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Rob Edwards interview: Forest Green boss on Emile Smith Rowe, throw-in analysis and League Two promotion

In an exclusive interview with Sky Sports, Forest Green Rovers manager Rob Edwards discusses why he took the job, how he seeks to get the best from the players, and the club's ambitions to maintain their lead at the top of the League Two table

Forest Green had over one hundred applicants for their managerial vacancy earlier this year but they opted for a man who had never taken charge of a game in the Football League before. The choice of 38-year-old Rob Edwards is paying off.

Forest Green are top of League Two. They are the division's top scorers, adding five more at Oldham last weekend. Improbably, they also conceded five in that game - from an expected-goals figure of 0.86. It was a freak result that will not alter their approach.

"We want a culture where people can be brave and not afraid to try things," Edwards tells Sky Sports. "We don't care if they make mistakes. That is going to happen, it is human nature. I will make more mistakes than anyone. But we try to learn from it.

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Highlights of Forest Green's dramatic 5-5 draw with Oldham in Sky Bet League Two

"There is a long way to go but we have put ourselves there. We want to stay there. We have to work hard and realise what has got us where we are so far. The word we keep using at the moment is relentless and being consistent. That is what we need to do now."

Edwards left his role with the England U16 side to join Forest Green, having previously worked with Wolves' U23s. His only senior role had been with Telford. He would not have walked away from coaching the country's best young talent for just any job.

"You could already see there was a plan, there was an identity at this club anyway. The head coach gets time. That appealed to me. From day one, myself and [assistant] Richie Kyle have felt nothing but support. Everyone is pulling in the right direction. You need that."

There was an awareness that things needed tweaking rather than overhauling. A change of coach was required not a change of philosophy and after suffering play-off defeat last season, Edwards' appointment has been the catalyst for an even stronger season.

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"It was not the case that I had to rip everything up and start again. We had enjoyed a really good year. I had to understand why, then, I had to build on that. It was not a case of saying, 'I'm Rob Edwards, let's do it my way.' I had to keep it going and add to it."

Forest Green have a reputation for doing things differently under chairman and eco-campaigner Dale Vince. The vegan burgers are not some novelty. Recognised by the United Nations as the world's greenest football club, there are plans for a wooden stadium.

Is Vince different to other chairmen?

"I have not met that many chairmen," laughs Edwards.

"We speak once or twice a week and just have a chat. He is very relaxed. He enjoys coming to the game and has been so supportive. He allows me to crack on with things. His attitude is that he has employed this person for a reason so let them get on with it."

He has earned that trust now. November brought his second manager of the month award of the season. "It is embarrassing isn't it, really? It's nice, obviously. Great recognition for the club. But it is a huge team effort from all the staff and the players."

There is a dedication to details with Edwards. The story of him and Kyle poring over Exeter's throw-ins for three hours looking for some tactical advantage illustrates that much.

"There are 40 or 50 a game so there is an opportunity there. We had noticed Exeter's restarts were very good. Richie and I had a night in Cirencester in the house going through it and making sure the setup was right. That is the boring life of football coach."

Rob Edwards during his coaching stint at Wolves in 2017
Image: Rob Edwards during his coaching stint at Wolverhampton Wanderers in 2017

It has been an exciting coaching career already, in truth. At Wolves, he worked with Pedro Goncalves, now Sporting's star man, tipped for a huge move to the Premier League. With England, Emile Smith Rowe stood out as a potential superstar immediately.

"I will never forget the first session. I just thought, 'Wow, this kid.' He passed it in a small-sided game and then he just ran. People talk about pass and move but the shifting of the gears, the speed of the pass, the tempo at which he did things was just at another level.

"People like that do not need to be told to lift it. They don't need motivating, they are just on it. They back themselves, not in an arrogant way, but there is just an inner belief. They take risks and they deliver every day. I am really lucky to have been around them."

Forest Green's Rob Edwards
Image: Rob Edwards is in his first managerial role in the Football League

Telford in the sixth tier was a different experience, but one he still draws on today. When Forest Green went down to 10 men against Bristol Rovers last month, he recalled an FA Cup tie when Telford lost to Hereford. He was determined to learn from that.

We just went a bit passive that day. We allowed a shot to come in, the goalkeeper parried it and they scored the rebound. We lost the game 1-0. This time, I spoke to the lads and reminded them that we still needed to be aggressive and get out to the ball."

Forest Green not only held on but doubled their lead to win 2-0.

"That was a Telford experience. But I have had eight years of experiences with different coaches and players. It is all dealing with people. You build up knowledge and you learn." At Forest Green, he has learned to trust in his team, allowing them to flourish.

"We try to keep things simple by putting players in their best positions and basing the team around what the lads are good at doing. We don't need to put square pegs in round holes when everyone is fit. We just want them to be good at what they do.

"You are in the team because you are good at this so keep doing this. Our wide players are good at crossing the ball. Our strikers are good at being between the posts and scoring with one-touch finishes. So let them do that. There is a good balance."

Forest Green's Jamille Matt tops the goal contributions for League Two this season
Image: Jamille Matt tops the goal contributions for League Two this season

That mentality is helping players to flourish like never before. Matty Stevens scored once in 18 appearances for Stevenage last season. He has 17 this season already. Jamille Matt, 32, has 14 of his own and is on course for the best scoring season of his career.

"He is a big striker, a huge focal point for us. We have creative players and goalscorers which is clearly a big thing. Thirteen goals each for Jamille and Matty in the league with goals and assists in wide areas and from Jack Aitchison in midfield.

"They are a great group to be around. Not just to work with because it is more than work what we do. We have a laugh but we also work hard and switch on when we need to. There is balance on the pitch but balance off it too. Everyone feels like they can breathe."

The schedule does not allow for much down time.

"With England there was a lot of time to plan, you could go into a great detail. The turnaround now for us is quick. It is relentless. I love that challenge. You have to manage your time well and get the information down as simply as you can."

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Highlights of Forest Green's 4-1 win over Harrogate in Sky Bet League Two

The game against Mansfield on Saturday is the first of five in 14 days. Four of them are at home, an opportunity for Forest Green to extend their four-point advantage at the top of the table. Avoiding the lottery of the play-offs has to be the aim for them now.

"Hopefully, the difference this time will be that some of the lads have lived it and they will not want to go through that disappointment again. We cannot let up. We have to be relentless. There are a lot of good teams and everyone is gunning for us now.

"So far we have had good times but the winter is here now and we know there will be tough times ahead as well, there will be battles. That is when we need everyone to stick together. But I have felt nothing but support from everyone. It is a fantastic football club.

"If we want to stay top we have to keep our feet on the ground and do the business every single day. The lads know that. They are hungry, they are ambitious. They want to achieve something as a group. They don't need reminding. They lead themselves."

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