A Thankless Task: The Life Of A Journeyman Coach

WORDS: DAVID FARRELL

In his newly released autobiography, David Farrell offers a rare insight into the day-to-day existence and the burning ambition of a journeyman footballer and coach. In an extract from the book, he reveals how he was forced to face reality when the strain of coaching took its toll and the football work dried up

Morton v Dundee

Above: David Farrell’s new book offers an insight into the world of a journeyman footballer and coach

When you’re playing football the only pressure on you is that you have to perform for 90 minutes, once or twice a week. You have a natural talent, a skill and an ability that has managed to take you this far and you alone are the one who will dictate whether or not you can pull it off in a match. That’s the key difference between playing and managing/coaching.

When you’re playing, you only have to trust yourself. Do your best and play well, then everything will be okay. But when you’re on the other side of that white line you can perform to the best of your ability all week and set everything up perfectly, only for someone else to let you down. You have to trust your judgement, your team selection, your staff and your players and that’s where the pressure comes in. No matter what level you’re working at, you will never be able to trust EVERYONE to do their job, particularly at a club where there’s more back-stabbing going on than at a blind samurai convention.

And, to top it all off, you MUST succeed. That success could be challenging for a title, securing a top-six place or staving off relegation but, regardless of what the target is, the pressure becomes intense. Three dodgy results and you’re staring the ignominy of the dole queue in the face again. One defeat can mean that horrible, debilitating feeling of isolation, standing at the side of the pitch with worries of being sacked overcoming the fear of whether or not your opponents are going to score at the next corner.

The only way I can describe it is the feeling of being claustrophobic and stuck in a lift full of people. The only air left to breathe is in the space above you and, with every floor, and each addition, the air is diminishing. Except the floors are matches and the lift is a stadium and, whether there are 250 people or 25,000 in the ground, every one of them is sucking the oxygen from around you. With every goal that flies past your hapless defence you get closer to suffocating. They’re looking at you, they’re all looking at you and begging you to turn it around. You vow to work harder and fight to save your position but by now the elevator is dropping like a stone and, no matter how many buttons you press, it’s not stopping.

I’m not even claustrophobic.

And the feeling isn’t even confined to the ground. You take it home with you, constantly pre-occupied and short tempered. The kids wonder what they’ve done wrong when an innocent request for some ‘Dad and Hannah’ time is met with a snarl. All you can think about is staying in a job. What do we do this week? Will we change training? Who’s fit? What waste of space is injured again? HOW LONG WILL WE GET???

Night time is the worst. Wide awake at 3am, thinking about team formations and results. Even when you’re winning you’re only ever one or two results away from the fans mounting your back again, so the pressure to keep doing well is equally intense.

TFF2Constantly apologising at night for keeping Samantha awake, I’d go downstairs and perversely put on Sky Sports News to keep my mind off the football. Allan Preston told me that, when he was manager of Livingston, he’d keep a pen and paper at the side of his bed so that when he woke up (which was inevitable) he could keep a note of what he’d been thinking about so he wouldn’t forget it in the morning.

I’ve heard fans say ‘that’s not REAL pressure, real pressure is when you can’t put food on the table’ on numerous occasions and ‘you can’t be feeling pressure when you’re being paid so much’ just as many times. Unless you’ve managed to stumble upon this chapter without reading the rest of the book, you’ll know that I was never exactly rolling in it. I know what only ever being two or three games from signing-on again means to most people in the game.

I’m also aware that just because someone was at the opposite end of the earnings scale to me it doesn’t mean they’re immune from that very real, very suffocating pressure. Before I started coaching, I bumped into my old teammate Andy Watson, then assistant manager at Rangers. Over a beer he talked about the stresses of the role. They had just won the treble but were going through a tough period, the following season when Celtic were dominating and, in Andy’s words, he and his gaffer Alex McLeish were under pressure. In my naivety I said things couldn’t be that bad as he was earning a few quid for his troubles.

‘Faz,’ he said. ‘You have no idea.’ He was right, I didn’t. I’d fallen into the fan trap of thinking that, just because someone was being paid well, the pressure was off. Having since experienced what he was trying to get across, I can only imagine what kind of stresses he and his family were going through at a club that size and with the demands placed on it. The footballing rewards are rarely commensurate for the pressure that management and coaching bring. We all feel it, from top to bottom, and the only thing that diminishes it is success. Briefly.

