Kevin Foley is back in the country, back on his old stomping ground and hoping to get back in the game.
As Wolves prepare to tackle Manchester United, the fixture which gave Foley his first experience of the captain’s armband on a contentious night just over 12 years ago, the Republic of Ireland international has returned from two hugely successful years as an assistant coach with the Tampa Bay Rowdies.
Mick McCarthy’s ten Wolves changes at Old Trafford that night were both brave and controversial.
Foley’s decision to up sticks and head to Florida for his first senior coaching position – as assistant to former Wolves team-mate Neill Collins – was perhaps equally courageous.
As an initial rung on the coaching ladder, on the other side of the world in a completely different environment, it was perhaps a step both into the unknown and out of the comfort zone.
But it went incredibly well.
In the first Covid-affected season last year, the Rowdies were crowned Eastern Conference champions in the USL (United Soccer League) before the final overall Championship shootout fell victim to the pandemic.
Then this year, they posted an even better regular season, regaining the Eastern Conference championship after an extraordinary comeback in the final, but losing out in the overall title decider.
“It’s been such a great learning experience for me and also a great life experience for me and my family as well,” reflects Foley.
“To be able to move to a different country at the drop of a hat and slot in, make new friends, learn a different culture and see the world – it was a big step.
“That was brilliant for us as a family, but personally it has been an incredible opportunity to learn on the job at first team level at a really good standard.
“It was all about trying to put my own stamp on things and helping the squad as much as I could, and the Rowdies was such a great team and club to be involved with.”
Foley loved the opportunity, and loved working with Collins, but after two years it was an overall family decision to return home and, from a work point of view, aim for the next chapter in a career which has already offered so much.
Almost 450 career appearances began at hometown club Luton before catching the eye of Wolves boss McCarthy, going on to spend seven-and-a-half years at Molineux including being named Fans’ Player of the Year for the Championship-winning 2008/09 campaign.
There were spells elsewhere after Wolves, including working with McCarthy again at Ipswich, and also Stale Solbakken with FC Copenhagen, but injuries hampered Foley’s ability to retain his much-hailed levels of consistency delivered mainly at right back but, at times, also in midfield.
Having completed his ‘A’ and ‘B’ licenses through the Football Association of Ireland whilst still playing, Foley relished the opportunity of managing Wolves Academy Under-13s before graduating to a senior role Across the Pond.
Going into his second Rowdies season, there was undoubtedly an increased pressure and expectation given the success of the previous one.
But that was a situation which the squad and the staff thrived on.
“That expectation was a good pressure to have, and we put it on ourselves, to make sure we didn’t rest from the previous season,” Foley explains.
“The club signed some good players to help the team keep the standards high and to improve, and I think Neill has done that again ahead of next year.
“The first season was a bit stop-start with Covid and then went into mini-leagues towards the end leading up to us winning the final but this one was much closer to ‘normal’.
“We did even better during the regular season and at one stage the boys posted eight clean sheets in a row, a league record.
“Last season we won a lot of games without perhaps scoring enough goals but as well as that defensive record we also scored more this season so it was the perfect combination.
“The good thing is that there is still more improvement to come from that group of players, and I am sure Neill will be looking to push on again next year.”
Foley has made his own improvements over the last two years.
A first senior coaching position is always a learning process, but he has learned quickly, helped by a squad of players with an attitude of hunger to succeed and also in him sharing similar footballing philosophies to Collins, with whom he already had an excellent alliance as a player.
Foley and fellow assistant coach Chad Burt – “what a great American name”, he says – supported Collins in sessions which were usually split into three, allowing each to lead one section each.
They also had their own other areas of responsibility, with Foley working closely with the defensive unit and the three centre backs, putting on drills to cover areas which needed additional work and also preparing for the challenges of particular threats posed by forthcoming opponents.
That clean sheet record would suggest that worked fairly well!
What Foley also enjoyed was how Collins, while having his name above the door with full responsibility for his final decisions, would always seek counsel throughout his backroom staff.
“As an assistant I really enjoyed planning sessions and being around the lads and while it’s never the same as playing you can be that bridge between the players and the head coach,” he explains.
“Neill was excellent in that respect – he got on really well with the squad but as the manager he knew there would be times where he needed to switch things up a little bit and he was really good at that.
“For me I was able to build up that relationship of trust with the players, and they all had such a great attitude of wanting to learn which made the whole process really beneficial.
“As a sort of ‘middle man’, I also had to voice my opinion, and I would never just agree with people just for the sake of it – what’s the point in that?
“You always have to have your own opinions in terms of team selection, formations, players and so on.
“This was my first experience of coaching in first team football but what was great with Neill is that he really valued everyone’s input.
“He might ask the goalkeeper coach who he thought should play up front and the reasons why, the sports scientist another question, the physio something else.
