‘Unbelievable’ rise of Australia’s only EFL boss: ‘I love proving people wrong’

Jon Brady has called the UK home for 31 years. During that time, the Newcastle-born Australian has almost experienced it all, while he even trialled in the A-Leagues. He spoke to KEEPUP’s Sacha Pisani.

There was a moment, an unforgettable moment for all the wrong reasons, that has stuck with Jon Brady.

In his rookie year as a professional footballer at Swansea City in the early 1990s, the Australian was punched by the first-team manager.

This was a youngster already in a testing situation, a long way away from his family in Newcastle, after jetting off as a 17-year-old, trying to make it abroad.

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Brady has been on a mission ever since. All these years later, that moment has helped shape the Northampton Town boss, who sensationally led the club to League One promotion last season.

“Youth team days were tough,” Brady – who has been in the UK for 31 years – told KEEPUP, reflecting on his start to life in England.

“There was no FaceTime back then. It was coins and phone box. To ring back home back then, you’d spend a fortune. You’re on the phone for 2-3 minutes to get a quick hello and that was it. It was really, really tough.

“All those experiences. Nowadays looking at it, the welfare and wellbeing of young players has never been better. If I had that extra level of care, I feel that I would’ve felt a lot better about myself as a young player and had a bit more confidence.

“It was more fight or flight. Tough changing rooms too to the point when I was a first-year pro at Swansea I get punched pretty hard at half-time from the first-team manager.

“That really affected me at the time and later on going into coaching. There’s no way I want people to feel like that.”

Brady, who finished runner-up to Ante Milicic in the National Youth League Player of the Year in 1991, added: “We’ve done a lot of things over the last few years to create a great team spirit and togetherness.

“De-armour the players where we find out about their stories. We do a thing about the ‘three Hs’ – hero, heartbreak and highlight. They give three pictures to the analysis guy and what they do is they talk through those pictures for five minutes. Some of the stories are so inspirational.

“You don’t know the journeys they’ve been on. Some of them are very sad. Family stories. The group then gets connected to that individual a lot more and players have a better understanding. When players first arrive in a changing room, the peacock feathers are up aren’t they? They’re strutting about. We want them to be as authentic as they can be and feel comfortable being authentic, and it starts from me being authentic.

“In my day, I felt managers had to be seen to be shouting and had to be aggressive, physical and violent. They had to be someone else but their authentic self. I couldn’t understand it because I came from an incredible upbringing in Australia with great people like my dad. He coached me very, very well. Baartzy (Ray Baartz) was just a lovely man.

“They had great soft skills. Then I came here and it was just like wow. A bunch of Neanderthals I felt.”

A Jets trial & an unexpected managerial gig

At the back end of his playing career, which saw him play for lower-league clubs like Rushden & Diamonds, Woking, Chester City, Stevenage Borough, Hereford United and Cambridge United, Brady was invited back home to Newcastle.

It is there where he – coached by Australian legend Ray Baartz as a youngster – was offered a trial by Gary van Egmond and A-League Men outfit Newcastle Jets in 2009.

He was 34 at the time and had been persuaded to resume playing by Brackley Town, a club in the seventh tier of English football, and it is there where he unexpectedly started his managerial career.

“It wasn’t like I had meant it at all,” Brady recalled. “That time coincided with me coming back to Australia.

“I had a phone call around Christmas time from Brackley Town – I didn’t even know who they were. They played in the Southern League, which is one below the Conference North.

“They asked me to play three games over Christmas. I hadn’t kicked a ball for eight weeks. The manager was very persuasive. The end of those three games, he said my business isn’t doing too well at the moment and I’m an organiser – I think you should be the next manager here.

“I was like ‘wow, I just came out of football’. But I had just done my A license and thought it’s now or never.

“In between those games, I went back to Newcastle and trained with the Jets for about a week-and-a-half. If I was going to do it because my life was here, I wouldn’t have stayed for a year, I wanted to stay for two to set myself back up there. I didn’t come back at the sharpest either.

“When I came back, I was the manager of Brackley Town (for) six-and-a-half years. Won the Southern Premier. Go up and a league and finish third. Lose in play-off final to Halifax. Had a good couple of years there. Beat some League One teams in the Cup.

“Then one summer the chairman hit a big tax bill and unfortunately they pulled the budget. They had been good to me, so I stayed on for a year with that budget. It was great grounding for me.

“We stayed up on the last day of the season. We were four points below the line with three games to go and somehow we did it.”

Juggling two jobs at Northampton

In 2016, Brady made the move to Northampton Town, initially as coach of the Under-16 team.

The following year, he was promoted to U18s coach.

During his time with the youth teams, the Aussie won the youth league, went toe-to-toe with Arsenal in the 2018-19 FA Youth Cup – a Gunners side boasting Florian Balogun and Yunus Musah who are now playing for Monaco and AC Milan respectively.

He also discovered Caleb Chukwuemeka playing football at a park before he was lured away from Northampton by Aston Villa.

Brady had created a pathway to the senior side.

“In the end, seven of them – it’s unheard of at Northampton – come out the academy and got signed for the first team. For a two-year period, we had the most appearances in the EFL from a youth team,” he said.

“My thing, I forced myself to help young players become first-team ready because I played Conference and a bit of League Two. I never quite achieved what I wanted to achieve in League Two.

“When you’re not at that level and you know what you need, then you know what young players need. It was my thing to create first-team ready players. I had a real drive to do that. It was important to me.”

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And up until a year or so ago – prior to becoming Northampton’s first-team boss, he was not only coaching the club’s youth team but also coaching kids as part of his own coaching business first launched when he was 28 – Back of the Net.

