KEEPING A LID ON IT

The pot is boiling. The lid is insecure and just about managing to maintain parity as it rattles and wobbles under the constant battering. Simmering, the ingredients are in the mix and the broth is taking shape, but still you can’t quite get it right. You’ve been working on it for weeks and here it is in front of you, but it still doesn’t look the way it should and the end result is disappointing. Should you change the recipe and be a little more adventurous in the hope that it brings about the desired outcome, whilst risking upsetting the balance and ruining it altogether?

All the while, the lid is still uneasy. Making that noise only releasing the pressure will ease, whistling and screaming in your head for you to do something. You’re standing there at the side of the pitch and your lid feels like it’s about to blow off. Looking lost and wondering whether to stick or twist on the back of four straight defeats and praying that the final 20 minutes of cooking time produces a feast, worthy of a king (or a chairman).

Pressure, that’s what it feels like.

The recipe

I’ve been asked hundreds of times what pressure is and heard an equal amount of times the old analogy that football management isn’t REAL pressure. “Putting food on the table,” that’s REAL pressure.

Whilst the reality of that particular social situation cannot be under estimated, it doesn’t mean that football coaching and management does not bring with it, its own, very real, type of pressure.

Where else can you literally be three or four weeks from losing your job on a regular basis and turning up for work every morning fearing the sack? Not everyone has the luxury of a million pound pay-off and a lucrative contract to fall back on. Football is a unique industry and whether your target for the season is avoiding relegation, mid-table mediocrity, the play-offs or a title challenge, the pressure builds in equal amounts when you’re not winning.

Throw into the mix that it’s almost December, with the busy Christmas period round the corner and, the madness that is the January transfer window. Chairmen up and down the country deciding whether to stick with the devil they know or put the meagre pay-off in Santa’s sack and give their loyal aide the heave ho-ho-ho.

Boiling point

There are tell-tale signs when a manager is feeling “the pressure.” After match press conferences are first port of call for the dead giveaway. A gaffer in the midst of a winning run and sporting one of the chairman’s newly gifted cigars in his top pocket will generally be composed, assured and as guarded as he always is. On the other hand, four defeats on the trot and simple, run-of-the-mill questions are met with terse, confrontational answers or long-winded rants. Referees decisions and performances are questioned, tactics are backed to the point of delusion and even the fans will get it in the neck.

It’s a release mechanism. Just the same as releasing that button on the top of the pressure cooker, you feel as if you are being backed into a corner and rather than have the power of rational thought, the natural instinct is to come out fighting. Swinging punches at the pitch, the linesman, the press and the board and it’s only when you wake up the next morning in the cold light of day that you read the headlines and see none of your haymakers has even remotely brushed its target.

And now, you’re under more pressure.

The old immortal lines about ‘not reading the papers’ and my own particular favourite – “I don’t look at league tables” are trotted out. Really???

In this modern age of tactical and performance analysis, if you don’t look at league tables and know how many goals you have conceded against how many you have scored then you’re not doing your job. I don’t know a manager these days who doesn’t know how many times his star striker farts in the warm up, never mind how many goals they’ve lost from set pieces. It’s an insult to the intelligence of every man, woman and child who follows football to suggest otherwise.

The ingredients

There are other more obvious signs ON the pitch. Chopping and changing of formations and line-ups and players playing out of position as managers under pressure, become so desperate for a result, they tinker and tamper so much that any kind of consistency and level of performance is less likely than flagging down a taxi on a Saturday night.

And then, there’s the greatest insult and possibly the biggest sign of all. A change from, flowing, attacking open play to football’s equivalent of a cup of Horlick’s. The dreaded 4-5-1. Safe, unattractive football. The most negative system of play ever created and generally employed by managers who, feeling the pressure, have decided that the best way to take something from the game, and cajole a team devoid of any defensive capability, is to hold on to ‘nil’ for as long as is humanly possible (or 90 minutes) in order to nick a point. In truth, by that stage, the nail, pinning the initialled coat to the dressing room wall, is usually no longer shaky, but is lying on the floor.

At Dundee, we were under pressure from the start. A couple of new kids on the block, trying to make their very own marky mark in the game. The club were languishing mid-table in the First Division, and we managed with a squad of free transfers, vagabonds and trialists to drag them up to third. The second season was much better and we were only just pipped for the title and finished, very respectably, runners-up. The expectation of the following season brought with it the pressure that we HAD to gain promotion.
Injuries, suspensions and an indifferent start to our third season all combined to ensure that by early October, we were under pressure. Nine points off the top and we were aware the heat was on.

And then, we did it.

