In an exclusive interview, originally published in Everton’s matchday programme, Lee Carsley talks about his new position as England Under-21 manager, the unlikely beginning to a high-achieving coaching career, finessing the superlative talent of a teenage Phil Foden, the ‘best coach’ he played under, and the painstaking preparation that enabled Carsley to master his old Goodison Park holding-midfield role.
Opponents knew what to expect from the Solihull College Football team back in the mid-to-late noughties.
“We were 4-4-1-1, very hard to beat and a bit counter-attacky,” laughs the man responsible for that game plan.
Anybody who watched Lee Carsley performing his day job at the time – prowling in front of an obstinate back four for David Moyes’ Everton – would have instantly recognised the college manager’s source of tactical inspiration.
“When you start coaching, you coach how you were coached or how you played,” continues Carsley.
“So, Solihull College played like Everton.
“Unfortunately, we didn’t have Tommy Gravesen and Tim Cahill in midfield.”
Carsley is talking from the national football centre at St George’s Park. He was appointed England Under-21 head coach in July 2021 chosen from a strong field by the Football Association after following an unconventional route to the height of his profession.
He fetched sandwiches and drove the minibus at Coventry City, had a prominent part in polishing one of English football’s crown jewels, occupied a pioneering role with the FA and, more than once, unwittingly ran a load of Football League players into the ground.
“I’d like to say this has all been planned,” starts Carsley, “that I am in this job because of a great plan. But I’m not.
“I spoke to someone two years ago about having a plan and what I should be doing next and they said, ‘Why don’t you just do a good job today and see what happens?’
“It’s simple advice but a good shout.
“I will do as well as I can today and see where it takes me.”
Carsley could never be accused of talking up his own playing ability – he has joked, for example, about making a senior debut for Derby County on the right-wing despite “having no pace, no trick and not being able to cross the ball” – but he was a smart and assertive midfielder who flourished as part of Moyes’ proficient Everton team.
He could tackle with the best of them and snapped and spoiled in the centre of the park but Carsley’s clever, progressive passing elevated him beyond the ranks of foot solider.
There was an element of the self-made footballer about the sturdy Brummie, nonetheless.
Carsley filled multiple positions as a youth-teamer with Derby and by the time Moyes convinced him to pursue coaching qualifications – “He wanted all the senior lads to do them, not only as a Plan B, but to have more understanding of the tactics and systems he was trying to implement” – the player was ahead of the game.
Certainly in terms of the coaching fundamentals of analysis and preparation.
“I always wanted to know what the opposition would do,” says Carsley, who married his studies at Everton with coaching the college close to his Midlands family base on Wednesdays off.
“Not only collectively, when the manager would tell us what to expect from a team.
“I’d watch individuals, my direct opponent but also the strikers who would potentially play behind me.
“So, when the ball was going into them, I’d know which foot they were going to receive with. Which way they were going to turn. When they shot… did they go to shoot, then drag it, so I wouldn’t sell myself.
“I didn’t have the ability of a lot of my teammates, so had to make sure I had all the information I needed.
“In my youth-team days, I’d play right-back and centre-back and in midfield, then go to left-back.
“I was 23 or 24 before I consistently played in the centre of midfield.
“I did really well in a holding role because I played a lot of games at centre-back.
“I knew where to stand if I was going to attack a goal-kick, or how to affect the forward through my position.
“I am conscious as a coach – more in club football than international football – to make sure I prepare players for different scenarios in different positions.
“When you make your senior debut, it’s often not in your best position.
“It is easier to put young players out wide or in positions where they can’t harm the team.
“They have to find a way to cope.”
Carsley originally joined the FA as assistant to Under-19 manager Aidy Boothroyd in 2015.
His football intelligence was recognised with an appointment the following year as the organisation’s first out-of-possession coach, working with England teams from Under-15 to Under-21.
In 2017, a resurgent England won global titles at Under-17 and Under-20 levels and claimed the Under-19 European Championship.
Phil Foden scored twice in the Under-17 World Cup final – a 5-2 victory over Spain – and was named player of the tournament.
The brilliant young forward was already well known to Carsley, who managed Foden during a season in charge of Manchester City Under-18s in 2016/17.
It was a City side that scored goals by the hatful – 70 in 22 regular season games – and reached an FA Youth Cup final.
Helping Foden along required the lightest of touches.
“It goes back to the natural tendency, when you start out, to coach how you played,” says Carsley.
“If I tried to coach Phil Foden how I played… it is night and day, it doesn’t work.
“You have to understand, this player is nothing like me. Then think about what he needs and how that looks and what information you can give him.
“I am not sure you coach them [players of Foden’s quality].
“You help and support and advise them and try to mentor them a bit.
“But they are highly-talented players who see things you wouldn’t as a player or coach, they can do things out of the ordinary.
“You have to make sure they are well supported and understand about form and preparation and that hard work and practice helps performance.
“And that they learn about handling disappointment, or not doing so well in a game – see how quickly they can turn that around.
“The flip side is other players need coaching, they need technical information about receiving the ball, or playing it forward, or help seeing different kinds of passes.
“From a coaching point of view, it is knowing which tools to use with which players.
“I definitely don’t have all the answers and am still finding my way in that respect.”
Carsley confounded expectations at Everton. Formerly with Derby and Blackburn Rovers, he arrived to little fanfare when joining from Coventry in February 2002.
A portion of the apathy could be attributed to Everton’s predicament at the time, labouring in the Premier League’s lower reaches.
From those inauspicious beginnings, the player grew into an indispensable figure for Moyes.
