Rover’s return

Owen Coyle’s managerial trajectory once looked set to propel him from Falkirk to the very highest level. After 17 months in MLS, he is back in the English Championship with Blackburn Rovers. Can a manager once regarded as a perfect fit for the Scotland job get his career back on track?

By Chris Tait

This article first appeared in Issue 1 which was published in September 2016.

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It’s what you do now that you are judged on. If it was going to be about the past, Claudio Ranieri would never have got the Leicester City job. In his last game for Greece they lost at home to the Faroe Islands.
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Coyle has been linked previously to vacancies at Celtic and Scotland, while he has also been considered a decent fit for Ireland.

The midday Texan sun burns relentlessly overhead, beads of sweat collecting on the brows of the small audience which has assembled beneath a pitchside gazebo to observe drills undertaken by the Houston Dynamo players, themselves perspiring liberally. The session carries all the universal markers of football training, as a familial squad exchanges passes, coloured bibs and wry remarks. The tempo is controlled by a distinctly Caledonian cadence. It is September 2015, and this pitch on the fringes of Houston is the domain of Owen Coyle.

Almost a year has passed and that patch of ground is once again under US jurisdiction, reclaimed in May by Dynamo following an agreement to part ways with Coyle. The announcement of his departure came a few days after a league defeat in Chicago and consisted of language customary to such occasions: the desire to separate was mutual, everyone involved deserves a pat on the back for their efforts and the fans can be commended on their support. No hard feelings and all the very best for the future.

For Coyle that means restoring stability and success to Blackburn Rovers, having agreed a two-year contract with the Lancashire club eight days after stepping down in Texas. The swiftness of his arrival at the English Championship club speaks to Coyle’s eagerness to be closer to his family, who remained in England throughout his 17-month spell in Major League Soccer. But it also hints at another truth behind the 50-year-old’s exit which has not been acknowledged, at least amid the banalities of official club statements. It is easier to walk out of a club when the door is already being held open.

At the Houston training sessions Coyle rules with a light touch and gentle humour, joining in with the banter as a player succumbs to a nutmeg in the middle of a small-sided game and when the coach joins in himself and sets the standard during shooting drills. Photographs taken from the sidelines as these scenes played out at Dynamo’s suburban base proliferated on the franchise’s official website and social media, with Coyle exuding visible contentment.

His disposition however became overcast by indifferent form and an ignominious league position. Dynamo won only 14 matches under the Glasgow-born coach, were bottom of the Western Conference and a long way off a place in the post-season play-offs when Coyle boarded his flight back to the UK. Quite a fall for a franchise that four years previously were finalists in the MLS Cup.

It is the sort of form which unsettles club owners, and precipitated his departure midway through his contract in Texas. Coyle has taken to his new position at Ewood Park with typical alacrity but that enthusiasm will have been tempered by an experience in the States which in truth became a facsimile of his other unsuccessful spells in charge of Bolton Wanderers and Wigan Athletic. His work at each of his previous three clubs has been unavailing. Success at Blackburn this season will be essential for a man whose career path once appeared to heading to the very top of the British game.

Much will depend on Coyle’s ability to bring in, or bring through, players who are capable of shining at the highest level. It is an ability which he regards as one of his strongest assets.

“I’ve been very fortunate to have been able to bring some fantastic players to clubs that I’ve had,” says Coyle, who has replaced Paul Lambert as manager after the former Scotland captain exercised a release clause in his contract at the end of last season. “You think of the [Jack] Wilsheres and the [Daniel] Sturridges, boys that were at the Euros. I watched England’s friendly versus Portugal before the tournament and they had Gary Cahill playing as well, who was another player I had at Bolton. It’s great when you see these players you’ve worked with doing so well.

“When I think back on some of the terrific young players we’ve had on loan at different times, players like [Benik] Afobe at Bolton, who have gone on to have brilliant careers. Even my last signing at Wigan has excelled, and if the players we bring in here go on to do half as well as that kid has done, then we’ll be delighted. It was Marc Albrighton, on a month’s loan, and I think it was for about a sixth of his salary. I watched him win the Premier League with Leicester City last season and it was brilliant. That’s an important avenue we might utilise with some elite clubs.

“Opinions and perceptions of managers can change very quickly. When all’s said and done, it’s what you do now that you are judged on. If it was going to be about the past, Claudio Ranieri would never have got the Leicester City job – I think in his last game for Greece they lost at home to the Faroe Islands.