The end product

4-5-1 against a mid-table Partick Thistle at Firhill, where we felt that a point away from home would keep us in a job for another week. We managed an awful 0-0 and in actual fact we COULD have nicked it, but as our star striker’s breakaway effort slipped agonisingly wide with 10 minutes to go, we were safe in the knowledge that we’d at least earned a point and a stay of execution, although predictably, there would be no let-up in the pressure.

We lasted a week.

After reverting back to our normal 4-4-2 the following Saturday at home to Ross County, we lost 2-1 and our fate was sealed as we were sacked three days later. The pressure had been mounting, but at least our last throw of the dice had been to revert back to the tried and tested formula that had brought us a modicum of success over our first two years.

The lid was now off the pressure cooker and the disappointment is almost matched by the relief that you no longer have to feel like that.

And yet, within days, there’s an aching and an urge to get back in there and turn the heat up again. Because no matter how crazy it feels, and how difficult things become, the pressure is just another one of those things, coaches and managers live with. And there’s one thing that is so much worse, and that’s living without it.

My first book – TAXI FOR FARRELL: FOOTBALL BETWEEN THE LINES is now available from http://www.tecklebooks.co.uk on all formats and from most good book shops.

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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UNDER NEW MANAGEMENT

Nothing.

That’s what we’re doing this weekend.

Not a single mince pie’s crusty edge, bitten off in unbridled footballing pleasure nor a ball kicked in anger, as the Euro Championship play-offs kick off.

We should be playing this week at the very least, looking forward and giving ourselves a glimmer of hope, stumbling our way through a home and away tie before falling at the final hurdle, gloriously and inevitably. Talk the game up we are continuously told. On the back of what? Realism and abject failure? The bottom line is we blew it because we were not good enough.

Don’t tell me that we’re producing players, because we’re not. The demise of Rangers and the ensuing financial fallout has allowed most clubs to get their fragile houses in order, but there are still very few players coming through to allow us to compete at elite level. As a country, our Under 21’s last qualified for the final stages of a major tournament 19 years ago. The National side then went on to qualify for France ’98 just two years later – sadly our last appearance in the latter stages among football’s good and great.

I wonder if anyone within the corridors of power has made that particular link yet, that an excellent feeder side makes a competitive National side and whether or not they are still prepared to say that we are producing quality from our youth programmes, because frankly, among all the bombast and bluster, it’s not happening.

Year after year of football ‘development’ initiatives failing to provide a glut of players the financial investment should have guaranteed. Trumped up performance schools and investments in playing the ‘Dutch’ way, have failed to secure us a place at the top table. They should be done under the Trade Descriptions Act.

Any club’s youth programme should be judged on the number of players it brings through to it’s OWN first team, not the amount of discards littering the lower leagues. Players who become REAL saleable assets, or at the very least given more than a paltry 20 appearances, whilst being lauded as the next big thing before being forgotten about quicker than an Amsterdam weekend. Celtic and Rangers are the biggest players and the biggest culprits. I’m sick of hearing about Aiden McGeady and Alan Hutton, the last two to roll off the youth development production line.

That’s ONE player each, from the big boy’s game of poker whose chips were able to be cashed in for more than the price of a set of tracksuits, a dozen balls and an initialled coaches jacket in 14, barren years, since the money pits of Murray Park and Lennoxtown were created. It’s no wonder our National team manager was toying with the idea of throwing in the towel.

Given the tools he has at his disposal, it’s understandable why he was twitching uncomfortably in his seat.

Ginger snap

Unusually, Gordon Strachan, found himself in the enviable position of being a manager in demand, on the back of, what was ultimately, a failed European Championships qualifying campaign. There can be no question that, given the circumstances, there were far more positives to be taken from this failed campaign than there had been from many others. Positive performances against some of the better teams in the group had meant that at least at some points during the programme, we had reason to believe.

Given that there were no credible alternatives swinging the Grim Reaper’s scythe and the very influential media had decided that on this occasion, the sword was mightier than the pen, his bosses at the SFA very quickly made it clear that they wanted him to stay, meaning there was unlikely to be any outcome other than continuity.

Certainly there were none of the outward signs that he had lost the players. There was no petty indiscipline on the pitch. No stupid kicking the ball away or needless cautions and no negative, front page headlines that often blight an International trip. These are all good signs for a manager trying to instil a spirit and togetherness into a squad.

Players talk and they, just like the managers, all have individual ‘go to’ guys in the media who will be more than happy to allow some gossip or team news to seep seamlessly from the team hotel. But even if all the signs were there that the players were happy enough to stick with the devil they knew, I’m not 100% convinced that Mr Strachan himself wanted to remain in the dark blue.

