Football has pretty much come full circle for Rob Edwards.
Having kicked off his playing career at the age of 14 among the final batch of ‘graduates’ from the FA’s School at Lilleshall, he is now back among the cream of the English crop, based at St George’s Park as head coach of the country’s Under-16s and assisting Lee Carsley with the Under-20s.
But if he is currently, to an extent, seemingly back where he started, there is a heck of a lot that has been squeezed in to the near quarter-of-a-century in between.
And Wolves has clearly played a hugely prominent role.
The versatile defender, who earned his first taste of football post-Lilleshall with Aston Villa, has represented Wolves on three separate occasions.
As a player, Under-18s manager and in charge of the Under-23s.
In the midst of that came a lengthy spell as a first team coach, and two games stepping in as interim head coach, not to mention a year as manager of AFC Telford.
Edwards has played for – amongst many others – Graham Taylor, Dave Jones, Mick McCarthy, Glenn Hoddle, Mark Hughes, Ian Holloway and Paul Lambert.
He has coached alongside Kenny Jackett, Lambert and Walter Zenga, and now finds himself swapping ideas with some of the country’s most talented minds in aiming to provide the raw materials to one day catch the eye of Gareth Southgate.
It has been quite a grounding. A fulsome apprenticeship. And one which has perfectly paved the way for Edwards to land his current role helping to develop the potential stars of tomorrow.
“I can still remember the day I properly decided I was going to retire from playing,” Edwards recalls.
“I was sitting at home with my Dad one night, and I just turned to him and said, ‘I’m done’.
“I was only 30, but for a couple of years my form had dipped as my body had started to give way after so many injuries and my confidence was on the wane.
“Incey (Paul Ince), who I had played with at Wolves, was managing Blackpool at the time and had invited me in for pre-season after we had bumped into each other on holiday.
“’Come and train with us and get fit and we’ll see what happens’,” he said.
“But I broke down again, and a few weeks later I made the final decision – that was it.
“I wanted to concentrate on something else, and that something else was coaching.
“I’m not sure it was a massively emotional moment because it was more a pragmatic decision, and the right decision.
“I felt fortunate that I already had a focus, and I knew what I wanted to do next.
“I needed that focus too, as we already had two girls and my wife Kerry was pregnant with our boy, so I needed to concentrate on this second career.
“And that was how the coaching began.”
Edwards had already kicked off his qualifications a couple of years previously, spurred on by successive promotion seasons with Blackpool and, on loan, Norwich City.
Watching Holloway and Lambert at close quarters, achieving their success with very different styles, had given Edwards, a regular captain at Blackpool, a taste of how to manage a group of players.
“I thought, I’d really love a bit of that,” he recalls.
Easier said than done obviously, and reality dictates that even placing a tentative foot on the coaching ladder requires plenty of hard graft, good contacts and being in the right place at the right time.
And sometimes, as in Edwards’ case, working for nothing for a year.
His former Wolves team-mate Joleon Lescott was at Manchester City and set up a link with legendary French midfielder Patrick Vieira, then coaching with the academy, who helped Edwards get in front of academy director Mark Allen.
From there Edwards was handed the opportunity to shadow the Under-16s coach Gareth Taylor, a former Wales team-mate, who now coaches City’s women’s team.
At the same time then Molineux development coach Steve Weaver had been keen to utilise more former Wolves players within the academy set-up, and Edwards and Matt Murray were invited in.
Working with Wolves Under-15s, alongside those City duties and including fixtures for both at the weekends, made for a hugely hectic schedule, but at the end of it, just like buses, two opportunities suddenly came along.
Edwards was offered the Under-14s job at the Etihad, before just 48 hours later hearing that his application for the Under-18s position at Wolves had been successful.
“There were a lot of six day weeks during that year and plenty of evenings as it all snowballed but I loved it,” he recalls.
“Towards the end of the season I was even involved with trips away with the squads and I remember travelling to Al Ain in the United Arab Emirates with City.
“I was so thankful for having the contacts to put me in those positions, and without that year I would never have been offered the opportunities that I was.
“Yes I wasn’t getting paid for it, but it certainly wasn’t for nothing in the end, and it was an incredible time.
