As a young man the opportunity arose to manage my friends (a group of very talented footballers who had won numerous Sunday League titles and were looking to establish themselves in Saturday football). A contact of theirs, a local businessman promised to fund the venture and was happy to have me on board based on their recommendation. It seemed like a dream come true, a chance to win some silverware whilst having the freedom to imprint my own philosophy from scratch at a newly made club.
Little did I know, there was something I had failed to read in the small print. The chairman was also part of the playing squad. This should have been a red flag but in my naivety, I thought if the other players were cool with it and seeing as they were good players themselves, he would be of a high standard too. During our first few training sessions, whilst it was apparent he was not one of the leading lights of the team by any stretch, he did not give off 'liability vibes'. He seemed a decent 6 aside/small sided game player.
The night before our opening fixture, the Chairman text me to ask what would be the starting line up and offered his own suggestion. As it was our first game, I had not really formed a full picture of the playing squad and was more than happy to take on board his advice, even if it did include having him in the line up as a right back. The feeling before the game was one of excitement, a sense of a project finally coming together.
To cut a long story short, we found ourselves a couple of goals down in the first half - I made a couple of subs, taking the chairman off as one of them. We managed to come back and draw the game 2-2. I sensed some disapproval from the chairman regarding the decision to take him off, but I just put that down to a player wanting to play the full game but feeling disappointed he had to come off. Little did I realise it would set the wheels in motion for a crisis of epic proportions.
In the second fixture, I was keen to drop the chairman and use the right back who I thought deserved a first team spot. I was advised by some senior players to pick the chairman and give him another chance - "It was just a fitness issue - he will come good". With our star striker back from injury and now able to start the game, I thought we would have enough in the side to get the victory regardless, so I was happy to acquiesce to their request.
Come match day, it was all smiles. The chairman had forgiven me and we were all focused on the game at hand. Within the first few minutes, the opposition left winger had nutmegged our chairman and put in a delicious ball which was headed into the back of the net. It would go from bad to worse, as moments later the chairman lost his man again and in an attempt to get back to his man, awkwardly dived in with a challenge from behind and gave away a penalty. It would prove to be 45 minutes of carnage, with our right flank continuously under siege and we found ourselves 3-0 down.
Once again I rang the changes at half time, the chairman came off and once again we fought our way back into the game, although the deficit was simply too much for us to overturn. We lost 4-2. I was fuming. I hated losing games and the feeling of not being able to express my own feelings, feeling restricted in terms of my decision-making was killing me inside. I vowed that whatever happens, I was not going to be compromised any further - I would pick my own XI for the next game, come what may.
During the week I spoke to the players to gauge their thoughts on where we had gone wrong. To a man, not a single player identified the fact our right flank is what had let us down. They seemed unwilling to acknowledge the 'elephant in the room'. Did I dare confront the issue? For the third fixture, I refused to name my line up until we got to the game - I just sent a text with the squad list only.
Before the game I told the chairman he would be coming off the bench. He seemed to take it surprisingly well and I felt at ease, thinking well that wasn't so bad. The team played well, we got into a 1-0 lead and held on to it for most of the game only to concede midway into the second half. I brought the chairman on for the last 15 minutes and he did okay, putting in a disciplined shift. Final score, 1-1.
That night I received a call from my star striker aka my best friend. He said the chairman was deeply upset by the decision not to start him and wanted to know why I did not play him. I explained my reasons and set out his shortcomings. Moments later I received a text from the chairman asking for me to return all the equipment to him, including balls, bibs etc and that he did not see this relationship working. An ultimatum was issued... either I play him, or it was game over.
For me it was a simple situation. If I had to compromise on my vision of the game, my principles in respect of meritocracy and my desire to win, in order to please the chairman and keep him sweet - it would be a betrayal of much of what I stood for. It would ruin my enjoyment and which top manager would accept such a ludicrous situation. It would be embarrassing to do so and bad results would reflect on my ability to manage the team. I walked.
Some of you reading this might be thinking, jeez.. what a shitty situation, I would have walked too and others might think I was too fussy and adhering to 'principles'. Upon reflection, when I look at the sides' current fortunes, they did eventually secure multiple promotions (7 years after I and many of the original squad had left). The Chairman had stopped playing a season after I departed and by all accounts had used his resources wisely to build a pretty successful Saturday outfit (which isn't easy).
Would I handle this situation differently today? Most definitely. I was 21 when I was the manager. I was very head strong and stubborn, and refused to adapt to any situation where I had to cede control or compromise on my philosophy. I was too committed to winning rather than appreciating the fact that as a manager of this particular club, I had to understand its particular quirks and values, learning how to work within certain restrictions rather than throw my toys out of the pram when something didn't match up to my expectations.
Furthermore had I simply been patient, the chairman himself or the players might have eventually reached a breaking point and asked for him to be benched. At no stage was my management skills being questioned, so it was my own ego that was being hurt by the lack of results - if I had gone in with lower expectations and just focused on building a 'club' and 'morale' rather than putting too much emphasis on 'results' and 'professionalism' - I would have survived that initial season and learnt even more from that process and how to deal with the politics of football. End of the day, it was an amateur club not an EPL club.
In conclusion, when you walk into a club - instead of thinking about style of play and results, your first port of call needs to be establishing harmony with the powers that be and the playing squad. Remember the level you are playing at and the ethos of that particular club. Do not alienate anyone, especially early on in the tenure. Results may not be forthcoming but by focusing on building bonds, the results will come and eventually you can shape the club more along the lines of your own personal preferences. Be a politician, build it brick by brick, do not go in with a sledgehammer.
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