Briefly leading Wolverhampton Wanderers as interim boss last season, former Wales defender Rob Edwards has since enjoyed a homecoming with his first managerial role, at AFC Telford United. Although he will not even turn 35 until later this month, the ex-Aston Villa youngster is over four years into his coaching path, and despite having a playing career that was extremely commendable yet arguably deserved greater fortune, he hasn’t looked back in the slightest.
Glancing across the backline at Ronny Johnsen, Olof Mellberg and Jlloyd Samuel, Rob Edwards made his first professional start in December 2002 for Graham Taylor’s Aston Villa, just three days after his 20th birthday, as they hosted and beat Middlesbrough in the top flight. Nevertheless, it would be another of the late ex-England manager’s clubs in the Midlands that he would become most closely associated with on the pitch – Wolverhampton Wanderers.
Rob had four years in the old gold as a player and would return to Wolves to begin his coaching escapades in earnest, after taking the decision to retire at 30 in 2013 after 11 seasons of first-team football, hampered too often by injury. Having led Wolves’ Under-18s, he was promoted to first-team coach in the summer of 2015, and in October of last year he suddenly found himself in the dugout as the number one.
That was in a caretaker capacity in the wake of former Italy keeper Walter Zenga’s departure, and while Rob would ultimately leave the club at the season’s end along with Zenga’s full-time replacement, Paul Lambert, his first bona fide chance in the top job wasn’t far away. That came in June as he was appointed the new boss at AFC Telford United, tasked with bringing fresh energy and direction to an ambitious Vanarama National League North outfit.
The community notion on which non-league clubs essentially run is particularly pertinent with Rob when it comes to the Bucks, as he grew up in the Madeley area. Understandably, he speaks of leading his local team as a highly meaningful way to start what he hopes will prove a sustained and fruitful voyage as a gaffer.
“Yeah, it’s nice because I used to go and watch them. My cousin used to play for them – my assistant now, Sean Parrish – so I used to go and watch Sean.
“Being from Telford, I played at the ground a few times for my district, so I had an affinity with the club I think anyway. You go and watch your hometown club when you can and I did that quite a bit, and my mum and dad still live here now.
“I’m actually here right now as we speak; I’m down in Madeley preparing for training tonight, so I’ve just come down to see my parents and do some work from home. I’m here a lot more and it’s nice.
“You have that affinity with the area and it does feel that bit more special. It’s a start for me, whether it continues, only time will tell, but it’s an honour to be in charge of your local club.”
Today’s Bucks were formed in 2004 after the liquidation of Telford United, the club with something of a reputation for FA Cup scalps, even in their final season, as Championship Crewe Alexandra and League One Brentford found out. Thanks to the unerring devotion of supporters and so many behind the scenes, the club reformed the following season in the eighth tier and have twice been promoted to the National League (in 2011 and 2014) over the years since.
They have also found themselves relegated back down again on two other occasions, and this is their third season back in the sixth tier. Significant changes have taken place at the Shropshire club in recent times, with chairman Ian Dosser stepping down this summer after 13 years, though he returned as managing director in October.
Director Andy Pryce stepped into the chairman’s role on an interim basis and he spoke about the club more recently securing investment that does not change the ownership model, but does allow an existing partnership to grow. The Bucks had operated under a supporter-owned model but that altered late last year to allow investors, while recent developments have been predominantly geared towards enhancing the club’s community and commercial arms, as well as the training facilities, sports science and playing personnel.
Speaking also of a focus on sustainable running of the club, Pryce was very enthusiastic toward the appointment of Rob as manager, as he replaced Rob Smith at New Bucks Head. Four months into this season, and with strong competitors in the National League North from leaders Salford City to notable names throughout like Stockport County, York City, Kidderminster Harriers and Darlington, Telford are currently 12th, with at least one game in hand on most.
There have been ups and downs, as expected, which is perhaps summed up best by the fact that the Bucks have drawn only one of their 19 league games up to now. With a playoff push on the agenda for the months to come, Rob offers his take on their progress.
