Steve, thanks for talking to Fultime. Let’s start off with your time as a player, because your path into professional football was quite an extraordinary one wasn’t it?
Well I went from playing non-League football with Curzon Ashton to signing for the champions of Europe. Nottingham Forest had won two consecutive European Cups [in 1979 and 1980], so when they came in for me it was an offer I couldn’t turn down. I’d played one game for Wigan Athletic, who had just gone into the Football League, on trial, but I decided against signing for them, because I wanted to see if anything else presented itself - and it did. To be honest, when I first arrived at Forest I was a million miles away from playing for the champions of Europe. I didn’t really break into the side for three years or so, but after a while I found my feet.
Having come through the non-League route, has that made you more susceptible to players at that level?
It was a bit different back in my day, where it was probably a bit easier to make that transition. A lot of big clubs looked at non-League football, and while I’m not saying that they don’t now, today clubs cast their net to every corner of the world. Of course, there are examples of that now; Chris Smalling’s move from Maidstone United to Fulham is a perfect one. I actually think some players aren’t quite ready at 17, 18 or 19 and need a bit of time, which is something that non-League football can give them. I’m a great believer that if you’re good enough you will find your way in this game.
After moving into coaching at Forest, your reputation began to grow. In the summer of 2001 you joined Southampton as reserve-team manager before taking on the role of academy director?
I knew Stuart Gray very well from our time at Forest as players and back then he was the Southampton manager. I came in initially to oversee the technical side of things, but then found myself heading up the academy. That was my first chance to really put my own stamp on something and show what I could do. It was a very successful time for all of us that were involved, because the players that came through the Southampton academy at that point are well documented.
Having played alongside him at Forest and then worked with him at Manchester City, you continue your partnership with Stuart Pearce with the England Under-21s. It’s a relationship that works well isn’t it?
I like to think so. We share a lot of the same ideas and compliment each other. He’s an extremely hard-working coach and likes to be out on the pitch with his players. He’s an honest man too, and I think he’s brought a lot to his role with England. I initially worked with the Under-21s during David Platt’s spell as manager in 2002, but I’ve worked alongside Stuart since 2007 and I’ve loved every minute of it. So far we’ve played at three consecutive European Under-21 Championship Finals, of which we were knocked out at the Semi-Final stage in 2007 against Holland - losing 13-12 on penalties! - before that disappointing 4-0 defeat to Germany in the Final in 2009. In 2011 we failed to reach the knockout stage despite getting off to a good start against eventual winners Spain. We enter a fourth tournament this June in Israel so hopefully we can get our hands on the trophy. It’s been a good campaign for us so far, and we have a very good crop of players.
Having worked with senior players at Bolton Wanderers, Bristol City and Hull City, what was behind your decision to return to academy football last summer?
If I’m honest, working with young players gives me the greatest satisfaction. I needed to return, and at some point it was always going to happen. And the move has refreshed me as I’d probably gone a little stale. It was the challenge that I had been seeking and working with these boys and staff at Fulham has given me that. I had spoken to a few clubs the previous year, but when the job at Fulham came up it was the most appealing. This Academy had made great progress in recent seasons so I was well aware of the good work that was taking place and I wanted to be part of that. It was a good fit for me.
Martin Jol is also someone that champions the promotion of homegrown talent too isn’t he?
He is, and that’s vital as well. I don’t think I would have joined a club that didn’t have that support from the top and its management. Young players need to be given an opportunity, and they have that here at Fulham. The Manager has shown that he is willing to give them a chance, so that’s great to see. It’s not easy for a manager to do that at this level, but the boys have no excuses here. I’m pretty confident of what these players can do, but at the end of the day, it is the Manager’s reputation that is on the line isn’t it? But if the players are good enough, he’ll play them, make no mistake. But we have to make sure that they are.
Having enjoyed success with the academies at Nottingham Forest and Southampton, are you confident that you can tread a similar path of progress at Fulham?
I think I’ve been lucky with the groups that I’ve worked with. At Forest and Southampton those groups had a lot of quality and it was the same with Manchester City. But having come in at Fulham, I’ve found another promising group. I’m excited about the group’s potential and now the challenge is getting them to play at their maximum. If they do that, then we’ll see what happens.
To read the full interview with Wigley, be sure to pick up your copy of Issue 40 of Fultime magazine which is instore now, priced £3.50. You can also purchase your copy from our online store here.
The latest edition also features in-depth discussion from Manager Martin Jol, Damien Duff, Sascha Riether, Matthew Briggs, Les Strong, Erik Nevland and Fulham fan and television presenter Millie Clode. We also take a look at the Whites in the 1960s, provide the second instalment of the 100 Men Who Shaped Fulham Football Club, and offer a comprehensive guide to all of the Whites’ January transfer window purchases down the years.