BY RICHARD CAWLEY
Every managerial move, much like a transfer signing, comes with no guarantees. Millwall have gone bold with their appointment of Joe Edwards as their new head coach and now they will be hoping the rewards outweigh the risk.
It seems the vast majority of the Lions support are excited by the appointment of Edwards, who learned his coaching trade during more than two decades of stellar service in Chelsea’s academy.
Predecessor Gary Rowett had managed 337 matches before taking the Millwall job in October 2019.
Tomorrow’s Championship match at Sheffield Wednesday will be Edwards’ first in total control at senior level.
But the 37-year-old has plenty of experience to fall back on since dropping out of the professional game when he left Chelsea at the age of 16. By the time he was 19 he was back on the Blues payroll and went on to work at first-team level with Frank Lampard and Thomas Tuchel.
Edwards also had a spell as assistant boss to Lampard at Everton and was appointed England U20 head coach in August.
It was Alex Aldridge, Millwall’s director of football operations and recruitment, who asked him if he would enter the interview process.
So how many other candidates were sought out?
“I’d say probably the best part of an even split,” said Aldridge, who had been head of recruitment at Stoke City before returning to the Lions in March 2022. “The majority of candidates that apply formally are the out of work ones.
“Of course within the industry there are people in jobs who make it known they would be interested in having a conversation but that is always through agents etc.
“There was a real fine balance between those that contacted us and then us sitting down with James (Berylson, chairman) and going through what was important to him – what he wants the club and appointment to look like. You almost work backwards from that brief.
“Yes, there are lots of experienced and credible managers out of work but let’s also look at a younger coach type. There were conversations we had with others of that ilk who may well be conversations that get revisited four years down the line, when we’re next doing this.
“You have to have some ideas and thoughts. The pool of out-of-work managers is obviously a starting point but you need to be a little broader in your thinking than just focusing on those people.”
Aldridge initially had contact with Edwards when Stoke signed Lewis Baker in January 2022.
“We kind of stayed loosely in touch – he was really helpful back then – it would have been around the first time he was around the first-team with Thomas Tuchel,” said Aldridge.
“In my role it is important to have those connections with people who you can speak to at clubs about players.
“You start doing your homework (to find Rowett’s successor) and there was such a big volume of people who spoke so highly of Joe.
“He had obviously been at Chelsea a long, long time then at Everton and finally the Football Association. Whether it was players, fellow coaches, managers or technical directors he had worked under there were just a lot of people who highly recommended Joe and spoke about the level of his coaching ability.
“He is an intelligent and deep-thinking coach who has some clear ideas. But also you can see in his interview (after joining Millwall) that he isn’t walking into a club and team that is broken and dysfunctional.
“That is what we thought made the job so attractive and why we probably had so much interest – people could see four years of steady progress and being very close to the play-offs. We weren’t changing the manager after six defeats in a row or rooted to the bottom of the table – we’re changing manager from a position of relative strength.
“I’d expect him to bring a freshness and to have a different take on things but both him and ourselves understand that is a process. It can’t just happen overnight.
“We’ve got to build with Joe over a period of time and evolve, rather than try and turn this around in a fortnight.”
Chelsea twice won the FA Youth Cup while Edwards was in charge of their U18 team. That led to promotion to lead coach of their development side – containing Reece James, Ethan Ampadu, Callum Hudson-Odoi and Trevor Chalobah – that lost on penalties in the EFL Trophy semi-final against Lincoln. It is the furthest any academy team has progressed in the competition.
Edwards’ U19s were twice runners up in the UEFA Youth League.
“It would be simple to say that when you are coaching the U18s or U21s at Chelsea then it is easy to win because you have got some of the best players in the country,” said Aldridge. “The flipside of that is when you’re at Chelsea and you do have that calibre of player then winning alone is not enough.
“Joe will have had games at U18 level where they might have won 3-0 but if they haven’t played particularly well, or they weren’t developing players, then that isn’t enough.
“There is a lot of money behind these academies, such as Chelsea, and that brings its own pressure. At the time someone like Roman Abramovich was very, very interested and following the academy closely.
“I don’t think it was a case of ‘it’s academy football and no expectation’, because you have got a pot of money being spent and you have got to produce players and win playing well.
“Part of the academy work at Chelsea is not just to bring players through for Chelsea but to bring them through to sell them. There is pressure there.
“It was a different pressure when he went to Everton. At the time they were struggling at the bottom of the Premier League. They had to fight, scrap and do everything they could to stay up.
“He’s a 37-year-old coach who has had more background in development but he’s had plenty of pressure to work under and I don’t see him being fazed by that.
“You don’t get carte-blanche at Chelsea just to be there and enjoy the ride. This is obviously a step up from that – but it’s not like he hasn’t had that exposure as the main man.
“Although it was fairly short, it was why the FA looked at Joe as someone to take the U20s when he went there in the autumn.”
Millwall have exciting talent already on the first-team scene and also bubbling away underneath. Kevin Nugent’s side won the Professional Development League national title in May.
Romain Esse is part of the England U19 squad while Aidomo Emakhu, signed from Shamrock Rovers almost a year ago, is another prospect.
“If you look at the last three or four years our academy has brought through players who have left to go to other academies,” said Aldridge. “Zak Lovelace is one, Darko Gyabi is another and we played Southampton at the weekend and Sam Edozie was on their bench.
“If you put those three players in our first-team squad they would all be making an impact.
“Scott Fitzgerald and our academy staff have done a really good job to develop players. What we want is somebody like Romain, who has come all the way through, to take that step into becoming a first-team regular.
“It is about building stories for the players who are much younger down.
“We want 12 and 13-year-olds joining and seeing people like Romain regularly playing for the first-team – that’s the most powerful story that the academy can tell to the younger players and parents.
“We know it is also hugely important to the fanbase and that if we get that right, in terms of bringing through younger players then that can help us on the pitch but also, at some point, there is resale potential too.
“There is no angle you can’t look at this from and not think it is really important to bring through the younger players.
“Of course the younger players have got to be good enough but they have to be developed and brought on in the right way.
“Given Joe’s background I’m really excited to see what impact he can have on Aidomo, Romain and Niino (Adom-Malaki). They are the three that have been around it most this season but the U21s did fantastically well last year.
“Tom Leahy is a centre-forward who has scored a lot of goals. Chin Okoli is doing really well out on loan at Bromley. Kamarl Grant, a centre-back, has been on the bench under Adam Barrett and is around the first-team training group.
“Not just Joe but also Andy Myers (Edwards’ assistant) has been working at Chelsea for a long time with their top young players.
“Both of them are going to be really positive appointments for the younger players in the academy.”
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