THERE’S SOMETHING ABOUT MARIO

It was no surprise, to see that prior to last night’s game at Anfield, TalkSport’s pitch side summariser, reported that Mario Balotelli had been removed from the pitch and asked to leave by Mike Marsh (Liverpool coach) for being so disruptive during the warm up. It was also no surprise to see, that all references to the incident on TalkSport social media sites and the reporters own media channel had been removed before the end of the game when it was shown that he had, in fact, turned his ankle and gone back inside as a precaution. The blood lust for this guy’s head has become insatiable.

Now cast your mind back just over two years. Euro 2012 semi final and a 21-year- old 6ft 2in striker with incredible pace, power and equal quantities of technique, terrorises a German defence, who having been one of the pre-tournament favourites, went on to win this year’s World Cup. Granted, he was perceived to be lazy, selfish and being completely honest, extremely arrogant, but my goodness, what a player. This, is Mario Balotelli

The Player

In truth, nothing much has changed. He still possesses all those magnificent football abilities which made him almost impossible to handle throughout that tournament and the Azzuri’s march to the final. And he still has that highly publicised negative side which apparently gives anyone and everyone licence to vilify, however, I’m willing to bet, there are other high profile signings and first team regulars in the Liverpool line-up who aren’t exactly pulling their weight either, but are happy to have him take the brunt of the criticism.

Last season, it is also very important to understand the impact of a certain Luis Suarez. You have to consider that the quality and precision of Suarez’s runs, his penetrative movement and exuberance, were all the qualities of a top, top player. He also extended the longevity of Steven Gerrard’s Liverpool career by two seasons because the craft and intelligence of his runs allowed Gerrard to free himself from the holding midfield role he had developed to prolong his time at the top. Is this a season too far for Stevie G, now that the legs are a year older and there is no Suarez dynamism to stretch defences and allow him to get further up the pitch?

I’m not sure, but I don’t see many pundits questioning Lallana, Can, Borini, Moreno or Johnson either, or dare I say it, the aforementioned Gerrard.

Unfortunately for Liverpool, they have found, that even at £75million, someone of that quality is irreplaceable.

So why always Mario?

Well the bottom line at the moment is he’s not playing well, but to answer that question, it’s important to examine tactically and psychologically why Brendan Rodgers would have brought in Balotelli. Having lost Suarez in the summer and having the none-too-insignificant amount of £75million to dispose of, he needed not only a replacement for Suarez but also a partner for Sturridge. Someone with pace and strength to complement Sturridge’s very obvious qualities. Someone who could stretch defences, who could bully defenders and hold play up to allow Sturridge the freedom to be the predatory striker. And with a goalscoring record in the EPL, Serie A and International football of better than one every three games. That man was Balotelli. On the face of it, at £16million, it didn’t even seem like a huge risk.

The Coach

But of course, there’s the small problem of Mario himself, a self destruct button and an ego that constantly needs massaged. In my experience, those type of ‘maverick’ players, the most outwardly extrovert, whether at the top level or not, are usually the ones with most to hide. It’s almost always a mask, a front if you like, to hide mental frailties that strike so much fear that they are about to be exposed as a fraud and, that their public persona is nothing other than an alter ego. They need care and attention if you want to get the best out of them, not a public flogging. We had one at Dundee, a big player for us with a big ego and a big presence to match, but do you know what, he was never out of the office looking for that arm around him, waiting for his fragility to be hardened by the immortal pick-me-up; “You’re our best player.”

But as a manager or coach, you ALWAYS back yourself, you always think that you can be the man to turn that player around and get the best from him. It’s the reason why so many of those types of player are signed by clubs time and again, because they all want to be the one. And if you are, you know how good a player you have on your hands.

I’ve also been fortunate over the years to have attended many SFA coaching seminars and lectures by some of the most experienced managers in the game. On one occasion we were being regaled by Walter Smith on the joys of coaching and managing top players. To our amazement, Walter told us that at that stage, he rarely did any coaching because with top players and their egos it was all about managing them. Sure, Archie Knox would put on terrific drills, sessions and crossing and finishing exercises, but if Trevor Steven went to the by-line to put in a cross, you didn’t have to tell McCoist to go to the front post and Hateley to the back. You didn’t have to tell Gazza to support the edge of the box and McCall to sit. They just did it. It was about managing personalities and people. I wonder if the Liverpool manager has considered asking Walter how he dealt with Gazza. But I don’t think he would ever have allowed ANYONE to decry his players so publicly as many have done with Balotelli.

