“Do not ever take the ‘niceness’ of Rob Edwards as a weakness,” says Matt Murray, one of his close friends and former Wolves team-mates.
“If you mess him about, you will be dropped.
“He won’t walk in and punch you in the face, but he will look you in the eye and you will know that you have disappointed him.
“But go with him, give it everything you’ve got, and he will give you everything in return.
“Treat him right, and you will get the same back and much more besides – and that, in a nutshell, is Rob.”
There are probably many who would argue that nice guys can’t win in the often brutally cut-throat world of football management.
And Edwards, in the way he operates, the way he treats people, borne out of a respect passed down from parents Alan and Christine, and an understanding of how to interact and support people, is certainly a nice guy.
But those personality traits remain just a small part of the overall story. There are far more qualities and experiences, challenges and obstacles, that have driven the Rob Edwards coaching and management journey from starting out and working for nothing with Wolves and Manchester City, to his current status as one of the select band of 20 occupying a hotseat in the Premier League in his role as Luton Town manager.
Almost a decade on from hanging up his boots, with all the insecurities and worries that retirement can and indeed did bring, this Saturday marks another watershed moment for the Telford-born 40-year-old.
As a former Wolves player, Under-18s coach, Under-23s coach, first team coach and interim manager, for the first time from a managerial point of view, he will find himself on the opposite side to the gold and black in a professional environment. In his playing days, he actually scored against Wolves, for Blackpool, not long after he had been given permission by boss Mick McCarthy to keep his fitness levels up by training at Compton! Ouch.
Saturday, then. Luton against Wolves at Kenilworth Road. Two forward-thinking young coaches in Edwards and Gary O’Neil going head to head in a bid to kick-start their respective seasons.
And all this, just a few short months after Edwards wrote himself into Luton folklore – a Hatters’ history-maker – as the first boss to lead them into the Premier League.
Even then, those values of respect, of looking out for people, of doing the right thing, were right up there at the forefront.
Matt Murray, Joleon Lescott and Lee Naylor were at Wembley to watch their former Wolves colleague ride the extremes of emotions on the biggest day of his career so far.
They took an executive box on the halfway line which also offered a vantage point where they could also observe Edwards’ own family and their reactions as Luton eventually prevailed – in agonisingly nerve-wracking circumstances – on penalties.
Victory was even more poignant as Luton skipper Tom Lockyer had worryingly collapsed on the pitch in the early stages of the game, and news that he was sitting up in hospital watching the celebrations reduced Edwards to tears in his post-match television interview.
“I think we were all more nervous watching that game than when we played for Wolves in the play-off final,” Murray recalls.
“The pride we felt watching our mate lead the team out in front of almost 90,000 people, seeing his family watching below us – it was just immense.
“Rob is godfather to two of my children and I have never seen them watch football like that before, the way they were screaming their support and getting into it.
“Of course, the penalties were a nightmare to watch, and I know Rob has so much respect for Mark Robins at Coventry and he worked with their goalkeeping coach Aled Williams at Wolves and Telford.
“But after Luton had won – wow! We were just waiting to see our boy, we wanted to cuddle him and to celebrate.
“Do you know what he did? He did his media, and he has such emotion for his players that his reaction in that interview was completely genuine.
“Then he headed straight to the hospital, straight to Tom Lockyer, even before he came back to see his family.
“That is all he could think about, and he couldn’t get it out of his head, but once he had seen him, he came back and felt able to relax.
“We just had so much amazing pride in what was a life-changing moment, because Rob had made history.
“Just like Dave Jones is remembered as the first manager to take Wolves into the Premier League, Rob is the same for Luton, and that’s a club that has also been on such a difficult journey to get there.”
“It was a special moment, that play-off final,” adds Naylor.
“I am always someone who wants his mates to do well, and when they achieve something like Rob did, there is just so much pride.
“I am not sure people fully understand the work that goes into a job like that – so many hours – and still so many don’t get the opportunity to enjoy a day like Luton did at Wembley, whether playing or managing.
“As mates, I think all of us just shared that immense pride.”
A nice guy, yes, who treats people well. But also, an extremely dedicated, professional and innovative coach, who took Luton from tenth place on his arrival last November, all the way to the Premier League.
It wasn’t achieved by accident.
Edwards, Murray, Lescott and Naylor built up a strong bond as players at Wolves.
Only once did they ever all play in the same team, a win at Norwich in Glenn Hoddle’s last game on the final day of the 2005/06 season, but the friendships forged have stood the test of time.