“We would sit around the table and have lots of really open and honest discussions, which is something I never really thought about too much when I was a player.
“I started to think back to my career and realised what my managers and assistants were doing and how there are so many conversations taking place in just one week leading up to a game.
“As a coach you do that week-in, week-out, consistently through a season, and it’s never-ending, but it’s great, and really keeps you busy and motivated.
“It also helped that I think myself and Neill and Chad shared the same mentality.
“When myself and Neill were players at Wolves we always wanted to win and gave everything, even if it was just a training session.
“Maybe Neill was a bit louder and angrier than me sometimes, but we both wanted the same thing, and that will to win is something that we could almost inject into the environment and the players.”
The practical side to coaching – the tactics, the preparation, the decision-making – is just one aspect.
The emotional side, adjusting to being on the sidelines where influence is reduced, maintaining composure amid fluctuating matchday fortunes, is completely another.
And the final two fixtures of the Rowdies season, and indeed Foley’s time in Tampa, perfectly summed up all the conflicting emotions.
Meeting with triumph and disaster, and treating those two imposters just the same!
The Eastern Conference final has been dubbed the ‘Mkosana Miracle’, after Rowdies substitute Lucky Mkosana notched in the 83rd and 96 minutes – the second with the last touch of normal time – to bring Tampa Bay back from the brink after Louisville had gone 2-0 up within 23 minutes.
In what was a rematch of the 2020 final, an extra time goal from Steevan Dos Santos brought it home for Tampa Bay.
“Amazing,” gasps Foley.
“The finish was insane, all Louisville had to do was clear the ball but we just kept it alive three or four times in attacking areas and a back post cross was headed across for Lucky to convert into the roof of the net.
“Everyone went barmy.
“Bottles were getting kicked, people were falling over, it was all going off, but we had to try and calm it all down because we had extra time to follow.
“But I knew we would go on and win because Louisville were hanging on by then, and we kept knocking on the door.
“My Mum had actually come over for the game and came along with my wife (Llewella) and the kids.
“They said they had been watching my games as a player for 15 to 20 years, and asked why I had never been involved in one like that?!”
Then came the flipside. The USL Championship final and a little revival of local rivalries of old against the Western Conference champions and an Orange County side managed by former West Bromwich Albion midfielder Richard Chaplow.
This time the Rowdies started well, but missed a penalty, and by half time were 3-0 adrift.
Harbouring hopes of another famous comeback, they couldn’t pull a goal back until the 86th minute, and this time it was too little, too late.
“Orange County are a very good and experienced team, and it just shows what can happen with the play-off system,” says Foley.
“We had picked up more points than anyone in the regular season, and that got us home advantage through the play-offs, but then it became a knockout, one-off cup ties.
“We just fell short on the night, and again it’s another experience to learn from should I ever be with a team in that situation again.”
In terms of learning, the question of what is the biggest thing Foley has taken on board over the last two years is met with a pause.
“That’s a really good question – I have learned so much,” he replies.
“I think to pick one thing would be to get straight to the point.
“If someone asks you a question, be honest, because, especially if it is a player who isn’t playing, they want to know.
“There is no point dressing anything up, which links back to something ‘TC’ (former Wolves coach and caretaker manager Terry Connor) told me when I was starting out and went to see him to pick his brains.
“The number one thing he told me to do as a coach was to ‘be myself’, because if coaches try to be someone they’re not eventually that will wear off and you have to go back to being yourself anyway.
“Another thing I have picked up is the need to be organised, to be ‘on it’ all the time and be properly prepared for every single session.
“Always to think about what players you need for a particular drill, what equipment, the timings, how long you want to do the session for.
“That is particularly true in the heat of Florida where, if you have different parts to the overall session, you have to move quickly.
“In between drills you don’t want the players to be hanging about cooking in the sun – the sports scientist would say, ‘I don’t want the boys marinating while they are standing there’.
“It’s about getting the water on quickly, being organised and efficient and quickly moving onto the next part.
“So yes, ‘try not to marinate the players’ – that’s something else I definitely learned!”
The famed Florida climate. Very different to what Foley was used to back home.
Off the pitch it was a chance for the family – Kevin, Llewella and children Taiya, 12, Lennon, 9, and Kingsley, 5 – to also enjoy all that the Sunshine State has to offer.
Close proximity to the coast turned family days on the beach from a luxury to the norm, and there were also trips to the various parks and resorts.
Foley enjoyed a few rounds of golf, with Llewella caddying, and cycled out to the lakes for a spot of bass fishing not to mention sea fishing on a speedboat owned by the Rowdies’ sport scientist.
“It was such a great lifestyle especially for the kids,” said Foley, who also noticed one major difference between the UK and the US.
“Everything is so much bigger in America isn’t it?
“There are cycle lanes everywhere, the roads are bigger, and the parking spaces – much bigger.