Whilst at Oxford United as a trainee, I had experience of the psychological frailties of strikers. Lacking confidence – though certainly not outwardly – and in need of a goal after a barren spell, John Aldridge asked to play in a reserve game. It was a game we were expected to win and Aldridge saw it as an opportunity to score and maybe set himself off on a goalscoring run again. As it happened, we got a penalty about 10 minutes into the second half which Aldridge duly dispatched. He was taken off minutes later to preserve him for the first team match on the Saturday and within six months was sold to Liverpool (of all teams) for £1million.

So, does the answer to Balotelli’s mental discrepancies lie in a simple reserve match. Will a goal against Bury reserves solve all the perceived problems and set Mario back on the road to top level greatness? Probably not. But it gives you an idea of the psychological issues when dealing with top players.

The Expert

So at what point, as referred to in previous blogs, does the striker’s influence who, is not only not playing well, but is seen as disruptive, become detrimental to team spirit and the other players start to resent his presence? Well, that’s one for the Liverpool manager to judge I’m afraid. But if I were him, I’d be looking for a way to get the best out of him for the team, before it becomes a major issue.

While he doesn’t help himself with his antics and persistent inconsistencies, it also has to be considered if there are more sinister forces at work here. Are the Liverpool hierarchy gathering their punditry allies in defence of the manager and pointing the finger at a more easily dispensed target instead? It seems an enormous coincidence that, with the team not performing particularly well, certain players are being targeted for individual criticism from the comfort of their Sky Sports/Match of the Day chairs, and not the manager. As always, some of them really should know better. They might be just as well served defending ALL of their ex-teams’ players, rather than just the chosen few, instead of sharpening the knives for the easy targets. I know one thing for certain, Balotelli must change some of his ways in order to help himself, but a constant battering from pundits and supporters alike, will ensure that regaining his form AND confidence will be a slow process which, without the unswerving support of his club and manager, could well be a terminal one.

So after a disappointing 1 winner from 3 selections last week, the least said about Paul Ritchie’s tips the better. This weeks Guest Tipster is my pal, grammar policeman and Northern League betting expert Paul McGeary. His three selections are Clyde (4to5) to beat Spartans, East Fife (13to10) to beat Berwick and Hamilton (10to11) to beat Partick for a 7/1 treble. I’ll put £10 on the selections and If an Englishman is the first to get the Guest Tipster slot treble up from three Scottish matches, i’ll donate the winnings to a charity of his choice. Good luck Paul

David Farrell

All material in this feature is the Intellectual Property of the author and as such may not be reproduced in print, or for commercial or personal gain without the prior permission of David Farrell

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WAR AND PEACE

I was a Hibernian player for seven and a half years, but in truth I only really took part as a first team player in four of them. For the first three and a half, I was a reserve player, trudging all over the country on a Saturday (in those days we played the opposite league fixture at the other ground) and very often on a Monday night in the East of Scotland reserve league. Brechin, Forfar, Montrose et al were my ports of call back then, as well as the empty stadiums at Ibrox, Celtic Park and Tynecastle.

But you know what, not once did I give anything less than my all. Windy nights in Arbroath where the seagulls got more touches of the ball than I did and wet nights at Forfar where young Aberdeen wannabes would try and kick lumps out of me after a day in the tractor, were all the same to me. I was a full time professional footballer, as long as I could still say that I was like a pig in the proverbial. I had made three fleeting appearances in the first team during that time and although I was in and around the fringes by now, being treated like a first team player, I was beginning to feel disillusioned at not getting a chance.

