Wembley factor still strikes chord with Bolton boss
Owen Coyle's refreshingly positive attitude can breathe life into unique pairing at venue of legends, writes Paul Wilson
Bolton are at Wembley, so naturally Owen Coyle is excited. Others in the north-west might be grumbling about the inconvenience and expense of having to decamp to London for the FA Cup semi-finals, but the most positive, enthusiastic football evangelist to come out of Scotland since Bill Shankly simply doesn't see it like that. Who wouldn't want to be at Wembley?
"Fans are always the most important consideration, but I think most of ours would prefer a trip to Wembley to a venue in the north," Coyle says. "Manchester United might see it differently, but they get to go most years and we don't.
"Even though as a manager you want to concentrate on the game rather than the occasion, getting to Wembley is a marvellous boost for everyone involved. I know the players are looking forward to it -- any footballer worth his salt wants to play at the best arena. It's a semi-final, in a sense it hardly matters where it is played as long as it's neutral, so why not stage it at a magnificent venue?"
It is hard not to be seduced by Coyle's relentlessly affirmative world view. Wembley is not an over-priced mistake after all -- it is still a venue of legends.
Stoke City, today's opponents, are not the ugly duckling of mid-table, but a thoughtfully assembled side with every chance of turning into a swan.
"Stoke have evolved, they've got better year by year," Coyle argues. "The perception they can only play one way does them a disservice because they've got some terrific footballers. They are a bit like us actually, so you'll see two positive teams. I've got a lot of time for Tony Pulis, he was my first opposing manager in England when I went to Burnley and there's not a negative bone in him. What I really warm to is that win, lose or draw, he always comes to see you afterwards with a smile on his face.
"He did it on my first day, when he didn't know me, and he's still doing it now. I admire that and have tried to follow his example. It's a respect thing. You can be as competitive as you like for 90 minutes, but anyone who has even dipped a toe into management knows how hard it is and once the game is finished we should support each other. You get enough criticism from outside, we're all under intense scrutiny and sometimes a bad result can be the hardest thing to take. But I've lost to Tony and won against him and you always know that whatever has happened he'll be equally friendly. That's the measure of the man."
After famously going from God to Judas in the space of a few months at Burnley last season, now that Coyle has steadied Bolton's ship he seems among the most secure and unstressed of Premier League managers.
At 44 and in just his second year at this level, he has over-performed twice, having taken on two unpromising situations, and he positively radiates comfortable, can-do optimism. In addition to belief in his own ability, he seems to have the happy knack of passing positivity on to his players. So where does all the confidence come from?
"It's a good question," he says. "I've always believed in myself, though more importantly I had others who believed in me too, my family in particular. Both as a player and a manager I tried to maximise everything I had. I was never the greatest player in the world, but there were certain things I could do. I was always supremely fit, I looked after myself, I could score a goal. I can't say I ever had much pace or power, but I didn't let that stop me. I found a way to fit in. I had two older brothers who were already footballers before I was and I always felt the game would see me right. That and a close-knit family.
"There are nine of us in all, and even though my mother is 80 my brothers bring her down from Glasgow to watch our home games. My family were helping me from the start, even though I didn't always realise it. I was supposed to sign for Dundee United, one of the glamour clubs of the time, but my brothers were at Dumbarton so I went there as a schoolboy. That was because my father, who was from Donegal, knew Sean Fallon, Dumbarton's managing director and a Sligoman, through the Irish community in Glasgow. He said I would be better off with my brothers, so that's what happened.
"It was a lower level of football, but I was only 5ft 4in until I was 17 and my growth spurt finally arrived. I think now that had I been with a bigger club they might easily have decided I was too small. No matter how good you are or how hard you work, you need breaks like that to make it. Plenty of very good players, like my brothers, never quite got them."
There are also times when you make your own luck, or at least your own decisions. Refreshingly, Coyle seems to have prospered by letting his heart rule his head. Every time it was a question of taking money and a back seat or getting a game somewhere else he opted to move, which left him with a dozen former clubs and a wealth of experience.
"I'm now managing in the best league in the world, but it's something I've earned, nobody gave it to me," he says. "I've constantly moved to lower leagues and taken pay cuts, simply because I always wanted to be involved. Playing was the most important thing for me, the only thing. I could have stayed at Bolton for longer in 1995, but when it became clear I wouldn't get a regular game in the Premier League I went back to Scotland.
"It was bad enough when I finally had to accept I was too old to play any more. There was no way I was going to sit on the bench in my prime. Money was a secondary consideration, playing was all I wanted. People said I should have stayed in England, and I had offers, but I don't think I would be sitting here now if I had followed that path."
While Coyle claims to be comfortable with all the decisions he has made, some were clearly harder than others. "Leaving Burnley was difficult emotionally, because I'd put my heart and soul into the job and we'd had unbelievable results," he admits.
"It was a wrench, but I had to put all that to one side and make a footballing decision. So I did. That doesn't make it right or wrong, but when faced with a tough decision all you can do is make up your mind and make sure you can deal with the consequences."
It remains one of the few occasions when Coyle has had anything but joy from the game. Even though he preferred playing he was astute enough to take coaching badges as a 23-year-old with Airdrie, together with Sandy Stewart, his present assistant.
"There was no decision to make that time," he says. "I love everything about football, I knew I wanted to be in it for as long as possible. I wish I was still a player. Management is the next best thing, nowhere near as good, but still a huge privilege. When you get paid for doing this, and paid well, the minimum I ask of players is to go about their jobs with a smile and show they care.
"I know there is pressure in football, but only football pressure. It's not like struggling to feed a family or keep a roof over your head. This is the best vocation anyone could wish for; even now I can hardly bring myself to call it a job. If you don't enjoy it there's something wrong. You can't win every game, or even play well in every match, but I strongly believe that professional footballers should appreciate how lucky they are."
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