Probably not the best interviewee in the world.
"You're the leader?" Marcel Desailly asked the first journalist to peer over the parapet.
Leadership became the theme – well, sort of – for this group sitting with the Euros Ambassador for Lager.
By leadership we mean the art of the manager. By that we mean less is usually a safer bet than more. Even if the curious case of Martin O’Neill has turned less into almost nothing at all.
Once upon a time O’Neill and Desailly shared an television studio.
“Yes, that’s how I know him.”
What is he like (because most are unable to figure him out)?
“He’s obsessed about football, which is good; you have to be obsessed to be a coach. He doesn’t communicate that much but at the same time that’s good, eh? That’s good. He has been to many clubs so he has that really deep down experience.”
The mystery continues.
Desailly is a lifelong friend of French coach Didier Deschamps. Both born in 1968, both came through the famed Nantes academy before both, unexpectedly, helped the now tainted Marseilles side to European Cup success in 1993.
They were reunited at Chelsea as Knights of the Légion d'honneur in the wake of France winning the World Cup on home soil in 1998.
Deschamps made an immediate transition from player to manager with Monaco while Desailly dabbled, unspectacularly, in media circles until recently rerouting down what he hopes to be a similar post-playing path as his pal.
“Didier had to kill the player if he was to adapt, he just kept the leadership, and he has build up his coaching knowledge. He is not a young coach who just came into the business. He went with
, where he did quite well, he went to Marseilles, which was a difficult place to coach, and now France is the top opportunity.”
Desailly was asked to talk about how great players do not necessarily make great, or even good, coaches. The neat contrast between a Deschamps or an O'Neill figure and, say, Roy Keane.
“No, it’s not easy. I just got my pro licence and it has been a tough experience. They really teach you how to kill all the knowledge and the habit that you had when you were a player.”
There are more questions, from the affable Desailly rather the journalists, about Keane’s career as a club coach.
Zinedine Zidane’s transition from quiet on-field leader to Champions League winning manager is also teased out as an exception to the general rule.
We were not really sure where any of this was going – the problem with group interviews devoid of a pack mentality means lone journalists come slashing in with vastly different topics that only serve to confuse our subject – but the need to “kill all the knowledge” if a player is to become a manager seemed worthy of further investigation.
“When you are a coach there are some keys things that you have to put aside. Like your own experience. You can never talk to your players about your own experience. ‘Me in my time..’ or in a training session pulling your player aside and saying ‘Wait, let me do it’ and Prrrttt! Top corner of the goal. That will kill all of your group. You understand?
“It’s about understanding the group. You see the egos...”
He goes on. We try to summarise, to rationalise even, by accentuating the positives in O’Neill being difficult to read; how an aloof persona is a key component for a successful managerial career.
“If, with top players, you speak too much they will switch off. They will switch off and identify what they need to be able to go and perform. It’s good to be low on the communication...You cannot be too demanding.”
Desailly was unequivocal when dismissing racism claims levelled at Deschamps in the wake of
and Hatem Ben Arfa being excluded from the French squad.
“It is a big blow for Didier. There is no racism in football. When you are a coach you want your best player. Maybe when you are eight, nine, 10 the coach can be influenced by the social level of the parents to put their kids into the team because the competition is not there. But once you reach a decent level from 15, even 13, the best are playing. No matter the colour, the origin, whatever, you put your best players in the team.”
More names are laid at the legendary French defender's feet in what becomes a foolish form of speed dating that will never yield any lasting quotes. Claudio Ranieri was his coach at Chelsea: "He has two faces. A tough manager . . . If you try and compete with him you will come out of his office (shaking). But the man, wow, ask everyone from the cleaner up they will say he is a great man."
What about Jose Mourinho and Manchester United? An uninteresting, drawn out response follows.
“Does that answer your question?”
Affirmative nods all round.
On this same glistening summer day, Roy Keane was entertaining the media with his typically blunt assessment about Irish players who were lucky to have survived the Euros cull.
"He might be a quality coach but this is a great opportunity he has with . . . Ireland.
Yes, this is Ireland (beer Ambassadors travel a lot). The mention of Robbie Keane, it was hoped, would supply some form of redemption.
“Time fly. He was 17 or 18 when I played against him in my first Chelsea game. Chelsea v Coventry. Season 98/99, yes? Young boy, talented, very skilful. Yeah, I remember. And now he is 36, an old man.”
Robbie Keane is 35 and was still at Wolverhampton Wanderers in 1998.
It was over a year before he moved to Coventry but why let facts interrupt a badly told tale.