FFT Confidential: It starts and ends with the head coach

In his first column for FFT, our secret columnist explains why the National Team coach is always ultimately responsible for results and what can happen when things really go wrong.

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The FFT Confidante has nearly half a century of caps playing for the Singapore National Team over a distinguished career. He has spent more than ten years playing for several clubs in Singapore and has more than one S.League winners medal to his name.

My first national team coach was a shrewd character, and paid particular attention to team morale. We had made it to an important do-or-die game, but instead of lots of rest or extra training sessions, he initiated a late-night outing for the squad.

We had dinner and enjoyed the night outdoors. It made the team stronger because we don’t usually get treats like this. Needless to say, we went on to win that next match.

One coach failed to spot the problems in the team and things did not go well. He always seemed to pick players from the same team and started them even if they failed to perform.

The little initiatives he took to help build team spirit, along with the senior players in the side, made the team stronger. When a team has that togetherness, we can mix around freely and the competition for places is healthy and with mutual respect.

Life as a national team coach is never easy, especially when he has to manage players he doesn’t work with on a regular basis like a club coach. The group of players he calls up will usually come together for around a month or two after all of us have finished a long season in club football.

Thus, it is important that the coach knows how to work with the players at his disposal when preparation time is limited at best. Many of the decisions he makes has to factor in the entire team and not just the starting eleven. Getting it right or wrong could make or break the entire campaign.

I have played under many such coaches, and we weren’t always as lucky as during my debut year. One in particular failed to spot the problems in the team and things did not go well.

He was a coach who had been successful at club level, but thereafter always seemed to pick players from the same team. During a pre-tournament tour, he started a player who failed to perform in a match. The replacement came in and did a noticeably better job, yet the coach recalled the first player thereafter.

Ideally, if I come on and do well as a substitute, the coach will give me a chance to perform and create a situation where the dropped player wants to fight to regain his spot. It is unhealthy when a lax performer can get away with a bad game, by knowing that the coach will still start him despite his poor form.

Foreign-born players were also an issue. One in particular missed pre-tournament preparations, but proceeded to walk straight back into the starting eleven when he returned for the first game. It created tension.

Foreign-born players were also an issue among the playing staff. There were various other issues surrounding the team at the time, but there was a lot of unhappiness at the foreign additions. As a local-born Singaporean, I love to play for my country. It’s frustrating to play for the national team for so long and just have one guy coming in and taking your spot because of whom he was.

One of them, in particular, was missing due to club commitments during pre-tournament preparations, but proceeded to walk straight back into the starting eleven when he returned for the first game. It created tension and took away confidence from the other players.

It is these little issues that can spark disunity and can damage squad morale, especially during a major tournament. We are running a short race with a few games, not a marathon, so it is already challenging enough to keep everyone happy.

When things spiral out of control, cliques are formed and body language will be telling even though none of us will speak out in public. You will see one group of players at one table and another separate from them. If the coach still doesn’t recognise the trouble brewing, you have a problem.

Hence, it is important that the morale of a tournament squad, especially the reserves, must be high. For me, the players on the bench play a bigger part. Because when you come off the bench or replace a starter, you have to step up. You are part of a team and your role could be amplified because of injuries, suspension or fitness issues.

These are the players who can affect the mood of the squad. They are important, but they always feel neglected and will be the first to complain if morale is already low. Say we are losing 1-0 and the coach doesn’t want to send in substitutes to change things up. I will start talking, someone else will also start talking and so on. If the coach doesn’t pay attention, it’s going to be a problem.

Leadership is important and it is vital that everyone, from the head coach and his assistants to the kitman, physio and players, are on the same page: we are going out there as a team, going out to win the cup.

If the head coach sets the standard, he has to be consistent all the way through. Whether it ends in success or failure, it starts from him.