LOSING THE DRESSING ROOM

So the transfer window slams well and truly shut and the managers’ have the majority of their squads in place (outwith any further loan signings). Now the speculation can REALLY start among the football fraternity about who is under pressure and who’s next to go.

Already we have seen Ronny Deila come under scrutiny with tactics and signings being analysed to the point of obsession, and as ever, we all think we know best. A good friend of mine came to me the other day with the age old “do you think he has lost the dressing room?”. My reply to him was, did he really know what that meant? Its a phrase that’s banded about when managers are under pressure and teams are losing games, and in truth, the Gaffers’ are always quick to deny it being the case. However, in my experience it is a very real scenario which frequently unfolds at clubs up and down the country.

The Signs

The most difficult times for a manager are usually during the early months of a reign where authority needs to be stamped and respect gained. Training must be bright, disciplined and enjoyable during this crucial period. Players must know immediately that you are not to be messed with. If players step out of line, both on or off the pitch, they must know it won’t be tolerated. This is where the respect is gained and trusts formed which can become a spirit, which when harnessed, is worth more than any million pound signing.

But it also has to be understood that players, (like fans) are very fickle, and the absolute key to all of your ideas and to maintaining that spirit, is results. When things aren’t going well on the pitch players will turn on you like a pack of wolves, desperately seeking their opportunity to drag you down, and ultimately get rid of what they perceive to be the problem. Footballers aren’t always the best at looking in the mirror.

There are tell tale signs – training standards drop, players start being late, coaching methods get questioned and tactics are rubbished. On the pitch the discipline is the first thing to dip; players give away needless, petty free kicks, kicking the ball away and berating referees. Arguing among themselves becomes commonplace, body language, flailing arms and blaming team mates for their own failings coupled with a general lack of respect for anything to do with the club, all negatively impact on an already difficult situation of losing games. Worst of all, in this civil war, is the player revolt, which is normally fatal, where they confide in their “friends” among the club hierarchy. At this point there is usually only one winner, well you can’t sack 15 players can you?

The Symptoms

There is no doubt though, the manager can help himself avoid many of these doomsday scenarios. As always, winning games is the key. In my opinion it is imperative you play your best players in the crucial games. It would be folly to give players an opportunity to look around the dressing room and think “this guy hasn’t got a clue” by leaving out your best players. Training should be disciplined but enjoyable. Tactics and team shape should be simple, i’ve seen many managers try to be clever with team formations and end up with a team who are looking around at each other on the pitch looking for direction. Left footers on the right, right footers on the left, right backs at left back, midfielders up front all give the players an excuse (rightly in my opinion) to question tactics and ultimately leadership. If that happens, a lot of the mutual respect has already gone and the damage to the relationship is almost irreparable. There must also be a visible passion and enthusiasm. If YOU don’t look like you care, how can you expect your players to show they are caring and giving you THEIR all?

As shown in one of my previous blogs, I played under a manager who in my opinion, had “lost the dressing room”. Unfortunately, he failed to recognise it and got rid of the one person in the dressing room who may have been able to help him re focus the players. Me.

I was perceived to be trouble in that particular dressing room. In fact, nothing could have been further from the truth. In the end the club were relegated and the manager lost his job. But honestly, truthfully it gave me not ounce of satisfaction to see that. In my experience, no good ever comes of losing the dressing room, it breeds negativity and ultimately the club goes further back, further away from where it wants to be, at whatever level.

The consequences

At Notts County, I was first team coach under Paul Ince and Alex Rae and we picked up a team who in truth, were on their knees. The club was in a downward spiral, eight managers in 18 months, financial cuts and a failed takeover, allied to the ignominious reign of one Sven Goran Eriksson, meant their position just above the bottom three was not entirely surprising. We started well, bringing in five loan players and two short term signings, easing out a squad on high wages who were clearly not good enough for League 1. But they all had contracts, and whilst not in the team, they were to become our catalyst for “losing the dressing room”.

We had five clean sheets out of six and picked up 23 points from 36, beat Sunderland in the FA Cup and took Man City to a replay. But in the background, the “old guard” were working their ticket. Murmurings of the coaching being poor, training was crap and no one liked the manager. All the usual disruptive behaviour from players who were out of favour. Unfortunately, when our loan signings had to go back, we were left with the squad we inherited, who, by now, as well as not being good enough, had become the aforementioned pack of wolves. They were on their way out and we were now asking players who we had already “lost” to fight and win games for us. The outcome was inevitable. The atmosphere became poisonous, the window was shut and unfortunately the proverbial horse had bolted. We couldn’t replace them and the team went back on that downward spiral, failing to win in nine matches and we lost our jobs after six months in charge.

Time will tell if any of the current incumbents have lost the dressing room. At least now, as a fan, you may be able to recognise some of the signs. I only hope the managers do too, because in my experience, in that situation, the dressing room door only opens in one direction, OUT.

