Sometimes at AFTN time can get a little bit ahead of our best intentions. There were a number of articles, features and interviews that we planned to run last year, that for one reason or another, we simply never got round to publishing. That doesn’t make them any less relevant months later and in some cases, the subject matter becomes even more so.
A lot was made of Vancouver Whitecaps’ excellent locker room harmony last season. How many points of their club (and Canadian club) record breaking 50 MLS points total can be attributed to that is obviously open to debate, but we firmly believe it played a significant role in the ‘Caps successes last season.
Last summer, we planned to run a piece around Carl Robinson’s relationship building approach to man management, the importance he places on it and how the players respond to it and view the ‘Caps coach. Time got away from us but the whole content of the piece, and the quotes we garnered last June, are still very pertinent today, as you will soon read….
What makes a team successful?
Talent, skill and the ability to produce that on a consistent basis are clearly important ingredients. But other vital components to the mix are that of harmony, trust, respect and relationship building. All of those attributes, and others, help make a successful environment at a football club.
Vancouver Whitecaps head coach Carl Robinson is a firm believer that how you handle your players off the pitch contributes massively to how they perform on it.
“It’s an absolute must in the game, in modern day football,” is how Robinson views the importance of building personal relationships with his squad. “90% of the job is the man management side of it. Coaching is just a small percentage of getting the best out of the players.
“It’s important that I spend a lot of time individually with my players individually as well as collectively to tell them what they’re good at, what they need to improve on.
Although he plays down his own influence in it all, the much lauded harmonious locker room atmosphere starts at the top and Robinson’s approach to player management kicks it all off. He’s relaxed, but tough when he needs to be, and he places high importance on one-to-one relationship building with all of his squad.
The now departed Andy O’Brien probably summed it up best.
“He’s got a nice balance between disciplining us and putting an arm round us,” the veteran defender said of Robinson’s management style. “He’s got the relationship, not only with the younger players but also with the older players, and the ability to do that is a big thing. Man management is a massive part of the game and it’s something that he possesses a lot of.”
Football is a game played as much in the mind as it is on the pitch at times. The mental strength needed by both players and management to succeed should never be underestimated.
Players have to be mentally tough to get them through the goalscoring droughts, the dips in form, the times they ride the pine on the bench and the abuse they’ll get from fans and pundits alike. Managers are no different. If you’re not mentally strong, the insecure world of football management is not the career path you should likely have chosen to follow.
That’s why Robinson sees a two way flow of trust and belief between himself and his players to be crucial to the Whitecaps success.
“They know I’ve got their back through thick and thin,” Robinson said. “It’s important that when I see some players sticking up for me, as well, that I know that they’ve got my back. It’s part of a successful team. You need to have that within the club, within the organisation and that’s slowly building here.”
It may have been slowly building in Robinson’s eyes last summer, but by the end of the season is was very evident to anyone that spent even a modicum of their time around the team at training or on a matchday.
Goalkeeper David Ousted puts a lot of the good relationship the players have with their coach down to that trust and belief shown in them.
“That’s huge,” Ousted said of the trust instilled in himself and others by Robinson. “Feeling that the manager trusts you and will put some responsibility on your shoulders just makes you want to grow as a player and develop as well, so that’s a big thing.”
Ousted may be an experienced player but it’s still always good to have that feeling from your manager, and the same is even more true for the younger players and the rookies.
Erik Hurtado was one of the young players that Robinson kept faith in last season and it paid off in spurts on the pitch, but in a lot more ways going forward off it.
“It means the world to me to get that chance [from him],” Hurtado said. “A lot of the time coaches don’t want to put their faith in the younger players and then let them get experience. His motto is if you’re good enough, you’re going to play and if you deserve to play you’re going to play. That’s a great attitude to have as a coach.”
It all makes for a happy dressing room. Well on the whole. You can’t legislate for having a player with a perpetual pout like Omar Salgado.
With the South American influence heavily cited as part of the great atmosphere at the club last season, there were some concerns when a couple of those players moved on in the offseason. Add in the influence a much loved player like O’Brien had on all the players, and eyes were on how quickly that harmonious locker room environment would take to resurface this season.
Would the fun, belief and trust still be prevalent with the new mix of players brought in? The answer was quick in coming in day one of preseason training camp.
