Top manager, lovely man, Pinball Wizard: Meet the irrepressible Owen Coyle

Steve Anglesey went to visit the then Bolton manager at the start of the 2011/12 season...

Owen Coyle is undefeated. Maybe not in the Barclays Premier League, but definitely at Bolton’s training ground. “Never beaten” at Connect Four, which sits on his desk, the 45-year-old has also seen off all-comers on the club’s ping-pong table and returned from Bolton’s pre-season jaunt to America as Wanderers’ reigning shuffleboard champion.
When you tell him you’ve done rather well that morning on the pinball machine in the club’s games room, he inquires after your score and tells you it’s only a million below the record. It’s pointless even asking who set it.

Coyle is beaming despite the strains of the transfer window and the leg-breaks suffered by excellent midfielder Chung Young-Lee and new defender Tyrone Mears, putting renewed strain on one of the Premier League’s smaller squads. Yet, you suspect, Coyle will go on smiling. A fast-talking hyper-enthusiast who peppers his stories with words like “joy” and “delight ”, he believes in enjoying everything he does, whether it’s talking to magazines (“I love a babble”) or competing with his players, on and off the field.

When Bolton began last season by adding an unexpected swagger to their traditional graft, Jamie Redknapp talked of how Coyle had “transformed” the club, Rohan Ricketts compared Mark Davies to Andres Iniesta and it became generally fashionable to favourably contrast this positive, expansive manager with his predecessors Sam Allardyce and Gary Megson, for whom every game seemed a war of attrition and every press conference one long sigh of self-justification. But when Wanderers stuttered towards the end, humiliated at Wembley by Stoke in the FA Cup semi before dropping to a finish of 14th , bloggers emerged waving statistics ‘proving’ the club had barely moved on from the Big Sam and Meggy days. One piece was titled The Owen Coyle Myth.

The truth, of course, lies somewhere in between. Yet there are clues to be found at the club’s training base. First you walk through a clubhouse entrance decorated with a mural showing Vince Lombardi, Ayrton Senna, Michael Jordan, a roaring lion. It’s undoubtedly eye-catching, temporarily inspiring, ultimately redundant.

Then you enter Coyle’s office, where in the hour that follows Bolton’s manager uses the words “love”, “lovingr”, “lovely” and “loved” over 20 times – about his family, about football, about his players. And you suspect you might not have heard that from those other two guys…

When you hear talk about how you’ve transformed the club of Gary Megson and Sam Allardyce, do you cringe a little bit for them? 

I think it does Sam and Gary a disservice. But that’s the nature of perception in football. Sometimes you’re given a name and, rightly or wrongly, it can stick. Sam and Gary are two very good managers and I’m not coming in here saying, “We play like Barcelona now.” We’ve just added other facets and dimensions to help us. 
With the skipper [Kevin Davies], we’re quite adept at going to the strikers early. But we play through the midfield as well; it’s just about evolving. We’ve had [Jack] Wilshire, got [Stuart] Holden – those are very good footballers. Now we’ve got Nigel Reo-Coker, who’s a very good passer of the ball and we’ve got young Mark Davies as well who is as an exciting talent in the midfield area as you’ll find in the Premier League. We’re just trying to move the ball at the right time. But if we need to go to the strikers early, we can do that as well.

In fact, I don’t know if you’re familiar with the blog Zonal Marking but they did some analysis of Bolton at the end of last season and found that certain key stats – pass completion rate, average number of short passes per game versus average long balls a game – was pretty similar to Bolton under Gary Megson. Yet...
[Bristling slightly]: Facts and statistics… we get our ProZone stuff every week and I can assure you we pass the ball a lot more. Zonal Whoever, good luck to them. Your facts and stats will tell you anything you want but nothing can beat the naked eye in football. 
As a football club have we improved? Absolutely. People can say about facts and stats but the entertainment, some of the goals we scored, it was there for everyone to see. The Mark Davies goal against Blackpool was an unbelievable footballing goal. I don’t know if Zonal Whatever saw that goal… 

So the success you’ve had has been about finding the balance between physicality and entertainment? e
Football’s an entertainment sport. We’re all here to entertain, whether you’re at the top of the Premier League or down in the lower leagues. People work all week and pay good money to come and watch their team. The minimum they should expect is 100 per cent effort from their team and an obligation to entertain. 
I go out home and away to win matches. I don’t set up my team to play for 0-0 draws because ultimately you’ll be undone anyway. We can go toe-to-toe with anyone. And the boys did that last season in magnificent fashion until, latterly, we were caught up with the injuries we had. 

