From the Wolves bomb squad to Brackley Town for Roger Johnson, Stephen Ward and Kevin Foley
So, what exactly does a Roger Johnson team look like?
“It might surprise you,” Johnson replies.
“It shocked me,” interjects Stephen Ward.
“When he pulled me in for a bit of lunch to tell me that he’d landed a manager’s job, he told me he wants his teams to play football.
“When you think of the way he used to play the game, putting his head on the line, making blocks, last ditch tackles, that’s why it might be a surprise to some.
“But it’s the way of the modern day coach, isn’t it? Evolving the game.”
‘I want the team to play within the right areas of the pitch,” Johnson continues.
“It would be naïve to come in and start playing out from the back from goal kicks and so on – and I’m not a fan of that anyway to be honest.
“I want us to be resolute and hard to beat, we don’t concede many goals which I love, but then, when we get higher up the pitch, I want to play football.
“We have built in a few patterns from whatever shape we are playing, and we want to add more in as we go, particularly as other teams try and work us out.
“I am certainly not stuck in my ways, I will change a winning team, and change shape for up-and-coming fixtures if I think it is going to win us the football match.”
We are speaking at St James Park stadium, home of National League North side Brackley Town, in the portacabin which doubles up as the office for Johnson, his assistant Ward, and first team coach, another former Wolves’ team-mate, in Kevin Foley.
Johnson was appointed as boss at the end of last September, the challenge increased by the fact that he was replacing Kevin Wilkin, a popular figure at Brackley who had spent seven years at the helm.
Balancing a respect for his predecessor’s achievements with his own desire and determination to move the club forward, Johnson quickly brought in Ward and Foley, whilst pushing for several other improvements to help the club raise its standards, even whilst still operating on a part-time basis.
The portacabin style office certainly feels cosy, but it also feels like a place of work. It has been converted, at Johnson’s request, from what was previously a tea-room. There is a large flat screen TV in the corner from where analysis and pre-match information can be shared. The Brackley hierarchy have also backed him with purchasing the Hudl and Wyscout analysis platforms, not to mention new signings boasting league experience such as Martin Woods, Adam Rooney and Alfie Bates. As well as being able to bring in Ward and Foley.
The new regime made a blistering start. Brackley embarked on a 17-game league unbeaten run until defeat at Peterborough Sports on the first weekend of February, four months into Johnson’s tenure. At times they have topped the table, despite several other clubs in the division being full-time, including the current leading pair, AFC Fylde and Kings Lynn.
“Going 17 unbeaten was great credit to the lads and the fact that we have been able to get our messages across,” Johnson explains.
“I know a lot of them had worked with the previous manager for a long time, and I have been in dressing rooms when a new guy comes in and you make an early decision about whether he is going to be for you, or not.
“We have got a good squad here, and over the last three months we have been able to get our personalities across – what we expect from the players – and they are really buying into it.
“That is the main hurdle, if you can build a squad who are willing to run through brick walls for you then that becomes a massive positive.
“The owner, the chairman and the CEO have backed me fully, both with new players to create more competition for places and other touches like the office and the analysis platforms.
“Like any manager coming in, I just want to put my own stamp on it, try and raise the standards and create a really professional feel.
“At the same time, I don’t know everything, I am happy to learn along the way which I am sure I will – all three of us will as young coaches.
“All of us, players included, can always be better, and that is what we are trying to do.
“If we can up the ante a little bit, improve standards and make things even more professional, then I am sure the players that want to improve will come along with us.”
“I’d say a lot of what Rog is trying to implement comes from two main rules,” adds Ward.
“Don’t be late and work hard – those are a given.
“I think we have been lucky to have inherited a really good group of lads, and we are tasked with just getting that extra little bit out of them.”
Eyebrows may have been raised at Johnson, a League Cup winner with Birmingham, and Ward and Foley, who both won the Championship with Wolves and are senior Republic of Ireland internationals, taking on roles at a club in the sixth tier of English football.
