“Come on boys…are we ready to train? You training in a tracksuit? Are you sure? Right, let’s get to work…”
It is a chilly Thursday night in late September at Castle Vale Stadium approximately seven miles out from Birmingham City Centre.
The excellent floodlit facility hosts a 4G pitch and a small grandstand, and on this particular evening is split into quarters to provide space for four junior football teams to train.
The general hubbub of boot upon ball and excitable chatter is broken only by the thundering of a train on the Cross Country route next door, or gentle murmur of a plane coming in to land at Birmingham Airport.
And of course, those instructions from the coaches.
“Two touches come on, keep it moving. Well done, that’s perfect. Take care with the ball. Break through those lines. That’s it. Lovely, lovely…”
These words to Hollyfields Under-14 Stripes however are not coming from just any coach or parent, but a former professional footballer, a midfield general boasting 574 career appearances, many as a captain, with almost 150 of those in the Premier League.
Initially, Karl Henry never thought he wanted to be a coach.
For the vast majority of that lengthy and for the most part successful career, which included leading home town club Wolves to promotion to the Premier League and came to an end after coming off the bench for Bradford against Walsall nearly two years ago, there were no plans to even stay in football.
That was all before he joined Bolton, back in September, 2017.
Henry checked in at the Reebok Stadium with the team having taken just two points from their first nine league games, and they would also lose the next two.
From there, they went unbeaten in seven, and as the season progressed, even selling top scorer Gary Madine in January, they somehow survived thanks to two late goals securing victory against Nottingham Forest on the final day.
Amid that incredible escape, a fire had started burning within Henry, which has now seen him set off on what he knows will be a long and challenging journey towards senior coaching and management.
“Throughout my whole career I had no interest in coaching,” he admits.
“I have always loved the tactical side of the game – I know that’s not the case for every player – but I have always been tactically aware and love having those sort of conversations.
“It is a side of the game that intrigues me, it’s a battle of wits isn’t it? And I have always enjoyed those!
“Even so, I never thought I wanted to stay in football, but it all changed when I went to Bolton.
“The reason it changed is because the club was in such disarray at the time, and I felt like I was able to grab the bull by the horns and help change things around.
“I got on well with (manager) Phil Parkinson and the coaches who said they needed some leaders in the dressing room and we spoke a lot about the situations the club were in.
“I learnt how much Phil was actually having to let go and not even push in the sense that I was coming in and asking why we weren’t doing certain things or having certain facilities?
“And Phil had been having to deal with all these issues for well over a year before I turned up.
“I think he knew what I would bring to the table and it was about trying to help him in the dressing room and with my fresh eyes I felt I was able to make a positive difference.
“The kit room was in a toilet, in a portacabin, so when you went to get kit for the afternoon session you’d pick something off the floor with mould all over it.
“Rather than complain about I set about changing it, and got a DIY guy in to fix up the changing room as well.
“When I was a captain, I always demanded more out of my team-mates, to get the best out of them, and even though I wasn’t captain at Bolton I felt I was able to influence people.
“We were a mess, rock bottom when I arrived, and in January we sold our top scorer, who had been our lifeline.
“We had no right to survive, we were miles off it, but somehow we did, and I have always said that staying up with Bolton that season was one of the greatest achievements of my career.
“And all the other stuff that went with it? That was the catalyst for me starting to think about coaching and management for the first time.
“It is an experience I am really glad that I had, and made me think do you know what? I quite fancy having a go at that one day.”
Players who progress to become coaches and managers will often talk about influences and mentors they have learned from along the way.
Tips or experiences from those they have worked with and benefitted from, and Henry would be no exception should he ultimately make the transition from dressing room to dugout.
A career spanning Stoke City, Wolves and QPR prior to Bolton and a short spell at Bradford afforded him the privilege of working with some of the most respected coaches and managers in the game.
Amongst others, Tony Pulis, Mick McCarthy, Terry Connor, Glenn Hoddle and Steve McClaren.
Each with their very own personalities and techniques, and different approaches to trying to win games of football.
“I worked under Tony Pulis twice at Stoke, and that is why it never ever surprises me that Tony Pulis teams are so well organised,” Henry explains.
“With his level of detail, Tony Pulis could go and find 11 guys sat on benches in the park and have them keeping a clean sheet at Old Trafford a couple of weeks later.
“Managers like him aren’t really flavour of the month anymore are they? Not cool like a Klopp or a Guardiola and I get that but very few managers know how to get a team as organised as Tony Pulis does.
“Mick and ‘TC’ were similar, they knew how to get a team playing for each other, and we were always so well drilled under them at Wolves.
