Late last year, Kevin Foley was driving home in the rain after a shift at the Wolverhampton Wanderers academy when his phone rang. It was his old Wolves teammate Neill Collins. They had been playing phone tag for about a week. This time they connected. Collins had an unexpected offer — come join the Rowdies coaching staff.
A little over a week later Foley and his wife were in Tampa Bay scouting houses and schools for their three children.
“We’d always kept in touch throughout the seasons,” Foley says. “I’d always call Neill up and see how it was going out here. We’d never actually spoken about the possibility of me coming out here or working out here. It was probably always in the back of my head, maybe in the back of Neill’s head as well.”
The chance to jump into a professional coaching position so soon after his retirement was too good to pass up. Foley’s playing career ended around the same time that Collins had taken over at the Rowdies in May of 2018. Since then Foley had been helping out in the Wolves’ academy at several different age levels.
“I was getting my feet through the door there and I was really enjoying it,” he says. “Even though it was a part-time role, it was full-time really cause we were in there that much. It was just great to be in that full-time professional environment. It was going along nicely, but my goal was always to coach at the senior level. It’s great to be with kids, but when we’re playing for three points every week and we’re scouting the opposition, that’s what really got my attention, that’s where I wanted to end up. I had no idea what my route there was gonna be, but things happen quickly in football.”
Foley and Collins became teammates at the start of the Wolve’s 2007-2008 season. Collins had been playing right back in the previous season, but he moved to the right-sided centerback role to make way for Foley on the right side of the back line. It didn’t take long for them to bond.
“We had that chemistry,” he recalls. “Neill would go on these amazing step-overs and chop someone. Last line of defense and he would Cruyff someone and then I would do it. The fans would get a little nervous when me and Neill started doing stuff like that together. Most of the time it worked. We hit it off straight away. He’s a winner. In training he liked to win. I was the same. I always liked to win no matter what we were doing in training. We’ve that same mentality.”
Collins moved on from Wolves after three seasons, but Foley remained at the club for another five seasons and even captained the side in the Premier League. Now the longtime friends are learning on the job together as they try to establish themselves as young coaches.
“We’re always saying we’re a young coaching staff,” says Collins. “We do things with the right intentions; with planning, with logic. We put thought into it. But then we sometimes still get it wrong. The great thing with someone like Kev is he reflects on it. He’s very honest. As a player he was so honest. He would get dropped and the first person he would look at was himself. I remember it. He would sort himself out before he would question other things. I love that trait in him and he’s the same as a coach.”
Collins may have been convinced Foley had to be one of the hires to replace assistant coaches Cheyne Roberts and Martin Paterson, but he was just a name on a piece of paper to Rowdies President Lee Cohen. After wacthing him work through his first year as a coach and deal with the four-month suspension to the season due to the pandemic, Cohen has been completely bowled over by Foley’s commitment.
“There were times where Kevin and Neill were picking weeds at the stadium to help out and figure out what they can do,” says Cohen. “That’s just the type of personality that Kevin breeds into the organization. ‘You need it, I’ll do it. Whatever I can do to help. Whatever I can do to learn. Whatever I can do to make this club be successful.’ He comes with a load of experience that makes us better as an organization. When Neill went through his selection process he was extremely adamant that Foles was the right guy to bring in… That’s another move that Neill has gotten right in terms of building this foundation of the technical staff and the players.”
Foley doesn’t mind pitching in wherever he needs to. Case in point was the North Carolina FC match in July. A massive storm came through downtown St. Petersburg an hour before the scheduled kickoff time, dreching the pitch. Foley, Collins and the team’s other assistants Stuart Dobson and Chad Burt as well as a hanfuld of Rowdies staff memebrs were out on the field after the rain passed, working to make the field was playable and the match could go on.
“I love the physical side of work,” says Foley. “I’ll be out there putting the forks in the pitch, probably doing more damage to it than I’m supposed to be, trying to get the flooding away. I love mucking in. Chad is the exact same. He’s a worker. He wants to help as much as he can around the place. My mom always said many hands make light work. That’s true and it’s definitely true at this moment in time around here.”
Apart from one season in Denmark, Foley spent the entirety of his playing career in England. His agent always floated the possibility of coming to play in America, but inury issues at the end of his run hampered that prospect.
Foley got an introduction the American soccer and the Rowdies last year as a spectator. While on holiday in Florida with his family, Foley made a pit stop at Al Lang to visit Collins and watch the Rowdies defeat Swope Park Rangers 1-0 through a late penalty by Leo Fernandes.
“Even before Neill came and played out here I knew who the Rowdies were,” says Foley. “I don’t think you can say that about many USL teams. It’s been great for me to say I’m a part of the Rowdies. I’m really proud to be able to say that. It’s such a recognizable brand and recognizable organization. From the outside it looks like a great place and I can assure anyone that it has been. Even during COVID they’ve looked after the staff, they’ve looked after the players. I’ve been a part of this. I’ve helped Lee with stuff in the background. The coaching staff have all pulled together. The organization has made it as easy as possible for my family, always asking how we are.”
As you might imagine, uprooting your family to move across an ocean only to see a pandemic shut the entire world down a couple months later poses some challenges. Just as his children were starting to make new friends in school, everything was shut down. But Foley says his family has managed as best it can under the circumstances. His son has even joined the same youth soccer team as Collins’ son.
“I felt lucky in a way actually,” he says. “Although it’s frustrating not to be able to come into work everyday, I spend loads of time with my family. We’ve got out and done some stuff. It’s been fine. It’s the same all over the world and you’ve just got to deal with it.”
The realtionship between the players and an assistant coach is extremely important, arguably even more crucial than the relationship between players and the head coach. So being unable to be in the same room as the players could have hindered Foley’s ability to build those relationships, but the Rowdies worked hard to ensure the suspension wasn’t wasted time or that the players didn’t get burnt out doing too much without any idea when they would restart.
Like just about everyone else, the Rowdies utilized Zoom to stay connected and give the players a few individual training regimens every week. Once they got permission to move ahead with four-man training sessions, all the coaches got creative in coming up with new training sessions every day to keep things fresh. Thankfully they got the green light to expand to ten-man sessions just as they started to run out of ideas.
“We just didn’t want to burn out the lads immediately,” Foley says. “We got the balance just right. What I will say about the set of lads we have here is they’re really fit, really dedicated. They just wanted to play football, wanted to come in and learn. It’s been easy looking after the boys because they’re such a good bunch. They want to do the right thing all the time… It was definitely a test for me coming into a new role, but one that will make me better in the long run.”
Whatever the Rowdies did during the break seems to have paid off. The club maintained the momentum from the win in the season opener at New York in March and went unbeaten in their first eight after the restart before finally falling to the Charleston Battery last weekend.
“It’s been a dream start really, and I’m sort of kidding myself because the first nine games we were undefeated. I’m like, it can’t always be this good,” says the young coach. “We lost the other day to Charleston. We’ll come up against teams and it’ll be tough and we’ll lose. I think that’s when you really get tested. So in the moment it was nice. We were winning, we were drawing, but that’s probably not the real story of being a coach. You get tested, you lose games. I’m waiting for some more tougher days to come.”
Photo via Samantha Ponzillo Media