Waddock's forward plan needed a step back
Seán Ryan hears why Gary Waddock is prepared to risk failure for the game he loves
MANAGER of a football club must be one of the most insecure occupations, with the sack or its euphemism 'resignation' the only guarantee. So why do managers, who are experiencing the good days, put themselves at further risk by moving to another club deep in trouble?
These strange sideways moves happen all the time, and the most recent example was Owen Coyle last week as he chose to leave Burnley for relegation-threatened Bolton. In doing so, he was following the example of another former Republic of Ireland international, Gary Waddock, who left promotion-chasing Aldershot in October for relegation fodder Wycombe Wanderers.
In both cases, they face the risk of managing in a division lower next season than the clubs they have left behind. Yet, where the average punter sees risk, they see challenge -- and challenge is always more exciting, and more welcome than the danger of slipping into a comfort zone.
"I like a challenge," he said. "Nothing lasts forever. You make decisions and live and die by those decisions. I left Aldershot fifth in League Two and it would be fantastic if they are promoted to League One. I would look back with pride on my part in that, but my focus now is totally on keeping Wycombe in League One."
Of Coyle's situation, he remarked: "He played at Bolton, so he has that tie. It's a difficult decision but he possibly thinks he can keep them up and he may see them as a bigger club. He has done a hell of a job at Burnley and now he is walking into a club that is low in confidence and in a relegation dogfight, similar to what I've done."
Waddock had the experience of managing a club he played for, but it didn't end happily for him. "My time at QPR ended in disappointment, but it was also a fast learning curve. When I finished playing I had the opportunity to coach and wanted to work my way up so I would know how the club worked from schoolboy, youth to first team. I did get to manage the first team, but it didn't work out as planned."
So what is the attraction to a job that usually ends in tears? "I always wanted to be involved in football from a young age. It's a fantastic profession as a player and the next best thing is to coach or manage. Once you're in, at some stage you'll get the sack and you have to accept that.
"I was aware of that but also that if it works out you can go on to bigger and better things. It's a very insecure job but there are plenty of coaches and managers who are out of the game and would go straight back in if the jobs were there for them."
Waddock's career as a manager has seen the good and the bad, from getting the sack at QPR to winning promotion with Aldershot. "After QPR I was out of the game for six months and had to rebuild my career and show that I could manage a team. The opportunity came at Aldershot, who were then in the Conference. There was only a small group of four or five under contract, so I had to bring in my own players, which is easier than inheriting a squad. That worked in my favour.
"The club wanted their League place back and I wanted to be a League manager again and we had a fantastic first year. We were promoted to the League, won the Setanta Shield and lost in the semi-final of the FA Trophy, beaten by Liam Daish's Ebbsfleet. I was disappointed I didn't get the club to Wembley. It would have been a marvellous season if we had done that."
Surely promotion and a trophy represented a marvellous season, I ventured? "Yes, but you are always looking to improve and push yourself," he responded. Having played in an FA Cup final at the old Wembley for QPR in 1982, he felt more keenly the disappointment of not leading his team out at the new Wembley.
After consolidating their League place in their first season back, Waddock then had Aldershot pushing for promotion, so what were the factors that persuaded him to jump ship to a club in a relegation battle?
"The attraction was League One. I have been at Wycombe with my team, and the stadium and facilities are very good. For my own development I wanted to challenge myself, to test myself as a manager. You can be in a comfort zone, but I don't want that. It's good for clubs like us to be pitting our wits against big clubs like Leeds, Norwich, Charlton and Southampton, all of whom were recently in the Premier League."
When he joined Wycombe, they had won only one game from 13 in the League and had seven points. In the 12 games since, they have won three and accumulated a further 11 points, but they are still in deep trouble.
"It's been a mixed bag so far," Waddock conceded. "We have been close in games and not got the breaks we deserved, and in other games we were totally out of it, so I'm looking for more consistency. The difference against Norwich last week was we hit the post and the ball came back into the 'keeper's arms, and in their next attack they hit the winner -- such a fine line.
"We're not adrift by a silly amount of points so we remain positive until it's out of our hands. We need a little run again. We've got to get a couple of wins, but we are where we are for a reason. Managing is a pressurised situation and none more so than when you're at the bottom of the League. I'm very positive, win, lose or draw. You can't be fearful when you are part of a results-based game."
Steve Hayes, the owner, who brought Waddock to Wycombe, has been very supportive. "He said he had a long-term plan, which I liked and want to be part of. Sometimes you have to go through the hard times to get where you want to be. I know I'll be better for it when we come out the other side."
Is this idea of a long-term plan a safety net? "Well, I suppose if you lose five or six on the trot, the next one could be your long-term plan," he laughed. "Really, you never know how long you are going to be at any club."
Waddock, who is hoping to bring in some new players during this month's transfer window, is also conscious that managers need time to get their view across -- and that in turn sometimes requires a patient owner.
"I have got a style of play I would like to use and I won't change my philosophy on that, but you can be dictated to by the players you have and the situation you're in. In our situation it's about winning.
"I want to do it in a certain style, but I would take anything to get a win. I wouldn't mind winning three or four and being labelled the luckiest manager in the world. You need a bit of luck."
As a player, Waddock had an exemplary disciplinary record. He was one of the game's nice guys, so how does he handle the tough decisions when he has to tell players they are not good enough?
"If you treat people with respect and are honest with them, they'll respect you and accept your decision," he says. "It's never personal. Making decisions is part of the job. It's also about pushing your club forward, and if you're not prepared to make those decisions, the club will never go forward."
At 47, Waddock's love for the game is as strong as ever, matched by his desire to prove himself as a manager. Wycombe are fortunate to have him at the helm.