‘A deep thinker’: Robert Page, the accidental manager of Wales at Euro 2020
Robert Page has not savoured the array of trophies Ryan Giggs did across a glittering playing career but there is no doubting his pride at leading his country at a European Championship. Colours pinned to the mast, it radiates in his voice. “I’m from Tylorstown in the valleys and to play for your country is a great honour … but to manage it in a major tournament like this is unbelievable,” he says. “I left the valleys at 16 years old to go and pursue a career.”
Wales’s senior players speak glowingly about the way Page has held the fort for eight matches during the off-field uncertainty that has surrounded Giggs and the Football Association of Wales since November and the 46-year-old, a popular personality, is seen as a relatable character. “When Rob Page speaks, particularly to young players, he knows what he’s talking about because he’s been there,” says Micky Adams, who signed him as a player at Coventry and took him to Port Vale as a coach.
“You need to surround yourself with people that know it’s not all sweetness and light. He was never afraid to give his opinion on team selections whereas a lot of coaches will say: ‘I agree gaffer.’ If he didn’t think it was right, he’d let me know, and I liked that.”
Adams gave Page his first coaching job 10 years ago, appointing him youth-team manager at Vale before promoting him to assistant manager, and together they won promotion from the fourth tier in 2013. As assistant Page led warmups at training and assumed control of video and opposition analysis.
“When I was at Leeds [as a player], Billy Bremner used to say, ‘Hey, we’re Leeds United, go out and play’ but the game has evolved and now you need to know individuals, strengths, weaknesses and all about the team you’re playing against,” says Adams. “The Welsh public can rest assured that there will be no stone left unturned. Rob is very detailed, a deep thinker, and the biggest compliment I can pay him is he is a student of the game.”
Page’s work at Vale, where he succeeded Adams as manager, prompted Northampton to come calling, via a reference from Chris Wilder. Following in the slipstream of Wilder, who had taken Northampton up into League One, was always going to be tricky and Page was sacked eight months into a three-year contract after a 5-0 defeat to Bristol Rovers.
Page had to rebuild a squad, with several key loans from the previous season, including James Collins, now at Cardiff, returning to their parent club.
“I remember the day Micky came into the dressing room and said he was done and confirmed Rob was taking over,” says Carl Dickinson, who played under Page for three years at Vale. “His transition into it was seamless.
“We trained the way we played. He was always honest. He’d always let me know I hadn’t played well enough or if I needed to do better. I don’t think he was one to shy away from anything he thought was wrong. He’d always speak his mind and stand up for what he thinks is right.”
Page, who captained Watford, Sheffield United, Huddersfield, and Coventry, was the same as a player. “At the time Coventry were struggling,” says Adams, reflecting on Page taking the armband upon arrival. “When you’re bottom of the table, you’re looking for people who are the right characters and won’t shy away from the battle ahead. We kept Coventry in the Championship that season and the following season we finished eighth.
“As a captain on the pitch, [he was] seven, eight or nine out of 10 all of the time. You knew what you were going to get.”
An episode in 2007 that left Page with a hand in a cast and his Coventry teammate Michael Doyle without three front teeth stemmed from a feisty training-ground altercation, prompted by Doyle’s tackle on Chris Birchall. A dazed Doyle headed back to the dressing room and the caretaker manager at the time, Adrian Heath, sent youth-team players out to hunt for Doyle’s teeth.
“They were like forensics, on their hands and knees on the training pitch, in lines, and they had to stay out there until they found all of his teeth,” the Coventry goalkeeper at the time, Luke Steele, recalled on a podcast last year. “It was a mess. Doyley got these beautiful new veneers after that.”
Page became the Wales Under-21 manager two months after leaving Northampton and in August 2019 was appointed as No 2 to Giggs, who is absent as he awaits trial in January on assault charges, which he denies.
Page has done a remarkable job in challenging circumstances, maintaining the feelgood factor fostered by Chris Coleman at Euro 2016 and evident following qualification in Cardiff 18 months ago. He has a longstanding relationship with several younger players in the squad, including David Brooks, Rhys Norrington-Davies, Joe Rodon, and Joe Morrell, from his time with the Under-21s and many still refer to the interim manager by his nickname.
“They can call him Pagey but I bet the ones left out of the squad won’t be calling him Pagey,” says Adams, laughing. “At international level you have to have a bit of credence and he’s got that.”