Imagine the scene. It’s 2004 and you are a 42-year-old trader in the City. You have a comfortable lifestyle, happy marriage and children. To the outside world everything seems great. Others might even envy your success, but you feel it differently. You enjoy your job, but it’s a job. You feel the call of football like a vocation. One day a big trade comes in and you catch yourself drawing a passing drill on the back of a bit of paper. You realise where your heart lies. You make the decision and you go home to tell your wife you are giving yourself a ten-year deadline to go from nobody to someone in professional football. And you do it. It is courageous. It is inspirational, and it is Mark Warburton.
Warburton started his stop-start football life at Leicester City. His best friend was Neil McClintock, the son of Frank. They played in football teams together as youngsters, and when the senior McClintock became manager of Leicester City, Warburton was asked to join the club on an apprenticeship. He lived in one of the club’s boarding lodges and was loving it until a Rangers great turned up. Three months after Warburton joined, McClintock left and Jock Wallace arrived. This had a negative effect on the young player. There are the famous stories of Wallace taking Rangers players to the sand dunes of Gullane until they puked. They bring laughter and fond memories to former players and fans, but such techniques didn’t impress Warburton. In 2013, he said, “I went from loving every minute of being a footballer, to hating it. Suffice to say, despite his having huge success in Scotland with Rangers, I found his methods to be against everything I enjoyed about the game.” A year later in an interview with The Telegraph he expanded on his dislike for Wallace’s style: “At Leicester, we had Jock Wallace, a legend at Rangers, but not for me as a manager. He was a Marine. We had runs on sand-dunes, running until we threw up. I learned a lot from that, never treating a player that way.” It didn’t work out and he left Leicester to join Enfield. He played as a right-back, then moved to Boreham Wood before a cruciate knee ligament injury ended his playing days.
Football was not to be his future - at least not yet – so he had to find a career. In a stroke of good fortune his mum noticed a job advert looking for a ‘competitive individual, good with numbers.’ Warburton was no slouch and was good at maths. He applied and became a trader in the City of London. Over time his responsibilities increased. He was a currency dealer for The Bank of America, AIG and RBS. For two decades he awoke at 4:32am, left the house at 4:52am and caught the 05:02am train into Liverpool Street to start work at 5:45 am. He usually didn’t get home at until 7pm and even then would take phone-calls throughout the night. He adds, “It changed as I got more senior, the amounts of turnover increased, the level of responsibility increased, the risk increased. I worked with some really good people, managers and colleagues. You learn a lot from them. As a junior, I was working in ones, two and three million. Then suddenly 10, 20, 30 million. Then suddenly a whole new world opens up. It is a lot of risk reward and responsibility, but you thrive on it.”
He had some time working in Carolina and Chicago in the US, and although not qualified, helped coach young footballers. But a hobby was not enough. He wanted more. He wanted to make a career in football coaching and decided to go for it. He realised at 42 he had to be bold and do it, or give up the dream. He recalls telling his wife Liz, “‘we have the money in the bank, the house is paid for, our lifestyle won’t change. I want to do this: 10 years to achieve something in the game. It’s now or never.”
He’s always keen to emphasise how hard it was: “I do get frustrated when people paint a rosy picture of leaving the City and doing a few exams and then finding yourself in full-time football. It didn't work that way. It was a massive risk and probably wasn't very realistic of me. I started right at the bottom at Watford, coaching kids, pumping up footballs and filling the minibus up. Sean Dyche [Burnley manager] was a youth-team coach with me and we were ferrying boys around and across London for two hours and back. Stuck on the M25 for hours [or] sorting out a flat. It was hard work. [There was] nothing romantic about it.”
It doesn’t matter who you support or what you think of Warburton, his choice was impressive. How many people - even those younger - give up on what they want to achieve because they lack the courage and self-belief? It’s easy to look back with perfect hindsight and see it as inevitable, but it wasn’t. Although he had a background in lower-level football, he was starting from the bottom rung of the football ladder. How many would be too scared to tell their family and risk ridicule from their friends and colleagues? The one thing which would help Warburton is his incredible work ethic. While most managers would baulk at getting up at 6am, Warburton is starting work at 6am. Another is his self-belief. Business magnate Henry Ford is reported to have said, “Whether you think you can, or you think you can't - you're right.” Most people think they can’t - so they don’t. Warburton thought he could - and he did.
He didn’t quit his job as a trader straight away. He had a period where he was still working while gaining his UEFA qualifications and coaching at a school. He also spent his own money travelling around Europe looking at best practice with clubs such as Inter, Sporting Lisbon, Valencia, Barcelona, Ajax and Willem II. He kept everything he could, including training exercises and education timetables. “I was getting up for work in the city very early in the morning, and going straight to Clement Danes School in Watford, getting home at half past ten. It was tough but I had to work through the transition period of getting out of the city, and Watford asked me to go full time, and that was the move back into professional football.” He coached the under-9s through to under-19s and helped build links with the school Harefield Academy.
It was here Warburton started to get anxious and wondered if he had made the correct decision. “There were times when I was filling the minibus with petrol and pumping up a bag of balls and I thought, ‘I’ve taken a 95 per cent pay cut, I must be mad, what am I doing?’” His wife Liz, whom Warburton describes as ‘Irish with a fiery temper’ wondered the same. Warburton continues, “She thought I was better than that and I had to explain to her that I had to come through the other side. In the City she knew that I would leave home at 5am and get home after 8pm but Saturday and Sunday was our time together. In football, it’s seven days a week and that was the biggest shock for her. I was doing as many hours as when I was in the City but for one 10th of the pay packet.” In 2006, Warburton received a “bolt out of the blue” phone call from Watford boss Aidy Boothroyd. He assumed they were cutting costs and he would be sacked. In fact, he was asked if he would become the Watford Academy manager.
But it wasn’t a clear progression. Life has a habit of putting obstacles in the way, and in 2009 Watford had a reshuffle of the Academy and Warburton was effectively demoted to assistant Academy manager for 17 to 19-year-olds. He left the club a year later. As could be expected there was tension behind the scenes. In 2014, Warburton explained: “I had a fall out with one or two people. I was treated very shabbily but they have gone now so I've got no grudges against the club. I worked with some very talented people like Aidy Boothroyd, Malky Mackay, Sean Dyche and Brendan Rodgers. After leaving Watford we set up the NextGen Series and then I came and started working at Brentford. Everything happens for a reason and I'm very happy how things have turned out.”
Tomorrow in Chapter Two, John explores the NextGen series and Warburton's move to Brentford.
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