But Brackley is a good club, with excellent facilities, and ambitions to improve. And building foundations from which to work hard and step up is second nature to a trio who certainly had to provide plenty of graft to make it to the top in their own respective careers.
Johnson emerged through the ranks at Wycombe Wanderers, Foley with Luton Town and Ward in the League of Ireland with Bohemians.
“I don’t mind starting from a lower level and helping a club rise up,” says Johnson.
“I did it in my playing career and I want to earn my stripes rather than be given them.
“I have belief in my ability and the boys’ ability in what we are trying to do here and I have no doubt we will be successful.”
“We were three individuals that worked our way up during our careers,” adds Ward.
“We all had different careers, but we all followed a similar path in having to work our backsides off to strive to where we wanted to be.
“It’s ingrained in us to want to do better and improve every day, and hopefully this is the start of a similar journey on the other side of the white line.”
“As players we always rose to the challenge, we wanted to win our first and second balls, work hard and then play from there,” says Foley.
“That is the message we follow now as coaches, and one we try and get across to the players.”
It is a chilly Thursday evening in this Western enclave of Northamptonshire, not far off Junction 10 of the M40, and Johnson, Ward and Foley are preparing for training.
They could all be back home in the warm, spending time with family – Johnson’s love of playing darts has been on hold since landing in the Brackley hotseat – but they are not.
Because this is football. And they still love football.
There have been several visitors to the office during our interview as training time nears. Among them are groundsman Keith Marshall and head of media Chris Tymon, who pop their heads around the door with questions. Both of those and others - like so many of the backroom staff at Brackley - carry out many more roles than you would read on their job descriptions. At most non-league clubs, that sort of dedication is vital and is a trait which the managerial/coaching trio are hugely appreciative of.
Foley and Ward lead the warm-up on the 4G pitch just up from the main playing surface, with the usual handshakes for players as they make their way onto the pitch and then a mix of jogging to loosen the muscles and more intense keeping the ball in ‘boxes’ to improve sharpness.
Johnson, meanwhile, is setting up a drill with next opponents Chorley – another ex-Wolves link there! – specifically in mind. All the analysis has been done, and as we chat the trio are looking through Chorley’s previous games and discussing their predicted line-up. Brackley train on Tuesdays – providing there is no fixture – and Thursdays. And, in the final training session before the game, it is time to put what they have learned into practice.
“We are playing at home so we play with intensity,” Johnson shouts as the players are taken through a drill involving some crisp passing from one end of the pitch to another before a cross is sent in for the striker to try and finish.
The first couple of moves don’t go well. “Ok, those are the garbage ones,” Johnson booms, before, thankfully, he sees an improvement. “Four men in the box, that’s better, that’s what I want. That’s more like match pace which is where we need to be. They will commit bodies forward and leave gaps and that is where we need to find the pockets and exploit the space.”
Ward and Foley are also there, encouraging, before the squad returns back to the Astroturf for some more tactical work and a crossing and finishing session. The game with Chorley finishes 1-1 and Johnson cuts a frustrated figure in his post-match interview. But the team follow up with an excellent 2-1 win at Kidderminster Harriers on the Tuesday night utilising all their reserves of grit and determination, and another victory against Bradford Park Avenue before defeat at Boston on Tuesday.
The working dynamic between the three is already second nature. It is a team effort, but each know their respective roles. And they don’t always agree.
“If I got a manager’s job, I always knew these were the guys I wanted to come in with me,” says Johnson.
“Wardy has been my best pal for a long time now – we also share the same views on football – and Foles is one of the most honest guys you could ever wish to meet.
“Honesty is important between all of us, and I want to give the boys a voice and not just say, ‘this is what we are doing’.
“If I want to do something in training, or pick a certain team which they disagree with, I want them to have an open floor and I want them to challenge me.
“I have been a coach myself and I know it annoys me if you feel you are not having an influence.
“I am quite a hands-on manager so it can be difficult but I want the boys to coach and take their own sessions which I always got a joy out of as well.