“It was a year of learning, like being a young player all over again picking up as much information as I could, honing my skills and thinking and reflecting about the game.”
Edwards opted for the Under-18s role at Wolves, the first of two Academy positions he has fulfilled so far, having returned later on to head up the Under-23s.
With the time which had elapsed in between, he came back to a very different club, and with experience he was a very different coach, but both roles proved invaluable.
“Starting off with the Under-18s, it was very much learning as I went, but the support I had was fantastic,” he says.
“From Kevin (Thelwell), Gareth (Prosser), Scott (Sellars), who I knew a bit from Manchester City and who started at the same time as me, they were all very supportive.
“And Sean Parrish especially who was coaching with me and not only provided his tactical knowledge and experience but his personality really helped with the group.
“I had that great bunch of people around me, and what they did which was particularly valuable, was they let me crack on with the job, to make my own mistakes and learn from them.
“No one told me I should be doing this, or shouldn’t be doing that, and while the guidance was there when needed, they allowed me to learn on the job which was amazing and a really enjoyable experience.
“There were a few years between my time with the Under-18s and the Under-23s and it was great to return to Wolves, by this time with a very different challenge.
“With the way the club had developed, they wanted to keep the Under-23 group together to try and get promoted, and I was very lucky with the quality of the players that we had.
“Dom Iorfa came down to us from the first team and maybe it wasn’t so good for him but great for us and he was a brilliant pro, and we had Ethan Ebanks-Landell for a few games as well.
“Max Kilman came into it from nowhere and did really well, Pedro Goncalves kicked on immensely and the likes of Niall (Ennis), Cameron (John), Dion (Sanderson), Ed (Francis), Elliott (Watt) and Sadou (Diallo) were brilliant for me.
“The biggest challenge for me that season, in the nicest possible way, was that a lot of those lads didn’t really want to be there!
“Some felt they should be battling for a place in the Wolves team, others wanted to be out on loan playing first team football, and so managing those expectations was the test.
“There was some frustration among them, for the right reasons, and that meant myself and the staff had to really make demands to get the best out of them along with some difficult times and moments.
“We needed to get that common goal and focus and align them with that and motivate them.
“And when they took to the pitch they were different class, and I never really had to tell them that I needed more out of them in training or in games.
“It really was a pleasurable year, and I am still in touch with a lot of those lads and reflect on it as a really great time.”
Edwards didn’t quite finish his first year with the Under-18s as he was called into first team coaching action but there wasn’t half a dramatic finale to his full season with the 23s.
The scene was set at Leigh Sports Village on a Friday night in April.
Wolves needed a win at Manchester United to effectively clinch the title and promotion from Premier League 2 as it would leave Southampton needing to win their final fixture by double figures.
United were strong, Mason Greenwood and Angel Gomes put them two goals to the good and, with ten minutes remaining, the 350 travelling Wolves fans in the crowd with thanks to free transport put on by the club at the request of chairman Jeff Shi, looked set for a disappointing return journey.
Not so fast. An Ennis shot was deflected in on 80 minutes, he produced a superb finish on 88, and one minute into eight of added time Diallo found the net to spark some incredible scenes.
Wolves won 3-2, clinched promotion, and pretty much everyone of a gold and back persuasion went completely barmy.
“Do you know what? With the way we did it that was one of the best nights I have ever had in football,” Edwards enthuses.
“We were ahead of United in the league, and had beaten them at Molineux, but they had some fantastic players as has been seen by Mason going on to play for England.
“At 2-0 United were just popping the ball around and we were struggling, but we made some adjustments, and, knowing we had to win, we turned up the heat with our press and just went for it.
“To coin an Ian Holloway phrase, it was all about putting your hand in the fire and pulling something out – and that is what the lads did.
“That finish was an amazing feeling, especially for a 23s game.
“After the third goal we had players not involved running down the touchline, fans jumping down from the stands to celebrate, it was incredible.
“And what a way for so many of them to finish their Academy journey.”
It was another valuable step on Edwards’ own coaching journey, but by this point, in between his two Academy posts, had come two hugely contrasting experiences, again both with plenty of learning attached.
He had graduated from the Under 18s set-up to become a first team coach at Wolves at the request of then Head Coach Jackett after Sam Ricketts, who had been doing the role, departed on loan.