During this time, as a footballer, you start to raise doubts about yourself. I knew I wasn’t a top player, but I also knew that I could do a job in that Hibs team. We had excellent footballers in Mickey Weir, Pat McGinlay, Keith Wright and Murdo MacLeod, but I still felt I could do a job in there (even though when I read those names back now I wonder how I managed to eventually get in). I’d go and politely chap the manager’s door now and then and we’d have a chat. Don’t believe all that nonsense about players banging down the Gaffer’s door because they weren’t playing. It doesn’t happen. You’d knock and wait, just as you would in any other walk of life, like a naughty schoolboy waiting to see the headmaster. I’d get all the usual answers, “of course you’re still part of the plans,” “your time will come” and “you still have a future here.” I know now, from having worked on the other side of the desk, I was being pandered to. I was a good pro who was never going cause major trouble, I could be trusted and relied upon if called upon, but biggest of all, I was relatively cheap. In terms of a budget, a player like that is great to have around, an extra addition to the squad for a relatively low wage is invaluable. Only back then, I was naive and couldn’t see it. There is no blame attached to Alex Miller in this at all, he was doing his job and, in truth, doing it very well. At least I didn’t have much longer to wait for my chance.

Breakthrough

January the 1st, 1992 to be precise. An Edinburgh “Ne’erday” Derby was to be my baptism of fire. It wasn’t my debut, but it felt like it as it had been so long since I had started a first team game and, here I was, thrown in at the deep end. But as I said, I could be trusted, couldn’t I?

The build up to the game was intense. With the New Year’s Day evening kick off and as it was the first ever Edinburgh Derby to be televised live on Sky, the media scrutiny was a little more intrusive than a ‘normal’ league match. But that’s where the differences ended, because after that we trained as normal, ate as normal and played as normal.

But this was a Derby; this was going against everything I understood about derbies. I was ready to kick and smash my way through everything maroon. To leave my mark and make sure that if we didn’t win, they knew who I was. As it was, ‘normal’ was good enough on this occasion for a point. Ian Ferguson scored midway through the second half and we equalised from a dubious penalty. It was a cold, damp, dreary night, but I had played well and a point at Tynecastle was always welcome in the gloom. I made few mistakes and stood up well to a bruising battle with Ian Baird, who had been brought in from England that summer to rough us up, evidence of Hearts’ ‘normal’ approach to these games. However, as has been well documented, Hibernian’s record in derbies was to become far from normal.

War

I was to go on to take part in nine derbies in total and, I am still disgusted to say my record was five draws and four defeats.

This to me typified our approach to these games. There was no question in my mind, that in many of the derbies I took part in, we had better players. We had by now signed Darren Jackson, Kevin McCallister, Michael O’Neill and Brian Hamilton. So there could be no question, it HAD to be mental; it HAD to be our way of treating it just like any other game. There would be games where we were on top and dominated and yet we still couldn’t win.

The biggest example was a Scottish Cup tie at Easter Road. We were all over them, but couldn’t score and, as the minutes wore on, there was a horrible sense of déjà vu. There was a feeling of what was about to come as our home support grew edgier and from an attack where WE could have won it, the inevitable Hearts goal came at the other end. I’ll never forget the timing, 87 minutes. The phrase “it’s never over ‘til the fat striker scores” was aired again, only this time it was Wayne Foster who obliged and not wee Robbo. We were out. They’d done it again, turned us over and I’d never felt so bad after a defeat. But do you know what, we deserved it. Why? Because we never changed our approach to the derby. Granted, we would occasionally change our tactics, or shape, or spring a surprise in team selection a la New Year ’92. BUT WE NEVER WENT TO WAR. It was just another game, another three points or another cup tie against Hearts and they hadn’t lost.

We had a good side and were competitive in the League each season as well as having decent runs in both cups, but I couldn’t stand our record against Hearts, it embarrassed me and, over the years, it hasn’t improved much either.

I always felt the Hearts boys treated the derby differently to us. They WERE going to war, primed for a battle, while we were going to play football. That wasn’t my personal preference because there was only one way I could play, but I never felt as a team we were ever as fired up as Hearts were. They were snarling and scratching at you from the tunnel onto the pitch. They were pressing all over us, people like Sandison, Black, Kidd, Mackay, Levein and Robertson galvanising and pushing each other. Make no mistake, they were angrier than us. They were ready for a derby, ready for a scrap. That’s how they done it and the longer it went without beating them the more difficult it became mentally as well as physically.

