I used to view football coaches as backstabbers, conniving, ruthless and selfish human beings who are doing a lot more worse than good for the game we all love so well.
This long-held view was based on the fact that almost every season, there was a coach who was always ready and available to take over a colleague’s place in a team’s bench. I could never understand that one coach would be fired or resign today and then his former club would immediately announce his replacement on the very same day. To me, it simply meant the new coach was always in the picture while his colleague still had a job. It meant the club was engaging with their new coach while his colleague was still in charge of his team. To me, that was simply unethical and backstabbing the very same colleague you will expecting support and protection from. That never used to sit well with me until I put myself in a coach’s shoes, not the one on the job or the one looking for a job but just in a coach’s shoes!
You see, the Premier Soccer League, for instance, only has 32 professional teams and that simply means only 32 out of thousands of qualified head coaches will have a job at a time. That means a thousand others will be queuing in the long ‘unemployed league’ just waiting for a phone call from any potential team owner. That means the current coach has a thousand others out there salivating at his job. Can you imagine the pressure this exerts on the coach? Can you believe the amount of power that simple statistic gives to the club owners? It means they can get rid of their head coach at a drop of a hat and, without wasting any time, call on a readily available ‘substitution’ on the ever-increasing coaches’ bench. That puts both the incumbent and potential coach at a disadvantage because the club can switch them as and when they feel like it. That’s why we have the likes of Walter Rautmann, Professor Ngubane, Dan Malesela, and Jacob Sakala, just to mention three. These are coaches who are always available to rescue a sinking ship but, once the mission has been completed, sometimes don’t get the recognition or even respect they deserve. Such a thankless job!
Man, football coaches have it all against them and it makes sense why so very few of them have stable jobs. The saying, “Coaches are hired to get fired” couldn’t be more appropriate to describe the thankless nature of the job of football coaching. Those who say a coach never unpacks all his bags know exactly what they’re talking about. How many times have you heard of a coach signing for three years only to last for a quarter of or half-a-season before being shown the door? Despite all of that, these coaches are expected to perform and bring results that they’re sometimes even not responsible for. Some get their teams selected for them, while others’ jobs are constantly interfered with, but they have to bite the bullet and portray a happy face, a united family in front of the cameras. They can’t openly share their honest opinions lest they be accused of ‘hanging the team’s dirty laundry in public’ and that usually results in the termination of a contract.
Coaches have a demanding and stressful job of ensuring that the whole team, not just individual players, performs and delivers as the first job on the line will always be that of the coach. They have to deal with inflated egos that are sometimes too shallow for their own good. They have to deal with interference, and yet the public doesn’t have to know about these things; in fact, they don’t care, because it is all part of the coach’s job. Most of the time, the public misjudge – reading between the lines and sometimes from the body language – the relationship between the coach and his charges.
This reminds me of the legendary Basketball coach, Phil Jackson, who once had the unenviable task of managing two of the strongest personalities in the game, at the time, the late Kobe Bryant and the legendary Shaquille O’Neal. Those who know anything about Jackson will tell you that the retired 74-year-old coach was never one for confrontation. However, according to Bryant, Jackson manoeuvred his way through that sticky situation and came out with flying colours. “With Phil in his genius, his responsibility was to get the team to a place to win titles. It wasn’t to appease one player, it wasn’t to look out for this player, but to get the collective whole to win the championship. He would do whatever it took to make sure that happened. He would see the friction between myself and Shaq and say, ‘Ok, how can I use that? I know Kobe has a passion to play, come hell or high water, it doesn’t matter what’s going on in his personal life, it doesn’t matter what’s happening with the team, he is going to show up and perform no matter what! Shaq is more emotional, if something is going on he won’t perform, therefore I have to create a wedge between myself and Kobe because that brings me closer to Shaq and it helps me to better manage him.’ That was Phil’s ability to manage the team and he was absolutely brilliant.”
That’s quite profound from a player who was always reported to have a love-hate relationship with the same Jackson. However, when you hear what Jackson had to say about Bryant and how much he respected and appreciated his work ethic, you start to believe that these two, despite their different outlook and approach on life, complemented each other well. Quality coaches never bother themselves with the narrative but focus on the job at hand. They sometimes protect the players and teams, at their own expense, because they are leaders in a thankless job. When the team wins, it is the players and when they lose, it is the ‘clueless coach’. Yet the coach still has a job to do and will never out his player but will rather take all the blame. I’m telling you, if coaches were to tell everything going on at our favourite clubs when the television cameras are off, you’d be surprised. It would be jaw-dropping stuff!
So, before you throw accusations towards a coach, spare a thought for what they have to go through on a daily basis before you see them at the stadium for 90 minutes. A lot of hard work, sleepless nights, interference, sabotage and constantly having to watch over their shoulders preceded what you see unfold for the duration of the game. He knows he might be doing that post-match interview for the last time. Next time you see a football coach, just wave and smile since we can’t give them hugs – due to the COVID-19 precautionary measures – although they always need them.