Three Wise Men, Part one: handling the players

For the first in a Christmas series on the art and science of coaching and managing elite teams, we invited a canny trio to chat over a long lunch...

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Management is becoming more difficult than ever. So Glenn Moore, football editor, and Chris Hewett, rugby union correspondent, asked three of the experts how it's done over lunch at the Kensington Roof Gardens' Babylon restaurant.

Moore: Elite players are now better-paid than ever before, in football's case they are usually millionaires. How has that changed their relationship with management?

Warnock: It has made the job so much harder. I wouldn't want to be starting in management now. It is far more difficult to control players. What do you do for discipline when someone is on huge money? Twenty grand, forty grand, is nothing to them. You can't use finance now to discipline people, you have to have other ways. When I started out I wouldn't even talk to the manager unless he talked to me, you wouldn't dare. Now there are so many egos to handle, and then there's agents. It's a minefield. The tail wags the dog. The players have all the power. You'll not see another Alex Ferguson in football.

Fraser: Don Bennett was the head coach when I was starting out at Middlesex and he was as tough as old boots. You didn't mess about with him. We had a bad day in the field once in a second XI game – we were all kids and we'd been out the night before. He went mad at us and his final line was: "There'll be some people leaving at the end of this year, and I know I'm not going to be one of them." And you're sitting there thinking, "Christ!" How would that work now? They always have somewhere else to go. There was no one at Middlesex on six figures last year – and I'm not talking about the England players on central contracts – so fines would be harder-hitting, but they can set the players against what you are trying to put into place. Reaction to fines is not particularly positive.

Warnock: Fines are stupid, you only use them if there's no other way. We have small fines for being late, £200, and they go to charity. This year I let the senior players decide the structure of the fines. I've always fined 10 per cent of wages for dissent leading to a booking, but that's difficult when there's a big disparity in wages. So you can't really do it that way. They came to see me about this so I said: "OK, I'll only fine you that percentage if you are suspended because of being booked for dissent."

Ashton: You have to create an environment where players know what is expected of them. Look at the World Cup with England recently, one player gets fined for wearing a sponsored mouthguard, then someone else does it. Sponsors must be telling them: "Don't worry, we'll pay your fine for you, you'll still make money out of it."

Moore: Does the fact players no longer have to worry about win bonuses and appearance money to pay the mortgage affect how you motivate them?

Warnock: What motivated me as a player was proving people wrong. If I got the sack as a player – and I had three free transfers – I wanted to go to another club and prove they were wrong. All my life in management the thing that has driven me on is to stick two fingers up to things that had happened, and to beat better, bigger clubs. It was never money, there wasn't any in my early days.

Ashton: I played when rugby was amateur. I started for enjoyment, and continued to do so, but also for the challenge of beating the guy opposite me. I was very much an individual in a team game. I loved the team winning, but if I had come off and beaten the guy opposite me, we might have lost but I thought: "Fantastic, see you next year."

Fraser: (left, in his playing days) When you retire that is what you miss most, that competitive outlet, beating your opponent. In cricket you leave the field with a set of statistics that suggest how well you have performed. I didn't care how many wickets [team-mate] Norman Cowans got, as long as I got one more. I wanted to be the best bowler every day. You take that into management and you take satisfaction from your side doing well, but when you win it is relief rather than joy.

Warnock: As a manager I wouldn't want a Brian. I had a centre-forward once who scored a hat-trick and we lost 4-3, he was absolutely bubbling. All my career until now – because I've good players now – my teams have won because they had that camaraderie, that spirit. They had players who wanted to beat their mate on the other team, but it's about building team spirit.

Fraser: Don't the best players combine those characteristics? Yes, there's a selfish streak, wanting to stand out, but also wanting to be part of a successful team. That determination to get the better of your opposite number, while fitting into the team ethos, is what you want.

Warnock: You do say to your players: "Win your own battles." That is what I like about the cricket team. I don't see any stars.

Hewett: Pietersen might be an exception, but latterly he seems to have been subsumed into the team.

Ashton: I used to love players like that. They were the match-winners. They are different and you have to deal with them differently. I'm not saying different rules, but the way you speak to them. It's about managing human nature.

Fraser: I used to captain Philip Tufnell. Driving in on the A40 every day I was worrying about how he was going to turn up – he's a big figure in your side, he's your match-winner, you have to be slightly more tolerant.

