If new man can make players believe in themselves, that will give him a head start
Even at the highest level there’s still a place for channelling players’ emotionsin a positive way
Communication with your players is vital. Yes, they’re professionals, they know their jobs, as Giovanni Trapattoni might say. But professionals still have emotions, and the best managers turn players’ emotional energy to their advantage. Photograph: Matthew Horwood/Getty Images
Some time ago I had an off-the-record conversation with an Irish soccer international. I was curious to know what kind of things Giovanni Trapattoni said in the dressingroom. Did he talk to the players as a group or one-on-one, did he focus on motivation or tactical instruction, did he get angry after a bad result and criticise people?
“Well,” said the player, “He says nothing to us before the game. He says nothing to us during the game. And he says nothing to us after the game.”
That’s not quite as damning an assessment as it sounds.
Players can be exasperated by “busy managers” who try to cram their heads with detail. Sometimes these managers seem to be trying to play the game for them. Many appreciate a guy who gives them a bit of space.
Trapattoni certainly did that. His view was the players were professionals who shouldn’t need to be coddled with praise or encouragement.
As Neil Jenkins told Ronan O’Gara, the postman doesn’t get thanked for delivering letters. It’s a management style that possibly works best with players who have the same kind of personal work ethic and bulletproof self-confidence as . . . well, Trapattoni himself.
Alex Ferguson has a different view. He also worked with top professionals, but never lost sight of the need to manage their emotions.
As he told Harvard professor Anita Elberse: “Few people get better with criticism; most respond to encouragement instead. So I tried to give encouragement when I could.
“For a player, for any human being, there is nothing better than hearing “Well done.” Those are the two best words ever invented. You don’t need to use superlatives.”
Ferguson added that you also had to point out when a player had messed up.
Some managers would leave that criticism until Monday morning to avoid blurting out something terrible in the heat of the moment. Ferguson would say it in the dressingroom, so that by Monday morning it could be forgotten about.
Not every coach has to be like Ferguson, but he probably knows what he is talking about.
Communication with your players is vital. Yes, they’re professionals, they know their jobs, as Trap might say. But professionals still have emotions, and the best managers turn players’ emotional energy to their advantage.
If Martin O’Neill succeeds Trapattoni as Ireland manager, the players will be dealing with a different kind of coach.
In his new book, How Football Saved My Life, the retired defender Alan Stubbs describes what it was like being managed by O’Neill at Celtic.
Stubbs says O’Neill didn’t do much on the training ground, leaving most of the day-to-day coaching to his assistant Steve Walford.
He would join in on Fridays to watch the session and take the team through the set-pieces. O’Neill came into his own in the dressingroom on matchday.
Stubbs describes the typical scene a few minutes before a Celtic match. O’Neill would pace in silence, “his face a complete picture of intensity and concentration . . . You’d all be sitting there, waiting, and bang! He’d hit you with this fantastic speech.
“It would be so fiery and passionate, it absolutely got you going, to the point where you almost had to be held back. He’d break it down to individual roles, tell each of us how good we were, and what we were going to do.
‘Today, Henrik,’ he’d say, ‘you’re going to score a goal for us . . . Winger, listen, you’re going to have a brilliant game against the full back. You are going to take him on, inside, outside, you’re going to put the crosses in.
“Full back, that flank is going to be your own . . . There’s only going to be one word today and that’s US”.
“The talk would be three to four minutes of information, and would finish with this upbeat, rallying cry. It was brilliant. He was an absolute master at it.”
Psyching players up
There’s more to management than psyching players up. But it remains an important part of the game, particularly at international level, where the tactics are less sophisticated and the teams more even.
Over the last few years, it hasn’t often felt like Ireland took the field in a positive frame of mind. They were cautious, tentative and inhibited. Nobody wanted to take the initiative. The opponents could smell their fear.
It’s been suggested that tactics-wise, there isn’t much to separate O’Neill and Trapattoni. Yet O’Neill is more pragmatic than Trapattoni, who talked about his familiarity with a wide range of systems, but stuck rigidly to one, illogical system in all his competitive matches.
O’Neill’s Leicester and Celtic teams played 3-5-2, while at Villa and Sunderland it was usually 4-4-2. He has tended to fit the system to the team, rather than the other way around. If there was a guiding ethos, it was O’Neill preferred big, strong players who could also play a bit, but if he had a skilful midfield player like Lubo Moravcik, he found a place for him.
Ireland haven’t got many big, strong players, but the squad is not as bad as Trapattoni seemed to think it was.
If O’Neill – assuming he takes the job – can persuade the players to believe in themselves, then that alone will make the new regime an improvement on the old one.