In more ways than one, Kevin Foley’s first season in senior coaching didn’t finish in a way he would either have anticipated or hoped for.
Crowned as Eastern Champions of the United Soccer League – all good so far – Tampa Bay Rowdies were then unable to battle for the overall Championship crown against Phoenix Rising due to an outbreak of Covid-19 within the camp.
Foley, as with Rowdies’ Head Coach and former Wolves team-mate Neill Collins, was among those to have contracted the virus, just days before his 36thbirthday.
For pretty much the season’s entirety, all squad and staff were given Covid-19 tests every Monday. Precautions taken, coach travel around the country rather than air, no positive tests, everything under control.
Then, in the build-up to the big final, an outbreak among staff and players that made it impossible to fulfil the fixture.
Thankfully, and perhaps most importantly, all those affected and family members are coming through the virus.
And Foley is certainly able to maintain a sense of perspective about events of the last couple of weeks.
“It was disappointing not be able to play the final and the timing of the outbreak was terrible,” admits Foley, who had flown over to Florida to take up the new challenge as assistant coach at the start of 2020.
“We’d gone so many weeks through most of the season being tested every week and getting the all-clear and then, ahead of the final, a few of us got symptoms.
“We got checked and with the positive tests there was nothing we could do and there was no chance to delay as it would have been at least another couple of weeks.
“The league below us were due to play their final the week before and exactly the same thing happened with them as well.
“I’ve had a few symptoms, and was a bit ill with it, and this wasn’t really the reason I’d want to remember my 36thbirthday!
“I certainly wasn’t allowed to blow the candles out on my cake, but on a serious note we know how many people have been affected by this virus, and we are just grateful that everyone has come through it healthy.
“This virus is something none of us have had to deal with before isn’t it? And I feel especially for the kids and young people who have missed out on exams or playing with friends, having fun.
“It’s disappointing from a football point of view that we weren’t able to play the final, but when you think back to a few weeks in, it looked like there wasn’t going to be a season at some stage.
“So we have to be grateful we actually had the chance to play, and grateful that we came out on top of the 17 teams in the Eastern Conference.
“I think we can all realise what we have achieved and be really positive about the season.”
And that should definitely be the over-riding emotion of the 2020 season for Tampa Bay Rowdies.
A sense of achievement at a job very well done.
When Collins spoke to the Express and Star back in March, the campaign had been suspended after just one game, and whilst staying positive about his second full season at the helm, it was difficult to predict what lay ahead.
He was however particularly pleased about having added Foley to his coaching staff, alongside Stuart Dobson and Chad Burt, reuniting a strong footballing partnership forged on the pitches of Compton Park over a decade previously.
“Foles is on the same page as me football-wise, is very keen to learn, and is already having a positive impact over here – I think he will go on to enjoy a great coaching career,” Collins said at the time.
Those first impressions have proved correct so far, with the collective effort of players and staff culminating in arguably the Rowdies most successful season since being re-formed in 2008.
This coaching lark must be easy then surely?
“It does feel like it has been a dream start for me,” Foley acknowledges.
“Going into coaching in a senior set-up for the first time, I couldn’t have wished for anything more.
“Joining up with a former team-mate made the transition quite smooth and we do share the same principles of how we want the game to be played.
“It has been really enjoyable, and it has gone well, but it certainly hasn’t been easy, and you never take anything for granted in football.
“Our success has been down to a lot of hard work put in by a lot of people at the club – staff and players.
“I remember chatting halfway through the season about how many ups and downs there are in coaching, and needing to take the rough with the smooth.
“It’s obviously not always going to go as well as it did this year but at the same time, when it does happen you have to make sure you enjoy it and savour the moment!”
And despite the fact the season went so well, Foley is certainly not getting carried away.
In football, the learning never stops, and especially not having made that sizeable step up from player to coach.
“I have definitely learned so much already, especially working under Neill, who looks like he has been doing the job for ten years,” says Foley.
“He was like that as a player, always thinking about how he might deal with certain situations as a manager, and a lot of things that happened this season he will have already played out in his mind.
“I have also learned from the other coaches, and even from the President of the club (Lee Cohen), who is effectively what we’d think of as the Chief Executive.
