you were there?
I was helping with all age groups. I would spend a day a week with the five, six and seven-year-olds. I learnt a lot from it, like the importance of your tone of voice. I was quite attached to a lot of them and I really enjoyed it. That was my favourite day of the week, with the youngest age groups. It was fun and I learnt the most from them. On the other days, I would be with the Under-18’s, the Under-23’s, the Under-12 and 13’s, so dipping in and out of everything.
I wanted us to play a certain way. Not a certain formation because they can change and you need to be flexible. What is our identity and what do we stand for? Are we a long ball team because if we are, we’ll do it through all the age groups. I believe that if you’re going to coach young footballers, they need to be able to play with the ball at their feet because the more they have of the ball, the more decisions they’re going to make. The more decisions they make, the better players they’ll become. If we want to be lazy, we can man-mark everywhere, but what does that prove? Anyone can do that. Turn and hit it long is also easy to do. It’s beyond lazy coaching, but managers have had good careers off the back of that.
Was there an identity already in place, or were you brought in to try and establish one?
It’s not like I came in and created one, the academy wanted to change. What type of players can we produce? We decided we were going to build from the back, press high and be aggressive in duals. This is how I like the game, but we need to have the ball to have options. If you haven’t got the ball, how are you going to improve? I want to produce top players because they will be worth more and for the club to make a profit, but you’ve got to put the time in. I was taught the game this way at Norwich, who had one of the top academies in the UK. I had talent, but I was also coached well.
One of my biggest concerns was that they didn’t have any ex-players in the academy. Some of them won’t go in to it or give up their free time because they think they’re above it or because the pay is so bad. People will do it for the love of the game or for a chance to be involved in the game because they haven’t got a playing background, but you don’t always get the same standards. Training with intensity and not cutting any corners.
The hardest part is often meetings with the parents. Some are brilliant and got it from day one. It’s no coincidence that the players that have made the breakthrough all have good parents. You get one or two who are full of excuses and when they get released, they blame the world for it. We have to teach these kids the right attitude and mentality because every year, the game will get harder. If you do everything to the best of your ability and you don’t make it, you will be able to walk away with pride and habits that will help you for the rest of your life.