After a decade of promoted assistants and power plays by league insiders it appears New York Red Bulls will be conducting a legitimate outside search for a new head coach. After the firing of Chris Armas, club head of sport Kevin Thelwell said it will be a broad recruitment process and that experience in Major League Soccer will not be as much of a requirement as “knowledge of football (and) knowledge of managing people.”
It does not appear that the former Wolverhampton Wanderers sporting director left his Premier League position to make small moves with MLS retreads, and the possibilities of who could be the shortlist of someone with Thelwell’s diverse professional background are endless. Not since the tenure of Andy Roxburgh has New York had such a well-connected figure in charge of the club, and Thelwell pridefully declared on Friday that he has been “inundated” with interest in what he says is “a big job in a good league”, making potential candidates more difficult than usual to project. But Thelwell’s professional history leaves a strong trail of clues as to which direction he may go in for the next Red Bulls manager.
Here are a few of the names that could begin emerging in the coming weeks as the Red Bulls prepare to make arguably the biggest statement hire in the club’s history:
A protege of Thelwell’s in the coaching structure at Wolves, 38-year-old Rob Edwards has clear managerial ambitions. Could New York and Major League Soccer be the next step for the Englishman’s promising career?
Edwards made over 200 Football League appearances as a central defender in the 00s, most prominently with Blackpool (where he was a veteran reserve on the club’s colorful 2010-11 Premier League squad) and Wolverhampton. Following his retirement Edwards served as an assistant coach at Wolves, where he served as a caretaker manager following Thelwell’s firing of Walter Zenga in 2016. After a single season managing prominent semi-pro club Telford United, Edwards was welcomed back into the fold at Wolves by Thelwell as the club’s new reserve team manager.
However Edwards’ burgeoning reputation kept him on the move as he left Wolves in October 2019 after being recruited by the English FA to become a “possession coach” with the youth national team program, where he has remained since. With international football severely curtailed by the recent covid-19 pandemic, a club job with familiar and friendly boss would have to be enticing for the young and highly-touted Edwards.
A standout striker in the early days of the Premier League, Dean Saunders has a long association with Thelwell. At the same time Thelwell was rising up the ranks of the Welsh FA coaching structure, Saunders was one of the leading stars for the Wales national team. Saunders even wrote the foreword to one of the coaching manuals Thelwell authored with American company World Class Coaching in the late 1990s.
Following his retirement from playing with over 200 professional goals scored, Saunders has had a spottier coaching career in the English game. Following a decent spell with Oxford United and a disastrous relegation with Doncaster Rovers, in 2013 Saunders was the first managerial hire by Wolverhampton Wanderers under a newly-promoted recruitment director named Kevin Thelwell. However this stint ended in disappointment as Saunders was fired after four months and a relegation to the third division.
Though Thelwell eventually helped lead Wolves back to the elite of English football, Saunders has had more difficulties on and off the pitch, with unsuccessful stints at Crawley Town and Chesterfield followed by an August 2019 traffic incident in which he refused a breathalyzer test. Though his stock is certainly low, Saunders has earned Thelwell’s trust before after professional difficulties.
Much like the aforementioned Saunders, Billy Davies is an experienced but troubled managerial veteran whose past connections with Kevin Thelwell could lead to an unlikely career reboot in America. The Scotsman gave Thelwell his first break into club coaching when he hired him as youth development director at Preston North End in 2005. The following year the duo moved to Derby County, leading the second division club to a stunning first-year promotion that unfortunately resulted in the worst Premier League campaign in history with only 11 points recorded on the way to immediate relegation.
While Thelwell served as caretaker manager following Davies’ firing and soon left for his long-term role at Wolves, Davies’ life in the professional game has take a much more difficult turn. Both of Davies’ subsequent managerial jobs have been with Nottingham Forest, one of the sleeping giants of the English lower leagues. His first stint was relatively successful, narrowly missing out on promotion in 2010 and 2011 before stepping down. However a return to the Forest job in 2013 was turbulent to say the least. Davies was fired in March 2014 after a 13-month tenure of poor form and erratic behavior including a blackout of media access to the team and the illegal employment of his cousin and agent as a club official. Davies has not worked in professional management since, and vindictive press interviews do not appear to be helping any attempts to break back into the British game.
But despite his bruised reputation, in his pomp Davies was considered one of Britain’s most talented and innovative young managers. The history of all sports are dotted with coaches who have found success after long hiatuses - could a position with friendly faces in a country where he is not as stigmatized be enough to earn Davies a ticket back into the professional ranks?
If Thelwell really hopes to swing for the fences with his appointment, one name that would grab attention on both sides of the Atlantic would be the inimitable Nigel Pearson, recently sacked by eventually-relegated Premier League club Watford. The 57-year-old former Sheffield Wednesday defender has weaved together one of the most colorful coaching careers in contemporary English football, and his talents have been sought out by Thelwell before.
Pearson is known by most fans for his stint with Leicester City, who he led to Premier League promotion in 2014 and saved from relegation in a stressful 2015 close season in which several intense confrontations with fans, players, and journalists made headlines. He would leave Leicester soon after when his son was implicated in an embarrassing reserve team sex scandal, but a sophisticated training and recruitment program built by Pearson and sporting director Steve Walsh (who has since worked with prominent Red Bull scout Laurence Stewart at Everton) was the foundation on which Claudio Ranieri led Leicester to a famous Premier League championship in the immediate wake of Pearson’s departure.
Indeed Pearson was still revered enough by Leicester’s ownership to be given the reins of Belgian sister club OH Leuven for two seasons. Before his recent stint with Watford, Pearson’s attempts to re-enter the English game had included an interview with Kevin Thelwell at Wolverhampton Wanderers in late 2016. Pearson has long expressed a fascination with working abroad and if he begins to exchange texts with Thelwell again, it could give us the first Red Bulls manager to ever fight off a pack of wild dogs in the Carpathian Mountains with his bare hands.
If Thelwell hopes to blend personal familiarity with MLS experience, one possibility could be his compatriot and former Red Bulls midfielder Carl Robinson. Robinson, who managed Vancouver Whitecaps for five seasons before departing in 2018, was one of the standout players in the Wales national team during Thelwell’s stint as a key FA executive and is a club hero at Wolverhampton Wanderers, where he made almost 200 appearances during a seven season stint.
However Robinson’s reputation in North America took a huge hit on his way out the door in Vancouver. Reports and confessions of severe locker room friction were joined by hints of malfeasance involving his agent brother as Robinson was dismissed by Vancouver following the 2018 season. However Robinson was still able to lead a high-turnover Vancouver roster to three playoff berths in five years as well as the semifinals of the 2017 CONCACAF Champions League. One wonders if he might be able to achieve even more with Red Bull’s resources and Thelwell’s expertise.
The current Red Bulls interim coach Bradley Carnell has stated that he would like to be considered for the permanent position and Thelwell has acknowledged that Carnell will be a candidate as the search process moves along. The 43-year-old South African is a long-term protege of Red Bull soccer guru Ralf Rangnick who was selected for the New York coaching staff three years ago after being recommended by Rangnick to Jesse Marsch.
Though a 3-0 home loss to Philadelphia in Carnell’s opening game in charge was a less-than-ideal beginning to his campaign to gain the permanent role, the history of the game is littered with caretaker assistants who gained enough momentum at the right time to begin management careers of their own. It certainly wouldn’t be unprecedented in Harrison.