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What next for Forest Green Rovers manager Rob Edwards?

Rob Edwards is enjoying a superb debut season in club management
Rob Edwards is enjoying a superb debut season in club management

Championship clubs rarely headhunt managers from lower divisions.

Over the last 10 seasons, in fact, just nine bosses have landed a second tier gig off the back of good work in League One or League Two.

Ryan Lowe, Danny Cowley and Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink had to lead Plymouth Argyle, Lincoln and Burton respectively to almost the summit of League One with modest resources before getting jobs at struggling Championship clubs.

It was a similar story for Paul Hurst and Grant McCann, who had to oversee unlikely Play-Off finishes with Shrewsbury and Doncaster in 2017-18 and 2018-19 respectively, prior to getting a shot at the second tier.

Swansea’s move for Russ Martin was based on style more than success, Birmingham’s appointments of Gary Rowett in October 2014 and Lee Bowyer in March 2021 had a lot to do with the respective boss’ prior association with the club, while Sheffield Wednesday were heading to League One when they plumped for Darren Moore.

Why is it, then, that Championship clubs will have no qualms appointing managers who may have struggled (or even failed) in their previous job, but would in many cases quiver over the thought of giving a talented up-and-comer a try?

We are seeing managers like John Coleman at Accrington Stanley and Gareth Ainsworth at Wycombe, who consistently defy the odds, not get a look-in at that level.

It seems more than plausible, too, that Mark Bonner at Cambridge, Matt Gray at Sutton and others may follow a similar path, despite incredible achievements.

Rob Edwards, who looks set to lead Forest Green Rovers to the League Two title in his first season in senior management, can be confident of making waves further up the divisions.

Here’s why...

Football Tips

Knowledge of youth scene

Edwards’ career so far involves coaching Wolves Under-23s, in 2018-19, and England Under-16s last season.

For a lot of Championship clubs, it is a significant tick in a prospective coach’s box that they have connections in that department, because many want to follow a model of developing talent and selling it on, thus the top prospects and hidden gems in English football is a huge advantage.

Furthermore, Edwards already knows much of the England Under-17s crop and those relationships could make a real difference in terms of those players choosing his club for an EFL loan move in the next few years, as opposed to somebody else.

When Swansea reached the Championship Play-Offs in 2019-20, the turning point was signing defender Marc Guehi, midfielder Conor Gallagher and poacher Rhian Brewster on loan from Chelsea (x2) and Liverpool respectively.

All three players had won the England Under-17s World Cup in 2017 under Cooper, and cited the boss’ presence as a key factor behind their move.

If Edwards has a similar influence on the country’s top young talent, that gives any club that headhunts him a huge headstart.

Wing-back wonder

Wing-backs are crucial to the way Edwards’ sides play.

It is they, rather than the central midfielders in his 3-4-1-2 – and even attacking midfielder Ebou Adams – who take on the bulk of the creative freedom.

Nicky Cadden’s brilliance at left wing-back for Forest Green this season is hardly surprising, given how well he assisted Jamille Matt under Mark Cooper last term. 

Cadden is quick, tricky and potent, but not afraid to cut inside and get close to the penalty box, whilst being capable of whipping up a pin-point delivery.

Kane Wilson, however, has gone up another level.

The right wing-back’s capacity for incisive, intelligent link-up play was evident in flashes at the start of his career, with stop-start spells at Walsall and Exeter while opportunities at West Brom were hard to come by.

Last season, though, Wilson enjoyed a man-of-the-match performance in the victory at Bolton, but then picked up an injury that affected his 2020-21 campaign.

If the 5’10 full-back was short of confidence, though, that changed when Edwards took charge: Wilson has grabbed three goals and a whopping 12 assists this term.

Unlike a more traditional wing-back, who would attack the flank directly, Wilson’s game is much more about combination play.

The 21-year-old will feed off an overlapping run from right centre-back Udoka Godwin-Malife, or an overloading run from Adams, combining with one or two teammates before getting into the best positions to deliver.

Although Wilson is prepared to look for the head of Matty Stevens at the near-post, or Jamille Matt at the back-stick from the byline, he prefers to cut inside to ensure maximum accuracy.

Better crossing

It may be partly through these co-ordinations of movement that Edwards has elevated Forest Green above last season’s standards.

Although Cooper is a reasonable tactician, his side tended to cross for Matt from deeper and wider positions, which meant they were hugely dependent on the aerial prowess of Jamille Matt.