“The game-related information, patterns of play and so on, that is where I will have a massive input, but the boys will deliver sessions based on that shape and the likely shape of the opposition heading into a game.
“I think we have worked out quite quickly where we all stand in the coaching aspect – we have been in the game a long time and know what needs to be done for the players in terms of putting it all out there for them on the pitch.”
The three are also all at different stages of their management or coaching journeys.
Johnson has previously worked as Under-23s manager and first team coach in the National League at Bromley, whilst Ward has done some voluntary coaching at Burton where his son is in the Academy.
Foley has substantial experience in the locker, also working with former Wolves defenders, having spent two years in America as assistant to Neill Collins when they helped Tampa Bay Rowdies to the Eastern Championship, and another six months on Rob Edwards’ backroom staff as Forest Green won the League Two title. A hat trick of titles or promotions wouldn’t go amiss!
“As a coach I have worked with two managers previously and taken different information from both,” Foley explains.
“About what the week looks like and preparing for games and, even though we are part time now, you can still do the same amount of work in terms of the sessions and the analysis.
“Rog has had his experience with Bromley in the division above but I hadn’t worked at this level before and didn’t know what to expect.
“But it’s actually a really good level.
“Yes, you do get some teams that want to beat you up a little bit but there are a lot in the division who want to play football.
“For me, another big thing I have taken from managers I have worked with, and also played for, is not to over-complicate things.
“You have to find the balance between providing the right tactical information but not overloading the players.
“Hopefully that is something that the three of us have managed to do, and keep things at a really professional level as well.
“I actually don’t think we could be at a better club in the league, for the potential and the opportunity that we have here.”
And while it is only part-time, there is also the sense that Brackley’s hierarchy are getting plenty of value when it comes to the trio’s commitment.
Living close to each other in Sutton Coldfield, they travel to and from training and matches together, share a WhatsApp group where the daily chat is usually centred around Brackley, and generally donate plenty of time and conversation to life in National League North.
“I think we all approach it as if it is full time, that’s how we have all been born and bred in football,” says Ward.
“There is a lot to do with things like analysis and, as a manager, so much more outside noise for Roger to deal with, and that gives us license as coaches to get on the grass and oversee a few bits.
“We are here to help Roger, and that means if we have an opinion or see something different, he allows us to deliver that.
“There is no sense in just agreeing with him all the time, but ultimately he is the manager who makes the final decision, and after that we go along with it - whatever it is - and give him our full backing.
“If the team win five in a row he will get the plaudits, and if they lose five in a row he gets the criticism, and that’s the life of a manager.
“But we are here to give him as much help as we can, to help him make his decisions.”
It is now pretty much a decade since Johnson, Ward and Foley occupied the same dressing room at Wolves.
Johnson and Ward’s final appearance came in the infamous defeat at Brighton which sealed Wolves’ double relegation while Foley’s Molineux swansong came later in the year, including missing a penalty in a shootout defeat against Notts County in the Johnstone’s Paint Trophy.
“I think someone found that one on the ASDA car park,” he recalls.
In total the trio made 524 appearances during their respective spells at Wolves, and while it didn’t end well – all three actually ended up in the ‘bomb squad’ of unwanted players before moving on – there are certainly no hard feelings.
Johnson, who arrived from Blues ahead of the 2011/12 Premier League season, endured an up and down relationship with the fans during his two years in the squad, but accepted his share of responsibility in fronting up to fans in a night at the Cleveland Arms last year as well as speaking to the Express & Star.
Ward and Foley retain more happier memories having been part of the squad which reached - and then stayed - in the Premier League, and always enjoy returning to Molineux when the opportunity arises.
“We had some brilliant times and we had some difficult times but I think what happened towards the end has been misconstrued a bit,” says Ward.
“Although things weren’t going well on the pitch, we were all still very close within the dressing room.
“As a group, a lot of us from that era are still in very close contact, living in the same area and chatting all the time.
“For me Wolves still holds brilliant memories and I can’t believe it’s ten years since we were all together at the club.”
