THERE AREN’T MANY YOUNG COACHES in today’s British game that can successfully draw your attention amidst the hubbub of modern football, but Kevin Nicholson is already doing just that.
In an era where up-and-coming coaches are ten a penny, it’s refreshing to see the ingenuity, freshness and innovation that a select few can offer – and Cardiff City’s under-21 forward-thinking manager is certainly bringing all that and more to the densely-populated coaching table.
At just 29, he’s one of the youngest top minds around and with his Elite Coaches Award, UEFA A Licence and burgeoning expertise on the domestic game, the future and the present are looking extremely bright right now. What’s more, he’s just started on the road toward completing his UEFA Pro Licence, the final hurdle to becoming a fully-qualified coach with the Premier League well within his sights.
Speaking exclusively with These Football Times in a follow-up interview to the one he did with us earlier this year, the ex-Derby County youth player began by discussing what his upcoming study with the English FA will entail as well as going on to detail his own malleable football philosophy, coaching regimes and psychological approaches.
“We need to go ahead and conduct a professional study, based on personal and professional interests over the next six months. I’ve decided to choose an area which interests me which is based on first time managers or head coaches going into clubs at professional elite level, and how they survive, implement ideas and achieve short term results within the first 90 to 100 days in charge. As a young manager, if you don’t survive that initial period, it’s impossible to succeed in the long term.”
Well aware of the treacherous pitfalls faced by upcoming coaches, his knowledge of the more far-reaching concerns in the game underlines the palpable passion he possesses for his vocation. Perhaps most revealing of all, however, is that his little nuggets of information show how tuned-in to the dangers that face him further down the line he truly is; there’s an efficiency to his approach.
Yet to acquire a position at the head of a club’s senior side, his CV does boast stints at Derby County, Exeter City and Stoke City at development and first team levels and he is currently working under Russell Slade as part of the Bluebirds’ setup as under-21 manager, and the experience he’s gaining there is sure to prove crucial as his journey steadily progresses.
Clearly, then, with his sights firmly set on one day joining Britain’s elite league as head coach at some point down the line, Nicholson has a vested interest in attempting to pre-empt the future and overcome the challenge of weathering what is often a difficult 14-15 month period. Indeed, as he tells me himself, taking that first step as head coach often ends prematurely for so many.
“You look at the stats that are put out there, it is near enough 50 percent of first time managers that get sacked never get a second job, so they never get that second opportunity. It’s a high percentage of managers that don’t reach the 75-game mark either which means they don’t manage for more than 75 matches at one club which I think would take you about two, two-and-a-half seasons.
“So, I think the average tenure is around 14 months. But I think that first three months in charge, that first 100 days, is absolutely crucial in terms of being able to attain that longevity in the job. Obviously it’s something I want to move into in the future, so I want to be prepared for that. So, what I’m currently doing is going out and speaking with various managers and head coaches at a variety of different levels of the game to find out about their experiences and how they think it’s best to approach that first 100 days in a role.”
So far, he’s already met Birmingham City manager Gary Rowett, ex-Paris Saint Germain, Chelsea and Real Madrid assistant coach Paul Clement as well as Exeter head honcho Paul Tisdale. He’s no doubt gleaned plenty from them already, but Nicholson has plenty of further scheduled meetings with more of the biggest names around set up for the coming weeks and months.
The results of his exploration will surely make for interesting reading down the line and should cajole an interesting reaction from near and far. What’s perhaps most striking about his upcoming research project, however, is that it mirrors the never-ending search for a useful insight; something to pick up on and learn from. At this point, our next port of discussion seems obvious to me.
Who has he learned from most of all in his career to date and who have his role models been?
“Dick Bate was the English FA elite coaching director, he used to run the FA UEFA courses and he then became the Cardiff City academy manager, so I had an opportunity to work under Dick for a year and he was a great mentor to me. Paul Tisdale at Exeter City was a great inspiration for me as a young, inspiring head coach and manager. I found his ideas on the game very interesting, and his philosophy was extremely insightful.
“Just like players have role models, coaches and aspiring managers like myself also have role models. And mine would be the likes of Eddie Howe who’s done some fantastic work at Bournemouth and now taken them into the Premier League.
“As a young manager, he really stands out as a role model to me, someone that I had the opportunity to meet briefly when I was part of the first team coaching staff at Cardiff when we played Bournemouth,” the 29-year-old says.
Indeed, Nicholson is continuing to learn and improve as a coach and a manager so much so that it’s difficult not to envisage him commanding from the dugout of a top English side in the coming years.
