Every now and again in football an underdog exceeds all expectations and a fantastic story ensues that shows sport and football is not an exact science. If it was, Manchester City would be top of the Premier League at Christmas, not Liverpool and we wouldn’t be sitting in the position we currently occupy either.
Through a friendship that started several years ago with the assistant coach, I will tell you about the miracle of Slovan Liberec. When Mark Bonner and I took Bobby Joe Taylor and Liam Hurst to spend a week training with their Under 21’s in the final throes of last season, their first team were battling for third place and qualification for the Europa League. In comparison to the likes of Victoria Plzen, Sparta Prague and Slavia Prague, they are minnows. However, they have a proud history, an excellent Head Coach and are perennial over achievers compared to their budget. By the time Mark and I returned with our youth team for a pre-season training camp, Slovan Liberec were completing their pre-season programme and preparing for their first qualifying tie in the Europa League against Skonta Riga. They lost 2-1 away and were winning 1-0 in the home leg when the visitors were awarded a penalty. If they scored, Slovan Liberec’s foray into Europe would have come to an abrupt end. What actually happened was the keeper saved it and the dream stayed alive. When I phoned George to congratulate him on getting through for a tie against Italian giants Udinese, he told me more.
In Europe, the visiting club is permitted a training session on the previous evening to the game on the pitch at the stadium. It is behind closed doors. Well that’s what Skonta Riga thought! George sent his wife, Simona, to film any penalties that were practiced on her phone in case the score was 2-1 and the tie was to be decided by a shoot-out. When they looked at the footage, only one player scored all three that he took and all three went the same way. You know what happened next. George told the goalkeeper which way the penalty taker favoured, he went the right way, made the save and the team was off to Italy! Simona was the toast of Liberec!
Unbelievably, they won 3-1 in Udinese, progressed through the other qualification rounds and were drawn with Seville, Freiburg and Estoril. They drew their first game away to their Bundersliga opponents, beat Estoril at home and were denied a famous victory against Seville by a 90th minute equalizer. I went to the next game in Seville. The miracle continued. With no recognised goalkeeper, the first choice was suspended and the second choice was injured, they brought an ex-custodian out of retirement. Their tiny squad was hampered still further by injury and the fact that one more booking would render their left back suspended for the crucial return against Freiburg. So they left him out, played a central midfielder at left back, patched up the rest of the team and said their prayers. They were answered! Despite going a goal behind in the first half and being really “under the kosh” after half time, a midfield player called Pavelka ran the length of the pitch to smash an equalizer past the home keeper from 30 yards with their first shot on target. Their goal led a charmed life for the final half an hour but they held out for a famous and crucial draw. A win against Freiburg would now mean qualification; a draw would all but guarantee it. This is where the story starts to unravel. They lost. But before the game started the real problems started. The Head Coach spoke in the press of how difficult a task faced his players as they had such a small squad and had played so many games without any chance of a rest. The Sporting Director responded by criticising the Head Coach and saying they had enough players. The final games of the group were preceded by more comment in the press by the Sporting Director after the captain backed the Head Coach. Slovan Liberec had to get a better result than Freiburg in order to qualify. When I asked some people at our Christmas Dinner what the Europa League scores were from Estoril and Freiburg, and then saw me pumping my fist in celebration when he told me that Slovan Liberec won 2-1 and Seville had beaten Freiburg 2-0, they must have wondered what on earth I was doing. But the miracle had happened. Tiny Slovan Liberec were in the last 32!
When Mark and I went to visit George’s club in May and again in July, we said that they would get through and draw Tottenham, so we could watch them at White Hart Lane. That was not to be, yet anyway… Having seen Spurs at first hand against Liverpool though, I am not sure whether the odds are greater on them or Slovan Liberec progressing through their respective ties!
One thing they may also have in common is that neither club may have their Head Coach in place by February. Spurs have already dispensed with the services of AVB and once the Head Coach and Sporting Director are at each other’s throats in public, the result is fairly predictable. So the Slovan Liberec Head Coach may not have long left. It is the same with the Head Coach and Chairman/Owner. For examples of that, see the recent scenarios at West Bromwich Albion and Cardiff City. Both, in my opinion, are ridiculous.
