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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 BoltonâÂÂs training ground. âÂÂNever beatenâ at Connect Four, which sits on his desk, the 45-year-old has also seen off all-comers on the clubâÂÂs ping-pong table and returned from BoltonâÂÂs pre-season jaunt to America as Wanderersâ reigning shuffleboard champion.
When you tell him youâÂÂve done rather well that morning on the pinball machine in the clubâÂÂs games room, he inquires after your score and tells you itâÂÂs only a million below the record. ItâÂÂs 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 LeagueâÂÂs smaller squads. Yet, you suspect, Coyle will go on smiling. A fast-talking hyper-enthusiast who peppers his stories with words like âÂÂjoyâ and âÂÂdelight âÂÂ, he believes in enjoying everything he does, whether itâÂÂs talking to magazines (âÂÂI love a babbleâÂÂ) 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 âÂÂtransformedâ 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 âÂÂprovingâ 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 clubâÂÂs training base. First you walk through a clubhouse entrance decorated with a mural showing Vince Lombardi, Ayrton Senna, Michael Jordan, a roaring lion. ItâÂÂs undoubtedly eye-catching, temporarily inspiring, ultimately redundant.

Then you enter CoyleâÂÂs office, where in the hour that follows BoltonâÂÂs manager uses the words âÂÂloveâÂÂ, âÂÂlovingrâÂÂ, âÂÂlovelyâ and âÂÂlovedâ over 20 times â about his family, about football, about his players. And you suspect you might not have heard that from those other two guysâ¦

When you hear talk about how youâÂÂve transformed the club of Gary Megson and Sam Allardyce, do you cringe a little bit for them? â¨
I think it does Sam and Gary a disservice. But thatâÂÂs the nature of perception in football. Sometimes youâÂÂre given a name and, rightly or wrongly, it can stick. Sam and Gary are two very good managers and IâÂÂm not coming in here saying, âÂÂWe play like Barcelona now.â WeâÂÂve just added other facets and dimensions to help us. â¨With the skipper [Kevin Davies], weâÂÂre quite adept at going to the strikers early. But we play through the midfield as well; itâÂÂs just about evolving. WeâÂÂve had [Jack] Wilshire, got [Stuart] Holden â those are very good footballers. Now weâÂÂve got Nigel Reo-Coker, whoâÂÂs a very good passer of the ball and weâÂÂve got young Mark Davies as well who is as an exciting talent in the midfield area as youâÂÂll find in the Premier League. WeâÂÂre 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 donâÂÂt know if youâÂÂre 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 â pass completion rate, average number of short passes per game versus average long balls a game â 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. â¨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 donâÂÂt know if Zonal Whatever saw that goal⦠â¨

So the success youâÂÂve had has been about finding the balance between physicality and entertainment? eâ¨FootballâÂÂs an entertainment sport. WeâÂÂre all here to entertain, whether youâÂÂre 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. â¨I go out home and away to win matches. I donâÂÂt set up my team to play for 0-0 draws because ultimately youâÂÂll 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. â¨â¨

Stuart HoldenâÂÂs injury seemed to have a particularly shattering effectâ¦
Stuart was an integral part of everything we did, but he never played the previous week when we annihilated West Ham. ThatâÂÂs the thing about football. When something goes wrong itâÂÂs always going to be down to something, be someoneâÂÂs fault and thereâÂÂs 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 â and I stress the word âÂÂwhenâÂÂ, because we will get back there â weâÂÂll be better set for it. It was disappointing, of course, but no different to when IâÂÂve 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 wasnâÂÂt your first disappointment at Wembley with Bolton. In 1995, you were left out of the League Cup final team by Bruce Riochâ¦
IâÂÂd 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. WeâÂÂd 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: âÂÂI donâÂÂt understand that, I thought you were our best player in the first half.â And I says, âÂÂWell, 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 IâÂÂm on the bench.âÂÂ

Anyway, I went out second half and I couldnâÂÂt 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 wasnâÂÂt. Then on the Friday, Bruce wasnâÂÂt at training â heâÂÂd gone to London â and [assistant manager] Colin Todd said: âÂÂHeâÂÂs asked me to name the subs.â So Colin says, âÂÂDavidson, Pattersonâ¦â and IâÂÂm waiting to hear âÂÂOwen Coyleâ and he says âÂÂGudni BergssonâÂÂ. At this point I felt like getting dressed and going home.

But then I remembered: âÂÂWell, itâÂÂs not these players who pick the team. These are my team-mates, the guys I fight for.â 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 â I was quite opinionated in those days â 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 IâÂÂd gone into a strop IâÂÂd have missed out on that unbelievable experience.
The moral is, no matter how bad it gets, youâÂÂve got to be professional and focused. Take the medicine and go again. The mental strength I took from that experience was incredible.