“We built up, between us, 33 full-time staff,” Brady recalled. “We did four facets of the business – PE/schools coaching, soccer schools in the half-term, we did elite and advanced centres for kids between grassroots and academies and then when we helped so many kids go on to pro clubs.

“They trained once a week with us and play games at the end of each term. We’d also play pro clubs. We also did Saturday morning clubs.

“Up until a year ago, I was still doing those elite and advanced centres while I was managing Northampton and I was coaching the Under-8s on a Friday night. I love coaching.”

Brady, who has since passed on the business to the people who joined him at the start, continued: “I had six full-time staff and we still ran the Northampton, Milton Keynes advanced centres.

“Pre-taking this job and being the youth-team manager, I would do both nights still – one on Monday and one on Friday but I couldn’t do that once I had the job.

“We had a lot of kids from (ages) 8 to 15 on a Friday night. I buzzed off it. It was brilliant under the lights. I took the U8s-U9s. It’s what I love doing, my business and I wanted to make sure it was running well.

“It took my mind off the pressures of first-team management. It kept my brain sharp too. Not forgetting the basics. To coach that level, your behaviour management has to be very good.”

Thrust into the top job and a rollercoaster of emotions

In February 2021, Brady was placed in temporary charge of the first team and the following March, it was confirmed he would see out the role until the end of the season amid the threat of relegation back to League Two.

The whole time, he only had one thing on his mind.

“(During) COVID, I think I’m probably the cheap option and (they) ask me to take over a couple of games to steady the ship – I do,” Brady remembered.

“We were a bit adrift when I took over and narrowly missed out on staying up.

“The whole time when I first started, I said, ‘could I have my youth-team job back?’ A few games in, they said, ‘could I do a bit more?’ (I said), ‘Can I have my youth-team job back?’

“Five or six games later, they said, ‘look can you take it until the end of the season while we look for someone else?;

“I said, ‘okay as long as you give me my youth-team job back’. Probably a week and a half before the end of the season, they then ask me if I’d consider taking the full-time job.

“I promised my wife I probably wouldn’t do it because we had three young kids at the time and what it takes away from you.

“But I came alive again. You do. You suppress yourself a bit in the academy and youth team. There’s some good players but a lot of them aren’t that driven. If you want it more for the player than the player does, then that is really tough. I’m a driver of people and very positive but I found players wasting away – I found it tough.

“Then you come into a first-team environment and then you create culture where everyone works for each other. I make it a flat hierarchy with my staff. Any time any staff member is talking, taking the floor or a session, they’re the one in charge and we support them.”

Brady hasn’t looked back since, though it hasn’t been without its challenges.

In 2021-22, the League Two promotion race went right down to the final day. Despite beating Barrow 3-1, Bristol Rovers pipped Northampton to the third and final automatic promotion berth thanks to a 7-0 rout of already-relegated Scunthorpe Unted.

That result moved Bristol Rovers ahead of Northampton on goals scored, having needed to better the latter’s result by a five-goal margin prior to the day. Brady’s men would go on to lose to Mansfield Town over two legs in the play-offs.

Twelve months after he was robbed of the same achievement by a “football miracle” that “wasn’t right”, Brady’s Northampton secured their return to the third tier – they finished third behind Leyton Orient and Stevenage.

He was close to tears on that day.

“My career here has given me unbelievable grounding,” Brady said. “When you have setbacks, to continually find a way to keep coming back, and come back stronger.

“I took it all as huge learning and how could I be better? There’s been some pretty tough things.

“I came in with 20 games to go and had to try to keep them up. It was a team that was faltering and injuries like you wouldn’t believe. A youth-team goalkeeper on the bench, our goalkeeper was lacking so much confidence – he was throwing goals in. You just had to be so positive.

“We don’t do that, but then you get a high because they ask you to take the job.

“Then I had to recruit the recruiter. Things the club never had in place. They hadn’t had a DNA on player profiles, what they wanted, how they wanted the team to play. I put a structure together that I had: a right-back and six things each player needed to do or be able to do but two of them had to be non-negotiables. We set up that.

“Over the years, I had so many strong processes and my work ethic is incredibly strong.

“In that first full season, we put a team together with a below mid-table budget and I wasn’t expected to do anything. Then we finish on 80 points on the last day of the season as everyone knows the story… Bristol Rovers win ‘7-0’.

“Then I refined the team a bit more. Go a bit younger and get more technical players because League Two is a bit cut and thrust.

“Last season we crossed the line but incredible stories within stories. From Christmas onwards, I had 10-11 players out. I get players on free transfers and pay them on minimum wage, playing centre-midfielders at centre-back. Nothing fazed me. (We) kept the belief within the team.

“We won some games we had no right to win. I had a centre-half stay out there – he did his hamstring in the 20th minute and stayed out for the entire game. He had a grade three hamstring (tear) and only just returned now.

“I’m glad that Bristol Rovers thing happened because it’s made me a lot stronger. Yes I have a scar from it but they give you that strength.

“Now this season we’re everyone’s favourites to go down. The narrative for Northampton has been a yo-yo club over the last six or seven years. Usually when we go up, we don’t have a budget that is competitive enough.

“Again this season we’re being tipped to finish 24th or 23rd. I love proving people wrong. Our budget will certainly be in the bottom three. But what we’re good at is loans from Premier League clubs and they’ve come back.

“We had the most minutes for players U23 in the EFL last season. We play a lot of youngsters. I’m really brave to do that if they’re good enough.”

At the time of writing, Brady’s Northampton Town sit 15th in League One with seven points from their opening six matches.