Stuart Holden’s injury seemed to have a particularly shattering effect…
Stuart was an integral part of everything we did, but he never played the previous week when we annihilated West Ham. That’s the thing about football. When something goes wrong it’s always going to be down to something, be someone’s fault and there’s going to be blame apportioned. When I analyse the semi-final, we started really well and we should have had a clear penalty. Then we lost bad goals and when that first goal, a bad goal, went in all the positivity we had became a negative and that conspired against us.

But when we get back to that occasion – and I stress the word “when”, because we will get back there – we’ll be better set for it. It was disappointing, of course, but no different to when I’ve had a smack in football before and got up to deal with it. Take the bad moment, take the criticism and go and address it.

It wasn’t your first disappointment at Wembley with Bolton. In 1995, you were left out of the League Cup final team by Bruce Rioch…
I’d played in every round prior to the final and I fully expected to be involved. And at that time your squad list was only 14. We’d just signed Gudni Bergsson, a big pal of mine now, and at Portsmouth the week before the final John McGinlay was on international duty and I started the game. At half-time Bruce came in and gave me a dressing down and afterwards Gudni said to me: “I don’t understand that, I thought you were our best player in the first half.” And I says, “Well, so did I Gudni, but if he gives me a dressing down now he can put John McGinlay on from the start at Wembley and then obviously I’m on the bench.”

Anyway, I went out second half and I couldn’t have played any better. Set up the goal and we drew 1-1, a good result. But still at full-time again I was the man to get the tongue-lashing. On the Tuesday, Bruce named the first team for Wembley and John McGinlay was in it and I wasn’t. Then on the Friday, Bruce wasn’t at training – he’d gone to London – and [assistant manager] Colin Todd said: “He’s asked me to name the subs.” So Colin says, “Davidson, Patterson…” and I’m waiting to hear “Owen Coyle” and he says “Gudni Bergsson”. At this point I felt like getting dressed and going home.

But then I remembered: “Well, it’s not these players who pick the team. These are my team-mates, the guys I fight for.” So I got showered, put a smile on my face and put on the team suit and supported the lads. Then I went to see Bruce about it after the final – I was quite opinionated in those days – and he left me out of the team for three or four weeks after that. I worked so hard I got back in and I actually scored the goal in the play-offs that took us into the Premier League (pictured above). If I’d gone into a strop I’d have missed out on that unbelievable experience.
The moral is, no matter how bad it gets, you’ve got to be professional and focused. Take the medicine and go again. The mental strength I took from that experience was incredible.

That’s clearly a story you’ve told to players before. When do you start saying encouraging things like that to them after a defeat like the one at Wembley? In the dressing room? On the coach?
Well, the dressing room was sombre, there was hardly a word spoke. It was a horrible long week. But the reaction for the Arsenal game next week was incredible. I don’t know if you remember but we were 1-0 and comfortable, we had a penalty we missed and then two minutes later Arsenal went and scored. And at that point it would have been the easiest time ever to crumble. Far from it, we knuckled down and scored a late winner. And that day told me everything about my group.

Going back to the “horrible long week”; you’re a natural enthusiast but did you find it difficult to come into work with a smile on your face? Is it an act sometimes?
I don’t think it was difficult and certainly not an act. I’m so fortunate to have a career in football and if I hadn’t made it as a player and a manager I’d be paying my fiver to go and play five-a-side with you because I have an absolute love of the game. That’s never, ever left me.

We now have tremendous lifestyles that go with it but look, I’ve had money and I’ve not had money and I’m the same. To come into work knowing you’re going to do football every day, I don’t even think that’s a job. Ultimately people say “there’s pressure, there’s this and that”, but it’s the best occupation you can have in the world. And if you can’t come in with a smile knowing that, it’s a sad day.

Does it frustrate you when players don’t have the same enthusiasm? 

It does. I remember Ian McCall, my player/coach at Airdrieonians and Falkirk, saying, “The problem that you’re going to have, Coyley, is that when you become a manager not everyone is as passionate about the game as you.” 
The playing days are the best days or your life but the next-best thing is being a coach, a manager; I love being out on the grass with them, making them the best they can be and mould them into a team that does justice to the fans who support our team. 

When FourFourTwo spoke to Jack Wilshere about you, he said that “no disrespect to Bolton, but he is destined for bigger things”. But all your experience so far has been with smaller clubs on tight budgets… 

If what you’re asking me is “are you capable of managing any club?” then the answer is “of course”. I’ve got to temper that by saying I love what I do here. But if I had the best players in the world, could I win the major trophies? No doubt about it. 

