In conversation with Osian Roberts, the silent engine of Welsh football

We talk to Osian Roberts, who is currently in charge of everything that is needed to run Welsh football in full gear.
Osian Roberts
Art by Debanjan Chowdhury

“Bright, intelligent, studious. You know, if you were to talk football with him then it goes on for hours. That transition from player to potential manager/coach has already taken place. He’s a deep thinker about the game.”

I’m sat across from Osian Roberts in Dragon Park, the training ground for the Welsh National Team and Newport County of League Two, and he’s talking about the transformation of Thierry Henry as a manager. Roberts is the assistant manager of the Wales National Team. But that’s not his day-to-day job. He is the nation’s technical director, responsible for overseeing grassroots football, youth development and coach’s development.

He’s also head instructor of the UEFA Pro Licence course in Wales, one of the most coveted in Europe. Since his appointment as Technical Director in 2007, top managers and players from around the world have poured through these halls, from Roberto Martinez and Tony Pulis to ex-World Cup winners like Patrick Vieira and Marcel Desailly. He seems to relish opportunities to talk about his ex-students or other coaches. When he discusses his own journey and abilities as a coach his humility kicks in.

He grew up with three sisters in Anglesey, a small, village in an island off North Wales. He belonged to a tight-knit community and family. “My first memories are about just kicking a ball in the garden on my own doing, playing and the commentating in those days.” North Wales is populated by Liverpool fans, and in Robert’s youth of the mid-1970’s Liverpool were at their zenith, winning League titles and European Cups.

“There was a bus organized from the village by some of the volunteers to go to the Liverpool vs Arsenal game. I remember walking into the stadium and then seeing the pitch for the first time and the Kop to my right. You’re standing in those days and the noise just hit you. When you got into that into the stadium, the fantastic atmosphere and I’d already fallen in love with playing the game but actually falling in love probably with Liverpool being my team and that type of atmosphere. Certainly that had a profound effect on me.”

One of the wingers that day went on to become one of Robert’s foremost mentors, Steve Heighway.   

At the age of 27, Roberts was living 5,000 miles away from his hometown in New Mexico, playing for the New Mexico Chilies of the  American Professional Soccer League (APSL). After playing for local team Bangor City, at the age of 19 he traveled to America to study and play at the Furman University. However, even at that young age, his back was beginning to deteriorate. “I was told by a consultant that if I continued to play professionally that I’d be crippled by the age of 30.” At the time he was captain and already informally coaching the team. So at the tender age of 27 he became player-manager.

“It was an easy decision to make really and as I say I had already stepped into that coaching environment not only on a professional basis within New Mexico Chilis but I’d already been coaching extensively every summer in the States.” It was during one of these summers coaching that he met his biggest coaching mentor. Less than 15 years after that Arsenal Liverpool match, Roberts was working under Heighway at Umbro Soccer school in California and New Orleans.

 “All types of camps. Some were more babysitting perhaps, but still taught you in important skills about dealing with children and getting your message across and so on. So there were great experiences for me that helped me in developing as a coach.”

 Heighway, who is currently the Academy Director at Liverpool, has nurtured some of the finest talent ever to represent the Reds: Robbie Fowler, Michael Owen, Steven Gerrard to name only a few.

“I was working with him every day doing sessions. I would do my own sessions, he’d observe, give me feedback. I observed him working which was an insight in itself. Probably learned more just having a cup of tea during the breaks  because that’s when I got the opportunity to pick his brains. Why would you do this? What did you do at Liverpool? What did Bill Shankly say? How was Bob Paisley as a coach etc.? I was a sponge. I’d like to think I’m a sponge today in terms of wanting to absorb as much information and gather as much knowledge as possible.”

Heighway instilled an important coaching ethos that has stayed within him today. “Simplicity. Simplicity is genius.”

“I remember playing an exhibition game in Florida and we as staff were the team playing against this youth team and I wanted to show Steve what I could do in the midfield area. So on one occasion I’ve received the ball from the right hand side, I’ve opened up my body and I’ve played the big diagonal to our left winger to get him in on the opposite end. [Heighway] He’s about ten yards away in the middle of the pitch and he’s just turned and I’ve played the great ball and I’m quite happy with myself and he just turns around and looks at me with his arms open and says “was this pass too simple?” So I’ve gone for the difficult option when the easier pass was on and that’s certainly stuck with me. That was the mantra of Liverpool. You play the first pass you see, the simplest pass and you pass and move. Sometimes we as coaches complicate the game but certainly there was a lesson that’s stuck with me.”  