Ashton: You do have to consider the impact on the other players sometimes. You think: "This guy is the best player we've got, this player will win us games, but his behaviour is starting to disturb the camaraderie of the team." Clive Woodward called them "energy sappers". Do you keep him in, or say "You're constantly causing trouble, you've got to go"?

Hewett: In rugby the "difficult match-winner" at the moment is Danny Cipriani.

Ashton: I've coached him since he was 15. He's one of the most talented players we have. I got on with him and he's a loss to the English game [Cipriani is playing in Australia]. Because I've dealt with him from such a young age, and knew where he's come from, and the sort of things that influence him, I felt I could handle him, and do so in a different way to other players.

Warnock: We had a similar situation with Adel Taarabt (below), who has so much ability – but he's not a team player. At the last minute he'll try and put it through somebody's legs instead of passing it. He does frustrate you. But I knew that if the senior pros would let me deal with it in a certain way he would get us promotion, and he did. It's been more difficult for him this season because everybody needs to pull their weight in the Premier League and the other players have been more demanding of him.

Fraser: That sounds like a good environment, if it's self-policing.

Ashton: That's brilliant, that peer-group pressure. If you can develop a group where the pressure is from within, to do the dirty things that players don't like doing, and you just stand outside it and watch it happen, that's brilliant. It is about how can you manage [to produce] a situation where that develops – that is one of the real arts of management.

Hewett: Do you pick a few players to drill that into a group?

Ashton: Not formally, but you might have a word with one or two players you trust, who are high performers. They can spread the word around like disciples, rather than the team hearing you say it all the time, because eventually they just get fed up listening to you.

Fraser: You want the iconic figure in your dressing room to set the right example, especially if you have young players. We brought in Adam Gilchrist, someone who is world- class as a cricketer and in the way he conducts himself. We can also use Andrew Strauss. We asked him to address the squad in my first year, so it's not coming from me, it's coming from the England captain. What is the England captain looking for from players? What is expected of you to reach the highest level? Andrew is by no means the most gifted cricketer in this country, but he has an outstanding record because he is determined and he has his priorities right.

Ashton: Talent isn't everything. I was a schoolteacher for 20-odd years before I became a professional rugby coach and I've seen loads of talented kids do nothing when they leave school. They just disappeared.

Moore: How much of your job is tactical? How much is it about developing technique? How much is it dealing with the mental side?

Ashton: At the level we're talking the mental side has to be 80 per cent-plus. Then game understanding. Technique and physical conditioning are the easy things.

Fraser: With some coaches every problem a player has is technical, because they can control the technical, but often it is something between his ears. Maybe he's having trouble with his wife, he's moving house, one of his children is ill, but for them that doesn't come into a poor performance. It'll be "He's falling away a little bit" or "His delivery stride isn't right".

Ashton: It is interesting the number of players who question referees' decisions, and for some of them it then affects their mind. And sometimes players just get caught up in the moment. In the 1999 World Cup we played New Zealand in the opening game. Some of the lads had never played against this Jonah Lomu (below), they got caught up in the moment and forgot everything we talked about. They missed him a couple of times by going high and in a game like that, that's all it needs.

Hewett: Gus, what sort of plans did you have for bowling against someone like Lara?

Fraser: It's like playing golf. You're standing on the fairway, there's a bloody great pond on the right, and you think: "I don't want to put it in that pond." So you slice it into the pond. That's what bowling at Lara was like. You think: "I don't want to bowl short and wide against this fella" – so you then do just that. I had a chat with Glenn Hoddle once and said to him: "Football doesn't seem to worry at all about chucking 18-year-olds into big matches, yet in cricket we are quite wary of putting youngsters into the side." Hoddle said: "It's time. A footballer doesn't have time to think. Everything happens so quickly it is almost instinctive." In cricket there is time, time to stand on the boundary, time to collect your thoughts, time to think negative things like, 'I bowled a bad over'. In football, before you know it, you have to make the next tackle, or the ball is at your feet again.

The panel

Neil Warnock: Manager of Premier League football club Queen's Park Rangers, his 10th job in a 31-year management career.

Angus Fraser: Former England Test cricketer, ex-cricket correspondent of The Independent, now manager director of cricket at First Division Middlesex.

Brian Ashton: Head coach of England's 2007 Rugby World Cup finalists. Previously coached Ireland and Bath, now technical director at National League One Fylde.

Tomorrow: The loneliness of management.

* Read columns by Neil Warnock and Brian Ashton in The Independent every Saturday.

* Watch QPR train and have lunch with Neil Warnock, or go to Lord's with Angus Fraser. Visit independent.co.uk/auction

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