BACK ROOM AND BOOT ROOM
Words by Gavin Blackwell
Following the managerial appointment of Neil Harris at Cardiff City, together
with the more recent one at Stoke City in Michael O'Neill - who followed both Gary
Rowett and Nathan Jones in to the hot seat - we have seen all five opt to make changes in back room staff. In fact no fewer than six staff have left the Britannia Stadium on the back of manager departures in recent years.
Traditionally, even when a season is only a quarter of the way through, we hear of the back-room departures that usually accompany a sacking.
But when Bill Shankly was appointed manager of Liverpool in 1959, having managed Preston North End and Huddersfield Town, he took what would now be the surprise decision to retain all of the Anfield staff.
Physio and right-hand man Bob Paisley, Reuben Bennett, Ronnie Moran, Joe Fagan and Tom
Saunders remained part of his managerial team and he later promoted Roy Evans to be reserve team coach. It proved to be a decision that helped bring unparalleled success and highlighted the importance of having a good staff around a manager.
Nowadays it is the norm for managers to bring in their own men. When David Moyes took over at Manchester United, he opted to sack Mike Phelan despite the advice of his predecessor Alex Ferguson and probably regretted it when finding himself lasting less than 12 months in the job.
The biggest and most important factor in a back-room staff is trust and loyalty to the manager. Shankly assessed the playing side, dispensed with the services of two dozen players but kept faith with the back-room men. He made his demands crystal clear to his inherited lieutenants; loyalty to each other as well as himself, and no back-biting.
The thing that mattered most of all was that everybody should pull together in the name of
Liverpool. And this has been the story ever since. Shanks preached the gospel of collective effort with everyone working for and with each other. And while the team progressed on the field, the boys in the back room kicked around ideas to further the cause.
The game has changed in many ways over the years, including the number of back room staff. At one time, a manager’s staff was small and close knit. It included an assistant manager, coach, physio, kit man, doctor and a chief scout. Nowadays, the analysis and medical departments have the same number of staff behind the team - numbers can run into double figures.
Today’s manager has to captain and organise an efficient team behind the team that not only has specific tasks but also runs smoothly in all conditions with strengths appreciated and weaknesses tolerated - a motto of former Oldham Athletic and Everton manager Joe Royle.
It is important to remember that being a back-room man means you are exposed to the brutality, cut-throat aspects of the game. Once a manager departs, it creates uncertainty and it is always an anxious time when you are a staff member and you get a call to say the manager has been sacked.
Immediately, it is a mixture of emotions. First and foremost, you are disappointed that a fellow
professional has lost his job. After all, he is someone you have been working closely with day to day. I have experienced it personally a few times in my career in semi-pro football. It all starts with a phone call from the club. They let you know before the news breaks publicly. They tell you they have made a change. They then let you know who is going and who is staying for the initial interim period. I have been lucky in that I have been kept on each time it has happened to me in 30 years, apart from two occasions.
Dealing with the news is very tough. You form relationships with people and all of a sudden you know they won’t be in training or in charge of the next game.
It’s very strange. It hits you initially and when you go into the club, the manager isn’t there and the caretaker is taking training. Quite simply, you have to get on with it and put your emotions to one side, that is football, you have to deal with it.
There are a lot of ups and downs and, as a coach, assistant manager or physio, you have to
concentrate on the players because they will be affected, too. You are employed by the club and you have a job to do. And, of course, you are grateful you are still employed.
Football really is crazy and you get different scenarios at every club. In the most extreme, managers want to bring in a full back room team, which means physios and those in the sports science department can be among those replaced.
Sweeping changes mean a major reshuffle overnight and a lot of people find themselves out of
Other clubs might appoint a manager and tell him he has to work with the staff already there. And then there is a mixture of the two.
Going in to a job today, you’d probably be thinking about the club’s background and the number of managers and recent changes there might have been - like at Sunderland and Fulham. Then there are the questions: “Who am I going to take with me? Who and what do I need?“ You need a balance in the people around you. Staffs travel in groups and some chairmen or boards will know that you don’t just appoint a manager. You appoint a team and they become very, very close.
I’ve never done that and am not certain it is good thing. The Liverpool boot room of old philosophy is a rarity in today’s high-pressure football. But you might lose good people if you change everything; people who could help you because they have a good knowledge of the club.
Over the years, the people I’ve inherited at clubs turned out to be not only good coaches but very
good people. It would have been a mistake to say: “Right, all of you, OUT!”
We have seen good, loyal club-men shown the door by a new manager - the likes of Tony Book
(Manchester City), Tony Parkes (Blackburn Rovers) and, last year, Swansea legend Alan Curtis shown the door by Paul Clement.
Whenever a manager is appointed, it is inevitable there will be consequences. It is the other side of this glamorous game; the one where people get hurt and heartbreak is only a result away.