Steely side of 'nice guy' Rob Edwards
Wolves fans will be hoping that Rob Edwards is heading for a miserable weekend. And he will feel the same in reverse. But a variety of life at Molineux has helped prepare the affable Luton Head Coach for his biggest challenge yet.
“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.”