Edwards worked closely with Jackett and his assistant Joe Gallen, and would then do the same with Zenga and Lambert, in between the two enjoying his most coveted achievement to date – as interim Head Coach in charge of the first team with assistance from Sellars.
“Kenny and Joe did a really good job with how they pushed the club up, and even in my time with them there were contrasts from just missing out on the play-offs after my first couple of months to that difficult season when we lost a lot of goals from the team,” Edwards explains.
“That was a difficult year, and I learned a lot from watching how Kenny would ride out the difficult periods, how to cope when you lose four in a row, not wanting to make excuses but knowing there were mitigating factors.
“With Kenny, you would never know if we were in a good spell or a bad one, even if he was feeling the heat he would never pass that pressure on, and he kept everyone wanting to fight for him and not let him down.
“Then the takeover came, and it was really sad to see Kenny and Joe leave, but the rest of us stayed on to work with Walter, and that was another different experience.
“Walter leaned on me a little bit more as I knew the players and I knew the Championship, whereas Kenny and Joe didn’t need to do that because they already had all that experience.
“Walter was an interesting character, very charismatic and very good in the team meetings considering he was speaking in a foreign tongue.
“At that time there was such an influx of new players, that maybe he never quite found the balance that he wanted, and after a decent start the results turned.
“Again, you never want to see anyone leave, and it was a bit of a chaotic time with a lot of changes going on, and all of a sudden I was asked to take the team as interim head coach.
“Let’s be honest, I couldn’t say it at the time as it wasn’t about me, it was about the football club, but I would have loved to take the job on.
“It would have been my dream job, but it was about respecting the club and whoever was coming in, and making sure I did the right things ready for that next person.
“There are so many things involved in management, and some great challenges even over that couple of weeks, but it was an incredible experience.
“The biggest challenge? Well that was having to leave people out.
“We had a very big squad at the time, and there were a lot of players who weren’t even getting on the bus to go to the first game at Blackburn.
“I thought back to my own career, and also how Mick (McCarthy) had been as a manager, and wanted to make sure I sat down with all those players who weren’t going to be involved.
“I think you always have to be honest with it, people respect honesty, and I also had to remember that I was going back to be working with these players as a coach a few days after.”
Both games were screened live on television, with a 1-1 draw at Blackburn, which Wolves arguably deserved more from, followed by a rollercoaster ride of a 3-2 home defeat to Derby.
And that was when Edwards, in his first ever home game as a senior head coach, reached for the managerial hook to bring a player off after just half an hour.
“We made a really poor start, we were two goals down and just didn’t look right,” Edwards recalls.
“I just thought that the game was 90 minutes long, there was still plenty of time to make a change, and so I sent George Saville on for Joao Teixeira.
“Derby had been having a lot of chances from set pieces and I felt we needed another marker in there and some more stability.
“When I think back, I had probably gone a bit too attacking, and left us exposed.
“We’d started with Helder Costa, Ivan Cavaleiro, and Joao, and it was too romantic and not pragmatic enough.
“We got back into it, and a couple of penalty decisions didn’t go our way at 2-1, but we ended the game giving it a right go.
“When I reflect on it now, to say I was interim head coach and led Wolves for two games in the Championship, it was a very proud moment and probably the biggest achievement of my career so far.
“At the time I didn’t think about it like that, I was just getting on with it, and then went back to working with Paul afterwards and continued what was an amazing two-and-a-half years working with the first team.
“They were great times, working closely with so many of the staff like Tony Daley, Pat Mountain, Phil Hayward, Phil Boardman and Matt Wignall.
“We all gave it everything, and I was then fortunate to see Nuno and his team at close quarters when I went back with the 23s.
“There was real alignment with the first team and the 23s in that we were trying to play in the same way, and were able to get all the information that we needed in that respect.
“What was evident with Nuno and his staff was how much they really live it, every single day, the way they train, the way they keep everyone fit, the environment – everything was spot on.
“It was amazing to be able to learn as much as possible from such a top coach and staff, and, from a selfish point of view, really valuable for my career moving forward.”
By this time of course Edwards had enjoyed a very different sort of managerial experience, with AFC Telford in the National League North.
Leading his home town club was another source of much pride for Edwards, and it was another step along the learning curve, for many different reasons.