“I’ve no idea how I’m going to be able to park again back home because in America you can park up and swing your door open and it flies all the way and smacks right back in your face!
“The Americans we met were great as well, so friendly – we made friends with a lot of British people too, and will definitely be going back for holidays.”
Now, though, attention is firmly focused on what comes next.
After two years away, the family took the ‘difficult decision’ to return home for the children to continue their education back in England and for Foley to aim to embark on his next chapter.
He does so, with plenty more valuable experience in the bank.
Foley is very much open-minded as to aims and ambitions, although in an ideal world he would certainly prefer to work within a first team environment or with young players on the fringes of the senior set-up.
He still relishes the day-to-day involvement of trying to improve players and has noted with interest the roles of former team-mates Paul McShane and Andrew Crofts as player-coaches within the Under-23 set-ups at Manchester United and Brighton respectively.
And that’s particularly so as he still greatly enjoys being able to join with training and demonstrating what is being worked on.
Who’s to say that one day aiming to become a manager might come into the equation but, for now, at the tender age of 37, coaching is definitely where he is at.
“At the moment I find it really beneficial to be so heavily involved in the session by taking part,” says Foley.
“I am now keen to put what I have learned over with Tampa Bay to practice back in the UK, and it has definitely made me hungry for more.
“Who knows what, if anything, will come up?
“I definitely want to stay in football, and am open to most things, particularly as there are so many different areas in the game now.
“With me so far it has usually been a case of an opportunity emerging and just deciding to go for it.
“As a player I went off on my own to play in Denmark for six months and the family supported me because it was a great opportunity.
“Sometimes you have got to go for these things and worry about it after.
“It was like that with America, where we were pretty much gone just five weeks after receiving the offer because we decided that if we didn’t go for it we would always be asking ourselves later why we didn’t.
“I’ve only been back a couple of weeks and you forget how much stress is involved in moving, particularly moving your life back from another country, and then there was Christmas.
“But now, heading into the New Year, I’m looking forward to getting back out there, speaking to a few people, and hopefully getting back in somewhere if I can.”
In amongst all that, Foley is also looking forward to watching a Wolves game when he can, just as attention turns to this weekend’s trip to Manchester United.
His eldest son Lennon is desperate to see Cristiano Ronaldo – hopefully on the opposition at Molineux next season – but should also be extremely proud that Dad once led Wolves out at Old Trafford.
And what a controversial night that was.
After an extraordinary team effort secured a 1-0 win at a Tottenham side which had beaten Wigan 9-1 in their previous home match, boss McCarthy took the decision to change his entire outfield ten for the midweek trip to United ahead of a proverbial ‘six pointer’ at home to Burnley.
But what was it like for the players, especially Foley, who was the only one to come in and then keep his place as Wolves followed up a 3-0 defeat at Old Trafford with victory at home to the Clarets to clinch six points in a week?
“I was coming back from injury at the time and came off the bench for the last half an hour at Spurs,” he recalls.
“I started that next game at Old Trafford as one of the many changes and it was the first time I had been captain which was great for me personally, as you can imagine for your typical United fan from the South East!
“I know everyone was looking at it and saying it was the reserves and we lost 3-0 but I think we did o-k on the night and certainly didn’t disgrace ourselves.
“It’s such a tricky one as we heard all the songs from our fans, the ’40 quid to watch the reserves’, and I totally understand those frustrations from all who had gone up to the game.
“But for Mick, as manager, he had to look at the bigger picture.
“He could have played the same team again who had worked their nuts off at Spurs to get the three points, they could have been given the run-around at United and then not had anything left in the tank to take on Burnley.
“As it was I think it paid off because we went out and beat Burnley, made it six points from the three games, and finished up surviving fairly comfortably over that season.
“When I think back now it was another example of a manager having to take a really difficult decision knowing he was going to get flak but doing it because he strongly believed it was the right thing to do.
“I remember Mick said he got sent a bottle of champagne from the sponsors Sporting Bet because Wolves were all over Sky Sports and the newspaper back pages, although he also got a fine as well!”
If that was one example to the present-day Foley of the big decisions that are often taken by a manager and coaching staff, it is also just a small snapshot of an excellent Wolves career which included over 200 appearances – several more as captain – an extended taste of the Premier League and also international honours with the Republic of Ireland.
Many from that squad have remained in the Midlands post-playing, and a renewal of acquaintances has already seen Foley meet back up with Karl Henry and Richard Stearman. More are on his list!
Those last two years Stateside have certainly added so much more to the Foley portfolio, both with coaching and life experience in general, leaving much to build on for a player who remains one of the most respected inside the dressing room from the McCarthy era.
Who knows what 2022 may bring but, whatever it does, Foley is certainly ready, willing and able to embark on the next chapter of his footballing journey.