“Neill has a great relationship with Lee, and I’ve been in some of those meetings where it’s interesting to see that aspect of how a coach works and the difference having a supportive President can make.
“That’s not a relationship you can always take for granted either.”
Hard work and taking nothing for granted are qualities which underpinned Foley’s playing career, launched when joining hometown club Luton at the age of nine from where he progressed to chalk up over 150 appearances, also winning the Player of the Year award at the age of just 17.
Catching the eye of Mick McCarthy when impressing in the two fixtures against Wolves in 2006/07, he became part of the ‘young and hungry’ brigade and then, pipped perhaps the more illustrious attacking talents to land another Player of the Year award, from the fans, for the Championship-winning season.
There were highlights during the Premier League years that followed, notably captaining Wolves to victory from the centre of midfield against Liverpool at Anfield, before the team’s subsequent decline co-incided with the fizzling out of Foley’s stay.
In seven-and-a-half years at Molineux he made 213 appearances, scored six goals and forged memories – and friendships – to last a lifetime.
“I have to say I didn’t realise how big a club Wolves was until I first came for talks,” Foley recalls.
“I just thought it was amazing the first time I walked through the door and it was the easiest decision I could ever have made to join.
“Mick got the best out of me and I played the best football of my career at Wolves.
“He builds teams of good characters, but you can never ever relax if you’re playing for Mick.
“The dressing room at that time was fantastic and there was some great banter – quite vicious, but funny.
“And it made everyone stronger.
“A lot of us had come from teams in lower leagues, and we were so desperate for success.
“To reach the Premier League was always the aim but it was the icing on the cake and a really proud moment for me to get the Player of the Year award.
“It was nice to be recognised and a great memory from such a fantastic time.”
Foley would later link up with McCarthy and Terry Connor at Ipswich, and also another Wolves manager Stale Solbakken with Copenhagen, but it is fair to say he never really reached the same heights as at Wolves after departing Molineux in the January transfer window of 2015.
Linking up with former defensive colleague Collins has certainly proved more fruitful, but when exactly was it that Foley first had the idea that coaching was a possibility?
“When I was playing I never really had a plan in my head of what I was going to do or what I wanted to do,” he replies.
“But I knew that for many, the natural progression for a footballer was to dip your toe into coaching.
“While I was playing I took the opportunity to complete my ‘A’ and ‘B’ licences through the Football Association of Ireland, so when I finished I wasn’t scrambling around trying to get organised.
“I had always kept a good relationship with Wolves and spoke to Kevin Thelwell and Scott Sellars, and Rob Edwards who was coaching there at the time, and came in for a couple of weeks to observe training and look behind the scenes at everything that was going on.
“Before I knew it I had an opportunity to work in the Academy and help those young and aspiring footballers in any way that I could.”
Foley quickly progressed to being put in charge of Wolves Academy’s Under-13 team, a responsibility he cherished working with the potential stars of tomorrow nursing the same hopes and dreams as he had experienced coming through the ranks at Kenilworth Road.
But when the call came to head Stateside, and Florida to boot, it was too good to turn down.
“In football you are never quite sure when you might get a chance like this at a professional level and I would have kicked myself if I hadn’t taken it on,” he insists.
Foley, however, could never have expected a global pandemic to take hold within weeks of touching down on American soil, albeit there are probably worse places to have spent lockdown.
The Rowdies had played just one USL fixture before the season ground to a halt, winning away at New York Red Bull Reserves, and when football did restart, the leagues were restructured.
The format became more regionalised, to cut down on travelling, meaning Rowdies faced three other teams in Group H on four separate occasions, as well as four fixtures against others from across the Conference.
And for Foley, that posed one of the biggest challenges to his first senior season as a coach.
“Coming up against the same teams, possibly twice in the space of three weeks or a month, was fairly tricky,” he admits.
“There was a real sense of ‘here we go again’, because we knew what the opposition were good at, they knew what we were good at, and we ended up cancelling each other out on the tactics side.
“I think you want to play against different opposition as much as possible, to face different challenges, so that familiarity was something that tested us as a staff and a team.
“But I think we were able to adapt, and that was shown by our play-off game against Charleston, who when in our group had become a bit of a bogey team for us.