I listened to a BBC Five Live Radio programme last week and the panel was blaming the structures and set-ups that include a Sporting Director/Director of Football and Head Coach rather than the traditional Manager/Chairman. However, sackings and premature sackings have been occurring for many years. I think the key any structure being successful is clear roles & responsibilities, the right people in the right jobs, no egos and communication. Then, you can’t go wrong. The issues that lead to problems often centre on player recruitment. That is the area where if the systems and processes are not robust, or if egos get in the way, or if there is a lack of communication or no real leadership, then things go wrong. I think it is so simple, yet complicated by so many clubs.
The Head Coach should be employed to win football matches. Therefore, he must be left to formulate the tactics, coach the players and select the team. He must therefore be allowed to have the final say on all signings. Players may be identified and recommended but the Head Coach must have the final decision. To support him, the Director of Football must ensure that all structures, staff and processes are in place to assist him in every aspect of his job and the long term development of the club that he cannot concern himself on a day to day basis. The Head Coach must focus on the short term future. The Director of Football must focus on the long term future.
I honestly think that we have it right. A chairman that is responsible for all business aspects of the club, a Director of Football that is responsible for all football aspects of the club and a Head Coach as the key employee that is respected and supported by the Board and every member of staff. Utopia does not necessarily equate to success on the pitch in respect of promotion but it does give the club the best chance of achieving its aim within a sustainable budget. How? It is because of the structure, because of like minded people working hard towards a common goal, because of a shared philosophy and because we have people in key roles that are good at their jobs.
As part of the “off field” evolution, we are delighted to have added Alan Neilson to our coaching staff and welcome him to the club in his first match day at the R Costings Abbey Stadium in black & amber. He is a real football man, someone with great knowledge and experience, good chemistry with Richard and already after one week in the job, it feels like he has always been involved. That is testament to him and our remaining staff. I am sure that he will help contribute to the development of our football operation in 2014.
Richard made a good point in the press last week regarding the “dual” tasks of many of our football staff. Most of us work across all aspects of football at the club, with Matt Walker for example combining his role of looking after all physical activity of the first team players, in terms of fitness, speed, strength and conditioning work with overseeing the same role with the scholars and teaching them their Sports Studies level 3 course. Martin Davies coaches our first team keepers, and our scholars, and our academy, and every young goalie in our development centres every evening. The list goes on…
At this moment we are working really hard to get a few “deals” over the line in time for January. This is a much harder task in January than the summer because in every case, you are dealing with players contracted to clubs. To persuade the club and the player to join us permanently or temporarily is difficult. In the summer, the players are invariably free agents. Where possible, we target players out of contract so that we only need to convince the player, rather than also having to agree a transfer fee with the club. In January, that luxury does not exist so everything becomes more complicated, more protracted and more difficult to complete.
We know what we are doing. We know who we want. We know how to go about getting them. We know who to speak to. And we negotiate hard. That is why in the first half of the season we were able to sign players of the calibre of Maxwell and Appiah on loan with a financial contribution that was within our wage parameters. It’s how we signed Gillies, Ledsham & Pierre on short-term loans in November at a minimal outlay; in fact a cost neutral outlay with players we loaned out at the same time. And it’s why we are competing at the top end of this league without breaking the bank; in fact with a budget that is less than our competitors and in some cases, a fraction of our competitors
Finally, I have read Richard’s notes today and share his frustrations. We are a hard working, humble, respectful club because we have hard working, humble and respectful staff. We keep our council when publications publish their “stories”, when people cast aspersions and when we are criticized for highlighting issues that need tackling. Richard, the staff and the players deserve enormous credit for the position in which we go into this afternoon’s game. Top! 48 points from 22 games! It’s a fantastic effort.
We know nothing has been achieved yet, we know that we have no divine right to achieve anything but I can also assure you all that we will do everything humanly possible to achieve what we are all aiming for in 2014.
It starts again today. Please get behind the players and enjoy the game.