Of those friendships which have endured, for these three in particular it is now about looking forward, and transferring all their experiences – positive and otherwise – into their work with Brackley.
That experience is vast, almost 1,500 combined first team appearances including 302 in the Premier League, but, at the same time they know that can often count for nothing in the ultra-competitive arena of finding jobs in coaching and management.
They now need to prove themselves all over again but, not surprisingly, that’s a challenge they are relishing.
“My career didn’t end how I wanted to with an injury and a bad operation but when I had a year away from the game, it was the worst year of my life,” says Johnson.
“Everyone thinks it’s a dream after football, playing golf, going on holiday, chilling out, but I was the opposite – I hated every minute of it.
“I found it very, very difficult not to be doing something I had been doing for the previous 20 years, and it certainly makes you appreciate what you have in a position like this.
“The thought of coming away from football wasn’t even something I could ever consider in my head, and I’d actually done my coaching badges quite early.
“The experience I had with Bromley was great, but eventually it became too difficult as I’m still living in Birmingham and was getting up at 5am to get down there for 8.30am.
“Time with my family was more important, and so, after a couple of years I took a gamble to come away from Bromley and try and find something else.
“I had the belief in myself to become a manager, and thankfully this opportunity came up with Brackley, and it’s one I am really enjoying.”
Foley, too, has had to adapt to life after football trying to find new opportunities, and his work with Forest Green, and also for a time at Wolves Academy, was delivered on a voluntary basis to increase his experience.
Ward is the most recent to have officially hung up the boots, having rounded off his playing days with Walsall up until last summer.
“It only properly hit me in pre-season, when all the teams were going back, and I did find it tough for a time,” he admits.
“It’s not easy to land a good opportunity so I feel fortunate that Roger asked me to come here and work with him and Foles.
“We’ve known each other a long time, and we get on well, so it’s always good to go to work with two mates and take on a challenge doing something you love.
“It feels like we have a purpose again.”
It is perhaps no surprise that, with these former Premier League defenders at the helm, Brackley boast the best defensive record in National League North.
At the same time, they are keen to move forward, and promotion this season, while a difficult proposition with only the champions going up automatically and second to seventh heading into the play-offs, is very much the aim.
And beyond that? At 39, Johnson is a young manager, and has time on his side, but is certainly driven to succeed.
“The long-term ambition is to go as far as I can,” he insists.
“I want to create success, and climb higher, and I want the boys to come on that journey with me.
“I would like to think Brackley have brought me in because I am ambitious, and at the moment we are all fully focused on the job at hand.
“We want promotion, and I said that to the players right from the outset.
“We keep on at them, trying to help them believe it, and we are getting there in that respect.
“There is still a lot of football to be played and the next six weeks will give us a better view of where we are going to be, but, come the end of the season, we want to be right in the middle of that shake-up.”
If a Roger Johnson team is one which has just the right the necessary ingredients of hard work and footballing ability, what then of Roger Johnson the man manager?
Arm around the shoulder? Hairdryer treatment? He was on the end of both of those during his own playing career.
“You’d probably have to ask the other two for the answer about what sort of manager I am,” he laughs.
“In all seriousness I think I have a bit of both in me if I’m honest.
“I know from being a player that there are some who can take a hiding and some that can’t.
“In my case, if I got shouted at it made me want to do better but I have seen other players crumble.
“I have taken bits and bobs of what I have experienced, but ultimately you have to learn about the individual and what makes them tick.
“Have I lost my rag so far? Yes, a couple of times. But then there are times to come away from it and make sure you encourage as well.
“I would like to think I am quite fair, and I think it’s important to have both sides, because if you are just ‘shout, shout, shout’ all the time it is never going to work.”
It’s an approach which certainly seems to have paid dividends so far, as Brackley enter the closing third of the season still very much involved in the promotion picture.
And so, for Johnson, Ward and Foley, friendships forged during some difficult times over a decade ago at Molineux, could yet be destined to enjoy a far happier conclusion.