When the target man got injured in Spring’s 1-0 defeat to Bolton, there was no Plan B: not in that match, nor the rest of Cooper’s reign.

Edwards has not been able to adjust to the same circumstances, but one can bet that in the event Matt gets injured for his side, he will find the answers.

There is no way that Stevens, for example, could have scored eight headed goals – as he has this term - in last season’s side, because the nature of the deliveries would not have suited him at 5’9.

That does not mean that Jamille Matt is not still an incredibly important player to FGR, but that this team is harder to predict and has more tools in their arsenal.

League Two Table
League Pos Team P W D L GF GA GD PTS
1. Forest Green 46 23 15 8 75 44 +31 84
2. Exeter City 46 23 15 8 65 41 +24 84
3. Bristol R 46 23 11 12 71 49 +22 80
4. Northampton 46 23 11 12 60 38 +22 80
5. Port Vale 46 22 12 12 67 46 +21 78
6. Swindon 46 22 11 13 77 54 +23 77
7. Mansfield Town 46 22 11 13 67 52 +15 77
8. Sutton Utd 46 22 10 14 69 53 +16 76
9. Tranmere Rovers 46 21 12 13 53 40 +13 75
10. Salford City 46 19 13 14 60 46 +14 70
11. Newport County 46 19 12 15 67 58 +9 69
12. Crawley 46 17 10 19 56 66 -10 61
13. Leyton Orient 46 14 16 16 62 47 +15 58
14. Bradford C 46 14 16 16 53 55 -2 58
15. Colchester 46 14 13 19 48 60 -12 55
16. Walsall 46 14 12 20 47 60 -13 54
17. Hartlepool Utd 46 14 12 20 44 64 -20 54
18. Rochdale 46 12 17 17 51 59 -8 53
19. Harrogate 46 14 11 21 64 75 -11 53
20. Carlisle Utd 46 14 11 21 39 62 -23 53
21. Stevenage 46 11 14 21 45 68 -23 47
22. Barrow 46 10 14 22 44 57 -13 44
23. Oldham Athletic 46 9 11 26 46 75 -29 38
24. Scunthorpe Utd 46 4 14 28 29 90 -61 26
Show More

Consistent side

Question for readers: how many managers has your team had in your time supporting them, about whom you have complained “he doesn’t know his best XI”?

I bet the answer would be quite a few.

Edwards, though, likes to settle on his best team early on. There are 14 players who have featured in 22 or more of the Green Devils’ 33 league games this term, with the few rotations being predictable and straightforward.

Goalkeeper Luke McGee, wing-backs Wilson and Cadden, midfielder Ben Stevenson plus strikers Matt and Stevens are essentially guaranteed starters when fully fit and available.

Beyond that, the 39-year-old rotates between five defenders – Godwin-Malife, Jordan Moore-Taylor, Baily Cargill, Dan Sweeney and Dominic Bernard – for three positions, helped by the latter’s ability to fill in either of those slots.

In midfield, Stevenson has been paired most often with Regan Hendry, but at other times Ebou Adams occupies that role as opposed to competing with Jack Aitchison for the number 10 berth.

Edwards tends to make the decisions he is expected to make and whatever Forest Green lose in terms of keeping opponents guessing, they gain tenfold in positional and role familiarity within clear patterns of play.

League Two Odds

The future

Forest Green fans will not want to think too much about the future right now, and perhaps Edwards will not either.

Of course, his side still have 13 crucial games to compete in, and the current haul of 67 points – after a four-game winless streak - would not get them so much as a Play-Off place, so their work is nowhere near done.

It is hard to catch the Green Devils, though, and it is hard to see any other team taking top spot, let alone three other sides securing automatic promotion at their expense.

If Edwards does lead the Nailsworth club to top spot, as expected, then he may have a decision to make in the summer.

Forest Green are well-backed by Dale Vince, and have exciting plans laid out for a new stadium at Eco Park, but midtable in League One next season is very much the target – and Edwards will catch the eye of higher-placed clubs with loftier ambitions.

Luton could be after a manager if Nathan Jones gets poached, Stoke might want to go in a different direction, Liam Manning may get offers to leave MK Dons, who have a squad built to play an expansive football with a wing-back system.

Will Edwards get a big move this summer? Hard to say, because it depends on so many unknown variables.

Would he be happy to stay at Forest Green if no suitable offers happened to come his way? Almost certainly.

A man for the future? Without question.

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