From tackles to taking notes: Muscat's learning curve
Kevin Muscat, renowned hard man of football, spent the last 18 months or so of his playing career as something of a shadow.
Wherever then-Melbourne Victory (and current Australia) coach Ange Postecoglou went his captain was right there behind him, be it team meetings, appointments with player agents, boardroom gatherings or at the back of press conferences.
He would sit quietly, observing and taking notes for the apprenticeship he only recently finished.
As he tells FourFourTwo, Muscat knew that as his playing days were drawing to a close, there was only one direction he wanted to head towards and in Postecoglou he was fortunate to have a master craftsmen at his disposal.
“It started hitting me when I was around 30, that question of what to do,” Muscat recalls. “And when I had my mind set on coaching I started educating myself, taking more notice of things you may have otherwise overlooked, watching and listening.”
The first two years of his spell as a playing assistant were under Ernie Merrick and, after a brief stint as caretaker coach, Postecoglou – as Muscat tells it – fell into his life at just the right time.
“Things really started coming to fruition when Ange took over and that was when the penny dropped as to just how hard it was going to be. But knowledge is king and I basically just followed Ange around for a year.”
Before he knew it, Postecoglou had ascended to the national team and, at the age of 40, Muscat had one of the toughest posts in Asian football at the helm of Australia’s largest club – and he knew he had to make it work.
“You only get that one chance to do something for the first time and I knew with that first opportunity I had to set a very good standard.
Not a single day goes by without thinking of football, how I can improve myself and better the team
“So I went to Europe, I still do, and I spent a week with Brendan Rodgers at Liverpool, spent time with Frank de Boer at Ajax and also with the Barcelona youth set-up at La Masia.”
Despite his stellar playing career, which featured 46 caps for the Socceroos, the former Wolves, Crystal Palace, Rangers and Millwall man admits he wasn’t totally sure if he had what it took to transition from the pitch to the dugout.
“I’d been given the chance twice before to present to the board but I wasn’t really sure if I was ready or not. I mean everyone goes through the courses and I’d had a decent playing career so it’s easy to come up with a style or a philosophy, but the hardest part is actually implementing that.
“I’m always surprised when I hear coaches talk about their vision, I mean you should be able to see my vision from watching my team play. But having said that it is hard at times to get players to implement what you’re trying to do.”
The other initial problem that Muscat faced was the fact he was now the boss of many of those he had been training and playing alongside until just before his appointment.
“All I could do in that situation was to be honest, speak openly and hope they respected what I was trying to do, but there were some difficult moments.
“I mean I used to socialise with those players and then I had to go from that to dropping someone like Adrian Leijer who was a mate of mine and then the situation with Archie Thompson where we didn’t know if we were renewing his contract right until the end of the season.”
With several of those tough decisions made, Muscat could then focus on football and success came perhaps quicker than either he or a legion of outside observers had expected – not that he’s ready to term it that just yet.
A solid first season in which he led the Victory to third placed was bettered the following campaign as his team swept aside all-comers in claiming the premiership/championship double.
It was a major factor in Muscat being named sixth overall in FourFourTwo’s recent naming of the top 15 managers in the ASEAN region.
“I was so focused at the beginning that I didn’t map 12 or 24 months down the track, the first thing I wanted to do was just to survive,” Muscat, now 42, says.
“You speak to other coaches and they say the same thing, that first thing when you come in is to bed things down and try to survive. Then when you survive you have the opportunity to win and then when you win and survive you think of success.”
By any measure Muscat’s early foray into coaching has been an astonishing success but it does come with its distractions and the former defender is quick to note that there is an almost evangelical aspect to the sport in Australia that he didn’t experience in the UK.
“You can’t compare things here in Australia to the commotion of the UK and I’m sure most coaches at bigger clubs over there don’t have to spend so much time with non-football commitments, with sponsors and so on, but that’s the state of where the game is in Australia at the moment.”
The other state of the game is that the A-League presents one of the world’s longest off-seasons and while many officials and players throughout the league like to get away from it all, for Muscat there was hardly a moment of downtime.
“It’s not in my personality trait to switch off. I did go to Europe with my partner and son but there’s not a single day that goes by without thinking of football, how I can improve myself and better the team.
“I had to bring new players and new staff into the club so there’s always things going on, but I tell my partner that if I didn’t have this life I’d be a hell of a lot worse!”
The challenge for now, with the new A-League season barely a month away, is to keep pushing the team to new heights and that starts with a good run in the Asian Champions League.
“We want to be continually challenging for titles both domestically and in Asia. But we’ve still got a whole lot of history to write at this club. We’ve never been out of the group stage in the ACL, we want to do that and we want to go back-to-back in the A-League. Why put a ceiling on what we can achieve?”