CARETAKER

I had a horrible sleepless night last night, tossing and turning. All manner of thoughts going through my head. You see, last night I got a phone call, an expression of interest, nothing more, but an interest nevertheless. Someone has asked me if I would consider coming in to help them at their club, lend my experience if you like. Now it’s important for me to stress here, there are other candidates, probably lots of them. But in the football world, that expression of interest is the equivalent of the Hogmanay fireworks going off in your head, hence the return of the sleepless night.

Should I be lucky enough to be eventually offered the position and should my family circumstances allow me to take it, I know only too well, the insomnia is only just starting its well worn path through my insatiable football brain. It comes with the territory. But why would anyone continue to put themselves through that? It’s a question I have asked myself many times over the years and, other than a vaguely masochistic streak, it continues to become difficult to justify any reasonable answer to my family. Generally though, it keeps coming back to one thing. That this one will be the job that elevates me to greatness, that success in the next job will ensure the big boys take notice and I can step up to the big league, that in six months time I don’t have to return, tail between my legs, to the wonderful world of the Glasgow Hackney Carriage.

It’s in all of us; coaches, managers, players and fans alike, that intoxicating power of football, and we wouldn’t have it any other way would we?

Pillow talk

Fortunately, I don’t have exclusivity on the apnoea merry-go-round. Almost every coach and manager I have known will have continuous sleep-free nights whilst thinking about team selections, training, tactics and opposition. Indeed, Allan Preston told me when he was manager at Livingston, he kept a pen and paper at his bedside, for the inevitable night-time bump. I’m certain he wasn’t alone and if you look at Sir Alex Ferguson now in comparison to when he was at the coal face, it’s fairly obvious he no longer has to pay an extra 10p each time he passes the supermarket checkout for his two extra bags.

Yet all this pales into insignificance when you can gain the respect of the football world from being a manager or coach when your team carries out your instructions to the letter and wins. The euphoria and downright selfish pride gained from a ‘backs-to-the-wall’ performance where you’ve soaked up all they can throw and sucker punched them at the death to nick a 1-0, makes all the 3am scribblings worth it.

However there is one managerial position, one unenviable position rarely afforded the luxury of a memory foam pillow. That of the caretaker.

Taking care

The caretaker manager’s job is one that is fraught with complexities. The first one being that you will rarely be taking over a team that is on the up. There are many coaches (particularly in England) who seem to have stepped in and carried out the job on many occasions, indeed Tony Parkes at Blackburn was in interim charge of the club on SIX different occasions. A steady hand or a scything one? Clearly no-one at the club ever seen him as management material, but his “old head” has been deemed valuable enough to tide the team over whilst the search for a permanent suitor goes on. You can make your own mind up as to whether you think that makes any sense.

Kenny MacDowall, is currently going through the worst possible side of being interim manager, because not only has he been FORCED into the position, he has taken over a team that seems to be lacking in confidence. A double edged sword if ever there was one.

Now make no mistake, Kenny would love to be manager of Rangers, but under different circumstances. Not when his best friend has been removed from the position, not when the guy you have stood shoulder to shoulder with, through thin and thin, has been forced into falling on his particular double edged sword. But contracts have to be honoured and protected and in football, clubs are very quick to seize on an opportunity to do what suits them. Kenny HAD to take the job and, he will have done so with Ally’s blessing. That he had to demote Ian Durrant in his first few days in the position, would only have compounded his turmoil at being coerced into the tainted seat.

Caretaker is something I have personal experience of and, from my point of view, I can attempt to give you a small insight into why Kenny’s head would have been in more turmoil than a noroviral belly in Delhi.

Dun deal

There are generally only three types of interim manager; the senior player taking over to try and get the job, the assistant taking over to keep things ticking over and, the “Tony Parkes.” At Dundee I was caretaker manager for nine days and one game, but in truth it felt like an awful lot longer. Now the legal arguments and rights and wrongs of whether the manager should have been sacked will need to wait for another time, but the reality is that after two-and-a-half years, we were out and I was asked to take care of things whilst the club searched for a replacement. I was also asked to apply for the job, but my feeling was, that it was more out of courtesy than reality as I felt if the club wanted change, then a whole regime change was in the best interests of everyone.

I could never have taken the job anyway, not with my relationship with Alex. Indeed, throughout the nine days of my janitorial duties, I made it clear that I would keep my current office and not use the “Manager’s.” It was the least I could do for someone who had shown tremendous loyalty in appointing me in the first place.

One of the strange things about being caretaker is the underwhelming nature of it. I no longer wanted to be there. My friend and Gaffer had gone and the truth was I would rather have gone with him there and then, but I had a contract and there was nothing I was going to do to compromise that. I had to make sure everything was done by the book. In that sense, it is a very similar situation to Kenny’s and I heard him alluding to that very fact in one of his first interviews. It’s a common theme in the lonely world of the caretaker.

The tune

But I had a job to do and regardless of how I felt, I would do the best I could for the players. I put the face paint on and we trained as normal. I asked Paul Ritchie to take on Assistant Manager’s duties and we prepared for the next game, away at Morton. I felt it was important the players seen how seriously I was taking the game and put on my suit and tie at the side of the pitch. I was normally very much a ‘tracksuit’ coach, but in my ‘old school’ mind, I saw the manager’s position as one of authority and respect. I like to see managers dressed appropriately and, if I wanted the respect, I felt I had to give it. I had little option to change the team as with injuries we were struggling for players and there was very little I could do differently tactically. This was something else I heard Kenny talking about last week.

As assistants we do everything required of the manager, we support team selections and everything the manager does. If I had made six changes and tried to play a different way, that would have made me a fraud. Why would I not have suggested to Alex before now that we should do that? Do clubs think that we had some magic formula that we had been keeping secret from the manager?

As it was I did do one thing differently pre-match. I could sense flatness among the players and felt with the situation as it was, we needed to start the game brightly. Now Cappielow is a small ground and the away dressing room is one of the smallest in the country. Cramped and cold with a massage bench in the middle and no room for a push up never mind an impromptu First Division ‘Haka,’ I  gathered them round in a small circle just before we headed out and brought them to boiling point with a ‘running on the spot’ exercise. And do you know what? It worked… for 20 minutes. I got a tune out of them, I really did, but as the game settled and a team already lacking in confidence lost a goal, I could see the shoulders dropping. At that point I’m not sure Jonah Lomu could have got them going again. We went on to lose 2-0 and my foray into the world of the caretaker was over.

I was a disconsolate figure when interviewed by the Press afterwards. I got a sympathetic ear as we both knew I didn’t want to be in front of them under those circumstances. But I owed the players and the club that. I couldn’t walk away from my responsibility and refuse to talk to the Press.

Nor could I have left them dangling.

Win, lose or draw, the caretaker was leaving the building and as the new manager was appointed on the Monday, thankfully I had been made aware I was surplus to requirements. I cleared my assistant manager’s desk and the club was ready for the next regime to take over and allow a new broom to sweep clean in. Such is the wonderful world of football, it’s never long until the next caretaker takes the reins and the cycle begins all over again. And the perverse truth is, we wouldn’t change it for the world.

Finally…Some of you will be delighted to hear there will be no Guest Tipsters treble feature in this blog. Circumstances later in the week may, or may not, dictate whether it has to be banished to the substitute’s bench for good. Time will tell.

Happy New Year

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

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