Wally Downes has helped several clubs to promotions during his long career, but he had to come through a ‘baptism of fire’ in his first coaching role at Millwall back in 1990.
For those that may have missed it in the Blackpool programme, we published an extensive interview with Wally and this is reproduced in full below.
Wally Downes showed that he's not one to shirk a difficult challenge in his first coaching job and that hasn't changed almost three decades later.
Our new manager was thrown in at the deep end in his first coaching role at Millwall, but he came through it and now Wally is aiming to use his wealth of experience to steer Wimbledon away from sinking into League 2.
When his successful playing days came to a premature end due to injuries, Wally wasted no time starting a coaching career that those close to him thought was always his destiny.
"Everyone was always telling me that I should go into coaching," Wally recalled. "I broke my kneecap when I was 16. I had broken it the year before, but I played on with it and the bones had grown apart. It was a split fracture of the knee. I could never fully extend my leg. It meant that I played with a bit of a limp, as the right leg was not as strong as the left leg. I had a strange gait. I did not have the bulk in one leg that I had in the other leg.
"Ron Noades was the one who always encouraged me to go into coaching. At the age of 22 or 23 he was telling me to do it. He had good faith in me because he had always followed me as a player. During my playing days I always took an active part in team meetings. Dave Bassett said that I could be unruly and a bit of a nuisance, but I understood the game and that was probably my best trait that kept me playing until my late 20s. Any physical aspects that I lacked I made up for with other parts of my game.
"I was always very vocal in the dressing room, I was always encouraging others and trying to bring people together. I didn't often captain Wimbledon as Harry knew that I would be how I was anyway and I did not need the extra responsibility."
It was an unlikely scenario that prompted Wally's introduction into coaching and he was thrust into a difficult situation at Millwall. However, he certainly learned plenty from it and very successful coaching spells followed at Crystal Palace, Reading, Southampton, West Ham, and QPR.
"I packed in playing at the age of 28 due to injuries. I started to go and watch matches as I wanted to stay in the game. At one game I happened to be sat next to a guy called Frank Sibley, who used to play for QPR. I knew him and he asked what I was doing. I told him that I had packed in playing and he asked me to come along and work with the academy. I lived in Ham at the time and he said there was an academy in East Sheen. I was asked to come along and meet the academy coach.
"Frank Sibley was the first-team coach, John Docherty was the manager, and Frank McLintock was the Assistant Manager. The board at Millwall had told John and Frank that they had to sell Teddy Sheringham and Tony Cascarino by the time the financial year came around in March. They refused and that meant that they resigned. Frank Sibley was put in charge of the team and at 9.45 am on my first day there he said that I could put the first training session on! I had been there to try and get an academy role, but the next thing I knew I was putting on training for the first-team. The squad included players I'd been up against in the previous 10 years. All of a sudden, I was taking on responsibility for a first-team training session with top-flight players.
"It was a baptism of fire. It lasted six months until Bruce Rioch came in. He kept me on until the end of the season, but then I was let go and I went to Crystal Palace. It was an impossible task really! I tried to remember a couple of training sessions that Dave Bassett had put on over the years. Some of the sessions were fresh in my mind as I hadn't long finished playing, but I had to try and put that over to my peers, including Terry Hurlock, Teddy Sheringham, Tony Cascarino and Les Briley, who I'd previously played with. It was amazing. They had gone through the divisions and were in the top-flight and I had to go out and put on a training session on my first day. It's amazing the way things happen.
"I called around for advice to people that I knew, but it was really a case of me remembering stuff that I'd done and having to learn on the job. It was a very difficult job because Frank had been a manager earlier in his career, but not for a long time. The situation was a little bit toxic because of the board wanting to sell the players. They wanted to go because John Docherty had left, so it was a very difficult situation, but it stood me in good stead for the rest of my career."
Wally will call on all of his vast experience in the coming months as he seeks to revitalise a club that tempted him to return back home from India. Though he was enjoying his time coaching at Indian Super League clubs Kerala Blasters, Jamshedpur and ATK, assisting Steve Coppell, Wally was quick to grasp the opportunity to have another crack at management with the club he loves. Of course, Wally's days included helping Wimbledon to a remarkable rise through the leagues in the 1980s.
"We had carved out a career in India. You never plan for something like that. Steve had been out of the game a little longer than I had. He was mentoring managers in the game, but he had got to a point where he did not need to come into a club where the shelf life of managers is 18 months or so. Steve didn't need to come into a club where he could only be there for a short time, putting fires out, and then to be relieved of his post after 18 months.
"It was a good opportunity to coach in India and we had carved out a career out there, but I always had one eye on back home. Working in India opens up markets elsewhere. You are talking to foreign agents and managers that are putting people into football opportunities all around the world. Who knew where that might have led me? I wasn't going to apply for the Northampton job if that came up, I wasn't looking to come back, but this opportunity came up. It's not a job that I thought about, but I had no hesitation in going for it when the opportunity arose."
