Liam Manning is recalling the days when he would coach five nights a week at Ipswich’s academy, take another session on a Saturday morning, turn out for Leiston in the Eastern Counties League in the afternoon and arrive at Ipswich’s training ground at seven the next morning to drive the minibus to a youth game anywhere across East Anglia or London.
“You’d take any players that needed a lift, the equipment – we were the kit men as well – and there will be coaches all around the country that can relate to that,” he says of a time when he worked with under-nines to under-15s. “I remember having a kickabout on the M25 once. It was gridlocked, the road was closed and no one was moving anywhere. I remember doing a few keepie-uppies because we had been sat there for a few hours. They were good times.”
By his own admission, Manning, whose MK Dons are third in League One, has had an unconventional journey into coaching. After being released by Ipswich, he dropped into non-league, playing semi-pro in Suffolk either side of a season in Iceland with Selfoss, and started coaching at 21 to supplement his income. “I wasn’t the best player. I was honest, hard-working … it’s my nice way of saying I used to keep it simple and smash into people,” he says, laughing.
But those roots provide Manning with a sense of perspective. “You don’t need all the bells and whistles. Ultimately, it comes down to having really good people and a good culture where people are passionate about what they do.”
It is 4pm and Manning has just come out of a monthly board meeting with the sporting director, Liam Sweeting, whose savvy recruitment has helped shape a team challenging for promotion. The forward Scott Twine, who cost £300,000, and the centre-back Harry Darling have been among this season’s standout players and another, Matt O’Riley, joined Celtic in January, when they also had to absorb four of their five loanees being recalled.
At 29, Josh McEachran is something of a veteran in a youthful squad – MK Dons have on average the division’s second-youngest starting XI – but Dean Lewington, son of Ray, the assistant to Roy Hodgson who helped take training before the first league game after Russell Martin left for Swansea, is a true outlier: he turns 38 in May. “He kills our average age a little bit,” Manning says, grinning.
The wing-back Kaine Kesler Hayden arrived on loan from Aston Villa, the goalkeeper Jamie Cumming from Chelsea and the midfielder Matt Smith on a permanent deal from Manchester City. MK Dons also signed Dan Kemp and Conor Coventry, both of whom Manning worked with at West Ham, where Declan Rice was a first-year scholar and centre-back when Manning was appointed Under-23s head coach in 2015. “Every time you watched a youth-team game it looked too easy for him – not because he did anything outrageous but because he was so clean with the basics, the little things on transition. When he is cleaning up, rather than smashing it out of play or panicking, he would just find a pass or start an attack.”
MK Dons had done their homework on Manning and unlike with his predecessors, Martin, Roberto Di Matteo and Karl Robinson, they wanted someone with experience of leading a senior team. Manning’s credentials stood out given the swift upturn he oversaw at the Belgian second-tier side Lommel SK, bought by the City Football Group, which owns Manchester City, in May 2020 when the club were on the brink of bankruptcy. On arrival in Lommel, Manning was the only Englishman and had six registered players. Data such as passes per minute – a scatter graph showed they were in the leading teams for possession in Europe – suggested he could prove the perfect match for MK Dons. Before Lommel, he spent 14 months with another club in the CFG stable: as New York City’s director of coaching.
“I planned on being there a little bit longer but in this industry you cannot map it all out in a nice chronological order, can you? Sometimes I think, and I found it when I went from Ipswich to West Ham, that you can become slightly cocooned. We do it in England where you see it a certain way [because of] the regard English football is held in, the intensity and the volume of games … but if you step in and experience it in a different country you learn a lot, in terms of how people operate differently and, for example, how does the culture where you grow up affect how you communicate?”
At New York, there were 42 nationalities across players and staff. Manning had just started Spanish lessons before moving to Belgium, where he tried and failed to master Dutch. “We spend so much time on the players and the team we neglect ourselves too often. I’m extremely guilty of that. We’ve spoken as staff about trying to bring someone in next season to do an hour a week of Spanish lessons.”
At 23, Manning never envisaged advancing past the Uefa B licence because he found it so tough but last year completed his pro licence. “I remember the first few sessions,” he says, rowing back to starting his badges. “You’ve got people who know what they’re doing and talking about coming to watch your session. You’re thinking: ‘Crap, what’s he thinking of this?’ The process then was very much: ‘Pass/fail, clipboard, have you ticked everything off?’ It was like your driving test, rather than a bespoke plan to support you.”
When Manning was living in New Jersey, a 45-minute train from New York City, he missed the Football League and games where promotion, relegation and sometimes more were at stake. MK Dons, who travel to Cambridge on Saturday, have lost once in the league since Christmas but Manning is staying grounded. His team are three points off second-placed Wigan, who have two games in hand.
“I’m a proper negative nelly about it. I find it really difficult to enjoy a win, for example. It sounds mad because you do, but ‘bang’ and you’re straight into the next game. ‘What team am I going to pick? Who I am disappointing?’
“There is not a huge amount of time to reflect and enjoy those moments.” He could feel different at the end of May. “Until then, I’ll stay my boring, flat-line self,” he saying with a smile.