The Message

I wish just once we could have been sent out with a different message than believing that, because we felt we had better players, our football would win in the end. We should have gone toe-to-toe with them, man against man, warrior against warrior, because believe me, there were times when that was all that Hearts team done against us. They had very good players in their own right, but when it came to the Edinburgh derby, there was a certain way to win it and, they knew how.

Unfortunately, over the years I haven’t seen much evidence of that attitude having changed. With Craig Levein now in a position of power at Hearts and Robbie Neilson a veteran of many derbies, I wouldn’t expect it to change this weekend either. I would never dream of trying to tell Alan Stubbs how to do his job, he has far more experience at a higher level than I have both as a player and a coach. But I know one thing, I know the game and I know how NOT to win an Edinburgh derby and if Alan wants to stick my blog up on the dressing room wall as a motivational tool that helps the current crop of players to that elusive victory, or just use it as toilet paper before the game, then I’d have no problem with either. But they better be ready for a war of monumental proportions. Because I know Hearts will.

Onto this week’s Guest Tipster and after a sterling effort from Bill Leckie last week with only one selection beating his big priced treble, i’m sticking with the Derby theme and my old Hearts pal Paul Ritchie has sent his Tips from America. Ritch is going for Aberdeen (8to15) to beat Motherwell, St Mirren (evs) to beat Ross County and Raith Rovers (4to5) to beat Alloa. Good luck

David Farrell

NAILS

I liked a tackle. No, let me rephrase that, I absolutely LOVED a tackle. Those of you who saw me play will already know that, but as everyone knows, even the hardest meet their match.

I would use anything I could to get an edge on my opponent, but I loved the feeling of crunching bone against bone, boot against shin pad and, that masochistic, overwhelming pain when you both went toe-to-toe for a ball and the crowd squirmed and half turned away, squinting back just in time to see if there were any casualties. I often ended in a crumpled heap, only to jump up pretending I wasn’t hurt, ready to go again. I’m not sure I would have been able to play these days, when a lot of my challenges would be deemed reckless and careless. Believe me, they were NOT reckless OR careless, they were well thought out in order to play the ball and at the same time let my opponent know I was there, AND, the next time they flashed their fancy coloured boots in my direction, I’d be there again. I’d need a knuckle duster in one hand and a feather duster in the other in order to keep the referee happy in this day and age.

To some of you it may seem an alien concept, particularly those of you who have only been born into the Sky TV age, where we barely see a physical challenge never mind a proper, honest 50/50, but in my day, very often it was Mortal Kombat. For me, it had to be, because a lot of the time my opponents were better than me and not just the top players like Gascoigne and McStay. I knew what I was good at, so I HAD to be physical, I had to draw them ALL into a battle, and then I could play a bit. I knew I was good at that raw, physical intimidation, but I knew I wasn’t that bad either. I milked the ugly side and that allowed me to build a persona of being the tough guy.

One man who would never buckle to that persona and was more than happy to engage in my form of gladiatorial football, was Stuart McCall.

Duracell

Easter Road was a difficult, intimidating place to come to back then (except for Hearts for some reason, but I’ll deal with that another time) and when Rangers came calling, they knew what to expect. Walter Smith’s team were blessed with a transfer policy the envy of Europe and whilst being extremely talented, they were no shrinking violets. We knew Huistra wouldn’t play; he was too ‘flighty’ for Easter Road, and neither, unfortunately, would Van Vossen. No, the big guns would be rolled out for us. There was no resting your big players 20 years ago. Fergie, Bomber, Gough and Hateley were all as physically adept as they were talented, but no one typified that team more for me than Stuart McCall.

