To say Anthony Limbrick’s route in to senior coaching has been “circuitous” would be quite the understatement.
“It has been a bit of a different career path…” concedes the 38-year-old Tasmanian.
Like so many young prospects before him, Limbrick departed his homeland to follow his dreams of becoming a professional footballer, but upon his arrival in England, he “quickly realised how hard the business was and how tough and competitive it was to try and get a professional contract”.
The stiff competition of the English game, compounded by a career altering injury, forced the young man to reassess his ambitions.
“I had a bad leg break at 18 or 19 and realised that was going to be it for me” Limbrick told Kick360.
“I just knew my time had come to an end in terms of a playing career, so I quickly moved my dream over from wanting to be a player to wanting to be a coach, and becoming a head coach and coach at the highest level that I could.”
But rather than return home to Australia to learn his new craft, the rookie manager made a life altering decision to remain in the UK, something he shares was partly driven out of fear of being adjudged a failure.
“The failure that I had of being a professional footballer… and I always look at it as that, I look at it as a set back and a knock back to me personally, I didn’t want to go back to Australia.
“There were a lot of family and friends calling me to come home and come back but I was very determined to stay and show you could do something in the UK, in football.”
So began a new challenge.
Limbrick immersed himself in London’s footballing environment, getting any coaching gigs he could find and taking in as many games “as he could afford to” in a bid to learn his new craft.
“It was difficult financially. I was working not many hours at a local sport company, going in to schools, running after school clubs, and it was difficult to survive in London on that money, but I was determined not to get another job to ensure I could learn my craft and dedicate all my time to football coaching.”
Reflecting on those early days and that stigma of shame and failure that drove him on, he admits,
“When I first realised [my playing days were over], I don’t think I handled it very well. It was a hard time knowing that I had worked all my life, that’s all I ever wanted to do, but I think you can go one way or the other, can’t you?
“You’ve got to move on and push on, and I think that was a really important lesson for me. That’s where you get your resilience from and that’s a tool that can be worked on and developed, resilience, and that certainly made me more resilient during those period of times.”
That resiliency and work ethic would soon pay dividends; with the rookie coach getting the opportunity to further his development within the academy system at two of the Premier League’s most prolific academy systems.
At West Ham and Southampton, the Hobart native got to hone his craft under the watchful eye of experienced academy coaches.
“At Southampton there were some excellent people; there was Matthew Crocker, Les Reed, Martin Hunter, who were really good coaches at the time who I learned a lot from.
“They were very big influences on my career. Terry Westley and Liam Manning were very good at West Ham and were excellent mentors.”
Working within the academy system also gave him his first exposure to coaching in an elite environment, observing the likes of current PSG manager Mauricio Pochettino and outgoing Barcelona coach Ronald Koeman go about their work and learning how to manage and create a positive environment from “huge influence” Nigel Adkins.
His man management skills were further sharpened during a short stint as assistant to one of the games great motivators, former Blackpool boss Ian Holloway.
“It was certainly an experience working with Ollie” Limbrick chuckles, recalling their short time together at Grimsby.
“He was a character that’s for sure. And his story telling and the way he galvanised a group, got them playing for each other and built that team spirit was fascinating, and I learned plenty from him on the man management side. He was a fascinating character and the way he would go about things was just first class and I learned a lot from him during that time, albeit a short time.”
Having grown and matured professionally as a coach in a series academy and assistant roles, Limbrick finally felt prepared to strike out on his own and put his own skills to the test.
And that opportunity would come almost 11,000 miles away from Hobart, in a small market town on the Welsh border.
While compatriot Ange Postecoglou has his eyes firmly set on a returning Celtic to the top of Scottish football, Wales’ own green and white Hoops, The New Saints (TNS), have also turned to an Aussie coach to help fulfil their ambitions of reaching the heady heights of the Welsh domestic game.
You see, there is more than just that iconic hooped jersey that TNS share with their Celtic cousins.