“You can always spot the teams that are well drilled where everyone knows their jobs – just look at Wolves now under Nuno.
“I have never seen them train, or watched Nuno coach, but you can see from the matches, that as much as the players are really talented, they are also so well organised.
“Another thing I really liked about Mick was the trust he had in us as players.
“As captain he would sometimes get me in the office on the Thursday or a Friday to chat about what he was planning for the weekend, and then during the match, would allow me to make a temporary change if it was needed.
“I am seeing this now even with junior football which obviously doesn’t have thousands of fans, that sometimes you can see things going wrong on the pitch but can’t get messages over to the players.
“As a manager I think when those things are happening you need someone on the pitch who can put your laws into place so to speak, and as captain Mick gave me the autonomy that if we were under the cosh for any reason, we could temporarily change the tactics until such time as I could get across to the bench for him to either say stick with it or tweak it back.
“Moving on to Glenn Hoddle, he offered something from an attacking point of view that many other coaches didn’t.
“He was able to pick little nuggets of the game and see situations in an attacking sense that others couldn’t, probably because of the type of player that he was, and I enjoyed being coached by him at QPR.
“Steve McClaren at QPR was also outstanding, and I learned so much from him as well.
“Like everyone starting out on a coaching journey, you try and put it all together and put your own stamp on it, and some of the drills I am doing now with my lads I first experienced when Steve was coaching at QPR.”
He’s not wrong.
Back to this chilly Thursday night at Castle Vale, and with fellow coaches Damon and Alan taking the warm-up, Henry has been wheeling various sets of goalposts into position and laying out numerous cones.
It’s time for team shape, and Henry does indeed take his young charges through a very similar routine to that seen at training grounds at so many professional clubs up and down the country.
The Hollyfields hopefuls spend around half an hour being expertly walked through different scenarios focusing on how to press the opposition, and how to break that press.
It’s monotonous and it’s repetitive, but even at their tender age, and relative lack of experience, they are all listening, following, taking it all in.
“I do try and do the sort of shape that you would see at first team and Academy level at professional clubs,” Henry explains.
“It is shape that gives you organisation, and I know it is boring as hell!
“Most professional players don’t enjoy doing shape but I actually enjoyed it, no maybe that’s a bit too strong – I didn’t mind it as much as some players and I know other aspects of training are far more enjoyable.
“For me it is about getting the lads in a pattern and shape that gets them organised and means they can see the bigger picture.
“I know it can be boring and when I first started doing it, and the lads were standing around a lot, I heard a few murmurs of ‘this is boring’ or ‘can we just have a game instead’?
“We kept working on it through pre-season and, having previously lost a couple of friendlies, we then started winning.
“The lads were playing out from the back, from goal kicks, passing the ball around and it was brilliant to watch.
“They soon realised it was because of what they had been working on in training, they knew the options they had available, and all of a sudden the moans and groans had disappeared!”
And so it is that Hollyfields Under-14s Stripes have kicked off the season by following up two pre-season friendly wins with two league victories making it four on the bounce.
Previously it was rare that they won two games in succession.
That is music to the ears of a coach who was always so well known for his ultra-competitive edge, now being transferred from being out there in the middle to coaxing and cajoling from the sidelines.
Not to mention losing his voice every single week.
What then of the qualifications required to take up a coaching career?
Henry is in the process of wrapping up his ‘B’ licence qualification before moving on to the ‘A’, the residential having been spent in Northern Ireland alongside others such as former Wolves team-mate David Jones, Luis Garcia, Gabby Agbonlahor, Bruno and Craig Gardner.
He is full of praise for the level of tuition on the week-long course, which properly brought home the minutiae of everything that is involved in coaching, but served only to whet his appetite further.
“The coaches were fantastic and it was a great experience,” Henry recalls.
“There are so many things that you learn, and I honestly think if I had done this course when I was say 19 or 20 years old, I would have been a better player.
“It gives you a real appreciation or what a manager and coach go through when planning their sessions, and an empathy and understanding of what is involved.
“Within a couple of days, I was remembering all the stick I have given out to different coaches over the years.
“Every single club you are at, when the coach gets the session wrong, players are all over it shouting ‘this is a shambles’ and all sorts.
“Then we were on the course getting ready to start a session and realising we hadn’t even sorted out goalkeepers for the drill – there is always so much to organise that previously I hadn’t really thought about!”
Henry’s eldest son Marley’s friend Conner is the son of fellow Under-14s coach Damon, and that is how he was first invited in to coach at the club.
Both Marley and Henry’s other son Monty are now training with younger Hollyfields teams, but the Under-14s offered the perfect opportunity to help fill the 26 hours with 12-16 year-olds which are needed as part of the ‘B’ qualification.