He was the epitome of the Duracell battery with his copper top and relentless, never ending running. He was also a very, very good footballer and from memory, never once shirked any physical challenge I presented to him. He was as hard as nails.
I remember a game at Easter Road, which finished 0-0, a very good result for us, and Stuart and I were in direct opposition. He knew what I was all about and from the first minute to the last, set about dismantling me in whatever way he could. If I took more than one touch he was there, swarming and clattering into me. The game almost became secondary as we continued our personal battle for 90 minutes and, with each crunching impact, only a whistle would occasionally bring a brief respite. But, make no mistake, I gave as good as I got and by the final, relieving whistle, I was so physically exhausted, the trudge off the pitch seemed more effort than I could muster.

The players gathered round to shake hands and I spotted Stuart on the half way line about 20-yards away, which was probably the furthest we had been apart the whole game. I caught his eye and waited for his reaction. I was wary as there was no question there had been various times during the game when our conflict had become heated. He marched purposely towards me and I stiffened my arms and body anticipating what would come next. At least I would be ready for it. I should have known better as he thrust his hand toward me and my flinch relaxed and I reciprocated a warm handshake. “Well played, I enjoyed that” were his words and with that we both made that agonising walk off, just about having the energy to smile.

Later that season I was asked in an article who my toughest opponent had been in my career and without hesitation I replied “Stuart McCall.” Our paths crossed again at the annual PFA Player of the Year dinner that year where he sought me out to thank me for saying that. This time HE should have known better. It was an honour to be on the same pitch as a man like that.

Fash

The old Broomfield was a horrible ground to play at. A ramshackle wooden stand filled with the most critical of supporters. No away team was spared the abuse as they walked the gauntlet from the old dressing room block on the corner of the ground past the dug outs and on to the pitch. Many players were already broken before the game had started, and that was just the home team.

I had only just made my way into the first team as a raw, skinny 22-year-old when I ‘bumped’ into Justin Fashanu, who was ultimately to become a tragic figure. But when I did, I was never more glad that I was playing midfield and would be able, for the most part, to avoid direct contact with such a man mountain.

However, my hopes were dashed in the dressing room when I was given the job of blocking the run of Big Fash and just being a general nuisance to him at corners and set pieces. So there I am, at the first corner and he plants himself in front of the goalie. I jostle and try to nudge him but he doesn’t even flinch. So I move round him and carefully, tread on his toes to see if I can provoke a reaction. “Sorry big man” I say, but he doesn’t move, he literally doesn’t move, but looks down at me and says “that’s ok, just wait ‘til the next cross comes over.” It was quiet, calm, polite and almost apologetic in anticipation of what was to come. Only it wasn’t me who was to be on the receiving end.

Graham Mitchell, our regular left back and on this occasion playing centre back, was to be the recipient as the next cross was stood up diagonally from the half way line to the ‘D.’ He jumped, not realising Fash had started to run the minute the ball left the midfielder’s foot and, just as he was about to head it away, the big man already in mid-air smashed into him, heading the ball in any direction but the goal. He didn’t care where it went, but he had made his undoubted mark. Graham briefly lay motionless, before recovering enough to be helped off. When the physio asked him where it hurt, the reply of “everywhere” had never been more apt. It had been like watching him being hit by a wardrobe swinging from a crane. Airdrie went on to win 2-0 and in truth, Fashanu terrorised us that day. I had never seen and never did see anyone hit harder than that. I’m only glad that after stepping on his toes and stirring up the hornet’s nest, it was Mitch who ended up being stung and not me.

Onto this week’s tips and our Guest Tipster this week is SunSport’s very own Bill Leckie. After a disappointing one winner from three selections last week for Alex Rae, Bill will be hoping to show that, contrary to popular belief, the football hacks know more about the game than the players and coaches do. Bill’s selections are – Dundee (15to8) to beat Motherwell, Queen’s Park (11to8) to beat Montrose and Queen of the South (13to5) to draw with Falkirk. Bold selections Bill and I will certainly be tipping my hat if that particular treble comes up.

David Farrell

ARRESTED DEVELOPMENT

There’s a minute to go and Lewis Farrell – aged 11 – has just been on the receiving end of another crunching tackle from his Dad in the back garden. He picks himself up, quickly checking his cheek to make sure the astroturf hasn’t given him a burn as he planted his face on the deck, and grabs the ball. He faints left and jinks to the right leaving the old man for dead, before smashing an unstoppable four-yard shot (it’s only a small garden, astroturf or not) into the top corner of the net to win this particular 15-goal thriller. We shake hands and he turns to march triumphantly through to the living room before marching upstairs for another life-draining hour on the X-Box.

