IT’S JUST AFTER LUNCHTIME WHEN WE FINALLY GET CHATTING, and Kevin Nicholson seems eager to get stuck in. Intelligent, assertive and approachable – three traits that have helped him become one of the top young minds in the modern British game – the 28-year-old manager knows what he wants, and his story so far proves he’s not far off achieving it.
Currently the Cardiff City under-21 manager, Nicholson has enjoyed a rapid rise up the rungs of the towering ladder that is British managerial life. Awarded with a UEFA B Licence at 19, he was one of the youngest at the time to receive it.
Since then, he’s gone on to graduate from the first-ever FA Elite Coaches course, obtain his A Licence, as well as being honoured with a Diploma by the League Managers Association, even managing to squeeze in a bit of experience as part of the first team coaching staff with the Bluebirds.
A terrific resumé, indeed. That said, it hasn’t all been plain sailing for him as a career on the pitch passed him by early on.
Starting his football journey with Derby County as a schoolboy, he soon rose to the academy team where he enjoyed a spell before being released at 16. From there, he went to Burton Albion, Kidderminster Harriers and Sheffield Wednesday, playing for a number of clubs throughout his career, in search of a spark to kick-start everything again. All the while, however, he had begun his coaching journey – a real sign that he has never been one to depend on ‘Plan A’ or rest on his laurels.
With such a mixture of emotions touching his on-field career, anyone would think Nicholson might be tempted to jack it in and pursue a career outside of football – go in search of something a little less topsy-turvy. But the young manager has been keen to prove that he has what it takes to make it in the world of football, and so far his time in the dugouts has been a very impressive one.
Having started at Stoke City, coaching their under-11s, he soon wound his way back to the Rams, having been released just a few years earlier, where he became involved in the academy, becoming head coach at just 23 – an astonishing age given the responsibilities he then had. Not one to be perturbed by a challenge, he took it on with delight until a move to Exeter City and now Cardiff, brought about by a desire to further his career, took place.
Speaking exclusively to These Football Times, Nicholson talks candidly about some of his positive experiences at a lower echelon, citing his time at Exeter with the under-18s as evidence of just how much there is to learn at every level.
“One of the most beneficial things was moving to Exeter, because when you go to a club like that – it’s a fantastic club, great people – but obviously you’re working with limited resources as well, and I think that’s where you show your qualities as a coach. And the ability to not just work at a level where you’ve got everything available to you, but also work at a level where you’ve not necessarily got everything available to you, but you’ve still got to work at a good level. That’s also a test of the coach.”
Hammering home the philosophy of proving himself at a club of moderate standing before progressing, he has certainly done that time and again. However, it’s the need to adapt that has been one of his most striking observations in the coaching sphere – and in particular the necessity to model yourself on the best of the best in a game that is constantly shape-shifting.
“I think the game is changing all the time – it’s not changing, sorry, it’s evolving – changing is probably the wrong word, the game doesn’t change; there’s still a goal at each end of the field and the lines haven’t changed, there’s only one ball, 11 versus. 11,” he admits.
“But what I mean by evolving all the time is that people are using different systems, people are using different strategies, people are using different tactics within systems, and I think you’ve got to be always aware of what the best are doing, you’ve got to be also aware of what others are doing as well.”
Indeed, Nicholson is keen to emulate what the best minds are up to. As he says himself: “In order to coach, you’ve first got to observe and study and watch – and look at what’s going on in the modern day game and what might be coming in the next few years and try and stay ahead.”
Staying in tune with trends that work and trends that don’t is all very well, but he’s also eager to create his own stamp on the game – and he wants his fellow countrymen to follow suit.
The elephant in the room during my discussion with him is just how he plans to change the lack of silverware-winning British managers in the game today. It’s a big question that doesn’t have any straight answers.
So, I tentatively bring it up, but the ex-Derby coach is far more eager to focus on the bigger picture, one that takes into account the ‘why’ as well as the ‘how’. Seeking out answers rather than complaining about the situation, his outlook is a proactive one.
“A more interesting subject is the fact of the amount of foreign coaches that are coming over, that are working within our game.
“And I think what it should say to young English coaches is ‘we’ve got to make sure that we stay ahead – what’s going on?’ We can’t stay in a comfort zone, we can’t fall behind, because there will be people out there from other countries that will also do very, very good qualifications in their own countries that will be more than capable of coming in and working with players at that level.”