With all still involved in football in one way or another, whether coaching, agency work or the media, they are regularly chatting about games and players they have seen, sharing information and knowledge to mutual benefit. And still, always keeping an eye on Wolves.
As a player, Edwards was among the last batch of footballing scholars to graduate from the FA’s school of excellence at Lilleshall, then going on to join Aston Villa, making his debut at right back in a Premier League win against Middlesbrough just after turning 20.
In an injury-affected career, of his 236 first team appearances, 111 came with Wolves, where he spent four years in the Championship.
He was later named captain at Blackpool, where he added another couple of Premier League appearances, and earned 15 senior Wales caps, before eventually having to retire, at the age of 30, almost a decade ago.
As Murray reveals, it was a difficult time, as it is for so many players when having to move on from the only thing they have ever really known.
“I’d been through it myself, having to retire early through injury, and it’s tough,” he says.
“I remember I was doing a stint as a goalkeeping coach for Incey (Paul Ince) when he was Blackpool manager, and Rob came away with the squad pre-season.
“But he had come to the time when he just couldn’t trust his body anymore, and, as a footballer, you immediately go from being at a club and having a contract to having absolutely nothing. And that’s daunting.”
Edwards soon decided to immerse himself in the world of coaching, spending a year working for nothing as he sought to gain a foothold in the industry.
During this time, he put on sessions with Murray at Wolves Academy, whilst also, thanks to the connections of Lescott, being given the opportunity at Manchester City to shadow former Wales team-mate Gareth Taylor, who was then with the Under-16s and is now managing the club’s ladies team.
Edwards and Murray will always remember the kindness of Wolves Academy coaches such as Steve Weaver, Mick Halsall and Des Davies, allowing them to put on evening sessions and learn their trade, and the same gratitude is extended to Taylor, with whom he had briefly overlapped within the Welsh set-up.
“Rob spent a year shadowing me at Manchester City and he was great, not only as an extra pair of hands but also someone to run through how we played,” Taylor recalls.
“It wasn’t just one way traffic, we learned off each other and I always felt we were quite similar in the way we worked and saw the game.
“First and foremost, Rob is a really top guy who is very approachable and easy to get on with but also someone who has always been massively determined.
“He was only recently retired and still quite young but the fact he gave up his time for a year to be with us speaks volumes – he was really hard-working and certainly put the hours in.
“When he was working with me, I’d be thinking about something and he would already be doing it – we were really like-minded – and it was a really enjoyable season.”
The two would travel into training together and also took the team to a challenging mixed-age tournament in Abu Dhabi, during which they would discuss the need to never get too carried away with contrasting fortunes.
“I remember we were chatting about Roberto Martinez as someone who always stayed neutral through success or failure, and Rob has done the hard yards and had some tough moments along the way,” added Taylor.
“He is well balanced at dealing with that and can hide things well, making sure he presents a really good front for everyone that he works with.
“For me, that’s why it is no surprise that he has gone on and done so well and has learned from all the experiences he has had along the way.”
It was only thanks to the incredible support of wife Kerry that Edwards was able to pursue this strategy of working for nothing to gain employment, and ultimately, after around a year, it paid dividends – he was offered a job by both!
Although the City offer would have been more lucrative, the pull of Wolves was strong, particularly as with the different trajectories of the two clubs the chance to progress and pick up more senior experience was always going to be more likely at Molineux.
And so, ahead of the 2014/15 season, he landed his first permanent coaching role, managing Wolves Academy Under-18s.
It was to prove the start of a dramatic journey, with plenty more twists and turns to come.
There was a time when becoming a Premier League manager was just a pipe dream for Edwards. A time when he even wondered whether he would ever land a job in professional club management.
Part of it was down to him lacking the sort of ‘name’ or career profile of others who headed into coaching immediately after hanging up their boots.
Yes, the likes of Frank Lampard and Steven Gerrard have had to work hard to land managerial positions. But they have always had something of a head start in terms of the heights reached as players thanks to their expertise on the pitch.
Edwards has had to make his way through nothing more than sheer hard work, building up his tactical and technical expertise, man management skills and exhaustive number of hours.
He impressed sufficiently at Under-18 level at Wolves that, even before the end of that season, Kenny Jackett was utilising him as a first team coach, a role he continued into the tenures of Walter Zenga and Paul Lambert, including taking interim charge of the team himself for two games.
The extensive backroom reshuffle after Nuno Espirito Santo’s arrival saw Edwards depart, and a fresh if sometimes tricky challenge for a season as a manager with AFC Telford is one he will always remember as providing valuable and much-needed experience.