“The remit when I got the job was improvement. Last year, 17th – at the moment there’s improvement where we lie right now.
“The league is very strong. I’ve had to get to know the league very quickly and there’s some good teams in the league with big budgets and some good players.
“It’s tough, but we want to try and compete, and there’s a few teams up there now that won’t have any bigger budgets than ourselves but they’ll be well organised, with some good players and doing it well. There’s a correlation I suppose in terms of money, but there’s always a few that do really well because they’re well coached and they work really hard, and we want to be one of those teams.
“We’re putting pressure on ourselves and the players to try and improve. We’ve shown in the majority of games that we can compete; I think earlier in the season we let ourselves down in 20-30-minute spells and conceded a couple of goals.
“That’s sort of stopped happening more recently and what we need now is to marry the two parts of the game together, in terms of being efficient without the ball and then being ruthless with it. We had a bit of a poor run recently until beating Tamworth and it came down to both boxes, to be honest.
“It’s just getting a consistent run together and then anything is possible, but it’s good that we’re playing for something and I think we can improve over the second half of the season.”
The club have enjoyed positive links with Wolves for some time, with the Championship leaders’ Under-23 side playing at New Bucks Head. As well as Rob, some other recognisable figures from Molineux past have been seen around Telford this season.
Ex-England defender Joleon Lescott came down to train and one-time Championship goal machine Sylvan Ebanks-Blake eventually signed after initially doing the same, netting two on his debut against Droylsden last time out as the Bucks won 4-2 in the FA Trophy. The two were teammates to Rob in separate periods of his Wolves days and while their names alone will catch attention from media and fans alike for the levels they’ve reached in their respective careers, there is also what they have been able to offer to the Telford players, sometimes without even saying a word.
“With Sylvan, at first it was to help him out, but for the exciting young forwards we’ve got, learning from someone like him – little movements before the ball comes in – if they can pick up one little thing from him, that one percent, then it helps. To get it done and over the line as well, it’s been really good to have him in on a consistent basis.
“Sometimes it’s better hearing it from someone like that, rather than me. Players really respect their peers and those who’ve done it at a really high level.
“With Joleon winning (Premier League) titles (at Manchester City), playing for England and in the Champions League, young defenders we’ve got at the club will listen. I thought it was beneficial for them to get some fitness, but in turn, they’re helping us and lending the lads some information and some help.
“The more experts and eyes and people who know what they’re talking about you have around then the stronger you’re going to be. Joleon came down just twice, just to have a look and help one or two people, and I could speak to him as well to see what he thought.“
Staying on that theme of noteworthy know-how, Rob can reel off a list of bosses he played for that is quite remarkable in terms of its mix of prestige and personality. The aforementioned Graham Taylor was the first to give him his opportunity, while his 15 caps for Wales – where both of his parents hail from – were won under the stewardship of Mark Hughes and latterly, John Toshack.
There is also George Burley, Glenn Hoddle, Mick McCarthy and Ian Holloway, to name just a few. Under the latter, Rob and his Blackpool teammates won promotion to the Premier League in 2010, before he enjoyed the same a year later while on loan at Paul Lambert’s Norwich City.
It is commonplace for players going into management to talk of taking elements of each boss they worked under to use in their own approach, but was there anyone Rob felt ticked more boxes than most from his stellar list?
“I’ve got a lot of time for all of them. I’m really thankful for Graham Taylor giving me my debut.
“Including obviously the managers I played under for Wales, I think there’s six international managers there. I thought Glenn Hoddle was great, tactically, and I had a good year under him, stayed injury-free and played a lot of football.
“I think some of the football we played at Wolves was brilliant. A lot of fans didn’t connect with Glenn, probably because we drew a lot of games, and with the players we had we probably should have finished higher up the league.
“Ian Holloway was just as he is, like we all know; he’s quite eccentric but what he did at Blackpool was remarkable really with the budget that we had. When you look at it, yeah there were some really good players there, but he got us playing a certain way, it was exciting and he galvanised the whole area.