Wally, who gained his Pro coaching licence in 2000, has spent a large part of his coaching career assisting Steve Coppell and it was a partnership that started almost three decades ago at Crystal Palace. It was then that Wally took primary responsibility for coaching the defence, something that has been a feature of his coaching career.
"Ron Noades had followed my career and he recommended me to Steve at Palace. Ron had watched my career closely and he said to Steve that he should get me involved. There wasn't a role for me initially, but I was told that they might find something for me. I met Steve for the first time and he said that there was not a specific role for me, but he was glad to have me on board. He told me that he didn't particularly like working with defenders. He preferred small-sided games and working with the strikers, so he asked me to come in and start working with the defenders. I went home and immediately started looking up sessions for defenders that I could put on. I formulated a plan that we could do at Palace and I took it from there. I worked with the defence and we finished third in the top-flight. We had Ian Wright and Mark Bright up front and at the back we had old Wimbledon boys with Eric Young and Andy Thorn.
"People looked at me as a defensive coach from then and when you move on you specialise in stuff. When I went onto work with Steve again at Brentford and Reading we worked on the same basis. I was first-team coach at Reading, but the defensive side of things would be my responsibility. We had Ibrahima Sonko and Ivar Ingimarsson as centre-backs with Graham Murty at right-back, and Nicky Shorey at left-back. The goalkeeper Marcus Hahnemann was great for us and a big character too with his Cowboy boots!"
Wally regards his time at Reading as one of the highlights of his career. It peaked in 2005 when The Royals won the Championship with a record 106 points and then subsequently finished seventh in the Premier League.
"Building that Reading side was terrific and moving that on was a fantastic experience. It was the best team to come out of the Championship as we got 106 points. I had Steve Sidwell at Brentford with me, as we got him there when he was 18. At Reading we also had James Harper and Glenn Little. It was a perfect storm the way that team came together.
"I'd just left my managerial post at Brentford and I was keen to show that was a blip and that I was better than that. Working with Steve Coppell, we dovetailed very well as a pair. The season before we had nearly made the play-offs and we knew we had to change. We added a striker and then it all came together, as we only lost two league games. A team doesn't get much better than that, in terms of getting the best out of a squad of players. We went onto finish seventh in the Premier League in our first season in the top-flight. Steve got Manager of the Year two years on the trot.
"We signed three players at Reading: Shane Long, Kevin Doyle, and Stephen Hunt. We had 'Hunty' at Palace, but we signed Kevin and Shane from Ireland. Seeing those players come from a very low level to then becoming millionaires and very good players was very satisfying. Also, to have Steve Sidwell as an 18-year-old and blood him then, before coming across him at Reading again, and watching him really go on in his career was another highlight. It's great to think that we must have instilled some good qualities in those players from a young age that has taken them right through to the heights they played at. The individual side of things is very satisfying, but ultimately it's about building the teams and getting success from the teams that you've put together from scratch."
His coaching career has included other notable promotions with Reading, West Ham, and QPR, plus he was assistant to Alan Pardew at Southampton when the Saints won the Johnstone's Paint Trophy.
"The only club I haven't had success at was Brentford when I was manager. I think with every other club I've been at we've won something or got promoted. The achievements are all special in their own ways. The Reading success we built it up and sustained it. It was a very close-knit group with the players evolving together as a squad. We added to it and everyone played their roles well."
It's a different kind of challenge now as Wally attempts to steer Wimbledon away from relegation, but what does he think will be the key to turning it around this season?
"It's resilience required for promotions, especially in the Championship because it's Saturday and Tuesday games all of the time. It's about effectiveness. You need to be dogged and difficult to beat first and foremost. Then you need to build on that and score goals. When you get to Christmas time your target is there and then it's about knocking the games off and getting points all the time. The confidence that you've tried to instil in the players has to shine through. You have to get into that winning mentality and sustain it. Though it's a different scenario here, that will also be key here. We have to turn this run around, however long it takes. We may need to build it up slowly, but it's about getting into that winning mentality and pushing on.
"The specifics of the team I will certainly be right on top of all the time. I will be compartmentalising it and taking the defenders away for their own sessions in a similar way to how I've worked before. I will be working specifically with them and instilling some principles of play during training sessions. I often like to work the youth players against the defence because often you are stopping and starting with attack versus defence sessions. That's not great for your strikers. When you are trying to instil good practice into defenders they need to be successful. If you are showing them what they need to do to be successful, then all they need to do is take what they've learned and that confidence into situations when they face senior players. That creates a good environment for the defenders. If you put them into situations where they can be successful they will have the confidence to take that into first-team play.
"What we've got to be is difficult to beat. Perhaps we've got to be on the front foot a bit more and cut out the errors, but there's nothing that we can't learn from to improve the situation. The players just need to take on board the information we are giving them, so that we can put more points on the board."