How Garry Monk’s unshakable dedication to management has galvanised Brimingham City

Exclusive interview: After beating his former club, the Championship leaders Leeds United, the feel-good factor at St Andrew's is returning under their new head coach

Simon Hart
Friday 28 September 2018 10:30
Birmingham City appoint Garry Monk as new manager

Garry Monk is talking about his bum deal at Birmingham City. Blues fans, however, can breathe easy. After all, it has nothing to do with his having to work under an EFL-imposed plan limiting him to five signings all season – or the wait to discover the results of a commission into the club’s breach of spending rules amid newspaper reports of a points’ deduction.

No, the bum deal is rather more literal, as Monk winds back to the aftermath of Birmingham’s safety-sealing last-day win over Fulham in May – and the rash words of a Blues supporter called Kevin Tomlinson who promised on social media that he would get Monk’s face tattooed on to his backside in the event of a victory over the promotion-chasing London club.

“I don’t think he believed we could beat Fulham and we beat them so I made him a man of his word,” recounts a grinning Monk. "My mate sent it to me so I thought, ‘I’ll have a bit of fun with this’. He needed 80 more quid so I paid the 80 quid and sent him a message and he was probably thinking, ‘Oh crap, there’s no getting out of it now’.

"I met him at the start of the season at a fans’ open day and signed it. I couldn’t quite believe the size of it – a brave man, I was expecting something smaller. I’m not sure how happy his missus must be with that but I did say to him, ‘At least I’ll always be there to remind you to think before you speak’.”

Monk tells the story from behind the desk of his office at Birmingham’s Wast Hills training ground. Outside the sun is shining and the mood is bright as he explains the mechanics of last Saturday’s 2-1 success at Marcelo Bielsa’s hitherto unbeaten Leeds United, the Championship leaders. “They’re a very possession-based team, building with a lot of movement and quality, but we nullified that movement with a lot of interceptions. Our two goals came from exactly that, where we intercept the ball and try to exploit their weaknesses.

“We analysed them very well and we understood what their weakness and strengths were. We had a huge number of interceptions where they would normally feel their flow. It took them until the 85th minute to have a meaningful shot on our goal and that’s a very hard thing to do against a team that’s playing so well and was undefeated. And to be clinical when we had chances.”

Monk directs from the touchline at Elland Road

With it, Birmingham had their first victory of the season and Monk got to enjoy that winning feeling, if only, he concedes, for “probably an hour into the bus journey back”. For the rest of us, meanwhile, the beating of Bielsa was a reminder of the potential of a manager who is still only 39 yet in his fourth job since taking the reins at Swansea City, initially as player-manager, in February 2014. Factor in the birth of his twin boys just a few weeks later and the ensuing four and a half years have passed in a flash, taking in spells at both Leeds and Middlesbrough prior to his March arrival here in the Midlands.

“New job, no experience, player one day then a manager managing in the Premier League, Europa League and twins arrive on your doorstep as well,” he says of those early weeks. “It’s been a bit of a whirlwind.” And if the twins (“a lot of energy, feisty”) are now at school, Monk’s own education continues apace. “I started in the Premier League, Swansea, when we finished eighth and had the club’s highest Premier League finish but I could quite comfortably sit here today and feel I am a much better manager now. I am very self-motivated.”

As an illustration of this, after the sack at Swansea he travelled to Seville to speak to Unai Emery and sought out insights from the worlds of rugby, tennis and snooker. Another is the training platform he and his brother Stuart have created for youth and amateur footballers called Soccer Profile, which he describes as “a measurement tool for the technical quality of players”.

He continues: “I’ve had nearly five years now but I’ve had a lot of experience. Even though I am young in management terms I feel I am a very experienced young manager and that can only stand me in good stead going forward.” At Leeds he led the club to a seventh-place finish in his solitary season, 2016/17, but left over owner Andrea Radrizzani’s unwillingness to offer him the longer contract he felt that impressive campaign warranted. “It was off my own accord but done with the differences I had at that moment with the owner,” he says. “But I’ve spoken to Andrea since. I hope they get back to the Premier League, it’s a huge club.” His sacking by Middlesbrough last December, following a win at Sheffield Wednesday which left them three points off the play-offs, was a different matter. “Yes, a huge shock but it’s done now.”

At Birmingham he has been a breath of fresh air for players and fans alike, since replacing Steve Cotterill. One club insider describes “an atmosphere as good as it’s been for years”. Birmingham have lost only two of their nine league fixtures this term though Monk, mindful of nine attempts against the woodwork, laments they have “not been clinical enough” when surveying their six draws. Yet they have a “togetherness off the field” with Monk’s familiar (and youthful) backroom faces including first-team coach James Beattie and Pep Clotet, his assistant manager. The knock-on effect is evident. “It’s challenging circumstances that we face but I have a really good group of players who are really committed,” he says. “We’re a small squad but very committed. Success is to try and avoid a relegation scrap that has been the case three times out of the last five years.

“We can’t control any [outside matters] but we can control what we’re doing together here – that’s the most important thing and when players and staff realise that, it galvanises, it creates that togetherness and that filters through to the fans. They see that within the group and see the players going out on to the pitch every single week and delivering performances with 110 per cent commitment. The fans love that, they see we’re not distracted.”

Monk cut his teeth in the Premier League with Swansea 

At Elland Road, Monk forged a sense of unity en route to Leeds’ first top-half finish in six years. At Birmingham, another big-city club, he has quickly grasped what Blues’ blue-collar followers want. “The most important bit is this is a club where they want to see a team every single game as much as possible give everything they’ve got for that shirt. That shirt is something bigger than all of us, bigger than any individual. It means a lot to thousands of people, a whole community, a whole city.”

After one match this season, an opposing manager described Birmingham as the best-organised Championship team he had seen for years. After yesterday’s media briefing, which ended with an informal chat with local reporters, one wise old head gave his own deadpan verdict: “We’ve had worse, a lot worse.” They certainly have.

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