“He did it by coaching, and being organised, doing the same stuff on a daily basis. It wasn’t anything random, there was a methodology behind it, and the more I look back on it, being on this side (as a manager), it was a real achievement.
“I think those two (stood out most), but then I loved Mick McCarthy, his honesty, organisation again, and I’ve worked under Paul Lambert as a player and manager, so I’ve been very lucky.”
Rob’s former Tangerines gaffer Holloway is of course one of English football’s more fondly-regarded characters, blending drive and sincerity with a vast knowledge of the game, and more memorable quotes than most. With the likes of Charlie Adam , Brett Ormerod and DJ Campbell providing the decisive ammunition, the Seasiders snatched the final top-six spot in the Championship in 2009/10, before continuing their buccaneering style with nine more goals on their way to winning the play-offs.
They carried on in the same vein in the Premier League, notching wins over the likes of Liverpool (twice) and Tottenham Hotspur, and even leading Manchester United at Old Trafford on the last day before ultimately losing their grip on survival. Players who have worked with him have smiled when recalling the less-than-orthodox tactical meetings Holloway would sometimes employ, and as Rob recalls one that was certainly fitting of that description, he says he very much agrees with the thinking behind it.
“He set the tactics out with Christmas teddies for one of the games. He believed a lot of footballers are visual learners and he was good at drawing actually, on the tactics board and stuff.
“His communication’s a real strong point; I think three of his daughters are deaf, so his gestures and hand movements are really good. But yeah, I remember in the hotel before one game and he was putting the Christmas teddies out in a formation and getting us to go through a corner or something, pretending the teddy was a ball, I think.
“Different – but it worked!”
As he was temporarily thrust into the Wolves hotseat last October, Rob presided over a 1-1 draw at Blackburn Rovers and a narrow 3-2 home defeat to Derby County. Returning to his role as first-team coach after that, the stint had given him invaluable experience, not just for how it placed him in front of the Sky Sports cameras for both games, but for the unfamiliar and admittedly uncomfortable position he faced when it came to squad selection.
“It was really enjoyable, first and foremost. It was all you thought about, which is the same as this job now; it just takes over and it’s intense.
“We had a huge squad, so the difficulty was that I was going to have to leave a lot of people out and make decisions on players, knowing that I was going to go back to being a coach. That was the difficult side of it, because when I’m on about leaving people out, I mean leaving seven people out of the squad completely.
“Leaving some good players out was difficult, but I wanted to speak to everyone; that was something Mick McCarthy would always do, speak to people and be honest. The media side was fine; I enjoyed that really and both games were on Sky, so it was good practice for me.
“With the games, I think it’s important to know what you want to do with the group and I knew how I wanted to try and play. It’s difficult to change a lot in a really short space of time but it was great experience at a really high level and one day it would be great to be back up there again.”
As Telford’s number one, Rob has communication with those above whenever necessary but is also allowed a degree of freedom with which to do his job. Earlier this year, the club outlined their ‘main aim’ to go full-time within the next couple of years, and Rob is quick to give credit to his staff for the level of support they afford him despite their non-footballing commitments.
Away from the training pitch, he and his wife, Kerry, have two young daughters and a son, so there is always an appreciation of the wider picture.
“It’s difficult to switch off. You try and watch as many games as possible, making sure we get things spot on.
“We try and leave no stone unturned. I’ve got great staff that help me, but all those people have got other jobs as well, whereas this is full-time for me, so ultimately it’s down to me.
“Obviously that’s how it is as a manager anyway, but I try to put the most time in because I haven’t got another job to do. The family are the priority so I’ve got to make sure I make time for them and we try and do things.
“The kids are off doing football and dance and things like that now, the two girls, and we’ve got a little one as well, a three-year-old, so he’s entertaining us. It’s good you can switch off a bit when you’re with the children and that’s really important as well because they’re the most important thing in the world, and we’re doing it for them as well.
“The job does consume you but that’s the nature of football and I suppose a lot of jobs out there, so I’m not moaning about it, because I’m very lucky to be doing what I do.”