“Nothing dissuades me from moving forward and getting this club moving in the right direction. Of course, if people have different opinions that’s fine. All I would say is, let us be allowed to get on to do our job and we will do everything in our power to make this a team to be proud of.”

It is perhaps no coincidence that Coyle sought an opportunity close to the scene of one his greatest triumphs: leading Burnley into the Premier League seven years ago. His fortunes since leaving Turf Moor have been a pale reflection of that success and a time when Coyle was synonymous with a job well done and realised ambitions. The one-time Republic of Ireland forward helped lead Falkirk to the First Division title in his first tour as a coach; reached a Scottish Cup semi-final as manager of St Johnstone; triumphed in the play-off final to earn promotion at Burnley; and safeguarded Bolton’s place in the English top-flight shortly after returning to the club he once played for. He helped to redress Wigan’s finances too after the Lancashire club was relegated from the Premier League.

“We brought something like £20 million into the club and I would be surprised if we spent more than £4 million,” he says of an otherwise uncomfortable stint at the DW Stadium.

These achievements might appear prosaic when recounted in black and white, but they once amounted to a bottom line which appealed to club chairmen and national associations in need of a new manager. Coyle has been linked previously to vacancies at Celtic and Scotland, while he has also been considered a decent fit for Ireland.

But if social media is an accurate barometer of Blackburn supporters’ feelings then the reception given by fans to news of the 50-year-old’s arrival might be described politely as “muted”. Local enmity – Blackburn and Burnley are long-standing rivals – might account for some resistance, as can the inescapable perception that he is the man wanted by Venky’s, Blackburn’s unpopular owners. But it is instructive that Coyle has thus been seen as an unimaginative appointment.

This is the problem which faces the former Airdrieonians striker. He has been charged with improving a team which finished last season 19 points outside the promotion play-off places, and must also resuscitate his own career after being sacked from his previous two jobs in England. Coyle was removed by Bolton and then departed Wigan disillusioned, his tenure curtailed as a consequence of a fractious relationship with owner Dave Whelan. That disillusionment mean he declined offers from clubs in England before returning to the game having met what he called the “right people” in Texas.

It was a move which was met with scepticism; MLS is not yet a universally reputable league. But Coyle discovered a new world across the Atlantic – albeit at a team which included former Derby County prodigy Giles Barnes and erstwhile Rangers defender DaMarcus Beasley – and is dismissive of the idea that working in North America has been detrimental to him. He was acquainted with MLS following a series of pre-season tours to the US with Burnley, Wigan and Bolton, and trusted the quality of American players having signed Stuart Holden for the latter club six years ago. The midfielder, who was born in Aberdeenshire but grew up in Texas, was voted Player of the Year at the conclusion of his first full season in England.

Coyle has watched soccer improve incrementally and is confident that the domestic division is now comparable to many European leagues. “The English Championship is probably the fifth or sixth best league in Europe and MLS is certainly at that level,” says Coyle. “When you look at the players they have got in that league then, with all due respect, when you go into the Championship you are not going to find Kaka, David Villa, Stevie Gerrard and everyone else. England apart, MLS is way ahead of the standard you see in other countries.

“I knew what the standard was like as I had taken my teams over before. Also, Dominic [Kinnear] had been the head coach there. Dom came to Bolton in 1993 when myself and John McGinlay were at the club, and we took him under our wing for those two weeks or so. Bruce Rioch opted not to sign him ultimately but I always kept in touch with him, and when Dom left to go to San Jose the season before last, the president at Dynamo asked if the position there would be of any interest to me. I was very impressed.

“It’s like any league in the world: they all have their top clubs. When you go to England it’s your Manchester Uniteds, your Chelseas, and those are your top clubs. Houston Dynamo are never going to have the wealth of LA Galaxy or Toronto – that’s not the way they run their business. But within that you can still be successful.”

That appraisal might equally be applied to Blackburn, since the English Championship this season includes clubs such as Newcastle United, Aston Villa, Derby County and Wolves. The Ewood Park side were relegated from the top flight at the end of the 2011/2012 season and have toiled since then. A remarkable rate of managerial upheaval has been their most notable achievement in recent years. Coyle is the sixth man to be placed in charge of the team since they returned to the Championship, with two of his predecessors, Henning Berg and Michael Appleton, each lasting less than three months in the job.

For a club which once pipped Sir Alex Ferguson and Manchester United to the Premier League title, this record is wounding. Yet as far as his new club has still to go, Coyle will be relieved that the journey does not extend to a 5000-mile round trip just to fulfil a league fixture.