“Telford was probably my most difficult time so far in coaching but also the best learning experience I have ever had,” he confirms.
“I walked in and very quickly was stood in front of 27 faces who I didn’t know, many who didn’t know what their contract situation was going to be, and I had to make a lot of decisions on players very quickly.
“I wanted to try and make the playing side more professional, going beyond just training on Tuesday and Thursday, and we were able to use Wolves training ground on Monday and Friday as well.
“We also started doing some analysis, and changed it into as much of a professional set-up as we could, but looking back, I think I asked too much of people.
“I would hold my hand up and say I made it too complicated in trying to play a certain style of football, which probably didn’t work at the time, even though we had some great lads and great characters in the squad.
“To cut a long story short, it probably took us to the final 13 games to really get it right.
“I remember sitting down with the staff at that point, Gav (assistant Gavin Cowan) who took over from me and has since done a great job, Sean and Aled (Williams) who were helping me alongside their roles at Wolves, and thinking about how we were going to get out of the bottom three.
“We simplified things, recruited one or two decent players, and had a great run-in from there, picking up 26 points from the last 13 games and comfortably securing our status.
“There were a lot of big moments, and some exciting games, and I think it showed that we worked it out in the end, even if it probably took too long to do that.
“It showed me that I had made mistakes, but I had learned from them, and I really enjoyed that run-in in particular.
“I would reflect on that time now and think it was very difficult but I came through it, and I know what I would do now in the future in the same sort of situations.”
There is a strong school of thought that many of the changes Edwards implemented at Telford, even if the season he spent there didn’t always run smoothly, laid a platform which Cowan has been able to build on and improve at the New Bucks Head.
And, talking of platforms, while this has been a fairly extensive journey through the coaching CV of Edwards thus far, it shouldn’t be forgotten that his strong footballing foundations as a player saw him chalk up over 200 appearances across all positions of the defence.
Having spent those formative years at Lilleshall, part of a group including Jermain Defoe and Leon Britton, his first opportunity came with Wolves’ weekend opponents Aston Villa.
Condensing that player career into a few words is tricky, not least as it all began as a just turned 20-year-old in the Premier League, and included 15 caps for Wales, one of which came up against the likes of Ronaldinho and Kaka for Brazil.
A boyhood Everton fan, Goodison Park ultimately didn’t hold the fondest of memories, injury whilst with Villa bringing an end to his first taste of senior football and then the same venue providing his last ever Premier League appearance with Blackpool, coming off the bench at 3-2 up only to lose 5-3.
Sparking another Holloway gem: “I make some defensive changes, and we end up with a horse’s a**e of a team!”
Those early Premier League experiences with Villa were more positive, including one incredible move against Chelsea when Edwards motored from tackling Graeme Le Saux on his own byline to chipping Carlo Cudicini only to see the ball bounce off the crossbar (click here and go to 1.54 to watch)
Unfortunately that first ankle injury sustained at Goodison hit Edwards when in full flow, and he believes he was never the same again, having to constantly manage that injury, and others which came along, for the remainder of his career.
There were loan stays with Crystal Palace and Derby before joining Wolves, as well as spells with Norwich, Barnsley Fleetwood and Shrewsbury later on after being captain at Blackpool, but he highlights the four years at Molineux, including a century of league appearances, as an “amazing time”.
“I was still young when I came to Wolves and relatively inexperienced coming into a very strong dressing room with the likes of Incey, Dean Sturridge, Kenny Miller, Colin Cameron, Sparky (Mark Kennedy), big characters as well as big players.
“I felt I was able to handle myself in that company, although I soon needed reconstructive surgery on that ankle, and when I came back Dave Jones had gone and Glenn Hoddle had come in.
“I learned a lot from playing for Glenn, I thought tactically he was great, and although I know the fans might not agree I thought we played some good stuff at that time.
“We certainly should have been going for promotion with that team, and then it became a transitional time with a lot of players leaving, Glenn going, and Mick coming in to work with whatever he had available!
“It turned into a really good period and I enjoyed working with Mick just as I had with Glenn, but for different reasons.
“I remember having a really good period alongside Neill Collins when we won a few games in succession but I picked up a knee injury and missed out on the play-offs during Mick’s first season.
