The longer I do this job, the more obsessed I get with football.
I watch more games than I ever have. I watch documentaries and TV shows which cover the sport from every angle.
I devour books on the subject- not biographies or any of that stuff, but the stuff that discusses the mechanics of the game, the tactical side, the commercial side, the strategic side.
Over and over again, I watch the documentary Sunderland Till I Die, as if I’m trying to crack some code contained within it which nobody else has been able to. I look, often, on two particular episodes; the one where a smirking Martin Bain hires Chris Coleman and the other, from Season 2, which covers the last day of the transfer window.
Why are those two episodes so much more compelling to me than the rest of the show?
The episodes which cover individual games aren’t nearly as interesting to me.
The one with the transfer window is the best insight into how those days work than anything else I’ve ever seen on TV.
Seeing the club chiefs sweat those final hours and their efforts to sign a striker – finally setting on Will Grigg – is phenomenal and in particular the way the fee keeps on rising and rising although the manager, Jack Ross no less, is unconvinced that he is worth the money.
We have the benefit of hindsight and know that deal was a disaster, but you could see it on the faces of some of the people, the football people, in that room who sensed it then and would have done anything to stop Stewart Donald making those late bids.
The Coleman episode is even more disastrous with the benefit of the current perspective, and for one reason that isn’t even mentioned in the show; the identity of one of the other candidates for the job, one Martin Bain was apparently intrigued by but didn’t believe that he could “sell” to the fans; I refer, of course, to Ange Postecoglou himself.
I’ve already written about this, but I’ve returned to it today because I’ve just re-watched that episode and the three or four which follow it, as it starts to unravel, and there is a throwaway remark in the first of them and another in a future one which hint at the sort of things that went wrong, and these were mistakes that Ange would never have made.
The first of those remarks is one from the coaches; Coleman went into the club and from day one he tried to be everyone’s best pal. A nice approach, but not one that turns players into winners.
I’ve heard other great coaches talk about their relationships with the dressing room and nearly all of them have talked about backing the players and fighting for them with every breath as a collective; Mourinho is a shining example of a guy who will fight the corner of the players as a squad, and insist that they have every support … but he doesn’t coddle people, and in particular he does not coddle individuals as if they were children needing a hug.
Ange’s attitude towards the players has become legendry; he has no favourites, does not play those games and doesn’t feel the need to be everyone’s pal. I’ve read quite a bit about what Sunderland was going through at that time, and the things that ailed the club from top to bottom, and no side has ever been more in need of a tough guy uninterested in being mates with people or pandering to their egos. He would have transformed the culture there.
The second comment which brings it home is from Aiden McGeady, who takes that insight about a manager wanting to be everyone’s pal to the logical endpoint; he openly, on camera, mocks Coleman’s training sessions as being soft and weak, full of people laughing and joking and getting encouraged by the manager even when they make mistakes, although the team is in freefall.
McGeady recognises immediately that this is not winning leadership.
When Lewis Grabban goes – in the episode where Coleman is hired – part of the decision is related to his unwillingness to play for a boss who takes him off in every match; Ange would have stood for that for about two minutes.
But crucially, when you look at our team and where the goals are coming from, he wouldn’t have been so overly dependent on one player carrying all that weight anyway, and especially not when the guy was only on loan.
Ange would have understood working with limited resources and having to rely on youth, but there would have been a long-term plan put in place from the moment he arrived and there would have been no nonsense tolerated. He would have hated working with a poser like Martin Bain, but he would have found a way to make even that ordeal work.
In Aiden McGeady, it is clear that he’d have had a willing disciple.
The more I looked at McGeady’s career the more impressed I was with him, with his initial quality and drive for our club, then his desire to get out from under a manager who didn’t like him personally and let that affect their relationship – the complete opposite, but just as bad, as Coleman wanting to be everyone’s pal – and the decision to go somewhere like Russia.
McGeady was not shy to take momentous decisions.
At Sunderland he showed what professionalism and loyalty was, staying through two relegations and giving everything to move them forward. He knew Coleman was going to be a disaster and he had no difficulty in expressing that view.
Ange would have loved him because he would have loved Ange because they’d have recognised the drive the other had and the sense of duty and the desire to work for the common good. McGeady would have enjoyed Ange’s style of management, and the no-nonsense desire to succeed. He would have shared the vision.
The Jack Rodwell situation would have played out differently under Ange.
His attitude would have been that as long as the guy was on the books he would have been considered for selection, and he would not have let a contract dispute keep him from selecting a player who was allegedly fit and ready for action.
Rodwell was ostracised by the club for not leaving and sparing them the £60,000-week expense; yet that was a self-defeating strategy, leaving a valuable asset rotting on the bench when he could have been contributing to the team.
Watching their style of play – and in particular under Ross, when even the new directors who had just hired him wondered what in God’s name was going on – you just know that Ange would have had them on the front foot instead of playing within themselves.
The fans would have loved him.
They loved Chris Coleman after he’d won a home game, which was the club’s first in nearly a year. Understandable, but Ange wouldn’t have rested on his laurels but would have doubled down and made people work harder.
Sunderland’s hiring of Chris Coleman was based on nothing but his name, a name that had been made as an international boss at Wales, and managing a club side with those expectations, and especially there, absolutely drowned him.
Had Bain been capable of looking past reputation and actually looked for the right man for the job, he would have hired the Aussie and from that position Ange would have changed the whole place.
There is little doubt about it. Bain’s sacking was as much for the Coleman hiring as the vast sums he was still allowing them to squander, although he was there to cut costs.
More than anything else though, he would have taken charge and given them all a sense of purpose, a sense that even without major resources that there was a long-term plan being put into effect, and he would have rigorously seen that plan through.
Even if he had arrived too late to save them, with a summer to prepare he would have been an immense asset to them in their first season in League One and I do believe they would have gone up much, much sooner.
That would have earned him his spurs.
Looking back, I bet it’s one of Bain’s biggest regrets. And it should be.