There are certain unwritten laws in football management, that are more about common sense and courtesy and having some respect for your fellow managers and coaches (as well as your players), than being hard and fast rules, so I was very interested to read Ronny Deila’s comments last week regarding the players’ fitness and lack of discipline when it came to things like diet and looking after themselves. At Celtic it is fairly obvious that the players will be extensively monitored and have everything at their disposal, but he took the step of publicly stating that, contrary to previous years, fizzy drinks and certain foods had now been banned from the Celtic Park canteen and that the players he inherited needed to be fitter.
One of those ‘laws’ is that you should never publicly decry the previous incumbent when you have just taken over a new position at a club.
Another is that you should never comment on the opposition’s players or indeed, give opinion on the other team’s tactics. It is fairly obvious that Neil Lennon took offence to some of those observations when he replied at the weekend that as some of those same ‘unfit’ players had qualified for the Champions League group stages twice and won three League titles in a row, they were allowed a can of Coke with their lunch. Point made I think. Added to that is my observation that Celtic have lost 15 goals in competitive games this season and more than half have been lost in the last half hour. So it begs the question; at what point does the personality or individual (or the gaining of a couple of pounds) become more important than his contribution to the team?
It’s a very delicate balance, because not only does the coaches decision affect the team directly on the pitch, it can also affect the “team spirit” off it.
The fat controller
Before I go any further, it is important to stress that fitness, diet and conditioning are a huge part of the modern game, and contrary to popular belief, the majority of players look after themselves very well, but when your best player, your talisman, your top goalscorer is carrying a little weight or is not as fit as you would like, how do you deal with it? In my opinion, there has to be a happy medium as there is no point trying to clamp down and be a disciplinarian if the player in question resents your input and ultimately, you lose his contribution to the team. That being the case, you have failed as a coach and you are also putting at risk the team spirit as a whole as the other players will see you as the villain of the piece. There is of course the counter argument that you may lose the respect of the players by failing to be strong enough to deal with your star player. Believe me, if that player is contributing well to a winning team, the players will be a lot less likely to disagree with your stance and a lot more tolerant of a couple of extra pounds or a skipped gym session.
As an example of the balance that needs to be struck, Leigh Griffiths’ current predicament can be held up. Surely there can be no question that in a Celtic team, if played regularly he will score goals, but with Ronny Deila’s comments about his fitness at the weekend, his supposed off field idio-synchrosies and the fact that he has four other strikers, it has become an apparently easy decision to consider him going out on loan. To a Hibs team in desperate need of a striker, a talisman and an extra 1500 punters through the gate, any of the perceived negatives become insignificant in comparison and it becomes an equally easy decision to justify taking him on loan on YOUR team’s behalf.
Neil Lennon also cited John Hartson as an example, but a guy I played with and who I know will strike a chord with everyone when I mention his name was Mark Yardley. When I was introduced to Yards at my last club, Albion Rovers, my mate Andy Paterson who I had played with at Stranraer affectionately described the big man as “enjoys a Tea biscuit”. He hadn’t always been a “big” fella, indeed in his early years at St. Mirren he had been tall and lean, but by the time our paths crossed at the Wee Rovers my knees were shot to pieces and big Yards couldn’t see his. God forbid if Peter Hetherston (the manager) had asked him to lose a pound or two. The big man was still scoring goals even though he was less than athletic, but his biggest asset of all at the time was that he was great around Cliftonhill. Small clubs need that type of spirit to survive and no amount of fitness and conditioning would have enhanced that.
Distilling the spirit
Team spirit cannot be artificially created. A night out at the Ten Pin Bowling and the odd Go Karting day are only a vehicle to allow you to nurture the spirit, but REAL team spirit evolves. It evolves on the training pitch, in the ground, in the dressing room. It comes from having and signing the right “type” of players who will embrace your ways and the different types of person at the club. Gordon Strachan has a wonderful way of describing the two types of player he has dealt with throughout his management. He calls them “drainers” and “radiators”.
Drainers, by their very nature think nothing is good enough. The training ground, the kit, the tactics, anything but themselves. Their attitudes become so negative that it starts to “drain” the energy and the focus away from the rest of the players. It only takes one or two drainers within a squad and you are done for. They zap away and work away at the weaker players until they get their way, or until you get rid of them, and that in itself is a huge part in the management and development of a work ethic and spirit at any club.
Radiators though, thankfully make up the majority of Scottish players I have ever worked with. Good honest, hard working pro’s, their energy and positiveness radiates not only through the team, but also the club. The more of them you have on your side, the more chance you have of being successful. Players like Kenny Black, Peter Grant, Gary Mackay and current pros like Dave MacKay, Keith Lasley and Willo Flood are often the type of player their own fans don’t appreciate and opposition fans love to hate, but it helps explain why certain managers re-sign the same players over and over, because the fans don’t always see what that type of player brings to a football club, both on the pitch AND off it.
The assistant manager’s role is also crucial in nurturing this spirit. He has to be a confidante of the players and of course the manager’s ears in the dressing room. The players MUST be able to trust him and even though I’ve been assistant to four different managers, the responsibilities have never changed. Part of the job (and one of the most difficult) is Monday morning training after a heavy defeat. You have to go in, smiling, enthusiastic and telling them what a great session it’s going to be. Players who, on the Saturday you had bollocked, chastised and frankly hated, whom you and the manager had slated on the way home in the car, who you knew the last place they wanted to be was back in the dressing room so soon. I would be wretching to the pit of my stomach at the way they had surrendered, but it mattered nothing as I had to put on my game face and liven the place up again. That’s the part fans don’t see when they think the players and the management don’t care. I’ve been on the end of many a defeat on a Saturday. In truth, I didn’t want to be near them, let alone have to humour them and that two-faced, cheery Monday morning facade never sat well with me, but for the sake of the team and the importance of that trust, it was absolutely crucial on those types of days that I was most definitely, a radiator.
Onto this weeks Tips and you’ll be pleased to hear that after my third consecutive near miss, i’m giving up the slot to a Guest Tipster. This week’s guest is ex Inverness and Dundee legend Bobby Mann and he’s going for Forfar at home to Brechin (13to10), Stranraer at home to Stirling (6to5) and Annan away at Clyde (13to8) for an impressive 12to1 treble. Here’s hoping you do better than I have Bob.