On the way, he passes his Mum who asks him the score, “I can’t tell you,” he says “dad’s made me promise not to tell you the score and, not only that, I’m not allowed to tell you the outcome of the 14 game league we’ve been playing for the last two weeks.” He’s screaming inside, “I beat him, I beat him 8-7 AND I won the league,” but trudges silently upstairs, the manner of his momentous victory now diluted by the fact he can’t tell anyone.

Ridiculous? Of course it is. But that self same scenario is played out, albeit less dramatically, on a wider scale at ‘non-competitive’ professional youth football matches up and down Scotland every week. Hordes of starry-eyed kids, knocking their technically gifted pans in, trying to emulate their heroes, only to shake hands at the end of the game and be told that no one kept the score.
Before I go any further, let me say that I believe there is a place for non-competitive, small-sided games and low impact/high energy technical sessions. At a young age, we MUST be playing small-sided games with no pressure attached. Primary School aged children who just want to PLAY football. Skills being honed by many hours and thousands of touches of the ball. Budding Messi’s bobbing, jinking and winding their way though cones and smashing the ball into the net, just like Lewis.

But surely, by the time they have started to grow up around Secondary School age, it is time to start teaching them how to WIN as well as how to play. Currently, our professional youth players don’t encounter competitive ‘league’ football until they are 17. I find that absolutely staggering, because between the ages of 11 and 17, winning is NOT the be all and end all, but neither is it the devil incarnate.

The Coach

Of course, I am aware of the argument that comes with games being competitive and league tables being a factor. The team that loses 12-0 being demoralised psychologically, the danger of the result becoming more important than the development, but surely if any of those becomes a factor, it is the club’s policy, standard of coaching and Youth Programme that needs to be scrutinised, rather than the league table, is it not? Alongside this though, both the coaches and parents have a huge responsibility. My worry about our young coaches is that many of them don’t know the game and, as such, they have a ‘fear’ of hands-on coaching. The SFA have, believe it or not, made remarkable strides in recent years introducing young coaches to the game. Facilities are improving and performance schools for the elite are without doubt one of the ways forward, as are the various coaching initiatives by both Tesco and MacDonald’s (there’s an irony in there somewhere I’m sure) but what about the coaches on our Pro Youth/Academy pathways who look after the rest of our future stars. Well drilled, well organised sessions, passing drills and nice, neat uniforms but how many of them know how to coach a player positionally? We’ve all seen a lovely, intricate passing drill come off and look great, but what are the players actually learning? Practicing technique, yes, but what about a match situation. Can the player make that same pass when confronted, when put under pressure. Can the coach put on a session addressing defensive needs, or strikers’ movement or how to get penetration in attack or depth in the midfield?

That’s what we need to address, not the coach’s ability to put on a session, or teach a skill or how to pass, but their knowledge of the game and their ability to identify both personal and team weaknesses. In my opinion, this can only come on the back of competitive youth football and the relative pressures that come with that. They have to be able to identify situations that only arise in matches, from losing situations and winning situations. Coaches will improve and the better ones will progress along with the players. Surely talented, technical players can only be enhanced by having a winning mentality. They need to learn how to win 1-0, how to use that honed technique to keep possession at crucial times, how to retain the ball, how to give away a ‘technical’ foul to kill the game. It may not be the perfect, picture book football that sells DVD’s, but it’s a part of the game we have never been particularly good at. The Germans, the Italians, the South Americans are masterful at it, but it only comes from playing competitive football. Winning football.

The Parent

Parents too, have a huge responsibility to understand (and accept) how the Pro Youth/Academy system works. The system is geared entirely towards the clubs, which unfortunately means a lot of sometimes talented players are discarded as being “not good enough.” Clubs are not only developing footballers, they are trying to develop ‘assets.’ This may not be popular to say, but is a necessary part of the process. If clubs have invested heavily over the years in their programme, they have every right to make a decision on whether or not they see that player playing a part in the club’s future.