By 2011, I’d been part of five sacked management teams, but at least I was back home and the road back to Glasgow had brought with it an epiphany. Samantha had been a rock once again, making sure things had run smoothly at home, looking after the kids whilst still managing to do her course at college. It was something she’d always wanted to do and, for once, rather than me being the one who got to follow the dream, this was her turn. I should have been able to support her better, but the minute the Notts County job had come up I selfishly left her holding the baby, literally, once again. The kids were now five and eight and deserved more stability in their lives. Samantha deserved more stability, so I took a conscious decision to do something about the way we lived. Two-and-a-half years of full-time employment and then nine months out of work, six months employment and then more time out fighting for compensation, living on the breadline and existing hand to mouth. It couldn’t continue.

At the end of April, I called my old team-mate Brian Hamilton – who had previously been able to find me work with his Synthetic Grass Solutions company – to see if he still had a place for an old, washed-up, unemployed coach in his empire and, fortunately, he was able to give me a start again. The first job we had was to replace the old, red blaes track at Cappielow with a nice, new synthetic rubber surface. This stuff came in 25kg bags and was mixed with an epoxy solution in a cement mixer, which when laid, hardened and became the athletics track surfaces you see today. You couldn’t get this stuff on your body as it stuck and turned black. We had to wear chemical suits and masks that looked like they’d been lifted from the set of CSI Miami.

For two weeks we re-laid the target greens at a driving range in Bothwell from 6-11am before heading to Cappielow, where we’d don the forensic suits and batter on until 7pm. They were long, gruelling, hot demanding days and the final nail in the coffin came on Morton’s first day back for pre-season training. Their manager Allan Moore and his assistant Mark McNally, both good friends of mine, came back to the stadium to have a look at how things were progressing with their new track. The first thing that confronted them was a spaceman; an eerie figure in a full-body white chemical suit and breathing mask, pouring blue rubber crumb into a mixer. They never even recognised me. I took down the hood and lifted the mask and they never had to say anything, the look on their faces said it all. They were shocked, and although they would never say so, they had that sympathetic, almost pitiful, look that told me they were feeling sorry for me and asking themselves how I had ended up like this.

They knew I was working for Brian, but I don’t think they had quite realised what it sometimes entailed. I was a fighter and I was providing for my family but as I stood there in my steel toecaps and protective gloves and listened to their pre-season preparations and aspirations for the year ahead, I’d never felt so lonely. I was embarrassed and that wasn’t me. Never in my football career, nor in my life, did I worry about what other people thought.

‘Fuck them’ had always been one of my mottos because I was determined and knew what I had to do to make it. But now life had turned full circle and I felt weak and self-conscious.

I imagined Allan and Mark whispering about how it was a shame that I had to work for a living as they walked away. The reality was that I did, but that particular line of work wasn’t for me anymore. I made a decision that night to change. I could handle the physical, tough manual labour and there was a satisfaction about being able to slog for 12 hours in the sun and go home at night, hungry, but pleased that you had got the job done. I didn’t think I was too good for the job either. Brian had done a fantastic job building his company and his employees were good at what they did and knocked their pan in for their families. The truth was I couldn’t take the humiliation of working at football grounds all the time anymore. It meant explaining to all my old pals that I was no longer in football. I’ll be eternally grateful to Brian for giving me work when I was in desperate need of it, but I knew I needed a new career.

In a football career that spanned a quarter of a century, David Farrell played first-team football in all four divisions of the Scottish league, at Hibs, Partick Thistle, Airdrie, Clydebank, Stranraer and Albion Rovers. As a coach, he worked at Gretna, Dundee, Clyde and Notts County, switching between part-time and full-time roles and often juggling a day job as he did so. After a brief spell in charge of the short-lived Celtic Nation FC in 2013, he decided to become a taxi driver, which he does to this day.

 You can buy Taxi For Farrell: Football Between The Lines from Teckle Books here, and read his blog here.
The above extract is (c) David Farrell 2015 and may not be reproduced without permission.

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