“We beat them first time out, and perhaps got a bit lucky, but then we found it really difficult and in the following three games against them they had our number.
“They were the only team we lost to during the season, and they beat us three times, and then we came up against them in the play-offs.
“For that game we looked back at how we had struggled and came up with a plan, and managed to produce one of our most dominant displays of the season to win.
“So while playing the same teams so often was one of the harder challenges during the season, it also came up with its positives in the end.”
The 1-0 win against Charleston came in the Eastern Conference semi-finals following a dramatic 4-2 win in the last eight against Birmingham Legion.
That set things up nicely for a trip to Louisville, who had knocked the Rowdies out of the play-offs last year and were strong favourites, only for a 2-1 win to clinch the Eastern Conference title for Collins and company.
It was a great night, and a great achievement, away from home in front of 4,000 fans with supporter numbers having gradually increased through the season in line with changing Covid-19 regulations.
“To go and beat Louisville, who consistently reach the final and are known as the best side in the East – on their own patch, was a great moment,” adds Foley.
Foley and Collins’ former Wolves team-mates have also been taking a close interest in proceedings ‘across the pond’, not least former captain Karl Henry, who stayed up until the early hours to take in the play-off fixtures.
“I have been talking to Karl a lot and he has been watching and commenting on the games and it’s been great to hear his views,” says Foley.
“I know he is just starting out in coaching himself and is really getting his teeth into it and enjoying it.
“A few of the lads have been in touch, I spoke to Andy Keogh the other day and myself and Neill also caught up with George Elokobi, who is also coaching now where he is playing at Maidstone.
“Apart from that I still speak to all the usual suspects – Stears, Wardy, Jarvo, who have all been following our progress.
“A lot of us have stayed in contact – we got on really well back in those Wolves days both on and off the pitch.”
It is the alliance with Collins which has particularly endured to the extent that they have teamed up to such positive effect on the coaching side, with their families also close off the pitch as well.
Having first got their hands on a trophy together with Wolves in the Championship back in 2009, they have now done it all over again, 11 years later.
Surely however, it can’t always be sweetness and light? Two committed and ambitious characters. Do they ever fall out?
“Yes, when we both join in training,” Foley replies with a chuckle.
“When he takes more than two touches, or the ball goes out of play, there have been a few heated ones in there.
“Some of the lads would sometimes ask us the next day if we had hugged it out yet – I think a few are shocked by how competitive we are but I think we both go into player mode if we join in!
“On the serious side though, when it comes to team selection and other matters, Neill will always to speak to us as a staff, and talk through thoughts about what he is thinking about the starting line-up and tactics.
“We all get the chance to voice our opinion – there is no point us working for him if we all just agree all the time – and Neill will always listen before making his final decision.
“He always respects what we suggest and we respect whatever he decides to go with at the end of the discussions.”
There are many more discussions taking place now, as, after a short time basking in the glory of being Eastern Conference champions, football doesn’t stand still.
Foley, wife Llewella and children Taiya 11, Lennon, 8, and Kingsley, 4, have settled well in America, even if school life has been interrupted at times due to the pandemic, and while hoping for a few weeks back in England either side of Christmas, returning to America for next season is definitely something to look forward to.
When that new USL campaign will actually start remains an unknown at the present time with authorities figuring out a planned schedule amid the backdrop of Covid-19, but Tampa Bay Rowdies will certainly be ready for another tilt at the title.
“We want to give it another good go next year, and that starts now with recruitment, and Neill chatting to players who are out of contract,” adds Foley.
“From my experience a massive part of football is recruitment and you spend a lot of time on it because if you get that right, it sets the foundations for everything else to follow.
“Getting the right players can be make or break, and if you don’t do your homework and sign the right players for the right system, you can come unstuck.
“These days you have access to so much technology and systems where you can get lots of information about players from all over the world which we will utilise as best we can to come up with some good additions.”
“It’s another detailed process among many I am really enjoying and, first and foremost, I remain grateful to have this opportunity.
“It is challenging, with long hours, and it keeps me on my toes, but I am really enjoying it.
“And one thing I would say now having done the job for a bit? I have got a hell of a lot of respect for my old coaches – put it that way!”
One year down for Foley, many more to go. Which will hopefully prove just as successful, if slightly less dramatic.