Football from the Inside (The Gaffer)

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THE GAFFER

Gaffer; Boss; Coach; I’ve even come across one whose players came to know him as Mike (after the irreverently hapless Mike Bassett). It takes all manner of personalities to become a football manager, I’ve played under a few and I’ve worked with a few. There are certain characteristics that are essential and there are others which have no bearing at all on whether a manager is good, bad or indifferent, but there is only one thing a manager will ever be judged on, and that is success. How it is achieved, almost becomes irrelevant, and in my experience it cannot be pigeon holed into ‘hairdryers’ or the proverbial ‘arm around the shoulder’ types. Those traits are more determined by what the players are like, rather than what the manager is like.

Training

There are different types of football manager. Modern day ‘Gaffers’ will tend to manage not just the team, but the club. Board meetings need to be attended, finances discussed, budgets organised and then there’s the small matter of training.
This is where the importance of delegation and trust becomes a key factor. Martin O’Neil for example rarely got the tracksuit on or masterminded a training session and indeed, it was said, there were many occasions he was only at the training ground once or twice a week. Steve Walford and John Robertson were the coaches, they put together the training and organised the sessions. Walford done the coaching and that is something that is becoming more and more common. But is it wrong? Absolutely not, when you are as successful as that man has been, you can turn up at 1:45pm on a Saturday if you like, take the plaudits and doff your cap as you say “see you NEXT Saturday boys.”

Listening

Contrast that with the current position Alex McLeish is in with Genk in Belgium. Alex has vast experience of managing at the top level, and I know he has moved away over the years from being a ‘hands on’ training ground coach who takes all the sessions, to a thorough, deep thinking ‘manager,’ who will oversee ALL aspects of the club as well as being on the training ground every day to observe and cajole, not only players, but coaches too.

The coaching structure in Europe is vastly different from here in the UK and, this is where a manager of Alex’s experience is not only crucial, but essential. Currently at Genk, he is working with, a Sporting Director, a Technical Director (who identifies and signs a lot of the players), an assistant and three coaches. The three coaches are fantastically known as Coach One, Coach Two and Coach Three. Another huge part of the manager’s job will be to make sure that ‘Coach Three’ feels just as important within the hierarchy as the Sporting Director does and, as long as he has input and is listened to, that will be the case.

From what I’ve heard, big Alex is no shrinking violet when it comes to putting his point across when necessary, however, it is his ability to listen which is standing him in such good stead when dealing with the vagaries of such a large technical department. HIS success over the years, hasn’t come from not being around much.

Doing

One thing I do know which is a necessity, is passion. Players need to see it. They can be just as fickle and as sensitive as fans. It’s important to stress at this point that I’m not talking about the type of passion that results in fist pumping with the punters after a victory, a ‘show’ of passion. Fans and players alike, quickly see through that. I mean the type of passion when you look to the side after a referee has made a poor decision and your Gaffer is non-plussed, veins popping and screaming at him to change his mind.

Neither is it the flailing arms, remonstrating with all and sundry in another ‘show’ to the fans, playing to them trying to convince them that you’ve got it. I wanted to see my Boss toe-to-toe with theirs, supporting me and asking for a decision, even when he KNEW I’d committed a foul. It’s the sort of thing that builds an unbreakable trust between manager and player. Mourinho has it, Sir Alex had it, Guardiola has it, Alex McLeish and Martin O’Neill have it. If it’s good enough for the best, surely it must be good enough for the rest?

There is little more deflating when you’re under the cosh, than seeing the Gaffer standing, arms folded and motionless, lost in a mixture of bewilderment and loneliness.
I’ve been there, as a coach and assistant manager. The game is going against you, the shape isn’t right. One or two players aren’t doing their job. You’ve tried shouting, it’s not worked. You know you need to do something. As assistant, I’d be in the Gaffer’s ear “he needs to come off,” “we’ll change to 4-3-3,” “their number 10 is giving us a doing…” and that’s the point when it happens. The point where you become lost. That time in the game when the fans think you are standing there, looking empty with no thought of changing things. In fact, that effect is brought about by the opposite. There are now TOO MANY things you could do and at that point, if there was a way out of the ground via a hole in the track, you’d take it, rather than feel the loneliness of knowing that the next decision you make could be your last as the fans continue to bay for your blood.

Seeing

I’ve been there as a player as well. I remember a game at Peterhead, we were being battered and I felt we should be doing something to stem what felt like a blue wave through our midfield. I NEEDED help. I looked over and I could SEE the Gaffer, but he wasn’t there. There was a break in play and I took the opportunity to run over and nudge him in the right direction, “Gaffer, their extra man in midfield is killing us.” His riposte was swift, but no less convincing, “Do you think I don’t f*****g know that?”
I turned and ran back on to the pitch mumbling “well clearly you don’t or you would have done something about it” (it may not have been as polite as that, but I’m sure you get the point). As the years in football wore on and I became a coach and assistant manager myself, I’ve come to understand that he probably had seen it, but being able to do something about it quickly enough, probably separates the good, from the great.

Laughing

The final ingredient, and one which is all too lost in the pressures and goldfish bowl type of scrutiny, is humour. It’s not essential to be a success, but if you don’t have it between managers and staff, relationships can become tense and fractious. Alex Rae and I, have been friends for over 30 years and there is nothing which has kept us together more in football than humour. We used to travel back down from Dundee in the car and discuss the game, the tactics, what went wrong, what went right, and we’d stop at a wee pub in Aberuthven for an hour to unwind have a laugh with the locals. It became something of a ritual and certainly helped ease the tensions for an hour after a match. On one occasion after a particularly tense match, we’d lost and the team had performed poorly. The car was deadly silent. Neither of us could speak. The anger and frustration building, the atmosphere in the car was tight. We were sitting like coiled springs ready to explode. I knew I had to say something. I looked at him as he was driving – nothing. I stared again – zilch. When I looked for the third time, the length of the stare was more uncomfortable than watching your dad dancing at a wedding. He broke “what the f**k is it?” My reply was swift and to the point, “I’ve got more hair than you.” Now those of you who know us, will know, that particular contest, would have come down to counting the final two or three strands on each other’s head (although there’s no question in my mind that I won). But the ice had been broken and our mood had been lightened just a fraction to allow us to enjoy our hour in the Smiddy Haugh a LITTLE more.

So if you’re watching your team this weekend and you see your manager, standing, looking lost, spare a thought for what he might have gone through during the week. Yes, on a rare occasion, it might have been very little, but in most cases, he’ll have gone through more in seven days than you would ever have imagined. And whether it’s the “tracksuit” manager or the “boardroom” manager, the important thing to remember is he is only ever doing it for one purpose, winning. That is where we are all judged and, that is why we will ALL ultimately be removed from our positions at some point. And with the January transfer window approaching, it was no surprise to see five go in the last fortnight. And whether you wear your tracksuit to the boardroom or your suit to the training ground, that’s one thing that will never change.

David Farrell

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