Friday 19 July 2019

The club strung me along - Lyttle

Ex-Rovers boss Gerard Lyttle talks to Jessica Farry about his disappointment over how his Rovers reign ended

Former Sligo Rovers boss Gerard Lyttle has claimed that he had agreed a deal for next season with members of the management committee, before he was then told that his contract would not be renewed for next season.

Lyttle learned that he would not be getting a new deal the day after the Motherwell fiasco, when Rovers were knocked out of the Irn Bru Cup by the Under 20 team of Motherwell.

The Belfast man had been vocal for some time over the need to sort his future, and he was confident that a new deal would be signed, having already verbally agreed to one, he claims.

He had also began the process of meeting players with a view to starting recruitment early for the 2019 season

"It came as a surprise to me," he told The Sligo Champion. "I'd been meeting players under instructions of the board to go ahead and go for targets. I've met four/five players from the top two clubs and I felt that we were very advanced in negotiating with them and getting them over the line. We had an agreement in place with the club that I would be the man to take the club forward next year. That's the disappointing factor in all this. I had verbally agreed everything, and then it was turned a week later. They then told me they weren't going to be renewing my contract so I was very disappointed with that."

Lyttle also claimed that he was told on a number of occasions towards the end of the season that a contract would be sorted for him 'soon'. He feels the club have handled the whole scenario poorly.

Despite the pressure from many fans to make a change, he says the board were willing to give him a deal for next season.

Had he been informed from early on that he was not wanted for next season, he would have taken that on the chin.

He feels let down by what he feels was a u-turn by the club.

"On the club's behalf it was handled poorly. I was strung along, there's no doubt about it. To be honest with you, I was told a few times by people I know in the game to be careful that I wasn't being strung along because they felt it didn't sound right. I was very confident of getting a new contract. We were told before Cork and Livingston game 'get this out of the way and we'll get something sorted'. didn't happen. We were told after the Limerick game, and that didn't happen. It was very unsettling for everyone because the players are asking what their future is, they want to know where the manager's going to be, it's a difficult situation to manage.

"I was then told to get the Bray game out of the way, and that's when we had agreed a deal and put it all to bed. We went ahead and won the Bray game and secured our place in the league with three games to go, which was progress. Last year we survived on the last day. That was the bitter pill to swallow. I don't want to be bitter because I have a lot of respect for a lot of people in Sligo, I love the supporters, the club, all the honest people working there. I'd like to think I can come back here as a fan and watch games and get along with people. The way it was handled was very disrespectful."

He was also critical of the club's reasoning for the decision, citing the reaction to that infamous defeat in Scotland.

"I was told that there was a massive backlash from the Motherwell game and this was the reason. Which I thought was pretty pathetic. Anyone that was in Motherwell or involved in the trip knows that it was a disastrous trip for us. We're in an airport from 12 in the afternoon until 10 that night. We then got a flight cancelled and had to go to a hotel. Four hours sleep the boys got.

"They were up at 5.30am to get a 6am bus for a 9am flight to play a 3pm game. Preparation wise, it was pretty awful. I thought that could have been dealt with better and it wasn't. You're the manager, you want to manage your team. We knew in the warm-up that they were dead on their feet and during the game they were dropping like flies, Regan and Paddy McClean came off injured, David Cawley probably shouldn't have played. To be told then that 'this is one of the reasons you're not being given a contract' for me was bad management."

It's two weeks now since Lyttle learned of the club's decision and he has now had time to reflect. The last couple of weeks have not been easy for him, nor have they been easy for his family who made the move to Sligo to support him during his tenure as Rovers boss.

It's been a dreadful season for the Bit O'Red, although there have been a few small glimmers of hope at stages throughout the season.

It felt as if, though, every time they took one step forward, they were back to square one in the next game. Lyttle is still learning though, and he understands the frustration of fans.

He understands that things didn't go the way they should have this year. But he was willing to try his utmost to ensure that there was an improvement for the club next season.

"I'm feeling frustrated. I was a little bit down in terms of how it all went for me. I think I'm over it now. I think the job I did under hard circumstances, resources and things like that, was pretty good. We met most of our targets given to us, leading up to me leaving, the stats show that we were making progress. We were joint fourth best in-form team since the break. We had the third best away record and we gave nine Under 19s their debut this season. John Mahon has been a revelation in terms of how he's progressed and developed.

"We knew it was going to be a difficult year because that was the way we were going. It was never going to be straightforward. Long-term we were hoping that they were going to stand by us and that's a hugely disappointing factor because there won't be one (long term). All the work that we've put in. And when I did take the job the big attraction for me was stability and blooding our own players and I feel I've done that and done that well and now we're not getting the opportunity to go to the next level."

The former Cliftonville boss says he took the decision to move his family to Sligo so that they could all live and breathe Sligo Rovers, and experience what it is like to be part of the club.

"Yeah that was me being me, being committed to the cause and the club. I did say when I took the job that I knew previous managers had moved a distance away to get away from all of it. I wanted to feel the frustration of supporters, I wanted to be part of it, I wanted to feel the excitement of it all and basically be a supporter, knowing what they wanted. I do know that it's been a very frustrating season. But in reality, what we're working under, what we had, I thought sometimes we were punching a bit."

Now, looking back, he feels that perhaps openly stating that Europe was a target this year was naive, considering the budget he had to work with.

"At the start of the season we probably shouldn't have been talking about Europe. It was very foolish of us to be saying that because we knew the budget, the squad size and to get Europe would have been a small miracle. I think we were getting there. We were getting an understanding of our style of play, we had a big turnover in playing staff."