Pre-empting the best way to coach players, alter styles and implement the future of coaching before others can are all Nicholson’s ways of making sure the British game can stay healthy, competitive and responsive.
Using the effectiveness of the Premier League’s José Mourinho, Louis van Gaal, Arsène Wenger and Manuel Pellegrini as prime examples of just how impressive the takeover by foreign managers has been, Nicholson has also been impressed by Sean Dyche, a fellow compatriot who is holding his own at a top level with limited resources at Burnley.
“What’s been good is someone like Sean Dyche, for example. I think someone like Sean Dyche, when he comes in to the English Premier League and does as well with Burnley as he’s done and been as competitive as they’ve been with what they’ve got, I think, again, should give all young English coaches and managers a lot of hope.”
Keeping his positive words for not only those who take home trophies, he also praises managers who have exhibited the ability to remain competitive where the balance of power is very one-sided – a quality that is certainly an admirable one.
Sticking with the theme of unconventional success, we soon get discussing the different, yet highly successful, routes taken by the likes of Luis Suárez and Diego Costa – two of the game’s most inspirational, yet rebellious players – and I ask what he thinks about their lack of academy development, as someone who has bought into it, and how they have still managed to progress wonderfully.
“I don’t think there’s an exact science [to youth development]. I think you’ve just got to have a certain amount of talent at the beginning – that talent’s got to be nurtured correctly, it’s got to be coached correctly, you’ve got to be patient with it, you’ve got to bring it through at the right time, you’ve got to give them opportunities at the right time, at certain ages,” he says.
“And I think if you do all that, they’ll come through. I think it’s more about managing them rather than necessarily coaching them. Because if they’ve got the talent, these players tend to come through whatever.”
Nicholson certainly has a point. Clearly a staunch believer in bringing players through, showing them the ropes and helping them blossom with a set of dynamic rules, he’s not overly mystified by some of these rare cases of performers coming through at an older age, opting instead to make sure all of his players are as well-rounded and malleable as possible. And it’s hard to argue with him.
Indeed, the Cardiff under-21 manager has quite a good record of sourcing and nurturing talent himself. I bring up Wales under-21 international Tom O’Sullivan as a recent example, but Nicholson doesn’t want to take credit for him, preferring instead to mention some of the players he helped grow at grassroots level.
“For me, a better example would be someone like Will Hughes at Derby County. I mean, when I first arrived at Derby County, Hughes was a 12-year-old. I’ve seen him come through from a 12-year-old to becoming an under-16, he was in that team I worked with and suddenly at 17 he’s playing in the first team. So, someone like that would be a better example,” he says.
More recently, of course, has been the breakthrough of Matt Grimes – but the former Exeter coach is very modest, unwilling to take full credit for his development, something that speaks volumes about his care for the game as a whole, rather than just his own plaudits.
“Someone like Matt Grimes that I worked with at Exeter that made his Premier League debut the other day for Swansea would also be another good example. Matt was the U18 captain at Exeter City when I went there, so I spent a good season with Matt, working with Matt – and again I wouldn’t take full credit for Matt because some of the other coaches had worked with him at that club.”
From his honesty, it’s clear he is a very team-centric person – both on the pitch and off it. When I prompt him to discuss how central the idea of teamwork is to him, his enthusiasm is palpable.
“When you’re working in youth development it is about improving the individual. That will never change. That’s the most important thing,” he declares.
“However, it should never be underestimated how important it is to play within a team or understand how important it is to play within a team, and within a team structure. Because they’ll always do that throughout their careers. It’s OK improving the individual, but he’s also got to improve himself playing in a team – because that’s what he’ll always be playing in; it’s a team sport, that’ll never change.”
Recognising the confines of the game that will never change, Nicholson is working hard to find new paths and take different perspectives all the time.
An insightful character with plenty of interesting comments, he is far from finished helping players grow – that much is clear from the passion and hunger evident in his words – something that hints he, too, is not ready to stop learning
Our conversation meanders for half an hour, but we’re forced to cut it short due to Kevin’s busy schedule.
From our chat, it’s clear this Cardiff under-21 side are in safe hands. And while it’s a little simple to suggest the future of British football can finally rest easy, it is consoling to know hard-working coaches of his ilk are coming through. There is certainly a comforting element to what he is trying to implement, and it’s going to be exciting to see just how far it brings him.
By Trevor Murray. Follow @TrevorM90