A return to Wolves saw him coach the Under-23s to promotion to the top division sealed by a remarkable final day win at Manchester United, before his country came calling, joining the coaching arm of England’s development sides before becoming Head Coach for the Under-16s and assisting Lee Carsley who was then with the Under-20s.
That opportunity at St George’s Park offered so much more fantastic experience, this time working with the cream of England’s emerging crop, but the desire to manage professionally at club level was burning way too bright.
Edwards was finding it difficult to get in front of people, even for an interview, when applying for jobs. But finally, opportunity knocked.
In Rich Hughes, Forest Green Rovers possessed a forward-thinking Director of Football, now Sporting Director at Portsmouth, who was looking for a new Head Coach.
Hughes was aware of Edwards from conversations around a young Forest Green player who was with England Under-16s, as well as via a recommendation from former Wolves goalkeeping coach Pat Mountain. And so, from a list of over 100 applicants, he was among those selected for interview.
“Once we had the opportunity to reshape things and go for a Head Coach, Rob was always someone who was very much on our radar to speak to,” Hughes recalls.
“And I was incredibly impressed with him at interview.
“His background and expertise in coaching was what I liked the most.
“As an ex-pro, there was no feeling from him of an entitlement or expectancy about getting into coaching, he had put the hard yards in and was incredibly committed in feeling that was his skill and his passion.
“The beauty of that role at Forest Green was that he was able to work at a level he hadn’t been at before without the huge exposure in terms of the national spotlight which he has since had at Watford and Luton.
“There wasn’t too high an expectation, attendances were relatively low, and it gave him a great opportunity to really start off and try different things out.”
The Head Coach/Sporting Director relationship worked extremely well between Edwards and Hughes to the extent that they have stayed in touch as friends since heading their different ways after departing Forest Green.
Initially the two worked together on bringing in just a few players to supplement a squad that had plenty of potential, and that potential was realised, an historic League Two title victory taking the club to the highest position in their history.
“Rob is an incredibly open, honest and transparent individual, and I would like to hope that I also have some of those qualities and that helped us work really well together,” Hughes explains.
“We were able to communicate very well and respect each other’s opinions, so that when we had the tougher conversations, we were able to work through them.
“As an individual, Rob is someone who had setbacks in his playing career through injuries and would be the first to say he didn’t achieve what he hoped for or wanted as a player.
“I think that stands him in good stead in coaching and management, because he is going to work extremely hard to succeed and not leave any stone unturned.
“He will be highly self-critical, pointing the finger at himself before he points it at anyone else, but will also take on that burden of responsibility to achieve success at whichever club he is at.
“In a way, I think Rob’s own coaching journey mirrors that of Luton, a quick acceleration to being in the Premier League for the first time, and I think they are very lucky to have him at the helm.
“Where he has also been successful is in adapting to the different nuances of the roles at Forest Green, Watford and Luton, and I am sure he will continue to do that amid all the hype and spectacle around games in the Premier League.”
The Wolves connection also played a part at Forest Green beyond Mountain’s glowing recommendation.
The club signed several young players who had previously been at Molineux and, just as Edwards had been given opportunities to shadow coaches during his development, he is always keen to do the same. Former Wolves team-mate Kevin Foley supported him on the coaching side with Forest Green and is now employed as a Transitional Coach with Luton.
Edwards also utilised the talents on the medical side of current Wolves Head of High Performance Phil Hayward, who at the time was delivering consultancy work across various sports including working with tennis star Andy Murray.
That ‘rookie’ title success in Gloucestershire was no coincidence. Instead, it was the culmination of years of hard work and learning in honing his talents and coaching and working with players.
And, unsurprisingly, after such a spectacular breakthrough season, pretty quickly doors started to open doors to new opportunities higher up the ladder.
There is always the conundrum of risk against reward in football, not to mention timing.
When Watford, a club which had employed an incredibly high number of managers in such a short space of time, were among those who came calling for Edwards, it wasn’t necessarily a straightforward decision.
And that’s even though the Hornets had just come down from the Premier League with a talented squad expected to push for an immediate return.
There was something of a furore generated when Edwards took the decision to leave Forest Green and make the step up, even though it was all above board as regards the terms of his contract and compensation paid. It was an opportunity – albeit a risky one – which was simply too good to turn down.
Watford made noises that Edwards’ arrival signalled a departure from their hire and fire mentality, and that he would be handed free rein around issues such as training schedules and days off.
Ultimately that didn’t prove the case, and after just ten league games in charge, featuring only two defeats, he became another victim of the Watford managerial conveyor belt.
