Everything you’ve outlined when talking about the Anderlecht academy feels like areas where the Cardiff Academy are coming up short. Looking at your time at Cardiff, having worked for one of the best academies in the world, what are they lacking? Is it the coaching? The lack of a pathway? The fact that the first-team has often been so short-termist?
Everything you just mentioned, so you get it! It’s not just Cardiff, by the way, its 90% of clubs in the UK.
We get inundated by offers from UK players wanting to come to us. They don’t see a pathway and want to come here because we play them. Fans here have a huge connection with their own players and love them straight away. The pressure is on me because it’s one of the biggest jobs at the club. We expect to win every game because we’re playing with the best young kids in Belgium. It’s an identity. We can’t compete with the biggest European sides, but we want our players to play for them.
I’m also involved in recruitment and the age has to be right. The mentality also has to be right. We can’t pay £5m and don’t want to, but can pay £500,000, so they have to be little gems and you have to scout every market going. You’ve got to know the markets and your limits. If we pay £2m, we expect to sell for £10-£15m, then we reinvest. We always say that there are more players than there are agents. We turned a £40m profit last year from selling three academy players.
What you’re saying there makes complete sense, but I don’t understand why it’s not common sense. So many clubs over here are so predictable and lazy in their transfer dealings. Anyone with a laptop can do all this nowadays.
We have someone doing just that. He was head of banking, then worked for Manchester City and now he’s with us. His scouting network is massive and he knows everything.
The Liverpool scouting department is run by physics graduates! Compared to the money clubs spend in the transfer market, these are guys are probably on relative peanuts, but surely getting the right people in to do this stuff should be the top priority because they will save you a fortune.
How do you stop clubs from going bankrupt? You stop making wrong decision after wrong decision. Certain clubs can afford to take risks, but we can’t.
Having now worked for one of the best academies in the world, with the benefit of hindsight, how do you reflect on your time at Cardiff’s academy?
At Cardiff, there was always this underlying idea that the kids are not good enough. We don’t have enough good players. I never saw anything to suggest that they weren’t good enough. All I saw was top, top young players. We were winning tournaments at under-8, under-9 and Under-10, but then I found that at 16, 17, 18, they’re not progressing. Facilities are non-existent, but facilities don’t make players. It’s the mentality and how they train. People take shortcuts and you’re not going to make it in the game that way.
You’ve got to be good, but your attitude also has to be good. If you want to get better, you will love me as a coach. I will work you day in, day out because I want to get better too. That’s why I get up in the morning. For some players, its too hard for them and they’ll try to take the easy way out. If you want to do that, no problem, off you go, but you have more chance of succeeding in life by doing things properly.
Good parents, good kid. You see it all the time. I used to go with the under-eight’s and under-seven’s because I loved that coaching. It was enjoyable, but as you go through the ages, the standards and the discipline have to keep going. Dealing with the boys that were 16 and under was a doddle. When they get to 18, now it’s becoming serious.
What come out in the papers about me was crap and a parent can see whatever they want to. I had to do an FA course about my use of language around 18-year-old players. I didn’t know you weren’t allowed to swear in conversation. Now, I work with Vinny every day and the way he speaks to our players, back home, that would be an FA hearing!
Also, when you have an ex-manager and his wife goes through every forum, if your name keeps popping up, it goes back to him. Get rid of your threats. The older guys know every trick in the book and that’s why I wanted to work in youth football. I wasn’t sure if I even wanted to be a coach, but I loved it.
In terms of how you departed the club, do you think you’ve burned any bridges? Has your relationship with the club been damaged?
The club is way more important than me. They know the work I did and the level of coach I am. Also, higher up with the likes of Steve Borley, I’ll always have a connection with Cardiff. I never say never, but where we are in football terms is different. We see the game differently. Would the way I want to play be possible at Cardiff? It would take years, and you don’t get years.
Cardiff are in a situation now that loads of clubs are in. Not so far away from the promised land, doing whatever it takes to get there, then worrying about everything else a year later. Running a club on a year to year basis, hiring managers that way and bringing in players for that moment. Not worrying about development or pathways because kids are inconsistent and you haven’t got time for that. Signing players of a certain age because you haven’t got to worry about their sell-on value. That’s someone else’s problem.
This was the downside of hiring Neil Warnock. He came in when the club was on its knees, somehow healed it and the job he did can never be underestimated, but it was all about now, with no thought towards the future. Someone else was going to have to pick up the pieces.
That’s what happens when you hire a manager of a certain age. Look at the players he brought in and the contract extensions for players of a certain age.
Neil Harris is an ambitious guy, but he’s got to play the hand he’s been dealt and he’s struggling with it.
Neil Harris is going to need time. I like Neil as a person, but I haven’t had the opportunity to watch Cardiff recently. You can all want him out, but who else is there?
Well, everyone would want you!
Ha! What I would want to put in place would take too long. You wouldn’t have the patience for it!
The problem Harris has had is that he was an unpopular appointment and some were waiting for him to fail. I think there would be patience and enthusiasm for you.
I appreciate you saying that, but it would need a lot of time and a huge overhaul. We’re talking whole departments. The whole identity. I don’t know, and that’s the honest truth. I don’t think they would be able to offer what I need. For me to work in the current situation, it would be very difficult. It would be very difficult to succeed and create an identity.
I believe that it’s not about what you do, it’s about what you leave behind. The best managers leave something behind. Vinny has made changes and he’s had stick for it. He’s not immune. I’ve watched him get rid of departments and he’s been allowed to do that. He’s moving it to what he wants and he doesn’t hire friends.
People probably think I was hired because I was Vinny’s friend, but I probably spoke to him maybe once a year. I played with him briefly for a few months. I spend 14 or 15 hours a day at the training ground, but its still two hours less than him. I’ve never seen anyone work to the intensity he does. He’s involved with everything and that’s where I’ve learned the most from him.
What you’re doing at Anderlecht sounds like the absolute peak of youth coaching, but is there not the lure of managing a senior squad, or are you content to devote your career to youth coaching?
I’m constantly evolving and its always a puzzle. I want to go as high as I can and be better than everyone. The best I can be. In order to be the best I can be, I want to find out everything. Working with Vinny, I’ve seen a different side of the game. I knew he was clever, but I had no idea he was this clever. Our footballing minds are very similar and I think that’s why he brought me in.
It’s easy to do it at Anderlecht because we have top players and freedom. It was a five-year project as soon as we walked in and they’ve committed to it. People always ask am I looking to be a manger, but I’m not because I’m happy doing what I’m doing. That’s the most important part of anything you do. I’ve lived in the spotlight and had challenges my whole career, so I don’t search for it. All I search for is happiness.