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 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?
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.
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.