Parents MUST prepare their children for this eventuality; they must also be realistic in their assessment of the player. We’ve all seen the kid who struggles to get a game as he may not be at the level of the rest and yet, his parents believe he is going to be the next superstar. It makes the job of picking the player back up after the disappointment so much more difficult from both the clubs and the parents’ point of view. Finally, whilst the SFA have made great strides with those new facilities and coaches, some of our clubs should be ashamed at their efforts over the years to progress young players. Hamilton, Livingston and Falkirk can all be held up as shining examples of clubs who had faith in playing youngsters instead of filling their team with cheap, experienced foreigners. The rewards for these clubs have been clear to see, as their conveyor belt of talent has been sold on at enormous, well deserved profit. It is only now that they cannot afford to have a team full of senior players and, as a financial necessity rather than by policy or design, that most of our other SPFL clubs are blooding youngsters in the hope of unearthing a gem.

As someone once famously said “you (apparently) win nothing with kids” and I’ve never seen a trophy won yet, with technique and flair alone. It takes attitude, organisation, discipline, grit, determination, fitness and all manner of skill to win a league, but then again, how are you supposed to know how to win it if, by the time you reach 17, you’ve never played in one.

Now after a poor return of just one winner from three selections, Alex Rae has returned to Belgium with his tail between his legs and most of you will be glad to hear there will be no Guest Tipster slot this week due to the International break.

David Farrell

RIGHT HAND MAN

Faz. The best Assistant Manager in the world. You may not know that, but Rui Faria – ‘Faz’ to you and I – is Jose Mourinho’s trusted assistant, and no doubt confidante. Now I’m certain Mourinho will appreciate the importance of his right hand man, but I’m not sure many of you will. It’s a key position at a football club and one which I am very familiar with as I have now been assistant to four different managers. All four were very different personalities, but the basic premise of the job and particularly the psychology, does not change from one manager to the other. It is one of the main reasons why many managers have kept the same person as THEIR right-hand-man through many different clubs. I’ve touched on it briefly in other blogs, but in this one I’ll attempt to outline how an assistant manager’s role forms a key part of the respect between the players and the manager.

As an assistant manager you have to be many things, but the most important thing from the manager’s point of view is trust. Not the sort of trust that ensures you’re not going to dip his pockets when his back is turned, but the trust that he knows you can do whatever is required, at ANYTIME. There are huge differences in the resources available to coaching staff at the top level, but that principle remains the same. In my experience, you have to make the manager’s job an easier one, whether he asks you to do a lot (as some do) or when you are asked to do a little. But above all, the relationship with the players is the most important thing. The manager doesn’t have to be liked, but the assistant does. He has to be a go-between, a counsellor, a good coach, a friend and a leader.

A tactical genius

The Monday will normally start around 8.30am, and the first thing to do is organise training, and regardless of the weekends result, enthusiasm and humour are essential in setting the tone for the week. How many players are fit? Who can train? Who can’t? A visit to the Physio’s room to assess all of these factors is first on the agenda. The physio room is where all the players tend to gather on a Monday, swapping stories and tales from the weekend. The sound of silence when the manager walks in there later in the morning is deafening. So when the assistant is summoned to the Gaffer’s office around 9.15, he will EXPECT you to know the answer to all his questions. Who’s fit, who’s not, who’s been out, who’s fell out with his wife and who’s fell out with someone else’s wife? This is the point when the relationship with the players is key. I was fortunate that I had been friends with Alex Rae for 25 years before we worked together so I knew how he worked and I knew what he’d want, but most importantly I knew how he would deal with the players. I could also use this to my advantage with the players on occasion. I could protect them and become important to them at the same time, I would say that someone had a tight calf if they felt they needed a rest or maybe they were feeling low or had some outside problems, or on a very rare occasion send him home with “Monday morning flu.” The Gaffer has enough to deal with and if I could make his job easier by handling small issues, I would. It also allowed me to build a fantastic trust with the players as they knew they could come to me in confidence.