Even if he went into the challenge with his eyes very much wide open, losing his job was still a painful setback and a crushing disappointment, albeit Edwards was more concerned about the effect any publicity might have on his three young children rather than his own long-term employment prospects.
But imagine this.
Imagine being sacked by a team just three months in, then moving to their local rivals, and not only overhauling a three-point and six-place deficit to overtake them, but then going all the way to the Premier League. Understood to be the first ever manager to be sacked by a club in the Championship and then win promotion in the same season, Watford’s loss was most definitely Luton’s gain.
“Life is about timing and football is the same,” Murray explains.
“You have to make big decisions at different times and there is always an element of risk.
“Rob decided to move from the England job to go in at Forest Green, which was a risk for him as if it hadn’t worked, he may not have been seen again, and it was also a risk for Forest Green.
“Obviously it worked out brilliantly for both parties, but then Watford went completely differently.
‘And that hurt – it hurts any manager to get sacked – but what Rob always does is to reflect really well.
“After Watford, what he knew he was looking for from his next job was time, someone saying we want you and we are going to give you time, and that is where Luton fell perfectly.”
Like Wolves, it’s been a tough start to the season for Edwards and Luton, and they head into Saturday’s game on the back of four defeats out of four.
Several pundits are already writing them off, but there are many who have plenty of faith in Edwards and his trusted assistant Richie Kyle, whom he took to Forest Green after working together with England.
“With Rob and Richie and also James Mooney (formerly of Forest Green) all at Luton, I keep a keen eye on how they are doing and am really hoping that they do well,” adds Hughes.
“I don’t think they have been wildly out of any of the games they have played so far, and there is much that they can build on.”
“I know Luton have been tipped already to fall by the wayside this season but Rob will be really positive and the players will enjoy working with him as they have previously,” adds Taylor.
“It will be really tough, no doubt about it, but Rob is really good in that space and I wouldn’t put it past him to keep them in the league.”
Edwards will indeed remain fiercely committed in his bid to help Luton climb the Premier League table, but, amidst the very serious business, it is sometimes worth remembering that football is also supposed to be fun.
And that is where those Wolves team-mates, with whom he shared so much, will never cease to disappoint. Edwards will always enjoy their unadulterated support.
Much to his pained embarrassment, Murray still unashamedly introduces him as ‘Handsome Rob’ to new acquaintances, as well as recalling a string of pranks and comical moments from their playing days.
One of the most bizarre of those was surely the time in the Portacabins at Compton when players and backroom staff were at odds about who had the heaviest head. Yes, you read that right.
And so, with Edwards lying on the floor and balancing his head on a set of scales, the then Wolves boss – celebrated England international Glenn Hoddle – walked through the door.
“It’s o-k gaffer, I can explain,” came Edwards’ immediate reaction, from his horizontal position. Good luck with that one!
He remains highly thought of within the Molineux hierarchy past and present, as well as at Luton with CEO Gary Sweet, and is still part of a WhatsApp Group of former Wolves backroom staff which may be an interesting place for debate around the events of the weekend.
Above all else though, in a similar way to his opposite number in the dugout on Saturday, Edwards has had to work extremely hard to get where he is and, just like O’Neil, will want to make the most out of this Premier League chance and prove himself at the top level.
There will also, just as over the last decade, be no let-up whatsoever, whether against the former club with which he still holds so much affection, and in the games beyond over the coming weeks and months.
“This guy has been relentless with his drive and determination, utterly relentless,” Murray concludes.
“From doing his badges, effectively volunteering, watching as much football as he could, and being a Dad and a husband, all the way through.
“His daughter Lexi plays for Aston Villa and they love a good debate with him explaining his tactics – she takes a really keen interest in how he is getting on.
“When starting out, Rob knew he needed to go a different route because he hadn’t reached the heights that others did as a player, but once he gets in a job, he has incredible people skills and will always back himself.
“He has had to take difficult decisions at difficult times, but he puts so many hours in and has so much love for his players – and that is why he has made it through to being a Premier League manager.”
Let’s not forget, every Wolves fan will want Rob Edwards to lose this weekend. He knows that, and would expect it. And, even with such an extensive and varied Wolves history on his CV, and one which wasn’t far off including Head Coach before the arrival of Julen Lopetegui last year, he too, will want nothing more than to get off the Premier League mark against his former club. That’s football.
Kenilworth Road, from 3pm on Saturday, will undoubtedly provide a cauldron of tension and anticipation.
For Edwards, for one afternoon at least, and indeed for O’Neil, in the opposite dugout, there will be no more Mr Nice Guy.