John Gregory and the definition of success

pexels-photo-243115.jpegSo often do football managers fall unnoticed from their professional perch, that it was heartening to learn recently of one who has bucked the trend.

Consider John Bond or George Graham, for example. In their respective eras, they went from being men at the heart of the game to being yesterday’s men, seemingly in the blink of any eye.

Unlike players, for whom the transition from ‘current’ to ‘ex’ is commonly marked by one last stage-managed substitution, the focal point for a grateful stadium; managers rarely get to highlight their retirement. They pass, in the shadows, from being fashionable to unfashionable, and suddenly – invisibly – they are gone. Harry Redknapp, you may have noticed, isn’t quite as go-to as he once was. The process has begun.

So good on John Gregory, then, for flirting with death both professionally and personally, only to come back and lead Chennaiyin to the Indian league championship, 16 years after he left Aston Villa, at the end of what was easily the high-point of his cv and a spell in which he was briefly touted as a future England manager.

Even if I throw in that he is the first Englishman to lead a team to this particular title,  you’ll have said it by now, I’m sure: maybe only inwardly and disliking yourself for it, but you’ll have said it, nonetheless. “It’s only India…”

And you’ll have a point. Rarely, if ever, does the football world halt to acknowledge the latest champions of India. But then I also have a point when I counter with, “So what?”

Aside from the old cliché that you can only beat what’s in front of you, or the fact that when you’ve returned from heart surgery to one of the most stressful jobs outside of combat, the national championship of anywhere is a valid cause for personal pride, there is also this thought, perhaps best shared with those old enough to be able to see beyond the UEFA bubble.

Whose would make the more colourful life story? The coach whose football experience only ever existed between Burnley and Bournemouth, or the coach who got to see a world beyond Champions League away-days? The hankering for the big-time might never go away – that’s only natural ambition – but I suspect I’d be tempted to buy Stephen Constantine’s book before I buy Arsene Wenger’s…

“Initial success with Nepal and India is followed by less successful spells with Millwall…Malawi and Sudan. Constantine has more luck in Cyprus but is ultimately undermined by the country’s economic problems and a culture of match-fixing. However, not many coaches can claim to have almost started a diplomatic incident in Zimbabwe, been deported from Iran or drawn comparison with Mary Poppins in North Korea.”

For his part, Gregory seems to be discovering that the big-time has no monopoly on professional fulfilment.

“The fact we literally live together under a single roof and see each other in the hotel and training all the time… the togetherness we’ve got and the trust we’ve built [is what makes management in India unique],” he said. “I’ve never known a group like this, who manage, support and look after each other.

“There’s a togetherness you don’t get to see in England. You see the guys for two to three hours of the day, and then they go home. We don’t necessarily sit down and eat together here, but we’re still around each other all the time. We travel together. There’s a real closeness with all my coaching staff and the owners. They come to every game, home and away, and support us – that doesn’t always happen in England. I don’t want to sound corny, but we have a real family atmosphere here.”

It’s an enlightenment I would wish for any coach: the realisation that not all of sport’s rewards are fashioned in silver and gold.


Move along, post-match interviews, nothing to hear…

Pic courtesy of ElizabethAOwens

I call them Crusoe moments. As sweet to behold as that famous footprint in the sand: the sudden realisation that it’s not just you.

So it was when I joyously read this well-argued plea in Vice Sports that maybe it’s time the post-match interview was going the way of the supporter’s rattle.

Boy, is Will Magee pushing at an open door here. I can’t remember how long ago it first dawned on me that all that huff and puff to be first with the reaction bore little relation to the calibre of end-product, but it’s been a while.

Has anyone in TV and radio land twigged yet; or is it the realisation that dare not speak its name? Mix testosterone and adrenalin, stir in frustration and anger and garnish with the still-fresh echoes of a baying crowd and you have just about the worst candidate possible for an incisive post-game interview.

I don’t care if you’ve bagged the reincarnations of Oscar Wilde and Sir Peter Ustinov  for your after-match ‘exclusive’, if they’ve just spent 90 minutes putting bodies on the line in a local derby, what follows will still fall some way short of their best work.

Were it simply players who momentarily had mush for brains, the exercise would be almost futile but its fate is sealed by interrogators for whom there are no such excuses.

In my days working in football, I always knew when an interview was being forced. I would find myself not so much asking questions as getting players to react to my statements. Sadly, even with national media, this approach seems standard these days,  accompanied by its bastard twin, the fatuous statement tarted up as a question.

“How important was it to break that 12-game losing streak today?” is several seconds of our lives that none of us are getting back.

In a perfect world, there would be a perfect time for the post-game interview. Roughly 18 hours post-game. Envisage a mid-morning magazine programme, called, Now That Everyone’s Calmed Down, in which reporters around the country pop in on key protagonists from the afternoon before to ask for their reflections on the game over coffee and croissants.

Picture Wayne Rooney, roaring fire, kids playing happily at his feet. Colleen playfully ruffling his hair as she deposits a cheeky little Danish on his plate before heading off to the sauna.

Yes, even Wayne Rooney might surprise you in those circumstances. Relaxed, expansive, maybe even offering the occasional hint of whimsy.

In the less-than-perfect world we’re stuck with, however, we must make do with simple damage limitation. Know this, interviewers – unless your question boils down to, “We couldn’t see from the grandstands: what happened?” It’s probably not worth asking.

So don’t bring us your brain-fried, your surly, or your reluctant for pathetic stabs at  enlightenment after the final whistle. Just bring yourself: yes you, Mr/Ms broadcast journalist. You’re trained in articulation, you’ve watched football for years, you spend all week immersing yourself in little else. Tell us what you made of it all, instead. Would it really be so less enlightening than the musings of a painfully shy full-back, high as a kite on hormones?

And who knows how it might play out, were Mourinho & Co to find dark, empty spaces where there were once galaxies of flashbulbs and a forest of microphones waiting for them. Maybe it would be a tiresome weight off their shoulders after all, as their body language so often suggests.

Or maybe, just maybe, there might be a few little feelers put out from PR managers at Premier League clubs, after several months of this media indifference. If the editor can spare you, just a friendly little get-together over lunch with the gaffer, maybe?

You know, to build some bridges…