As an assistant manager, you have to be incredibly subservient at times. I was no shrinking violet and the players knew that through my demeanour, they were also well aware that I didn’t tolerate non-triers, but everyone got a break now and then if they deserved it. However, I also knew that if I made a mistake, or said something out of turn, I could be cut down in front of the players, purely for effect. This would serve as a reminder that no-one would be safe from the manager’s wrath, should it be required and it certainly kept the players on their toes. And me on mine.

We would finish training about 12, have lunch and then get on with the video analysis of Saturday’s match, a key part of any week. However there was one occasion when it wasn’t required. We worked hard on tactics and team shape, we watched lots of midweek games, trying to pick up on anything that would give us an edge; an advantage. It was part of my assistant manager ethos. But on this occasion I was serving a one-match touchline ban for reasons I will go into later. I was due to serve it on the first day of the season, but that game was an SFL Challenge Cup tie at Alloa. Now the Challenge Cup wasn’t high on our list of priorities, so rather than sit in the stand at Recreation Park, I opted to travel up to Ross County who were to be our first league opponents the following week, in order to watch them and do some direct tactical analysis to highlight any deficiencies in their play. We had a lot of injuries, but I felt that County’s 4-4-2 was too open and exposed their midfield two and if we could get an extra man in the middle we could over run them in there and exploit it on the counter attack. They also employed “zonal marking” at set pieces, a real bugbear of mine, and we would start our players attacking the ball from the 18-yard box at corners and hopefully get a header in on the run whilst their players were standing still.

On the following Saturday it couldn’t have gone any better. We played 4-5-1, scored the first goal after 25 minutes from a corner and then sealed the match with a breakaway goal about 15 minutes from time. It’s a huge source of pride as a coach when you get it right. However, at this point, and in the interests of balance I think it’s important that I point out that, after our injury list had built up to an unsustainable point, and performances dipped, in the return match 10 games later at Dens Park, we lost 2-1 which meant that at stage of the season we had fallen nine points behind the leaders. A gap which was felt at that time to be too much and we were sacked on the Monday morning. Tactical genius right enough.

Sweet FA

Going back to my one-match touchline ban, I need to emphasise that whilst it is important that the coaching staff shows discipline in their performance both on and off the pitch, it is also crucial in gaining that respect, that they know you will “fight” for them in any way you can. There are times when players NEED to see that. A passion, a physicality, demonstrating your will to win, and of course on occasion, that can spill over, although this definitely wasn’t one.

It was an away game at Broadwood and we were a goal down with about 15 minutes to play on the league run-in, still fighting for a title. The ball was knocked out at the halfway line between the dugouts, and Gary Bollan (then Clyde manager) grabbed the ball. I ran over to get it as it was our throw and he turned with the ball outstretched, forcing me to put my arms round him to try and free the ball from the other side. He then dropped it and kicked it onto the pitch at which point we were both red carded. I was dumbfounded, and here’s where you’ll get an insight to our much maligned disciplinary system. I received the SFA letter asking me to appear at Hampden as I had been charged with violent conduct and was given a two-game ban. Seriously, I’m from the east end of Glasgow and I’d have been laughed out of Duke Street if I’d have told my mates that I had been done for violent conduct for trying to grab the ball off Bollan like a big girl’s blouse.

I trotted off to Hampden to fight it armed with a DVD of the incident and two pages highlighting the SFA’s own description of what was deemed “violent conduct.” I was found not guilty; however, I WAS found guilty of the lesser charge of leaving my technical area and given a one-game ban. I was furious, there was no other court in the land where you can be tried for one offence and found guilty of another. But I had no option to accept it and move on. In my eyes I had won anyway.

So there you have it, the assistant manager/coach/counsellor/big girl’s blouse and player liaison officer. I wonder if Chelsea’s Faz has a similar story to tell?

Onto this week’s tips and after a valiant effort by Bobby Mann last week and our fourth 2 out of 3 in succession, the baton moves to Alex Rae as our guest Tipster. This week Alex goes for Inverness at home to Ross Co. (1to2), Hearts away at QoS (10to11) and Hibs at home to Raith (8to11). It’s fair to say we are due a win.

David Farrell