He had done a few more hours now!
Henry has properly caught the bug, taking three sessions a week during pre-season and is also set to welcome former Wolves fitness guru Tony Daley to lead a fitness workout in the coming weeks.
“Ultimately I want to coach adults, but whatever level you are coaching at, whether it’s in the Premier League or Division Seven of the Central Warwickshire League Under-14s, I want to do whatever I can to get the best out of people,” says Henry.
“The parents have been brilliant with me, so supportive and bringing the lads to all the sessions, and we have seen a massive improvement.
“I am making so many notes, and sending out so much tactical info to the lads and parents, that they are probably regretting asking me to get involved!
“But for me, in life you win and you lose, and it’s the same in football.
“If you lose a game of football is it in the end of the world? Of course not.
“Is it disappointing? Yes. And while I am really relishing the challenge of developing players, I am also trying to instil a winning mentality, because while I know it is important for it to be fun and enjoyable, it’s far more enjoyable when you win.
“We’re all working together to give it a real go, and when I wake up on a Sunday morning, I’ve got that matchday buzz again, I’m actually getting nervous.
“I’m still in regular touch with Kevin Foley and Neill Collins coaching over at the Tampa Bay Rowdies, and it just makes me think.
“The sort of buzz I get from seeing the lads do something well that we have worked on in training, the buzz from winning a game on a Sunday, just how amazing would that be when it’s transferred to senior level?”
On an equally positive note, Head of Wolves Academy Scott Sellars is already aware of Henry’s coaching ambitions, and has issued an invitation to visit the training ground to observe and potentially take some sessions himself in the future.
Henry and Jones have already visited one Under-14 session and, when he is further along his coaching journey, it’s an offer he will be delighted to take up.
Remarkably Henry – whose fellow captain at Wolves during the 2008/09 season Jody Craddock is also involved in junior coaching with Cookley near Kidderminster – is not the only former Premier League player currently on the roster at Hollyfields.
Former Blues, Villa and Leicester striker Geoff Horsfield coaches the Under-12 girls squad which includes his daughter.
Understandably it’s viewed as a huge positive for the Erdington-based club only established in 2018 by chairman Darren Avery and Child Welfare Officer Adam Humphries, which now boasts eight junior teams for the current season.
“We are very lucky to have two fantastic experienced former Premier League footballers with us at Hollyfields,” says club secretary Kristina Moore.
“Their experience is priceless and all of our teams have really improved just from having them involved.”
Improvement is now very much in Henry’s sights, not just for the Under-14 team this season but for that long-term ambition of coaching and managing at a senior level.
As The Hollies – presumably no connection to Hollyfields – once sang, ‘the road is long, with many of winding turn’, but at 37, time is on Henry’s side, and so too that indefatigable determination and desire.
“There’s a big challenge ahead but it was the same for me to make it as a player, and I have never been one to shirk away from a task or walk away from adversity,” says Henry, who is an ambassador with Wolves Foundation and spearheaded an appeal which raised over £50,000 for the Royal Wolverhampton NHS Trust this summer.
“As an aspiring coach doing my badges, I am loving working with the lads at Hollyfields, and am learning all the time.
“Would I love to coach or manage in the Premier League one day? Absolutely.
“Do I think it is necessarily going to happen? Absolutely not.
“Hopefully I can get there, but if I do it is going to be a long journey and take a heck of a lot of hard work.
“Right now I am happy to soak up as much as I can, and learn as much as I can.
“I am really looking forward to taking up Scott Sellars offer in the future and learn from those at the Academy.
“I am just starting my journey, trying to hone my skills, and I’d love to achieve something with this group of players as the first step on that journey.”
Having worked through all the drills and team shape there is indeed a short game at the end of this particular session, after which a shrill blast from Henry’s whistle brings an end to the 90 minutes of training and learning.
Goalposts are pushed back, bibs collected, cones put away, and there is time for one final few words of wisdom before a group of weary but invigorated young players trudge away into the night.
“See you on Sunday boys.” They can’t wait.
It may not be marching off the pitch at Molineux after ending Manchester United’s season-long unbeaten run, saluting the travelling fans at White Hart Lane after upsetting the formbook at Tottenham, lifting the Championship trophy with Wolves, or savouring play-off final glory with QPR at Wembley.
But for now, chilly Thursday nights on the 4G with Hollyfields Under-14 Stripes at Castle Vale Stadium?
There is nowhere Henry would rather be.
- For more information about football at Hollyfields, which has a sports centre and facilities for conferences and events, contact club secretary Kristina Moore on 0121 373 1018.
THIS ARTICLE FIRST APPEARED IN THE EXPRESS & STAR