Although he retired relatively early, Rob is able to reflect on a playing career that saw him win 15 international caps, play in the Premier League and well over 100 games in the Championship – feats that many trying to make it in the game will unfortunately never come close to reaching. He feels a mixture of undoubted pride and also a touch of wondering towards his playing story, but his focus and ambition on the here and now is such that he has never pondered for too long.
“I got injured quite early on and my ankle was sort of the beginning of the end. I was quite young at Villa, playing at Goodison Park and did my ankle quite bad.
“It recovered and it helped when I moved to Wolves and had reconstruction, but it never felt the same. It’s one of them – ‘what if?’
“I think I could have done better and played a lot more games, certainly, and possibly stayed in that Premier League longer – possibly. It’s not for me to say now but I don’t really think about it too much.
“I don’t think because my playing career finished early that it drives me on more now – I’m driven anyway and I want to be successful. It was great playing internationally and playing in the Premier League, but you don’t really think about it.
“It’s just about looking forward and thinking ‘what’s next?’”
Each manager in The Bosses’ Lounge also takes on a unique Q&A…
When did you want to start coaching/managing?
I had a couple of really good years with the team and with the group when we got promoted at Blackpool, and then the year after when Blackpool were in the Premier League, I went on loan to Norwich and got promoted there as well. Just seeing what Ian Holloway and Paul Lambert achieved with the group really confirmed it to me and I thought, ‘Yeah, I’d love a bit of that.’ I always thought I was going to go down that route but that really confirmed it. It was after we got promoted with Norwich that I put my name down to get on to the (UEFA) B Licence with the Welsh FA; obviously playing for Wales I’ve kept those links and done my coaching badges with the FAW.
Which training sessions do you enjoy leading the most?
I think the high-intensity sessions; sessions that are real to the game. Obviously, football sessions that are opposed and not something just random. Players enjoy playing games, so if we can get a form of game into training that gets out what we want from it then that’s the best thing, because they’re going to be engaged with it. It’s got to be real, it’s got to be game-related and it’s got to be fun for the players.
Will you ever take part in training?
I have done a couple of times but it’s best if I don’t, to be honest, because I can’t walk for a couple of days afterwards! I’ve seriously slowed down the last four or five years – and I wasn’t that quick anyway! I’m best staying out of it.
Favourite ground (other than your own) that you’ve visited or would like to visit
I was really lucky to play in and be involved at some brilliant stadiums. I supported Everton as a boy but I had a couple of nightmares there: like I said, I did my ankle the first time and then I came back with Blackpool, came on at 3-2 up and we lost 5-3! So I won’t say Goodison. I was on the bench a few times at Anfield and that atmosphere’s always good. The best one I played at for atmosphere was the old Boleyn Ground, Upton Park; it was phenomenal there and I had good games, so I really enjoyed that.
Favourite player to watch (past or present)
The two players I loved growing up, and I was getting older then, were (Zinedine) Zidane and the original Ronaldo. They were the best players at that time, if you’re thinking mid-to-late-90s / early-2000s. I just remember being a young player at Villa at the time when Real Madrid beat Man United 4-3 at Old Trafford and Ronaldo got a hat-trick and a standing ovation.
And how would you sell the club to him if you were trying to sign Ronaldo (in his prime)?!
We’re a project. It’s a long-term project, so come on board and try and be a big part of it. We’re asking the players to be committed and train four days a week, so we’re trying to become the most professional semi-professional team. We’re trying to play a certain way and a brand of football that’s exciting to watch but ultimately wins football matches. So, like I said, be part of this project because in the next year, two years, it could be really exciting.
Pre-season tour anywhere in the world
I’ve seen that there’s pre-season tours going to Ibiza these days! I couldn’t do that with my team; I’m a bit too boring and professional for that, so we wouldn’t be going there. I wouldn’t want to go too far, to be honest; I’m not a massive fan of flying. I’ve always enjoyed Portugal or Germany and I think you get some good-quality games out there and you have a good time as well.
