Brian McDermott: The good, the bad and the ugly
In his first season as a top-flight manager, Reading's Brian McDermott is learning to love the Premier League – and to loathe the greed, the histrionics and the instant judgements that go with it, as he explains to Jack Pitt-Brooke
Saturday 01 December 2012
There is a thrill to managing in the Premier League for the first time, but there is also a distaste. Brian McDermott will take charge of his 14th top-flight game this evening, and admits that he has already been taken aback by the relentless unpleasantness and acrimony.
"I don't feel swamped by it. We don't feel swamped by it," he says. "We love the league. Some of the stuff that goes with the league I don't love. The greed, the perception of it. Some of the histrionics. The whole thing, with the judgements, how people are judged constantly…
"Sometimes I go into press conferences and don't discuss the game. I find that bizarre. Or you are sat there talking about your own position. Or they're talking to you about something else that is not to do with football. And at times you do think, 'Let's talk about the game'. But I don't know what people are interested in in 2012 – is it the football or is it about someone's position or is it about whatever? It seems to be the culture we have got and we are in."
McDermott has been in charge at Reading for three years. His tenure has been dramatic, but that is precisely why he is so averse to the trigger-judgement world of modern football.
"We got to the play-off final [in 2011], we lost it. It doesn't make me a bad manager, it doesn't make me a good manager. It just makes me a bloke who tries his best every day. The following season, we started the season rubbish; we lost five games on the spin. Does that make me a bad manager or a good manager? We just lost a few games. We then win the league. Does that make me a great manager? Not really. It makes me OK.
"We're now second from bottom; we've won one game from 13. Does that make me a bad manager in the Barclays Premier League? With the resources that we have got, and everything that we are, and being a small club, not really."
This is typical McDermott: open, thoughtful and self-effacing almost to a fault. These are not qualities always associated with the modern game. McDermott, though, is a slightly unusual figure, having been Reading's chief scout before succeeding Brendan Rodgers from within in 2009. But McDermott certainly would not want Reading to be anywhere else than here.
Ahead of tonight's visit from Manchester United, there is a light buzz around the Royals' Berkshire training ground, situated within the Royal Electrical and Mechnical Engineers' Arborfield garrison. This will be United's first trip to the Madejski Stadium since 2008. There are interviews to be done, DVDs to be studied and – to judge from the chatter of youth-teamers – tickets to be argued over.
Unsurprisingly, McDermott looks to United for inspiration. He speaks about how Sir Alex Ferguson called him to offer advice while Reading's takeover was ongoing. "It was not just useful but very important to me. And it just tells you the calibre of the man." McDermott says that "the name itself – Manchester United – is synonymous with everything that is good in football".
Unity, more than anything else, defines McDermott's approach, and he admires United's model. "I look at what United do," McDermott says, discussing how important it is to make sure everyone feels involved and engaged. "They keep the players, the nucleus of that squad, together. Paul Scholes, Ryan Giggs, Gary Neville were there for a long time. Those players were integral to what they're trying to do. And they bring on the younger players as well."
That family ethos is what McDermott has tried to build at Reading. In a football landscape dominated by tension and friction, Reading try to stand out. "I think we have to be what we are. We have to be different here. That family environment, with everyone feeling a part of it, is very much a part of what we are trying to do here."
McDermott often describes his players as friends, and says that he loves them. This is not schmaltz or front; it flows genuinely from his personality. "I, personally, don't have to be different. I have to be myself, and that's what I will be. But I think we have to be different as a club because we haven't got the millions that some of these clubs have got to spend. So we've been different over a number of years. Last year in the Championship we didn't have the resources that others had so we had to mould a group."
It would be fair to say the approach is not currently working perfectly. Reading have won one game all season. McDermott insists that they "have competed in every game bar one" – a bad defeat to Tottenham Hotspur. He puts their struggles down to too many lapses of concentration.
So is it as simple as haranguing his players towards higher standards?
Certainly not. "Why? I don't see why. I don't see it that way," he said. "I don't manage that way. You are asking someone to be different from what they are. My personality is what it is. Results suggest that, over a period of time, what we are trying to do here works.
"I can't go against my nature because I am what I am. I don't try to be anyone different to who I am. I am happy with that. I am comfortable with that. It seems to have worked up to now. Hopefully, it will work again this season and we will do well.
"Where we were three years ago, staring League One in the face, to where we are now, is phenomenal. And what the guys have done. So that is the realism and the place that we're at. We are a small club in this division, fighting every day to be better, to get to where we want to."
Of course, McDermott would not comment on rivals, but you can sense the difference between this approach and the profligate mess of players at Queen's Park Rangers, or the seemingly point-making exclusion of Darren Bent at Aston Villa.
"It's all about the team. It's all about the respect that we've got in the group, not just for the players that are in the team but the players who are out of the team. And those out of the side are supporting the team."
That is probably the most surprising thing about McDermott's Reading. The manager makes the club sound like an autonomous commune, but this is a multimillion pound business, one that is now owned by Anton Zingarevich, the son of Russian pulp and paper billionaire Boris Zingarevich. Sir John Madejski is still chairman and McDermott insists that, even with the new foreign money, the ethos is the same as ever.
"It hasn't changed! [Zingarevich] is very much into the team, the group. That is probably one of the reasons he wanted to buy the club in the first place.
"He is not going to throw millions of pounds at it, that is obvious. He is not going to do that. He loves the team ethos, he loves the group ethos very much, he is very much part of it."
Zingarevich is certainly very much involved, and McDermott refuses to be territorial about his input. "I have conversations about the owner, and I've heard he was talking to players," said the manager. "Good! Let him talk to players. He is the owner, he is entitled to do that. It is not a problem. I never get defensive about things like that. I am very, very comfortable in that situation."
Zingarevich has "regular contact" with the director of football. "He speaks to Nick Hammond a lot more than I do," McDermott admitted. "I just concentrate on the team.
"He talks to Nick about players, not just from Russia, from all sorts of different countries – France, Germany, anywhere. He's got football input. He loves it.
"He came on pre-season with us in Portugal. He came into the dressing room after we got beat 7-5 [by Arsenal in the Capital One Cup] and he was devastated for the players. He said a few words, which was really good. It just tells you about him."
How better to set an example than that: the successful knitting of a wealthy Russian owner into the harmonious fabric of a football club?
My other life
I play guitar. I just listen to a bit of music, it can be anything. It can be absolutely anything: old-school U2, Oasis, or I can listen to Black Eyed Peas, I listen to anything. I play on my own. I’ve played in front of a few people before, for fun. Just on an acoustic guitar. I played at the end-of-season do. I’ll never ask any of the players to do anything I wouldn’t do myself – they go up and sing so I’ll go and play. I make up my own songs but I will do a bit of “Knocking on Heaven’s Door” by Bob Dylan because you can make up whatever words you like to that.
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