In football management, almost everyone falls sometimes. And when you do, a lot depends on your ability to bounce. And that in turn depends on your hunger, your love and your willingness to dedicate a large part of your life and energy to the football game.
Some can’t. Or not. So we lose them. Or they come on TV. Others refuse to let go, only to be thrown off the ride. So they follow the work and hope it gets them back to where they want to be.
Owen Coyle did. He followed the work. From England to the US and then back to England. To Scotland, India and now back to Scotland and the threshold of something very important.
To recap, Coyle was once a rising management talent in this country. Thirteen years ago he took Burnley to the top flight for the first time in 33 years and came there with attractive football. They almost beat Tottenham in a League Cup semi-final.
But then, less than six months after that promotion, Coyle left Burnley for Bolton and, like a golfer suddenly unable to find a fairway, his career inexplicably unraveled. Bolton didn’t work. Nor Wigan or Blackburn.
Queens Park manager Owen Coyle has been all over the world during his managerial career
We must salute the managers of all leagues who have been stuck in the roundabout
So for the Scot it was Houston Dynamo in the US MLS and Chennaiyin and Jamshed-pur in India. And now, since March last year, his home country is Glasgow, where he is poised to take tiny Queen’s Park to the Scottish Premiership for the first time since the 1950s.
The job is not done yet. Coyle and his team, who had only won promotion from the third tier last year, were automatically promoted to the Premiership on the final day of last Friday when they lost an extraordinary winner-takes-all game 5-3 to Dundee. So tonight they host Partick Thistle in the second leg of a play-off tie, they are 4-3 down after game one.
Queen’s Park’s own story is quite something. The oldest club in Scotland, they remained amateurs until 2019, playing for a handful of supporters at Hampden Park for a century. Currently they have no home and play matches in Stenhousemuir.
Their promotion would be quite something, but this story is less about them and more about their manager. Coyle is only 56, but is a grandfather who has spent his life in the game. He could sit in his recliner if he wanted to.
But this is the thing about career coaches. They don’t want to sit. They want to stand there on the grass with a whistle in their mouth and scattered throughout the English football pyramid we find other examples.
In League Two, the promotion fight remains fascinating. At Bradford, Mark Hughes has been chasing automatic promotion all season, but has instead settled for a place in the play-offs.
Once at the head of the richest club in the world and twice striker of arguably the world’s most famous, I visited the former Manchester City manager and United player in his office at Bradford’s training base last August.
59-year-old Hughes had also fallen off the grid a bit. He wanted work, but couldn’t find it. So he swallowed his pride and started over at the bottom. At Bradford they train at a school and last season when he joined his kitman doubled as an analyst.
Mark Hughes has guided Bradford to a place in the League Two play-offs
But he still felt he had something to offer in a sport that had been his life and after playing winning football for a season in front of a crowd of 20,000 who can say he was wrong?
Nigel Clough, meanwhile, has been less fortunate. Last season, his Mansfield side lost in the League Two play-off final. This time they missed the precious sixth position by a single goal. Clough has been on the roundabout at Burton, Sheffield United and Derby for 25 years, but at the age of 57 still doesn’t want to get off.
I wondered if maybe this season’s disappointment would be too much for him to launch another campaign, but instead he has signed a new contract. He says he is “encouraged” by what lies ahead.
We know what encourages older managers like Sam Allardyce and Roy Hodgson to keep taking lifeguard jobs in the Premier League. Glory, glamour, money, the scent of a high-profile challenge. Reasonable. They have paid their dues down the pyramid over time.
Beyond that, however, there’s little of any of this. Further down the food chain, football management is tough, relentless work with high expectations and often low budgets. In Scotland or England’s third and fourth tiers, every decision feels crucial.
But this is the other side of management. It’s a world away from whatever Allardyce’s bonus is in keeping Leeds afloat and the madness of a club like Watford burning through bosses the way journalists go through notebooks.
Coyle, Hughes, Clough and countless others are responsible in their own way for the incredible depth of our domestic play. Only they really know why they come back. Pride? A competitor’s instinct? Love? It is unlikely that it is about money.
What is clear is that football on this island would be considerably worse off without them.
Nigel Clough has come painfully close to promotion from League Two with Mansfield
When I saw Arsenal fold to Manchester City I wondered if we were seeing too many features of what they used to be. Fight pointless battles while losing the one that counts – on the leaderboard.
But again Mikel Arteta’s team has responded by winning games. Twice they were well beaten by their title rivals, 3-1 at the Emirates and 4-1 in Manchester. Yet Arsenal refuse to leave.
Indeed, their stubbornness has been such that if City fail to win at Everton early on Sunday, Arsenal will host Brighton later with the Premier League title race underway again.
With three games remaining – against Brighton, Forest and Wolves – Arsenal are poised for 90 points, the same number Arsene Wenger’s ‘Invincibles’ achieved when they won the title easily in 2004. There couldn’t be a greater compliment. And this is mainly why Arteta is my coach of the year.
Mikel Arteta’s Arsenal could potentially match the Invincibles’ 2004 point tally
David Moyes says reaching the Europa Conference League final may be the pinnacle of his career, but for me nothing beats the amazing job he did in his decade at Everton.
That was Moyes at his best back then. Smart on the transfer market, tactically smart and able to build teams that were often more than the sum of their parts.
The most encouraging thing we can say about the West Ham boss now is that after some difficult years he has found his way back to doing what he does best.
Credibility restored. But what he did at Everton represented a body of work. A trip to a second-tier European final would be a decoration for a 25-year career, nothing more.
Despite David Moyes’ European run with West Ham, his work at Everton will never be surpassed
Looking at the photo of Tottenham’s Heung-Min Son being abused by a Crystal Palace fan, it’s hard to take your eyes off the kids.
To the left of the man who appears to be making a racist gesture towards the Korean is a teenage boy.
Behind him, in his father’s arms, lies another child of just five or six. It’s enough to take your kids to another sport.
The Milan derby in the Champions League was so one-sided that Inter should already be in the final.
Anyone who continues to believe that Milan defender Fikayo Tomori should play for England is invited to submit their reasoning on a postcard. A small.
England’s Fikayo Tomori had a night to forget as AC Milan were stunned by rivals Inter