The 37-year-old will take charge of his first senior match when the Lions travel to rock-bottom Sheffield Wednesday on Saturday, but he joins the club with a growing reputation as an impressive young coach and a network of contacts across the game described by one insider as “ridiculous”.
After being released from Chelsea’s academy at 16, Edwards felt lost, but was invited back to the club to start his coaching badges, becoming a full-time coach at just 19. He led Chelsea’s youngsters to back-to-back FA Youth Cups in 2015 and 2016, and was promoted to the first-team set-up during Frank Lampard’s first spell in charge.
He stayed on under Thomas Tuchel and was part of the coaching team when the club won the 2021 Champions League, before joining Lampard at Everton and later taking charge of England Under-20s on an interim basis.
Thoughtful and articulate, Edwards saw off competition from former Stoke and Southampton boss Nathan Jones to succeed Gary Rowett at The Den, and his freshness at this level is part of what appeals to the Lions.
There is optimism that Edwards and his assistant, Andy Myers, who has joined from Chelsea, will provide a new perspective, as well as a much-needed spark to the club.
Edwards has been on Millwall’s radar for some time and was invited to be part of the managerial search process after Rowett left the club on October 18.
In time, he will be expected to transform Millwall’s style of play from the often-dour defensive football that characterised his predecessor’s tenure to a modern, front-foot approach, although he has a pragmatic streak, as he made clear in his first interview last night.
“Of course, I have my own beliefs and preferences, but we also have to recognise there’s a lot of good foundations in place,” he said. “I’m coming in with a freshness and new ideas, but we’re not going to try to reinvent the wheel and revamp this team and squad in a matter of weeks and a few games. Hopefully, we can move it forward gradually.”
Edwards’s pragmatism was apparent in his impressive ascent at Chelsea. Though his sides were usually versatile, possession-focused and attacking, he was more willing to deviate than most academy coaches, notably in leading their U23s to the semi-final of the EFL trophy in 2018 — the furthest a top-flight academy side has gone in the competition.
When Antonio Conte was manager, for example, Edwards often set up his academy teams with a back-three to mirror the Italian’s approach.
He was heavily involved in the development of Mason Mount, Reece James, Fikayo Tomori, Tammy Abraham, Conor Gallagher and Billy Gilmour — all full internationals today — and mentored by Brendan Rodgers and Paul Clement. Michael Beale, who also made the final three for the Millwall job, overlapped with Edwards at Cobham. “[Joe] was a big part of my development in the Under-18s and Under-23s,” England and AC Milan’s Tomori said in an interview with Standard Sport in 2020.
Millwall believe Edwards’s journey is similar to that of Nottingham Forest boss Steve Cooper, who was plucked out of the FA system to succeed in the Championship, while he has also been compared to Kieran McKenna, whose Ipswich side are flying in the second tier.
There is optimism that Edwards’s relationship with Chelsea, Tuchel and England U20s can help Millwall attract some of the best young players in the country on loan, although equally intriguing are the talented players he has previously worked with who have fallen down the Leagues or out of the system altogether. There is recognition, though, that he will need time and patience in the job.