ThatâÂÂs clearly a story youâÂÂve 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 donâÂÂt 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 âÂÂhorrible long weekâÂÂ; youâÂÂre 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 donâÂÂt think it was difficult and certainly not an act. IâÂÂm so fortunate to have a career in football and if I hadnâÂÂt made it as a player and a manager IâÂÂd be paying my fiver to go and play five-a-side with you because I have an absolute love of the game. ThatâÂÂs never, ever left me.

We now have tremendous lifestyles that go with it but look, IâÂÂve had money and IâÂÂve not had money and IâÂÂm the same. To come into work knowing youâÂÂre going to do football every day, I donâÂÂt even think thatâÂÂs a job. Ultimately people say âÂÂthereâÂÂs pressure, thereâÂÂs this and thatâÂÂ, but itâÂÂs the best occupation you can have in the world. And if you canâÂÂt come in with a smile knowing that, itâÂÂs a sad day.

Does it frustrate you when players donâÂÂt have the same enthusiasm? â¨
It does. I remember Ian McCall, my player/coach at Airdrieonians and Falkirk, saying, âÂÂThe problem that youâÂÂre going to have, Coyley, is that when you become a manager not everyone is as passionate about the game as you.â â¨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. â¨

When FourFourTwo spoke to Jack Wilshere about you, he said that âÂÂno disrespect to Bolton, but he is destined for bigger thingsâÂÂ. But all your experience so far has been with smaller clubs on tight budgets⦠â¨
If what youâÂÂre asking me is âÂÂare you capable of managing any club?â then the answer is âÂÂof courseâÂÂ. IâÂÂve 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. â¨

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

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, youâÂÂd have thought it would physically kill you. Whatever money he got, he had to send it back to his family. An incredible sacrifice, but thatâÂÂs what they did. And that kind of upbringing never leaves you.

â¨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 CitizensâÂÂs 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 itâÂÂs a good show on IâÂÂll go up there. I just love it because on the boards thereâÂÂs no hiding place. ThereâÂÂs no second take, you have to be spot-on and I love seeing those kinds of people at work.â¨

We lived in a maisonette and my mum still lives there with my younger brothers. We didnâÂÂt have a park, weâÂÂd 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: âÂÂIf you donâÂÂt learn to kick the ball with your right foot IâÂÂll tie your other leg up.â 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. â¨

LetâÂÂs end with a few things people probably know about you. One, you always wear that sweatshirt and shorts⦠â¨
Once, when I was managing St Johnstone I thought, âÂÂIâÂÂll try the suit today.â It didnâÂÂt go great. We won in the end, 4-3, but I never felt comfortable. Maybe when IâÂÂm older IâÂÂll put the suit on. But just now, because you probably still think youâÂÂre 21 and youâÂÂre kicking every ball, I just love being out there with the shorts and the gear on. â¨

Two, youâÂÂre tee-totalâ¦
â¨Well, my dad liked his whisky and my brothers and sisters took a drink. But I was a mummyâÂÂs 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 âÂÂIâÂÂm not gonna rock the boatâ so I took a small sip. I thought, âÂÂoh, that tastes horribleâÂÂ. And I said, âÂÂLook Whytey, I donâÂÂt drink and to do it would be to go against my principles [Coyle is a devout Christian, although tells FFT hemâÂÂs not âÂÂespecially religiousâÂÂ], IâÂÂll just have a Coke.â And a couple, of other boys then said they wanted a Coke as well, because someone else had been brave enough to say it.

ThatâÂÂs the only time itâÂÂs ever been on my lips. Even when IâÂÂve won trophies and thereâÂÂs been champagne in the dressing room. I can enjoy Irn Bru just as much.⨠â¨Three, you canâÂÂt swim⦠â¨If I was in the shallow end now I could get to the deep end. My problem is I canâÂÂt 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. â¨

And thereâÂÂs just one more thing... your middle name is Columba⦠â¨
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 dadâÂÂs name was also Owen Columba Coyle and of six boys he chose to give it to me. ItâÂÂs something IâÂÂm very proud of. â¨IâÂÂve 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⦠â¨I think we need to put into context what is pressure or not. ThereâÂÂs a big difference between that pressure and football pressure. Yes, itâÂÂs not nice to lose games and to take criticism but I look and him and think, âÂÂthat was a real man, who got up and did a real job of work, and IâÂÂm in the best occupation I could be in my life.â And IâÂÂm blessed.

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