For the best part of a decade, The Saints have been the dominant force in the Cymru Premier, picking up a phenomenal 17 trophies between 2011 and 2019 before being unceremoniously unseated by Connah’s Quay.
Upon his arrival, he was given a clear goal: Return TNS to the top.
“When you come in as a TNS coach or TNS player, you know that the target is to win the league.
“There’s certainly an expectation here that you need to win the league and that excited me. I wanted that pressure to try and win titles and win trophies. All the players are aware of that as are the coaching staff and everyone at the club.”
Despite the club’s professional status and reputation as one of the powerhouses of the Welsh game, this would certainly be no walk in the park.
“There are some really good players in the league and at TNS that could play in the National League, League Two perhaps even League One.
“I think the league itself is very mixed because not all of it is full time, so you can have some games that might look a lot lower level than possibly what it is, while others look really high [quality], so I think it really varies depending on the teams and the players. That becomes such a challenge when coaching because of the differentiation between the teams that you’re playing against.
“You’re playing big, strong, physical teams one week that are highly competitive, like to get forward early and get the ball in to the box then you might be playing against a team that likes to pass the ball around and are quite technical.”
This variety of approach and the tactical battles with opposition coaches is something that Limbrick has relished.
“I’ve been really impressed. All of the managers, most of them are pro license, a license coaches, they’ve come with a tactical plan against us, all sorts of formations. 4-4-2 Diamonds, five at the back, three at the back, traditional 4-4-2, we’ve faced good tactical teams that try to stop us playing.
“Here at TNS we do dominate the ball, we’re averaging very high in possession against most teams, so it is a real tactical battle to break down these teams.”
After narrowly missing out on the title last season, Limbrick was in charge for the final 10 games of that campaign, the club have made significant improvements this year.
At time of writing, the club sit six points clear at the top of the table (and 13 points clear of defending Champions Connah’s Quay) and until a narrow defeat away to Aberystwyth last week, had gone unbeaten in the league.
On the continent, they had made headlines across the globe when they defeated former Champions League underdogs Viktoria Plzen.
These performances and historic achievements are no fluke. Limbrick admits there were a lot of discussions and difficult decisions (among them the decision to release all-time leading goalscorer and New Zealand international Greg Draper) made during the off-season to ensure the club could hit their ambitious targets.
“We’ve made a lot of decisions on recruitment and on players we needed to keep and players we wanted to bring in to try and raise the standards and improve on last [season].
“We had some targets [in mind]. We wanted to improve on last season’s European campaign, which we did. We had a very successful European run… and that’s the target long term for the club, getting in to the Europa Conference League group stages and that’s made a lot more achievable by what we achieved in the summer. We beat Viktoria Plzen 4-2 at home, a team two years ago that beat Roma in the Champions League!”
The progress made is testament to Limbrick’s years of hard work and dedication, but he’s not one to rest on his laurels.
“If you haven’t been a professional player, you have to bring value in other areas and for me, that was my dedication to learning the craft, my knowledge, my tactical information and technical detail. I knew I had to put in those hours if I wanted to do it, and the good thing about coaching is that you’ve got time to do that. It’s not a career where there’s an age limit on it.
“I still feel like I’ve got a lot more years to go, I’m a young head coach/manager at the moment, I’ve only had 80-odd games as a head coach and I’ve got a long way to go still.
“I still feel like I’m only just getting started.”
With Tasmania one of many locations harbouring hopes of a future expansion license, Could we see the Aussie ex-pat return to take the helm of an A-League club based on the Apple Isle?
“My mum would like that!” Laughs Limbrick.
“She still lives in Tasmania, so I’m sure she’d be buzzing to get me home one day.”
“I keep in touch with the A-League [Men]. I watch it closely, I know a lot of the players and the teams and always keep an eye out for it.
“I’m very happy and settled in Europe but one day I’d love to represent my country and to coach an Australian team, at any level, would be a dream come true.
Images Supplied: The New Saints