Had the final game been a dull, narrow victory over Georgia, in front of a half empty Hampden, where the crowd may well have been looking for a victim rather than the hero lauded by the alcohol fuelled Tartan Army on the back of a three day jolly to Albufeira, the decision to stay may not have been so straightforward.

The pictures of the group celebrating a 6-0 victory over Gibraltar, and the sound of the manager’s name being chanted among endless renditions of Flower of Scotland, may well have been replaced by an angry mob, baying for a scapegoat. Had that been the case, I’m not convinced Gordon would have been swayed to carry on by that particular Polaroid.

With there being no other viable candidates for the job, let us all hope that on this occasion, the loyalty shown on both sides, is rewarded with success.

Club

Remarkably, given the circumstances of our failed campaign, Gordon’s assistant was in a similar position of demand as Mark McGhee returned to management in a club capacity at Motherwell. They always say you should never go back to a club, either as a player or a manager and there are many examples over the years as to why that old adage usually stands up, but what are the real reasons behind it? Why is it so difficult to go back?

The main reason is that generally, if you are being asked to make a return to a football club, you will have been successful first time round. That in itself brings a lot of pressure as clubs will very often have the same administrative staff, office bearers and groundsmen who will have worked with you before and, they will immediately expect the same level of success that you brought previously.

That in itself can bring instant, unrealistic demands, given that you are now sitting 2nd bottom, when you left them as they were sitting 2nd top.

There will have been the inevitable change in playing staff and that, alongside the familiarity of wee Jessie the tea lady, are the main reasons why it will be so difficult, second time around.

The previous manager has been sacked because the team hasn’t been doing well, you need to rebuild, bring in new players and harness that same spirit you had only a few years before. Crucially, you need to weed out the troublemakers, the guys who have had so much of a negative influence around the place that the previous manager would have been better instructing ACAS to do his half time team talks. And all the while, those trusted staff, the ones who you could have hung your Stetson on last time round are starting to question whether or not you are the same, successful manager they remember.

A team rebuild is what almost every incoming manager has to do, but against the backdrop of familiarity, those in and around a football club are a lot quicker to turn against you when they have already experienced how good your methods WERE.

I wish Mark McGhee every success at Motherwell. He has a very difficult task in winning over a group of players, battered almost into submission by the former regime. I was vocal at the time that I could not understand the powers that be there, employing someone who from the outside, seemed to have very little knowledge of the Scottish game. At least on this occasion, they cannot be accused of such folly, however, as soon as Mark hears those inevitable murmurings of “he’s changed” from behind the scenes, it will be time to look over his broad shoulder. I hope for his sake, as with any manager, he gets a few early wins and that those murmurings are still a long, long, way off.

Finally…. What’s going on at Chelsea?
Jose Mourinho, so long the ‘Special One’ is currently in the unusual position for him, of going through a very difficult period. Make no mistake about it, something is not right. A team as talented as they are, with the financial clout and depth of squad, should not be going through such a horrendous run.

Without knowing what’s going on behind the scenes at the Bridge, I can only speculate, but it is very rare at a football club that two such high profile spats as those with John Terry and Eva Caneiro, will not have had an adverse effect on spirit. There is no question that earlier in the season, Jose was looking to make a statement, by leaving out his captain Terry. Publicly decrying such an influential figure at a football club is a huge, egotistic call and, if Terry decided that he would become a negative influence around the dressing room, I’m sure he would not find it too difficult.

Gathering allies would be no Herculean task given his stature and power within the club and, on the back of a few dodgy results, it would seem that those within the dark blue dressing room are siding with Terry rather than the manager. One thing is absolutely certain, they will both deny it and say everything is ok, but their relationship, on the back of a public spat, will never be the same again.

The Eva Caneiro situation will only have exacerbated whatever rift there may exist between the players and management. I hear Miss Caneiro was a very popular figure among the players (get your mind out of the gutter) as more often than not, physios and medical staff at football clubs are viewed very much as friends and allies of the dressing room. A very high profile removal of someone so popular will have done nothing for what seems an already fractious relationship between Jose and the players.

He is an incredibly successful and experienced manager and has achieved things I could only have imagined in my wildest dreams, but he will have to quickly find a solution to the situation he currently finds himself in and re-invent the spirit and trust he is famous for.

Should results continue as they have been, the Special One, could, for the first time in his illustrious career, become the Chosen One, for all the wrong reasons.

My first book – TAXI FOR FARRELL: FOOTBALL BETWEEN THE LINES is now available from http://www.tecklebooks.co.uk As well as Waterstones Glasgow and on all other formats.

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