David Farrell

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6 thoughts on “LOSING THE DRESSING ROOM

  1. I enjoyed that blog David, but it’s crystallised something that I’ve always thought about football & footballers and that is they are exactly the same, as any set of employees, working for a business, company or organisation. Now I appreciate that the culture of football maybe slightly different & culture is simply the shared values, beliefs & behaviours of the industry, but that apart, they are exactly the same, as any group of employees working in a particular sector.

    Now before I outline why I think “losing is the dressing room” is such an outdated, outmoded & irrelevant cliche, let me just state my professional expertise. I’m a professional Trainer or full title Learning & Development Consultant and have been training professionals, executives and managers in business for many years, and in doing that job, you get to recognise the same patterns of behaviour, but from different people. You also get to recognise repeating patterns of behaviour and thoughts with regard to the particular industry, that the company operates in. For example, an engineering company & engineers love to take their time and pay particular attention to detail in training sessions, because that’s the mind set, which brought them into the industry in the first place, and which has to be finely tuned for them to remain in the industry.

    So from my perspective what is missing from your blog and indeed the football industry as a whole is leadership. To summarise succinctly, losing the dressing room is simply a lack of leadership.

    Of course,I am aware that leadership is now an important topic that’s finally being addressed in management development courses through Uefa & various universities, like Warwick and that’s welcome, but leadership skills need to be cascaded, throughout all the various levels of football in my opinion, and a good starting point would be to apply the leadership principles of successful businesses and companies, because guess what, it’s human beings who achieve these, just like footballers.

    And it’s curious and counterintuitive, because the football industry places such stock on leaders and leadership. It venerates strong, powerful personalities like Alex Ferguson, John Terry and the like & even in youth football teams, the Captain is generally the strongest, or most dominant or best player and they lead from the front. So leadership is vitally important in football, but the problem with it is, leadership is a learned skill, it requires leaders to be taught. Leaders need to learn through study and research and understanding different elements, such as basic human psychology, communication skills, developing empathy & understanding, and most importantly, how to use different strategies to get the best out of their people. A challenge that businesses and companies face every single day.

    So, I pose these questions. How many ex players who go into coaching/managing actually have ANY expertise in leading people?
    What learning & development have they undertaken in & out of football to give them the ability to lead teams of people?

    The example of Notts County that you highlighted is something that happens everyday in business. New management comes into a business and they inherit a disparate group of individuals, who have no loyalty to them, or to the company & the challenge is to mould the group into dynamic, productive employees, who work together collectively to achieve their goals and be successful. I can quote you hundreds of examples where this has taken place and yet in football, it is so rare.

    The main reason for this in my opinion is a lack of leadership skills and knowledge.However, I also acknowledge the temporary nature of football management these days. Clearly, it takes time to transform a company/team around and football managers need much more time, and in your own situation at Notts County, I think you were treated horrendously by the club, another failure of leadership clearly!! .

    Oh and one other thing. In successful businesses, one of the main components is getting individual employees to take accountability for their own actions and failure to do can result in serious consequences, something those boys at Notts County could have done with.

    Great blog keep them coming

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  2. In your own words you marginalised players and let them know you were moving them out and then, when your loan signings left, asked those same marginalised players to play for you. As you said – inevitable result.

    If you built your initial success around loan signings that were destined soon to be leaving, what other outcome was likely? What could you have done differently? Work with the existing players rather than replace? Sign longer-term loan deals? (genuine question, I don’t know how these things work – but I am interested in the idea of management being about working with what you have rather than what you don’t have.)

    Another question, what if the board/snr management had told the malcontent players to shut up and get on with it, effectively given you full backing? When football clubs do back unpopular managers (unpopular with the playing staff I mean), what happens?

    Another question – what happened after you left? Did those same players start playing for the new management team and go on to get results, or did things continue downwards?

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    • The pleyers we inherited were not good enough. They were on high wages, and contracts which made it impossible to transfer them or even loan them. We brought in short term players on loans (maximum 5 months) and AT NO POINT did we tell any player they were leaving or were on their way out. We just didn’t play them as had we done so the spiral to relegation would have happened much sooner. So our loans gave us a fighting chance because we picked up so many points in a short space of time. Of Those players we inherited, 8 of them had dropped out of league football altogether (a drop of two divisions) and 2 retired at the start of the next season. Had they been told to shut up and get on with it, would have made no difference as they were not good enough on a cosistent basis for the level we were at. When we left the new manager was able to bring in a few more loan signings and release some players and the managed to finish 2 places above relegation having needed 2 wins from the final 9 games to stay up. There has been 5 new managers at the club since then in 3 years. Unfortunately there is no long term strategy in place and they have continued to remain in the bottom half of League 1. When u get too many of those types of player (and thankfully it is very rare and not the norm) in the same club at once, its a cancer which is very difficult to get rid. Thanks for the feedback, hope ur enjoying the blog

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  3. Thanks for the answer – really good of you. Seems your judgement of the squad was correct!

    Sorry if I came over as challenging you – was not the case, just interested in how someone inside football views things that often appear opaque to those on the outside.

    Yes, I’ve enjoyed reading the blog. Hope to read more.

    Like

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