The same spirit appears to still be in abundance and the upbeat, and at times downright jokey, nature of the entire squad is infectious.
Whether it’s new addition Pa Modou Kah nicking a camera and filming his teammates or veteran Jordan Harvey having a Gatorade shower on his birthday, this is a squad that clearly gets along and that can go a long way in terms of results on the pitch.
Some may dismiss just how much of an impact a good dressing room can have to on field results, but Robinson’s not one of those people.
“The players believing they’ve got your trust, believing that they’ve got your belief and if they have, I think they’ll run that extra yard, make that extra tackle and know they’ll hurt themselves, in a good way.”
And it needs to be like that. After last year’s highs, the pressure is on Robinson and the Whitecaps to take another step forward. The Western Conference has got even tougher, there’s been strong, big name signings made around the league and the ‘Caps now have additional games in their first ever CONCACAF Champions League campaign.
The Whitecaps haven’t gone for the big name or the big money signings. It’s still a very young squad. More than ever, a close knit unit is required to continue all that Robinson and the club achieved last season. And Robinson’s relationship building with his players will continue to have an important part to play in it all, especially as there will be the prospect of more unhappy players in the squad looking to get more MLS minutes than might be getting afforded to them. That will test Robinson’s man management and the dressing room harmony more than ever this season.
When Robinson’s contract extension was announced a few weeks back, you’d have been hard pressed to find to find any detractors both outwith and within the club of the job the Welshman has done in his first year as a head coach.
The players have bought into what he is trying to do at the Whitecaps and so have the fans and much of the media. It’s refreshing, and somewhat unusual, to find these days. The pressure now comes in abundance in his second year in charge.
To his players, he’s seen as approachable, honest, and perhaps most importantly, fair.
“I think he’s easy to talk to,” is goalkeeper Ousted’s view. “He’s passionate about things. He listens to the players as to what their needs are. He’s played himself so he knows the little twerks and things that people can have. I think he’s good at making everybody feel that they’re part of the team.
A player who has had his fair share of managers over his footballing career so far is Nigel Reo-Coker, but the now departed Whitecap echoed Ousted’s thoughts.
“His door’s always open for your ideas and if you have any issues,” Reo-Coker felt. “He’s more than just a manager. He’s got a personal touch to him where he does genuinely care about his players. He’s wanting to speak to his players if he has any issues off the field and he’s willing to help you in any way he can.”
And if anyone knows how Robinson handles players off the field issues, it would have been Reo-Coker.
It’s interesting to note that the bond Robinson develops with his players does appear to carry on once they are no longer under his management. Robbo and Reo-Coker kept in regular contact after the ‘Caps coach traded the Englishman to Chivas USA. Robinson still hears regularly from Camilo and has previously told us that he hears from his good friend Kenny Miller almost every day since he moved back to Scotland.
There has to be a line of course and it’s one each of the management team are aware of and will speak about. They have to be the boss. They’re not there to be every players friend and confidant. That said, Robinson does come across as more than just a coach to his players. There does appear to be an obvious friendship connection with Robinson and the players in his squad.
“I think there is,” Ousted continued. “Carl feels that he’s a big part of the team and he is and I feel that the guys in here respect him a lot.”
What should be remembered in all of this is that last year was Robinson’s first year as a head coach. He’s the first to admit he made mistakes and needs to improve himself as a manager, never mind simply improving his squad.
Coaching qualifications are all well and good but putting them into practice is not always so easy. For Robinson, his management style has helped to be shaped by some of the experiences he shared himself as a player, and there’s one manager he had in particular who has played a key part in that.
“Mick McCarthy,” Robinson stated. “He was my manager at Sunderland. He wore his heart on his sleeve. He always said he wasn’t the most talented player, but he’d go to war with you. If you wanted a fight in the trenches he’d be one that would be right behind you. That stood out to me as a young player at Sunderland and I’ve always remembered that.
“That’s what I want to try and instil here. I’ll go to war for these boys as long as they give me their unbelievable effort, which they have done. Hard work, concentration and I’ll back them to the hilt every day.”
Can that attitude and the squad of 2015 take Robinson and the Whitecaps to the next level they need to get to? We’ll soon see.
It takes more than money to build a winning team and Vancouver have that other part in abundance right now under Carl Robinson’s tutelage.