At just 36, Mark Briggs is young to have already achieved success in a coaching career but that is exactly what he did when he was named as the USL Coach of the Year in 2017, the award for the best manager in America’s second tier. The accolade came after the former midfielder from Wolverhampton had led Real Monarchs, the affiliate club of MLS side Real Salt Lake, to first place in the Western Conference, a remarkable feat considering the same club had finished 11th the year before.
However despite still being young in terms of coaching, his job as manager at Real Monarchs was not his first role as head coach, having previously managed fellow USL side Wilmington Hammerheads from 2015 to 2016. Even back as far as 2009, during a spell playing abroad, Briggs had thought of a career in coaching.
Having started his career at West Brom, he had his first spell abroad as a player in 2003 when he spent two seasons with Danish top flight side Herfølge. He later went on to play in America and Malta.
I caught up with Briggs, who left Real Monarchs partway through last season, to hear more about his career so far. I was going to write it up in traditional article but the former midfielder described his experiences with such passion and detail, I’ve decided to share his responses verbatim to avoid missing out.
Briggs on his time in Denmark…
I had been at WBA for many years as I came through the youth system there and I had made a few appearances at the first team level. This lead me to develop some great relationships with a number of people at the football club. Clive Stapleton, who was a board member at that time, approached me about signing for his team in Denmark. I agreed and signed. I enjoyed two seasons in Denmark and truly had my first experience of being away from “home” in a new culture and different environment.
From a football standpoint, I really grew as a player and became mentally tougher both as a footballer and as a person. Thankfully, the team also signed Matthew Turner so we were at least together and were able to experience the highs and lows and all of the emotions of professional football in a foreign country together, which was even more valuable as not everyone spoke English and neither of us spoke Danish.
One of our first games in the top league was against Brondby in front of a full 30,000 fans. It was incredible and is an experience I’ll never forget. I think if players get an opportunity to go and play abroad they should grab it with both hands. It both opens your mind and enables you to grow as a person. I think we all need to learn how to be comfortable with being uncomfortable.
On signing for American club Kalamazoo Outrage in 2008…
After the experience in Denmark, I did always want to go abroad again but at that point in my career I wanted to be back in the UK to give it another go within the professional game at home. However, it proved extremely difficult for me to get back in. After a few short stint at Notts County, Shrewsbury Town and a number of lower level teams, I took the opportunity to go across the pond to America.
America was somewhere I’d always be drawn to and had always wanted to be for whatever reason, so when the chance arose I knew I couldn’t turn it down. Luckily for me, the experience has been nothing short of amazing.
On playing for Kalamazoo and then Wilmington Hammerheads and having interest from MLS clubs…
I loved every minute of playing out here in America. I took a chance and came and played in the PDL (fourth tier) for Stuart Riddle up in Michigan as a way to showcase my talent and get my name out there. Sometimes you have to take a chance to reap the rewards. I ended up doing extremely well in the summer league and was noticed by a number of USL and MLS teams. Portland Timbers took a strong interest in me and had me in on trial.
After two weeks they really liked me but said they wanted to see me in a game against Morellia. The game wasn’t for another two weeks and at that point I instead chose to go back home for my then girlfriend. A decision I very much regret now.
Then came the phone call from David Irving, the head coach of Wilmington Hammerheads in the USL at the time. I signed a deal and moved to Wilmington, North Carolina in February 2009. I loved my time in Wilmington. We won the regular season title and broke a number of records. We had great crowds and reached the quarter final of the Open Cup where we met Chicago Fire and Cuauhtémoc Blanco, winning the game 1-0 in front of 10,000 supporters at Legion Stadium.
Unfortunately, I was unaware of the financial side of the club and at the end of that season they folded – to my disappointment. The standard in America was surprisingly good and every player was in fantastic condition and was extremely athletic, which came as a surprise to me.
On playing in Malta for Mosta and thinking of coaching…
I signed a two year contract out in Malta and also had an amazing experience there, winning promotion with Mosta and putting them back into the Premier League. Malta was actually the first time my mind began to drift into seeing myself as a coach. I’d always been a leader on whatever team I played for but it was in Malta that I began to see a different perspective on the game that I loved from my then coach, Oliver Spiteri. His attention to detail was so impressive – both in his video and scouting as well as on the training field. He had learnt his methodology and beliefs from the Italian game, which I found extremely interesting. We played a possession based style, which I loved, and his details to us when we didn’t have to ball were next level. He covered every inch of the field and that’s why I believe we were successful and little did I know at that point the lasting effect Oliver had on me and my future as a coach.
Malta is a great place for Englishmen or any foreigner to play. The island is obviously beautiful, but the people are so passionate about the game and the standard is much better than people give it credit for.
On getting his first managerial jobs and working with former Manchester United midfielder Liam Miller…
On my return to Wilmington in 2012, I was asked if I would coach a U12 girls’ team. I agreed and I loved every second of that experience and still keep in touch with the girls I coached and many of their families to this day. I went on to take over the youth club and become Technical Director – where I was able to influence coaches, players and parents on how I wanted the game to be played and my beliefs. Seeing some of the success players I have coached have gone on to have playing in college and doing well makes me extremely proud. I think this experience and Malta molded me into the coach I have become.
After a few years as assistant coach for the Wilmington Hammerheads and Youth Club Technical Director, I became head coach . At this point, I knew the club inside and out and I knew the type of players I wanted to bring into the community for them to be successful. I was young, but I also had a lot of experience in the game at every level. I was able to use my age as a positive in relating to the players having been in all the positions and scenario’s they were experiencing or were going to experience. I was able to bring in a few experienced professionals to support me, one being the late Liam Miller who later became my right hand man before his passing. We had a fantastic season taking the team from bottom of the league to the playoffs and reaching the quarter final of the Open Cup where we lost on penalties to Real Salt Lake – a game we should have won, might I add. Nevertheless, my coaching experience at the pro level had began and I craved more of it.
On coaching American players compared to English…
I wouldn’t say American players specifically need coaching differently to English players per se. I think, as a coach, you have to understand your team and your players individually and you have to figure out ways you can connect with each individual. Figure out what motivates them and then you’re able to get the best out of them because you understand them. Not only as players, but as people. You’re a family. The modern player needs a relationship with their coach. They need feedback and they need to feel wanted – no matter whether they are starting, they’re on the bench or if they’re a squad player.
On what’s next for his career…
I’m actively looking for my next opportunity. I’m young, I’m hungry and I believe I can bring a lot to my future club. I’ve been successful every year thus far as a head coach. First in Wilmington and then in Salt Lake with the Real Monarchs – winning the regular season and being named Coach of the Year in 2017. In 2018 before my leave and subsequent departure, my team was 7 points clear at the top of USL table halfway through the season. I truly believe we would have won the regular season again and gone deeper in the playoffs had things not transpired the way they did. Sometimes life throws you a curveball, however, and it certainly threw me a nasty one in 2018.
If any future employers are reading this (or whomever is in general!), I humbly ask you to judge me as a coach and as a person for who I truly am. Do your due diligence and look into what actually happened – not the sensationalism the media thrives off of. At the end of the day, the experience has only made me hungrier and stronger for my next employer…