Adopting a hands-on, personal approach with his players, Nicholson’s shown consistency in the methods he’s brought to the fore time and again. Seeing the benefits of creating an authentic bond with his players, he’s not interested in results for the sake of it, rather he’s keen to work towards something more long-lasting and real, which can often get lost in translation for so many aspiring coaches.
“Wherever I’ve been, all the clubs I’ve been at and all the players and teams I’ve worked with so far one of my main approaches is to build and develop relationships with the players that I work with – strong relationships. I feel that this is very important in terms of getting the best out of the players. They’ve got to see you as a human being first before a coach, because I think they’ll only respect you or listen to you coach once they respect you as a human being. And I’ve always tried to do that and develop that.”
Getting to the top is tough. Even tougher is staying there. Nicholson looks to have the necessary foresight to know that it takes a lot to make it, and he’s taking the necessary steps to do so. Implementing a progressive philosophy that not only learns from the best, but also moulds into something new, the coach has fine-tuned his craft.
“My football philosophy is broken down into three parts – one being coaching philosophy, developing relationships with the people that you work with – and that’s not just players, that’s staff as well. I am very fortunate to work with some excellent staff at Cardiff that are extremely supportive and hard working. The second part would be the training philosophy, so how you prepare a team for match day. And the third part being the playing philosophy, the way you want your team to play and be viewed on the field. So they are the three main parts.”
The rising boss is continuing to grow and build his own coaching persona. In truth, it’s an exhaustive doctrine that Nicholson has built but it’s easy to see why he’s tailored it in such a way, and its three-pronged formula makes perfect sense when the 29-year-old breaks it down for me.
First and foremost, though, the coach likes to ensure he puts a collaborative team ethos in place.
“Even though I’m working in development football, I’ve always taken a team approach, as I’ve mentioned before. I believe that together everyone achieves more and that a team functioning well can certainly bring the best out of each individual. I like to create an environment that’s professional, competitive, but also balanced. I’m very direct, open and honest with the players. I say it as it is; if I feel that they deserve praise then they’ll get it, if I feel that they deserve some kind of constructive criticism … or a bit of a telling off, then they’ll get that as well. So, I’m quite balanced in that respect.”
But how does he make the transition from training to real-life matches easier for his players to get to grips with and more constructive for himself? Well, one of the key components is his endeavour to fuse realism into everything he does with the players before the testing match-day rolls around.
“Moving on to the training philosophy – I’m very much about purpose in everything that you do. So, every practice, every drill that we deliver, there’s a purpose behind everything. One of my sayings is: ‘purpose in practice will equal purpose in performance.’ I think if you train as you want to play then when you play, hopefully, more times than not you’ll get a performance, if you’ve been training that way.
“I like sessions that are high intensity, with a good tempo to them, realistic to the game and incorporate all aspects – technical, tactical, physical and mental. But the biggest thing is that everything relates to real game situations. I think that allows the players to easily transfer what they do on the training pitch into the game.
“Then, finally, that obviously links into the playing philosophy because everything that you do in training should link to the way in which you want to play. I like a team to play attack-minded football on the front foot, to pass with purpose and intelligence, but I also like to see a good, strong balance between good attacking and good defending. As much as I like to see my teams go forward and attack, I also like to see a team defend properly, with good organisation and a collective desire.”
As discussed, the Cardiff coach has just embarked on his Pro Licence course, which is set to finish the day before his next birthday in May of 2016, something that fits snugly in with his long-standing ambition to obtain the qualification before reaching the age of 30.
On that note, I decide to broach the issue of whether he thinks the current climate is unfavourable to young coaches such as himself taking charge of big clubs in the Premier League, Serie A, La Liga or Bundesliga and beyond. His optimism rings true as he mentions the recent announcement by Hoffenheim to select 28-year-old Julian Nagelsmann as their manager ahead of the 2016-17 season.
“It’s refreshing to see that he has been given an opportunity at such a young age. As well as this, it’s inspiring for other young coaches and managers. We also want to see young coaches and managers do well when they get given these opportunities because you would hope and believe that could then set a trend for future appointments”.
Our chat, conducted over the phone, has been chock-full of interesting snippets, and yet arguably the most eye-catching aspect of our 30-odd minute discussion has been Nicholson’s maturity for such a young coach. His thought-processes are fleshed-out, he’s proactive and the fledgling boss is moulding a nice little cutting edge that should come in handy as he attempts to pave a more direct path to managerial authority.
It’s a testament to his buoyant perspective that he sees little obstacle to his progress, something that ought to ensure we all hear a lot more about him in the coming months and years.
By Trevor Murray. Follow @TrevorM90.
Follow Kevin @kevnicholson1