“After the next season Mick was looking to change things to make that step forward and for me it was time to move on but I did so with Mick telling Simon Grayson at Blackpool that I could be his captain, showing how far I had come.
“I loved it at Molineux, it was a great time in my life and I met loads of fantastic people who are still among my best mates now.”
Edwards only scored one goal during his time at Wolves, as well as an own goal at Hull which defied physics, but would, as footballing logic dictates, score against his old team when notching a late equaliser for Blackpool.
That game, just after Christmas on a freezing night at Bloomfield Road, came at the end of a week when Edwards had, with McCarthy’s permission, popped back to the Compton Park training ground for some advice from then physio Steve Kemp.
“Mick told me after the game that it would be the last time I was allowed at the training ground,” he said with a chuckle.
“But all in all I had a really enjoyable career, affected at times by injury, and I genuinely don’t think I was ever as fit as I was during that time at Villa before I picked up the first problem.
“I was clinging on for the next ten years after that, and had some decent spells but it never quite felt the same.
“Do I think about what might have been? Bizarrely I probably have done more recently, but not so much during my career.
“Recently I wondered what might have happened without that injury – would I have gone on to play a couple of hundred games for Villa? Could I have done better?
“It’s just a thought or two, it doesn’t keep me awake at night, and there is no point looking back.
“I wouldn’t change anything, even in still going in for the tackle when I got the injury – it wasn’t meant to be so I just need to get on with it.”
All those experiences as player and coach have of course shaped Edwards to put him where he is now, with England.
Handling the pressure and expectation of being a young player in the Premier League, coping with injuries and disappointments, enjoying promotions and enduring more difficult times, working as a coach with players of all ages up to the seniors.
One day he would welcome a crack in a club hotseat, wherever that may be, noting not only that some of the game’s highest profile players such as Frank Lampard and Steven Gerrard have been given early opportunities, but also other contemporaries such as Lee Johnson, Ricketts, Michael Flynn and Neil Critchley, who worked within Liverpool’s Academy before becoming head coach at Blackpool.
Time is on his side – he turns 38 on Christmas Day – but he already has over seven years of coaching experience in his locker, and is now relishing taking another step on the ladder, within the national set-up at St George’s Park.
It was in October of last year that Edwards first joined the coaching arm of England’s development sides and then, almost 12 months later after a restructure, he is now Head Coach for the Under-16s as well as assisting Lee Carsley with the Under-20s.
Big roles and big responsibilities nurturing the cream of England’s emerging talent, but pressures which Edwards really savours.
There have been challenges due to the Covid-19 pandemic, and Edwards himself missed his first Under-16 training camp in October after being diagnosed with the virus, but he is looking forward to the next camp just before Christmas heading into 2021.
“It was always going to be a tough decision to leave Wolves but this was such a great opportunity with the FA and England,” he explains.
“I think we can all see how many fantastic young players have come through for the national team in recent years, and thanks to the incredible work of players and staff there have been successes at major tournaments.
“Winning the Under 20s and Under 17s World Cups and Under 19s Euros really does show the talent that is out there and it also means they have experience of winning as they try and move up and impress Gareth to break into the senior team.
“I am getting the chance to work with top staff and top players, and it is up to me to work really hard to make sure I am doing my bit to build good relationships with the clubs and create an environment for the players to feel comfortable and thrive.
“I feel fortunate to be here and to have this opportunity at what is such an exciting time and am driven to make my own contribution towards helping players come through to go on and grace the full England team in the years to come.”
It has certainly been some journey for Edwards so far, and one which he hopes has many more chapters to come.
Priding himself on core values passed down from his parents to be hard-working, honest and respectful, Edwards has a reputation as one of the game’s good guys, always approachable and willing to help.
But that affable nature hides a fierce determination, a demanding commitment to high standards and an ambition to continue to press forward in coaching and management.
“I have learned so much from so many different influences, and I will never stop learning, but within that I also do things my own way and believe in my own approach,” Edwards explains.
From Lilleshall to St George’s and many different outposts in between, who knows what the future will hold in a sport where nothing is ever predictable.
But England’s young footballers are certainly going to enjoy a hugely committed and meticulous approach to their development under the coaching of Rob Edwards.