Ian Herbert: Dedicated coaches like Billy McKinlay are the unnoticed victims when a manager gets sacked – and face a tough battle to return
Their appetite for the game is remarkable, given the rewards are comparatively slight
For some of those football managers who find themselves out of work this Christmas, there is the consolation of new assignments up ahead. Martin Jol has Germany and the Netherlands to go at again, Steve Clarke’s achievements at West Bromwich Albion ought to restore him to the Premier League, and Portugal will take Andre Villas-Boas, even though the Premier League is a closed door now.
But the landscape offers far fewer certainties for the real victims of the contagion of sackings: those coaches who have not aligned themselves to a manager and yet find themselves cast out of a club along with one when things go wrong. These people are uncelebrated, unknown and – some of their number may now reasonably conclude – unfashionable, because British coaches hardly seem de rigueur. Watford’s rapid decision to replace Gianfranco Zola with Giuseppe Sannino, a journeyman Italian coach who has had 15 jobs in 17 years, was desperate. The selection of coaches appointed to work with him – Francesco Troise, Giovanni Cusatis and Paolo De Toffol – was dismal. Who are these people?
This is the landscape into which Billy McKinlay has been cast, after his decade of continuous work as coach at Fulham abruptly ended this month. McKinlay had been at Craven Cottage through a period of remarkable success but he followed Jol out of the door because the new manager, Rene Meulensteen, wanted to install his own man, Jonathan Hill, instead. McKinlay’s very British reluctance to talk himself up deters him from saying that very many young Fulham players have benefited from his approach to coaching in the course of 10 years. It is an approach shaped from his years working with such different individuals as the indomitable Jim McLean, Roy Hodgson, Kenny Dalglish, Ray Harford, Ray Lewington – and Jol.
McKinlay’s talk of McLean should be enough to tell us that he is one of those people football needs to have working on the inside. This has been a year in which Sir Alex Ferguson’s ethos of managerial “control” has been much discussed, though McLean’s philosophy took it to another level. “It was brutal playing for him because of the intensity and expectations,” McKinlay told me when we met in London last week. “His expectations were beyond reality: he used to admit that. He said ‘I might not get what I’m asking for but if I get most of it then I’m happy.’”
McLean’s results told their own story. He took Dundee United to incredible heights in the 1980s. The challenge when McKinlay began coaching at Chris Coleman’s Fulham in 2004 was how to apply that 1980s philosophy to a modern football environment. “You would not get away with coaching and managing like that today,” McKinlay says. “The money side of the game changes it, no matter what people say.”
Instead, he applied emotional intelligence to adapt the McLean way. Extracting the best from the likes of Dimitar Berbatov, yet also adhering to the McLean work ethic, were not mutually exclusive concepts to McKinlay’s mind. “The culture has changed but it’s not changed in the way that players need to feel that the manager knows what he’s taking about; he’s organised; knows his subject,” he says.
The development of a philosophy continued through McKinlay’s work with Hodgson and Lewington at Fulham. Hodgson’s meticulous methodology and repetitions – “his opinion is that you’ve just got to practise your job. If I’m going to ask you to do something on a Saturday, why would I not prepare you Monday to Friday to do that?” – informs McKinley’s view that the contemporary move away from “big pitch practices” should be reined in a little. His discussion of the myriad components of the coach’s job – quality teaching (“because that is what we are – teachers”), tactical innovation, exhaustive preparation – reveal his belief that the hallowed modern idea of a coach or manager adhering to one “philosophy” is over simplistic. “I hear people say: ‘Go and express yourselves’ but what does that mean?” he says. “You need to be more specific than that...”
An engaging few hours of conversation reveal that Fulham have just dispensed with an awful lot of knowledge. But there is also an unmistakable residual sense that this individual would much rather be on a windy training pitch at 9am on a Tuesday morning. The desire to be within the sport is shared by many other of the 40 coaches who, just like McKinlay, have already been dismissed this season. Their appetite for the game is remarkable, considering that their rewards do not hold a candle to what managers receive.
The assistant manager at one League Two club currently earns £16,000 a year, which makes you wonder why some of this ilk think all the aggravation is worthwhile. The League Managers’ Association chief executive Richard Bevan tells me that over 100 fully qualified coaches and managers were sacked this calendar year – of whom only 35 are back in work. We are told that Spain and Germany have many more coaches than us, who are instrumental to the way those countries have created technically superior players to our own. And we wonder why.
For all that, McKinlay is looking for the next opportunity, wherever it may lie – finding a new terrain in which to “deliver the message in the way a player will take it in, because they all receive information differently,” as he says. He talks about his old club Fulham’s match against Manchester City, which was four days away when we met, and intended to take in Tottenham’s League Cup tie with West Ham that week. “It’s my life, this,” he says. “It’s what I’ve come to know.” Pity the managers out of work this Christmas. But remember individuals like McKinlay, too, because they matter even more.
What if an England footballer had the gall ‘to do a Swann’?
An England international cricketer retires from the sport, midway through one of the most monumental hammerings the nation has received in modern times. He talks about fatigue. He talks about age. He says on national radio that he will be able to do “what fathers do”, taking his daughter horse riding. Though she is, as yet, only a year old, he admits.
He decides to stay on in the Australian sun this Christmas, with his family. He gives the Aussie press the source material for a monumental field day. Fellow professionals say he has taken a decision “for the team”. Stephen Fry salutes him on Twitter.
England’s footballers, scrutinised in the extreme, derided for any minor indiscretion and slaughtered in defeat, must look at Graeme Swann, scratch their heads and wonder where the hell you manage to find a brass neck quite like that.
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