How much of your determination and self-belief is down to growing up in The Gorbals, in Glasgow?

I’m always very vocal about telling people where I came from and of course you always got people taking a breath because where I grew up is perceived to be a rough area but it was what we were used to. We were very much in an Irish community, Little Donegal they called it, and it was lovely. It was such a loving community. 

My dad, God rest him, was sent over from Donegal when he was 15 to work on the roads. Think about that: at that age, you’d have thought it would physically kill you. Whatever money he got, he had to send it back to his family. An incredible sacrifice, but that’s what they did. And that kind of upbringing never leaves you.

I had five brothers and three sisters and no-one ever gave us anything. My brother was a milk boy at the age of five or six, I had a paper round at the age of 10 or 11. We all had to graft away. My mum is 81 now and she still works at the Citizens’s Theatre, a left-leaning theatre in what has always been a big Labour stronghold. She does the teas, the coffees, front of house. When we were kids we had a border collie that we brought back from Donegal and that was in one of the plays, Juno And The Paycock [by George Bernard Shaw] because it was so obedient. It was lying on the stage. Every chance I get, if it’s a good show on I’ll go up there. I just love it because on the boards there’s no hiding place. There’s no second take, you have to be spot-on and I love seeing those kinds of people at work.

We lived in a maisonette and my mum still lives there with my younger brothers. We didn’t have a park, we’d be on the concrete outside the house. I was left-footed and I remember my dad saying, in his Irish brogue, with the language cleaned up a bit for you: “If you don’t learn to kick the ball with your right foot I’ll tie your other leg up.” So I used to go and bang the ball with my right foot up against the wall to try to make it stronger. We were out until mum shouted you back in. 

Let’s end with a few things people probably know about you. One, you always wear that sweatshirt and shorts… 

Once, when I was managing St Johnstone I thought, “I’ll try the suit today.” It didn’t go great. We won in the end, 4-3, but I never felt comfortable. Maybe when I’m older I’ll put the suit on. But just now, because you probably still think you’re 21 and you’re kicking every ball, I just love being out there with the shorts and the gear on. 

Two, you’re tee-total…

Well, my dad liked his whisky and my brothers and sisters took a drink. But I was a mummy’s boy, if truth be told. And I played football all weekend, on Friday night and Saturday night I stayed in because I thought that was what professionals did. Even as I grew older, drink was never on my agenda. I know some people need a drink to come out of their shells but as you can see, I can talk so God help me if I came out of my shell!

The only time I came close to having a drink was when I was 19, I broke into the Dumbarton team and was scoring goals and Celtic invited me on tour with their under-20s to Switzerland. The captain Derek Whyte, who went on to play for Middlesbrough, took us out one night and ordered 18 half-pints of lager. And I thought to myself “I’m not gonna rock the boat” so I took a small sip. I thought, “oh, that tastes horrible”. And I said, “Look Whytey, I don’t drink and to do it would be to go against my principles [Coyle is a devout Christian, although tells FFT hem’s not ‘especially religious’], I’ll just have a Coke.” And a couple, of other boys then said they wanted a Coke as well, because someone else had been brave enough to say it.

That’s the only time it’s ever been on my lips. Even when I’ve won trophies and there’s been champagne in the dressing room. I can enjoy Irn Bru just as much.
Three, you can’t swim… 
If I was in the shallow end now I could get to the deep end. My problem is I can’t tread water. I did a thing in 1990 for a charity in Scotland. They put a beam across the deep end of a pool in Glasgow and invited football players along for a pillow fight. Kenny McDowell, the assistant manager of Rangers now, swung around, caught me flush and knocked me into the deep end. And I started panicking. There were a lot of people there and they were all laughing. All I could do was jump up, hold onto the beam and pull my way along. 

And there’s just one more thing... your middle name is Columba… 

We were a Irish Catholic family in Scotland and St Columba was someone who travelled between Scotland and Ireland and was involved in monasteries. My dad’s name was also Owen Columba Coyle and of six boys he chose to give it to me. It’s something I’m very proud of. 
I’ve seen my dad get up and have to provide for nine children. To know that even when he was not well he had to be out there working to put food on the table… 
I think we need to put into context what is pressure or not. There’s a big difference between that pressure and football pressure. Yes, it’s not nice to lose games and to take criticism but I look and him and think, “that was a real man, who got up and did a real job of work, and I’m in the best occupation I could be in my life.” And I’m blessed.

This feature was originally published in the Ocotber 2011 issue of FourFourTwo magazine