BY RICHARD CAWLEY
Joe Edwards enjoyed a dream start as Millwall head coach last weekend but it was not the first time that he had represented the club.
The 37-year-old, who was raised in New Malden and schooled in Surbiton, joined Chelsea’s academy at the age of 16.
But Edwards told the South London Press this week that he had one match as a junior for the Lions.
“Me and my dad were talking about it the other day,” said the Millwall boss, who watched his new team thump Sheffield Wednesday
4-0 on Saturday. “When kids are eight or nine then they do the rounds and play for everyone.
“I played for Millwall as a right-winger against Tottenham. I probably would’ve been eight years old. I think I scored a few goals, which was quite unusual for me.
“I ended up joining Chelsea. We’ll blame it on the geography that I ended up going there – the club’s base is in Cobham.”
Edwards shifted to a holding midfielder while on the Blues books before being released at 16.
His next move was to AFC Wimbledon.
“Physically I was an incredibly late developer,” said Edwards, who had a short stint as England U20 head coach before succeeding Gary Rowett at The Den.
“I probably had the physique of a 13-year-old when I stepped up to the U18s for a few games, like you do in the U16 age group when they are making decisions about you. I was facing lads with big quads, facial hair and really starting to develop. It was a struggle for me.
“I had a difficult period around 16. I wasn’t developing and effecting the game. It was 17, 18 and 19 when I developed athletically and it cost me my place at Chelsea. It was absolutely the right decision.
“I had some issues with my knees, which weren’t career-threatening. I joined AFC Wimbledon during the club’s very early stages. I can’t remember now what division they were in, but it was lower league stuff.
“I was probably spoilt with how good football looked and felt for me as a young kid. Although Chelsea’s academy kicked on even more once the Roman Abramovich reign went into full flow, and the investment came in, it was still a great academy before that.
“The coaching I was receiving and the players I was playing with were way ahead of my friends at school. I found the drop, without sounding disrespectful, tough to take. I had that transfer from playing academy football with some top players, England internationals, and football with a very certain style, to that level.
“I struggled to effect the games and that meant I wasn’t enjoying it very much.
“The big thing was that the passion, motivation and enjoyment had gone.
“Chelsea have always been brilliant with looking after their own once they have gone out the door. I think they knew I was in a difficult place – that I was playing football for very little money and that I didn’t know where my career was going to head if it wasn’t to be football.”
Edwards was invited to help out at the Chelsea development centre nearest to his home.
“I was bright and enthusiastic – I always had a good attitude as a kid,” he said. “I would’ve been one of those young players who the staff enjoyed working with and wanted to help – because I gave it my all.
“It was a chance to get some pocket money and be around it. I very quickly developed a passion for it. It spiralled and progressed from there.
“For probably 18 months to a couple of years I was balancing the two. I was doing my coaching at Chelsea and still playing – travelling to evening games.
“But then I started getting invited to help out with the training sessions for the older age groups – not only doing my stuff with the under-sevens and under-eights. Paul Clement was the U16 coach and Brendan Rodgers was with the U18s.
“More and more people were asking me to assist with sessions.
“Looking back it probably meant just serving the balls in and being around it – I wasn’t coaching the U16s as a real rookie coach myself – but there started to be more and more clashes.
“It was either play in a Tuesday night game in the middle of nowhere or stay around Chelsea’s academy which was a set-up which was really professional and there was a great energy there.
“I found it quite an easy decision to pursue my coaching career.
“Jose Mourinho had just become the manager and the team was on the up. You could see where the club was going and it was a club that was home to me anyway.
“I knew there was a real opportunity there but that I had to give it absolutely everything. I couldn’t be that guy who was constantly saying: ‘I can do this but I can’t do that because I have got this game’.
“I wouldn’t say at that young age I clearly had the aspiration to one day be a manager. But as a 19 or 20-year-old coach I was out regularly alongside the first-team training pitches watching Jose Mourinho in his first couple of seasons there. That was impressive and it did inspire me.”
Chelsea secured their first top-flight title in 50 years in the 2004-05 season and successfully defended their crown under the Portuguese legend.
Mourinho also won one FA Cup and two League Cups in his first spell with the west Londoners.
“It sounds weird to speak so glowingly of this now – because the organisation of his sessions is so normal now,” said Edwards, recalling Mourinho’s methodology.
“There would be two pitches side by side and nearly every section of the pitch would have a different exercise set out.
“It would be set out before the session started. Once you saw it in full flow they would seamlessly go from one to the next to the next. They were connected somehow and had relevance to style of play.
“If you came and watched our sessions, I’d like to think you’d see that now. But that was nearly 20 years ago – it wasn’t the norm.
“He had that real attention to detail and charisma – he had this voice that just bellowed across both pitches.
“He kind of spoke in bullet points – it was so clear that this is what we’re trying to do.
“The intensity of the sessions, watching it in my early days of coaching, were real wow moments.”
Edwards managed Chelsea’s U18s and won two FA Youth Cups as well as steering their U23 side to the EFL Trophy semi-finals.
He had spent 27 years with the Blues when he opted to be reunited with Frank Lampard at Everton – joining as his number two.
Prior to that he had been assistant coach to Lampard and Thomas Tuchel at Chelsea.
“Working at Chelsea’s academy, in particular, felt like a school for the players and a university for the coaches,” said Edwards.
“It wasn’t just come in, do your job, take training, take the games, coach the kids and go home.
“We were always being pushed.
“What are the next badges you can get? Or we were arranging coaching days where we were getting external people to put on a session for us to watch.
“One of our people in the academy would go to listen to a guest speaker or visit another club – but if you did that then you had to come back to present, show it to us all.
“There was this constant flow of learning.
“Once you step up and work at first-team level it’s not as easy to maintain that. Once you are in the hamster’s wheel and it is so relentless then it is a results-driven business.
“I spent so many years where we were getting pushed but also helped to keep getting better and better.
“In terms of the trophy success, we had a relentless run in the FA Youth Cup and UEFA Youth League – we were very conscious from a coaching point of view that we were given the best facilities and we were incredibly well-resourced, especially in terms of players.
“We were very aware we didn’t want to produce spoiled kids. As much as people could talk about the level of the player we had – technically, tactically and athletically – mentality was a huge thing for us.
“We were almost self-conscious of it – that we were the club that had all the money, gave the kids everything and produced these spoiled prima donnas. What you got was the opposite. You got boys who could play, we played some attractive football, but we could run, fight and compete.
“We managed to blend the two. We won the Youth Cup six out of eight years, something like that, which was quite unusual.
“In my days as a player and early days as a coach there would be upsets all the time. I remember seeing our youth team go out against teams like Brighton, when they were a lower level team, and Colchester. It was a common thing – like the senior FA Cup – if you didn’t turn up you’d get kicked out because the opposition would get into you.
“It’s a big part of my coaching now. I do like a certain style of football but there’s no point talking about any of that if you’re not going to do the basics and run.”
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