BEING a great footballer is not necessarily a credential for management. Jose Mourinho was never a professional footballer. His career reminds me of a great line of Joe Kernan’s. The two of us were speaking at the National Coaching Conference several years ago in Croke Park. He had one of his sons with him, who I didn’t recognise. We were having a bite to eat together afterwards and I said “does this boy play football?” “ Naw” said Big Joe, “ he’s going straight into management.”
Jose, having played a bit of amateur football in the Portugese second division, decided that playing was not for him. Instead, he became a PE teacher, studied sports science and in due course became a professor of soccer. Likewise, Arsene Wenger was a pub player, playing for a number of amateur clubs before studying for and obtaining a “Manager’s Diploma”.
The flip side of this is summed up by a classic story about one of the Gods of modern English soccer, Peter Shilton. In the twilight of a glittering career, he was named manager of Plymouth Argyle in the old Third Division.
It was an experience that illustrated the very different skill sets required for playing and managing. Under their goalkeeper manager, they went on one of those roller coasters that only go downwards. Displays got worse and worse. Morale collapsed. The cold hand of relegation was on their shoulders. Shilton realised that something dramatic needed to be done. So, he gathered the squad for a motivational speech. This was to be his greatest hour. His Henry V moment. Like that King before the Battle of Agincourt, he would rouse his small force with such words as would assure a glorious triumph against all the odds. As Shakespeare’s Henry put it “ From this day to the ending of the world, But we in it shall be remembered. We few, we happy few, we band of brothers.”
Only, it didn’t turn out quite like that. An impassioned Shilton finished his oration by raising his fist aloft and assuring his men they would “Rise, like a pheasant from the flames”. At which point, there was an awkward silence. “What’s the matter?” said Shilton. “ It’s phoenix boss. Phoenix from the flames” said one of the players. Shilton paused to take this in, looked at the ground and shook his head. “ Shit” he said, “I knew it began with an F.”
Roy Keane was another one who falls into the Shilton category. Danny Higginbotham, who played under him during his term as Sunderland manager, fondly recalled some of Roy’s man management techniques in his autobiography “Rise of the Underdog.” Before they took the field for a crucial game against Aston Villa, after a run of six defeats in eight games, Roy gathered the team around him in the changing room and said “Listen lads, basically, you’re shit. Try and enjoy the game. You’re probably going to get beat. But just enjoy being shit.”
After another bad result, Higginbotham recalls Keane being enraged in the dressing room. He stood over one player shouting “ You’re the reason I’m driving up and down the f*****g country to find another player, you’re not f*****g good enough.” He then moved on to another player, no doubt cowering before him and roared “Your attitude is shit. You’re not good enough.” The finale of that talk was priceless:
“Next week we’ve got our last home game, against Arsenal. You know at the end of the season when you walk around the pitch, thanking the fans for their support? I’m ringing Umbro and getting you some hooded jumpers, because you’re a f*****g embarrassment, it’s a joke and this is not going to stay this way.”
I thought of Keane last weekend when Armagh were relegated into Division Three. Of Kieran McGeeney’s iron will and iron strength. Of his intolerance of “losers” and his furious drive to win. I remembered the story told about the wedding of one of his fellow players during the era of the great Armagh team he captained.
The joyous day was during the off season and Kieran arranged for the squad to train on the afternoon of the wedding, en route to the hotel. Kieran, to the best of his ability, leaves no stone unturned in his quest for success as a manager. But after seven years with Kildare, they had won nothing and had never beaten a top team.
Since he took over in Armagh, resources have been lavished on the group. Their training regime has been on a par with any professional team’s. Nothing, insofar as Kieran can see it, has been left to chance. Yet against Donegal in last year’s Ulster Championship they were humiliated. Tactically outwitted, they were a fly trapped in the spider’s web.
After ten minutes the game was over. By halftime they had managed a point or maybe two. They lost by nine but that was flattering. Now, relegation to Division Three. I think that, like Keane, Kieran can’t see why things aren’t working out for him. His solution is to demand more. Like Keane, it is clear that he thinks his players are not giving anywhere near enough. Which is why he recently said that “county footballers are not elite athletes at all.” He doesn’t seem to have reflected on the impact of such a statement on players who have devoted their lives to the Armagh cause.
Kieran knows pheasant doesn’t begin with an f. But I get the impression that deep down, he thinks that basically, his players are shit.