After only one year managing in the English Football League, Rob Edwards has quickly earned a reputation as a forward-thinking, personable man-manager.
The 39-year-old former Wales and Wolves centre-back’s appointment comes at the end of a hugely successful debut season at Forest Green Rovers that saw him lead the Gloucestershire club to the League Two title and promotion to English football’s third tier for the first time.
Edwards earned his coaching stripes working with England’s youth teams and points to Gareth Southgate as someone he has taken lessons from. As it stands, he will be one of only three managers under the age of 40 in England’s top two leagues.
Yet Watford owner Gino Pozzo has been ruthless, repeatedly ringing the managerial changes as soon as results have dipped.
Last May, Edwards beat more than 100 applicants for the Forest Green job and his innovative approach to coaching has been repeatedly praised, as the Nailsworth club stormed to the top of the table.
Though, speaking before his move to Watford, Edwards said the biggest lesson he took from his first year in a top job was much more straightforward.
“I tried to keep things simple and not over complicate it,” Edwards told BBC Sport.
“The players are human beings first, not robots, they’re not footballers first, they’re human beings. Players are people and they want to be treated with respect and honesty.
“I think by doing that we can have a good environment, a good culture, and people can then respect decisions that are made.”
Creating the right culture
England manager Southgate has been lauded for having an open door policy and revolutionizing the environment within the national set up.
Edwards, too, has repeatedly talked about looking first at the club’s culture off the pitch and getting that right.
Arguably, the seeds for Forest Green’s success began before the team even kicked a ball. Edwards and assistant manager Richie Kyle – who was brought to Gloucestershire by the former defender and is also moving to Watford – spent two days last summer having invaluable one-on-one meetings with every player.
“We wanted to know all about them, their background, what makes them tick, what’s their strengths, what areas we think they can improve on,” Kyle said.
“As the season’s developed, we know what areas they need to improve on and how to get them better. We’ll always make sure that we sit with them, whether it’s one-to-ones, whether it’s unit meetings, but do whatever we possibly can to make sure they keep achieving what they want to achieve.”
“It’s nice because it paints a picture and it helps them tailor a program for you and tailor a way for you to get the best out of you, which at the end of the day helps us all,” said Forest Green right-back Kane Wilson, also speaking before news of Edwards’ departure.
Wilson was voted League Two player of the season and is one of a number of Forest Green players who thrived under Edwards’ tutelage.
Few changes were made to the Forest Green squad this year, with the coaches instead helping foster a togetherness and confidence in the players they inherited.
Tellingly, when Forest Green secured their promotion against Bristol RoversEdwards was quick to point to the players who did not make the matchday squad as having played an integral part.
“Rob said to me before, he can’t do it for us,” admitted Wilson. “He has to put us in a position and a headspace where we can go and do it and attack it. I think without them it wouldn’t have been possible.
“Having that value and knowing that you’re wanted and you’re an integral part of the team, it gives you that freedom to maybe try something new and I think you reap the rewards of it.
“We’re a team where we’ve got a great camaraderie and Rob’s really put those foundations down to let us do that and let us take it to the next step.”
Edwards pointed to the variety of “brilliant people” he has worked with since retiring aged 30, not least in the Football Association. But also lessons he learned as a player.
“Sometimes I played with fear and would think about not making mistakes and I don’t want my players to feel like that,” Edwards said.
“It’s a big thing for us that we want to try and be brave and we know we’re going to make mistakes, we accept that, we’re human. It’s about reacting the right way from them and learning from them. That creates a good environment, a safe environment.”
After a season that has produced 25 defeats so far and resulted in the Hornets’ immediate return to the Championship after only one season back in the top flight, the owners and fans will be looking for stability.
Managing a team at Championship level brings its own new challenges, but the biggest one might be whether Edwards is given the time at Watford to implement a method and style that has brought him to the job in the first place.