I just finished reading the last of the Secret Footballer books – they are excellent, for anyone who wants to truly understand the game – and he told a story in it which I thought was instructive, and illuminating, in regards to what’s happening and what could happen across town.
The story was of how Alan Pardew’s time at Newcastle went so badly wrong.
TSF points out that the accepted wisdom is that it was the sale of Yohan Cabaye to PSG which started the ball rolling downward, but he traces the dip to something that happened before that; Pardew’s decision to send Hatem Ben Arfa out on loan to Hull.
What unfolded had nothing to do with Ben Arfa’s abilities as a player, as anyone who watched his lazy efforts in England can well attest to.
Dressing rooms are complicated places, more complicated than Pedro Caixinha seems to realise. It takes a strong personality, yes, but also someone with the right balance of ability, understanding and wisdom to properly manage them. Caixinha lacks these things, and that’s where the problem is going to lie. He never bothered to learn the contours of the Ibrox dressing room, the currents which flow through it around it, and I doubt he gets it even now.
Pardew had walked into a Newcastle dressing room dominated by Frenchmen. There were nine of them in that squad, and they were all close. The minute he sent one of them away, disrupting their wee dynamic, the other eight basically turned on him. When Cabaye was sold that was the last nail in the coffin. Pardew’s mistake was not understanding how it worked there, not understanding the politics of that group of players.
Now, some will say that Pedro has understood that in the way he’s cut the Ibrox dressing room down to size.
Had Pardew been ruthless and moved out all the Frenchman in one window he might have saved himself a lot of aggro … but in fact, he would never have been allowed to. Some of those players were high profile, and the club depended on them. Caixinha has the same problem; he was never able to get rid of Miller, who we know he’d dearly love to see the back of, and crucially he had no choice but to leave Lee Wallace as captain.
Caixinha took over a dressing room that did not rate him.
He has gotten rid of a lot of the players who were in it, but two of the ring-leaders remain there to this day and it’s not a secret that they still command support from those others who’ve survived Caixinha’s cull. They see a kid like McKay being sold for a nominal fee and understand that the manager is not concerned with the stability of the club as a whole but with shoring up his own positon, and as if that’s not bad enough they’ve seen him bring in a number of Latin players to cement it further.
And those Latin players bring with them another problem, one other clubs are familiar with and which Caixinha seems utterly oblivious to.
When you are a club with limited funds, you can’t afford to make costly mistakes.
We have made a few ourselves, but thankfully we’ve been in a position to mitigate the damage they caused.
Those mistakes were the simple consequence of buying potential; sometimes these guys hit, and sometimes these guys miss.
But where we are quite brilliant is in finding players with the right character, the right personal attributes.
It’s a lesson we learned from bitter experience.
It’s no coincidence that the bulk of Brendan’s signings have come from England. It’s no coincidence that the player he signed from further afield, for all his ability, is the one we’ve seen the least. I believe Eboue will settle in brilliantly and be a top footballer, you can see he’s got something. But he needed that time to adjust to his new environment and because we signed him as a future star and not as a first team regular he will have the space to do it.
But we would never have signed him in the first place if we didn’t know he was mentally strong, adaptable, able to come here to Scotland and fit in. We do our due diligence on new signings like you wouldn’t believe; not just what they can do on the park but how they handle themselves off of it, and how they manage radical change.
Players from England usually don’t need that, of course … and yet even then you never quite know. Because Kelvin Wilson asked for a transfer because he couldn’t settle here, and we had to let him go just when he was starting to look like he had something.
That should tell you that even our strategy isn’t risk averse.
Every foreign buy has to go through a period of settling in though, which is why some of our best players of the moment, like Jozo, weren’t an instant hit. Coetzee will be the same, he will need to be nurtured and not expected to work miracles at once.
But his character and temperament will already be well known.
Two things mitigate against the need to be wary; experience and familiarity.
If a player from a foreign club has played in your neck of the woods before there’s less reason for concern. And if he’s a top name and someone’s who seen a lot in the game you can get away with it; it’s why the big clubs can fill their teams with stars from around the world … when we talk about signing “the finished article” these days we’re talking about the whole package, not just a player’s ability on the pitch.
Even then, as with Wilson, there’s an element of risk.
As I said, a dressing room is a complicated place.
Perhaps a new signing upsets its dynamic. On top of that are all the personal factors; he might not enjoy the climate. Or get on with his team-mates. Or understand the “culture” he winds up in. His family might not like the place. He might get homesick.
Fill your club with foreigners and the risks multiply exponentially.
Fill it with foreigners who lack the experience outside of their own leagues and cultures and, man oh man, you are playing with fire.
And because a number of Caixinha’s signings come from one country you can bet these guys will bond quickly, as strangers in a strange land, and thus if you screw up in your relationship with one of them you are taking a huge risk which affects your dealings with them all.
Due diligence can help.
Has Pedro done that due diligence?
Or has he simply gone to agents he knows and asked “Who from Portugal is available? Who can we get in Mexico?”
Has he done his homework, and taken care that all his signings are mentally strong, balanced individuals, or is he more interested in bling than in a cohesive unit?
I happen to know for a fact that he’s either not done his homework or, at the very least, has been cavalier in his approach to signing guys with the right mentality; at least one of the players he’s brought in came to Scotland with enough baggage to fill a departure lounge at Glasgow Airport and has been busily acquiring more since he arrived.
And if the manager has made a mistake like that, you have to wonder just what the Hell else he has overlooked or is blithely ignoring.
Finally, when your mandate is to challenge for a title against a club with the kind of consistency we’ve got, it is never a good idea to clear out a dressing room and bring in a team of new players. Even with the best will in the world, even if you get everything else right, that takes time to gel, and the proper understandings to develop. Brendan knew this which is why he kept the Celtic unit intact and why he’s added quality rather than quantity.
For Caixinha’s grand experiment to end in other than catastrophe the dressing room faction which is opposed to him has to be won over, in spite of his shipping out a lot of their mates. Every signing he’s made from abroad has to settle quickly. A strong bond between them will make that go easier, but he then has to make sure he keeps them all on his side. Every one of them has to be a model professional. Every one of them has to be mentally strong. Their dressing room faction has to get on with the anti-Pedro one … and he didn’t sign these guys to make friends with those players but to provide himself a Praetorian Guard against them.
On top of that, supposedly most important of all, but actually inconsequential by comparison, every single one of them has to be a better footballer than current performances suggest. Because right now they look like lower league players with fancy names.
This guy doesn’t need time to get it right, he needs the luck of a Powerball Lotto winner.
The odds on this paying off are astronomical.
This is a team assembled in a hurry, by a manager appointed in a hurry, and both on the cheap.
Would you touch those odds?
If you were a betting man, you’d put the money on him being gone by Christmas instead.