“When I played in Scotland, managed in Scotland, and also in England, when you played an away game you were back in bed that night,” says the former striker, who made stops in Airdrie, Dunfermline Athletic and Motherwell during a prolonged playing career. “At the Dynamo, if we played in Vancouver, Portland or Seattle then we left on a Thursday and were not back until the Sunday night. The logistics and travel are very different and I always equate it to us playing in Europe; we played in Europe every second week.”

In contrast to the views of fans in Lancashire, Blackburn players have expressed optimism about the season ahead under their new head coach. Of course they are obliged to project confidence, but there does seem to be a genuine warmth between Coyle, who is always engaging company, and players he has coached at his previous clubs. Giles Barnes, who was the Dynamo captain under Coyle, has referred to his head coach as a “perfect fit”.

There are echoes of his influence when national teams gather too, most pertinently at the European Championships during the summer. England trio Cahill, Sturridge and Wilshere all impressed for Coyle at Bolton, while Ireland’s James McClean grew as an internationalist under his guidance at Wigan.

The coach also helped to establish Steven Fletcher as Scotland’s primary striker when the pair worked together at Burnley. A division of the Tartan Army remains critical of Fletcher’s capacity to perform on the international stage – the forward scored seven goals as Scotland failed to qualify for Euro 2016, six of which came during the two matches against group minnows Gibraltar – but Coyle continues to be a committed sponsor of his former player.

While Fletcher is targeted as a consequence of a modest goal return, Coyle talks instead about the Scotland’s striker’s hidden strengths; facets of his play which are often overlooked. “I’m obviously biased because I signed him, but he is a wonderful player and an outstanding young man,” says the erstwhile Burnley manager, who spent a club-record £3 million to recruit Fletcher from Hibernian seven years ago.

“Steven Fletcher is a wonderful player and works his socks off for the team. You ask his Scotland team-mates and they will tell you how good a player he is, because of the work and the shift he puts in. That’s why Gordon [Strachan] picks him for Scotland – because he knows the quality Steven Fletcher has. When you persevere with players like that, they always come good for you. People have criticised Fletch in the past for not scoring, but if a striker is not getting chances then what is he meant to do? If he is getting guilt-edge chances, real chances, then you can say that he should be putting them away but that is not what happened. You can have the best strikers in the world but you have got to give them service.

“If Gordon had played Leigh Griffiths, say, and they lost that game to Georgia in the last campaign [Scotland were defeated 1-0 in Tblisi, a result which crippled their qualifying campaign] then the people who want to have their opinions heard, and who know this and know that, those same people would be asking why Leigh Griffiths started when he is only playing in the Scottish Premiership. They would ask why Gordon hadn’t started with a striker who had been signed by a Premier League club for £15 million.

“I would suggest as well that Steven Fletcher doesn’t have to score in games to contribute to the team. Sometimes you have out-and-out goalscorers and if they don’t score then you think, what did they do in the game? Steven Fletcher takes the ball in, he flicks it on, he harasses and occupies centre-backs, and does it at international level.”

So what of Coyle’s chances of success with Blackburn? Owners Venky’s are detested by the Blackburn support, and have proven to be erratic and difficult to deal with. The company is also culpable for substantial financial losses at Ewood Park and a transfer embargo enacted under Financial Fair Play legislation which was only lifted in December.

In Coyle’s favour, not only has he experience of working in the English Championship, but he has experience of dealing with a difficult owner. He had myriad confrontations with Wigan owner Dave Whelan.

“The Wigan thing was quite simplistic for me; we didn’t leave Wigan because of football,” Coyle adds. “When a team loses their place [in the top flight] then they sell their best players. For example, they sold James McCarthy for £15 million to Everton on deadline day. But we brought in good players – look where James McClean is now, back in the Premier League – and certainly believe that we would have had them back challenging for a place in the Premier League.

“But I have a way of working and if somebody is trying to put stuff on me, it’s not going to happen. I don’t work like that. It was never going to work out, that’s the best way I can put it, and when things happened at Wigan, it didn’t work out. Did I want it to go that way? No. But I have moved on and if Dave Whelan turned up here right now I would go over and shake his hand.

“There has been a lot of instability [at Blackburn] and we certainly understand that. I’ve been at clubs where there’s been off-field issues. What I’ve got to concentrate on is on-field issues. When you can do that and get a team that the fans like to see, hopefully we can all move forward. That’s got to be the aim and what we’re focused on doing.”

This article first appeared in Issue 1 which was published in September 2016.

Issue 11
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