The coach that nurtured Declan Rice at West Ham is flying with Oxford

WONDERS OF THE PYRAMID: Liam Manning – the coach credited with nurturing Declan Rice at West Ham – is flying at Oxford… PLUS three games to watch this weekend

  • Oxford United are seventh in League One after winning four of their first six 
  • He is credited with nurturing Declan Rice while working with West Ham’s U23s 
  • Listen to the latest episode of Mail Sport’s podcast It’s All Kicking Off! 

Liam Manning opens with a sentence that is never a good way to start an interview.

‘I’m quite a boring person,’ he says. But after speaking to the 38-year-old Oxford United boss, it is very clear Manning and his team are far from boring.

The U’s have won four of six games so far in League One and are tipped by many as an outside bet for promotion. They are one of the best teams to watch in the Football League given their expansive, possession-based style of play.

Despite his gambit of being a bore — he spent rare days off during the international break having family time and going on dog walks rather than jetting off somewhere exotic — Manning has a more unorthodox career path than most in the country.

‘I joined Ipswich academy at 13, the year they got promoted to the Premier League and went into the UEFA Cup with the terrific Marcus Stewart,’ says Manning. ‘At the end of my scholarship, I got, “You’re not quite what we’re looking for” from Joe Royle.

Liam Manning has had a more unorthodox career path than most after rejection from Ipswich at 13

The Oxford United boss went on to have success in charge of MK Dons but narrowly missed out on promotion

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‘There’s hundreds of thousands of kids that will have had that. I don’t think you realise until you’re out of the bubble of an academy just how difficult it is to forge a way of playing in the industry.

‘So I bounced around a few clubs on trials, played in non-League, went abroad and played a year in Iceland but then came back and was at a crossroads. And then I stumbled across coaching at Ipswich. They’re a proper club, look after their own with a family feel.

‘It was quite full on just to make ends meet. You never earned much being a scholar. I would work 8am until 3.30pm at a school then I’d coach five nights a week, then I coached Saturday mornings, played non-League football Saturday afternoon and coached Sunday mornings.’

Manning joins a trend of managers who haven’t had sparkling playing careers. Next to Oxford in the league table, for example, you find Mark Bonner at Cambridge who joined the club as a youth coach in his teens and is now first-team manager.

Manning progressed from his seven-day-a-week schedule to a key youth coach at the Tractor Boys, then took charge of West Ham’s Under 23s — where he is credited with developing Declan Rice — before venturing to head up recruitment at New York City FC.

‘I had the opportunity to step up at West Ham but was approached to be the director of recruitment at NYCFC, they were only four years old but were backed by the City Football Group,’ he adds.

‘It was a chance to develop myself, see a bit of the world and shape my footballing ideas. It was understanding how to communicate and get people to buy into my methods.

‘I’ve always set goals and had objectives but I want to be the best version of myself. I’ve never chased anything but I’ve let my work do the talking. The journey will always fall into place off the back of that.

Manning’s U’s are currently seventh in League One having won four of their first six games

‘I’m not afraid to say at the start I copied a few methods of working. But now I’m quite confident to say, “This is me” with my philosophy. I’ve been fortunate to have some mentors who gave me some things along the way.

‘It’s about nicking bits that you like from different people. If you look at Pep, how could you not want to study him and learn from him? But it’s about understanding how you can translate what they do to your team.’

Manning had a stint managing Belgian club Lommel, where he spent time on a study visit with Vincent Kompany at Anderlecht, before success as MK Dons boss, though he narrowly missed out on promotion.

He took over Oxford towards the end of last season with the club staring down the barrel of relegation to League Two, having picked up just one point in the last 10 games before long-serving Karl Robinson departed. Now they are promotion candidates.

‘Walking in, I wouldn’t say they were easy wins… but a fresh voice and new methods were needed,’ he says. ‘I walked into an environment where players were hungry to be coached. The lads really bought into it.

He spent time on a study visit while at Belgian side Lommel with Vincent Kompany, now Burnley boss

Manning is credited as one of the coaches that nurtured Declan Rice at West Ham’s Under 23s

‘It was a busy summer, 17 players out and 11 in. We spent loads of time watching players and digging into their characters. Identifying a good player is easy — it’s more about building a squad with a good cultural fit, balancing youth and experience.

‘We let players have voices in meetings. We work on on-pitch communication but play clips in meetings and say to them, “What do you see? Break that down”.

‘We go through the same process whether we win 3-0 or lose 3-0. What did we do well? What can we do better? It creates a culture of improving every week.

‘Setting goals for the end of the season is too far away, we just go hard on the day to day. It’s such a long and intense season, you need to just make a habit of training to your maximum every day.’


Cardiff v Swansea 7.45pm Saturday, Championship

Swansea boss Michael Duff played down this Welsh derby when asked about its importance a week or so ago but he will know privately that this could be an important chance to build some momentum. 

Watch out for in-form Aaron Ramsey, back at Cardiff after 15 years away.

The in-form Aaron Ramsey returned to Cardiff City after 15 years at the end of his Nice deal

Stevenage v Charlton Athletic 3pm Saturday, League One

Go on, who had Stevenage in their predictions as promotion challengers in League One? If you say you did, you’re lying.

Steve Evans has Stevenage flying at the start of the season with his side unlikely promotion challengers

Yes, they have played one more game than most and it is very early days but Steve Evans has them flying and it’s a joy to see.

MK Dons v Stockport 3pm Saturday, League Two

This is fourth against 17th but it pits two of the promotion favourites against each other and should be a cracking game. 

Nick Powell was the headline addition at Stockport this summer but Louie Barry, once signed by Barcelona as a 15-year-old, is thriving with four goals in seven games.


It’s All Kicking Off is an exciting new podcast from Mail Sport that promises a different take on Premier League football.

It is available on MailOnline, Mail+, YouTube, Apple Music and Spotify.

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