 It was only a year later after he was manager of the New Mexico Chilies that Roberts was back coaching in Anglesey. The APSL folded and he decided it was time to move back to Wales. “It was a three-year contract so I thought ‘well I’ll get paid for going home catching up with my family and trying give something back to Welsh football before I go back to the States.’ He hasn’t coached outside of Wales since.

 For the next 16 years he coached locally in Anglesey, the youth national teams at the U-16 and U-18 level and then at Porthmadog of the Welsh Premier League. He’s risen from grassroots to the national stage, touching every step to the top. In 2007, he beat out former Wales internationals Ian Rush and Barry Horne for the job of Technical Director. Not bad for the man who only played a couple years at the semi-professional level.  

The UEFA Pro License is the highest of coaching qualifications. All of the students on the course have been elite players or have been coaching for years, even decades. I asked Roberts what do you teach these students who are already so knowledgeable? “Yeah, I’m not suggesting that we do.” This is his humility coming out again. Says ex-pupil Thierry Henry in 2015, ‘Why did I come here? Because I heard about it from previous players that have done the course – they spoke volumes about it and how impressive it was, how impressive Osh was – especially in talking directly to players.’ He seems to specialize in this regard. He’s taught Sol Campbell, Jens Lehmann, Dean Saunders, Mikel Arteta, Marcel Desailly and Patrick Vieira. Ballon d’Or nominees, FIFA World XI players.  

The course has evolved in the 11 years he’s been teaching it. What’s the number one question on the course? “How can I be successful? Because everybody wants to be successful and there’s no one answer to that.” However, I then ask what makes his course unique.  

“It’s very similar to developing a player. Every player needs his own or her own individual action plan, individualized program to develop and it’s the same for coaches. The first thing I always do is rather than give information is to absorb and understand what they’re about, what their strengths are and identify then what areas I can make the biggest difference.” This adaptability to the students underpins the course and is what attracts so many to it.  

Said Patrick Vieira in 2015, “Marcell Desailly told me about the Welsh FA and how open minded the sessions were and that was something I was looking for. My vision is that I have some ideas and my own personality – I wanted to learn but to stay true to who I am as a person. That is what the Welsh FA has given me.’ 

Osian tells me, “we’re very much of a belief that we don’t want to produce clones. We don’t want coaches to be leaving our education and working in the same manner.” This is the same man who taught Roberto Martinez and Tony Pulis, two coaches with radically different approaches to the game.

Amongst football, there is a lot of discussion on ex-players going into management. Do players get management jobs over more qualified coaches? Many coaches point out that players like Frank Lampard get more opportunities with no prior experience. In an article in the Independent, Indian National Team Manager Stephen Constantine said, “It’s a kick in the teeth when an ex-professional player skips the queue,” he says. “I think Gareth Southgate was very fortunate to get the Middlesbrough job – and says so himself.” Osian rejects this notion.

 “Sometimes I think it’s misunderstood that these type of people, with high profiles, that the game owes them something or because they were top players they should be given a job. I’ve never come across anyone of those. Their humility is to be admired and they’re prepared to do whatever it takes and put the hard yards in, put the long hours in to make sure that they’re ready. Because they want to be a success. They’ve never taken a shortcut in their lives and that’s why they were top top players”

 His breakthrough moment as a coach with the national team came in 2010. “I’ll never forget the day that Gary Speed, the late Gary Speed, asked me to come and assist him with the national team. It was one of the proudest days of my life and we probably never dreamt that we could take Wales in a major tournament so far.” He is referring to the incredible Wales run in the 2016 Euros that he masterminded with Chris Coleman. They reached the semi-finals and knocked out a Belgium squad that made it to the semi-finals of this years World Cup.

When he speaks about Wales you can just see the pride radiating from him. “Just the fans at the at the Euros, the national anthem being sung at every one of them, which led you to be in tears. So emotional. Spine-tingling.”

 He was a candidate for the vacant Wales job in January but lost out to Welsh legend Ryan Giggs. He’s still an assistant manager for the national team. So what is his future? “My initial response is always you can never walk away from your country. So I have been technical director for eleven years and I’ve been an assistant manager for eight years. It’s been the best experience that I could never have dreamt of really. And so long may that continue. How long? Who knows? You never know in football and then we’ll see what happens.”

Osian Roberts started off playing alone in the garden. Since then he’s been working behind the scenes of Wales Football. Coaches and players from around Europe flock to his courses. He’s been called “the most influential man in Welsh football.” And yet, to so many Welsh fans he’s still anonymous.

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Josh Schneider Weiler

Host of the This Football Life podcast. Was once called the Messi of robe collecting. Migrated from the Mecca of Basketball (New York) to the Mecca of Football (London).