Most challenging/frustrating part of your job
I suppose it’s the part-time nature of it. I’m very used to it being football full-time and ‘this is your job and that is it,’ so it’s difficult sometimes to accept that people have other jobs and things going on. That’s what we’re trying to change, that’s the culture we need to try and have to be successful. That takes a bit of time to build. I think we’re getting there and I think that’s the biggest challenge.
Funniest player/coach you’ve worked with, or just one of the funniest
Peter Crouch was probably the funniest. I was only with him for a couple of years at Villa but he was hilarious. Ben Burgess at Blackpool – really funny guy. Just a real dry sense of humour, Ben. Little one-liners at the right times.
Most embarrassing moment as a coach/manager
The other week I was trying to kick a ball when I was talking to the lads. I thought it was a ball but it was actually a cone, so they were having a laugh at me for that.
Your routine on a matchday
It’s obviously the most important day. I don’t eat too much beforehand, I’m generally thinking about the game, writing a few last bits of notes down and stuff. I get to the ground early if it’s a home game; I’ll generally be there half 11ish and writing more notes down and thinking about what I’m going to say to the players. I’ll generally speak to the players about an hour-and-a-half beforehand, give them the team and go through some of the important messages for the game ahead. Then leave them to it. Just maybe speak to them a few minutes before we go out; a motivational one or a few last-minute reminders. Then it’s game time and it’s up to them, and it’s just about trying to make the right decisions when we’re out there in terms of substitutions or any tactical changes. Half-time, we’ll always have a chat as staff before going in to talk to the players. It’s just giving them clear communication and trying not to rant and rave too much, although it’s inevitable that does happen now and again. That’s it really, and then it’s up to the lads once they go over that white line.
One singer/band or song you would sneak on to the team playlist
I haven’t done any with these lads, I just leave them to it, especially as manager, but I managed to get one in at Wolves last year as a coach and that was ‘Don’t Stop Believin’’ by Journey. That was class because that was our song when we got promoted at Blackpool and it kind of stayed with me, so I like that one.
Advice you remember getting that’s stuck with you
Hard work and make things happen. Make it happen yourself. Don’t wait around because nobody’s going to give you anything in life, so if there’s something you want to do, go and do it, definitely.
If you could have some time with any manager, past or present
I think Pep Guardiola, and I know there’s been loads of other managers out there, but for a few years now I’ve really watched his teams. I’ve really liked the way he does things. His time at Barca was obviously unprecedented, but then he backed it up at Bayern; I know they didn’t win the Champions League but the football they played was phenomenal and they’re doing it now at (Manchester) City. I almost watched every one of Bayern Munich’s games over the three-year period he was there. I think he’s a genius. Don’t get me wrong, he’s got phenomenal players to work with, but I think he’s an absolute game-changer, so it’d be him.
How have you changed since you first started coaching/managing, or since playing?
I think having children changes you as well and makes you a bit more sensible. Definitely as a coach you can’t be doing the things you were doing as a player; you have to grow up. There’s players my age I know who are still big kids, but they can be. I’ve got to think about my staff and players and so you have to grow up. I think I did that quite early, when we had children, but I remember being like everyone as a young player; just excitable, doing silly things and trying to be the best thing ever. You don’t think it’s ever going to end. You are like a big kid really, and football’s good for that, but it is a bubble, and some of the lads today at the top end don’t know they’re born. They won’t think it’s ever going to end, but it does some day, and you’ve got to be prepared for that with what you’re going to do next.
Any misconceptions about you as a manager/personality, myths you’d like to dispel, or something you wish people could understand a bit more?
I think people understand that we work really hard and we’re always trying to improve; me trying to improve, and we’re trying to improve the team. Some days it doesn’t go for us but we really are trying our best and we take it home with us more than anyone.
And finally, what’s the best thing about having this life around football?
We all love it, and for me to get to play for some really good clubs, meet some really good people, travel all over the world and get paid for playing football, it’s the best job in the world. Now I’m doing the second-best; being a coach and manager is the next-best thing and I’m incredibly lucky. I need to keep working hard to try and stay in it, but it’s the best thing in the world to be involved in something you love.
Interview/article by @chris_brookes