Carsley was a cornerstone of the tenacious side that achieved a top-four finish in 2004/05 and the glue that bound together the moving parts of the Scot’s increasingly easy-on-the-eye team between 2006 and 2008.
The permanent switch to coaching happened in 2011 with Coventry, where Carsley played the final season of his career – after two years with Birmingham City – before taking charge of the Under-18s and, subsequently, Under-23s.
Carsley worked as assistant manager at Sheffield United and held senior development coaching positions with Brentford and Birmingham.
The resourceful 48-year-old has been caretaker boss at Coventry and Birmingham, either side of a similar stint with Brentford, where he claimed the Championship’s October 2015 manager-of-the-month prize.
“I have gone through stages and evolved a lot,” says Carsley.
“At Coventry, my coaching with the young teams was all about the individuals.
“As caretaker manager, it had to be about the team.
“I’ve switched between those individual and team stages and, with that, my coaching styles have changed.
“Team-focused coaching is much more tactical and unit based.
“With the individual, it is about session design and ensuring you are covering every base.
“That you are challenging the best players and supporting the middle group and bottom group.
“The three things I look at are honesty, being respectful, and giving players time.
“The biggest thing you can give anyone is your time.
“If the session starts at 10.30, I will be on the pitch at 9.30. If anyone wants to do extras, we have an hour before we start.
“When the session is finished, I will stay for another hour and we can do whatever you like, as long as you are not physically out on your feet.
“If you want to get better at football, you have to practice and play, so being on the pitch and accessible to the players has always been a big thing.
“I skated close to the edge when I took over [as caretaker manager] at Coventry and Brentford and Birmingham.
“I probably didn’t prepare for the games, we always did too much.
“Even though we did well, nine times out of 10, the team would have gone into the game physically shot.
“I was that excited all week, I spent too much time on the training ground.
“But if that is my biggest worry, it is not a bad one.”
Carsley’s predecessor in the England Under-21 post, his old Coventry manager Boothroyd, caused a stir when labelling the job “utterly impossible”.
It was a punchy soundbite but loses sting when viewed in the context of Boothroyd speaking with emotions running hot following a defeat that essentially cost England a European Championship quarter-final spot last year.
There was more than a grain of truth, nonetheless, in Boothroyd’s assertion that the position amounts to a devilishly difficult juggling act, with a demand to prepare players for senior international football balanced against the expectation for results.
“Ultimately, we are here to support the senior team’s target of winning a major trophy,” says Carsley, who was England Under-20 head coach for 10 months prior to his Under-21 appointment.
“But we have to make sure players have experience of the latter stages of tournaments, so when they reach the seniors, they have been in those situations.
“We are in a tough group [qualifying for 2023 European Championship], on paper, you’d say England should qualify, but we have to travel to Slovenia and Czech Republic and Albania and that brings different challenges.
“I am really lucky and privileged to be in this position.
“I have done the hard yards, starting with Coventry, driving the minibus and putting the kit out, doing the college run and the sandwich run.
“I have ticked a lot of boxes and had a lot of experiences.
“I want to help players and make them better… rather than wanting to do what is best for me.
“The team always came first as a player and I have tried to carry that through my coaching journey. “
Carsley played for nine permanent bosses at his five clubs and another three in a 39-cap career with Republic of Ireland, the country he qualified to represent through an Irish grandmother.
The man he identifies as his biggest influence, however, predates Carsley’s 19 years as a professional.
John Walsh managed 3C’s [Catholic Community Centre] in Birmingham.
“He took me from Under-9 to Under-14 and was my best coach and manager because of how he made players feel,” says Carsley.
“He had an ability to understand both the group and individuals.
“We were an unreal team, we had players from Villa, Blues [Birmingham City], Wolves and West Brom and we all absolutely loved playing for 3C’s.
“When we had chances to play for professional clubs, we wanted to stay with 3C’s, not only because of our attachment to the club but because we were attached to him as a coach.
“His influence is something I’ve taken through my coaching.
“With all my other coaches and managers, the team would come first.
“It had to… if the team lost, they got sacked.
“This was about loving football and respecting your teammates and respecting adults.
“You were taught, the fella standing over there, he doesn’t coach us, but he’s washing the kit and driving the minibus, so say thank you to him.”
If Carsley the player had been granted access to one of today’s coaching mod cons, he’d have opted for the more intuitive means of rewatching matches.
He mimes fiddling with the fast-forward and rewind buttons on an unwieldy remote control, recalling the laborious process of searching out footage on VHS tapes.
Now, his laptop is bombarded with easily-accessible film from companies such as Wyscout and Hudl.
“It is a brilliant tool for us and the players,” says Carsley.
“We can share clips with them remotely and everyone likes watching themselves on telly.
“If we go in the dinner room and put different programmes on two televisions and a rerun of our training session on another screen – I can guarantee our lads will watch the session.
“They’ll be laughing because one of them has fallen over or been nutmegged.
“But people want to want to watch themselves and see if they are improving.”
The technology and analytics and demands of high-performance sport are all indicators of a job unrecognisable from the one overseeing Solihull College’s Everton-lite team.
“I don’t feel under pressure now,” says Carsley. “I love what I am doing.
“But I like grassroots.
“That you’re doing a session and have two balls and eight cones and 60 kids and have to come up with something that engages everyone and keeps them interested.
“I’m not a coaching snob, who only wants to coach Manchester City or England.
“I enjoy helping players and seeing them improve.”
All available evidence points to the next generation of English talent being in the best possible hands.