He has also received some criticism for his recruitment during the summer window when the club desperately needed a right-back as a result of Gary Boylan's long-term injury. But that, he claims, was out of his hands.

"We offloaded players in the window under the impression that we were going to be allowed to bring in a right-back and a centre half which we had identified and was pretty much a done deal and then it was pulled away from us. We had to then use Seamus Sharkey as a right-back, Kyle Callan McFadden as a right-back, Jack Keaney as a right-back."

Working under a tight budget always makes the job tougher. But Lyttle wished to debunk the myth that he is working with one of the highest budgets in the league.

"If I had the budget people think I had, I'm not being disrespectful to the players, but you would have seen a higher quality group of players. I targeted players at the start of the season who I wanted to bring in, Bastien Hery, Gavan Holohan, and the likes. I worked out that there was six players I targeted and out of the six, five of them ended up at the top three clubs. We couldn't do it. The budget didn't allow us to do it, we had to look elsewhere and youth was a big factor in that. It didn't bother me too much because I was confident that we could develop youth players for the future of the club. Hopefully whoever does come in, follows that through and allows these young lads to develop because they have huge potential.

"There's only so much blame a manager can take. A manager will take the blame throughout the season, and I've never made excuses about that, but the fans need to know sometimes that there are restraints there. The budget is definitely, a myth. The budget probably is, where we are in terms of our league position. The budget we had was one of the lowest in the league, if the club say different then put it out there and show the fans what it is."

Does he have any regrets? Is there anything he would have done differently throughout his 18 month spell at Sligo Rovers? Undoubtedly.

"You always have regrets. I probably could have been a little bit stronger with the board but I wanted to work with them and I understood a lot of the work people put in voluntarily. I probably should have been stronger in terms of wanting targets and getting them. Even the resources aren't great, I hope a new manager can work under better resources. We wanted to do a pre-season in Belfast and our budget didn't allow us to do that. We had no games going into the Limerick game on grass, it was all astro. We're a professional club and these things are important. In terms of regrets, I regret not pushing on a little bit more. I'm not saying I regret not being a bit more vocal in terms of the budget, it is what it is. It's another manager's problem now."

There is a lot of negativity surrounding Lyttle's reign as Sligo Rovers manager. He understands that. But somewhere beneath the dark clouds, there are some fond memories for him.

He harbours no ill feeling towards the club at this stage, and is adamant that he wishes only the best for the club.

"My highlight would probably be the last game of the season last year. I remember Kevin Deery coming in as assistant manager last year, saying 'we're doomed'. We did think it because of the squad and where we were and what we were doing. To pull it off (survival), on the last day of the season and finishing level with St. Pats and the budget they had, was a great achievement. I've a lot of highlights in terms of living here and being part of the club and connecting with the fans. I really did enjoy my time here, I really wanted it to work. I thought I worked professionally and hard. I know there were fans there that didn't agree with some things I did but that's football. I think Sligo Rovers is a wonderful club with wonderful people around it.

"I think people need to be realistic, the budget that I was working under wasn't really realistic in terms of top four."

There will have been many low points. For both him and the supporters. But again, he feels that some decisions made by the club have not helped throughout the season. He was manager for both FAI Cup exits to Longford Town, he was there when Rovers should have advanced to the final of the EA Sports Cup this season but failed miserably.

"The low point is obviously now, no doubt about it. The Longford one was very low, both this year and last year. I'd say Bray but that was bad preparation. The game should never have gone ahead on a Sunday afternoon when other teams are refusing to play, but not Sligo Rovers. They're the only club that agree to games that suit other clubs.

"For me there's still a softness about the club that way, we bow down too much. We played Limerick on Saturday and played Dundalk on the Monday. It suited Dundalk, not us. Bray, it suited Bray. I was told that the World Cup was on and they wanted spectators in. No disrespect to Bray but they don't get spectators. It was pathetic."

Lyttle's close relationship with his players has been criticised by some in certain quarters, but he has defended his bond with his players.

The messages on social media from his players, the texts and phone calls softened the blow somewhat. But he wants people to know that talk of him being 'too nice' is nothing more than idle gossip.

"The players knew the vision I had. I thought the season coming was going to be a big season because we identified where we were going and what we needed. Players being out of contract isn't easy. They didn't know where their future was going to be because the manager didn't know where his future was going to be. It was very overwhelming when I saw all the messages. I know there was negatives and that's fine, I'm big and ugly enough to take that.

"It gave me a massive confidence boost to see that. Normally nine times out of ten it's the players who get the manager the sack and they want him out but in this case they knew how hard we've worked, they knew how much we've brought them out. We had a good relationship. If they were good, they were good, if they were bad, they were bad. They were always told.

"I had a bond with my players. I was close with them. But they knew there was a line and if they crossed it they would be dealt with. You've probably seen that with the amount of players we let go during the window. There was one or two incidents in the changing room throughout the season, where it was hasty. The Longford game, we still laugh about it. Kyle text me and said 'at least I'll not get a pizza over the head'. When we were defeated by Longford last year I remember Ryan Casey and the boys were sitting there. The pizza was stacked up beside Mick Leahy and Kyle McFadden and I went apesh*t and I went on a rant and leathered the pizzas and it all went over Mick Leahy, the quietest man in the world, and Kyle and I'm going off on one and I shouted 'don't touch that pizza' and it was dripping down their faces. You hear stories that I was too nice or I was too pally pally but that's bull. Ask the players. I managed. For me, one of my strengths is man management."

Although few would agree with him, Lyttle felt that progress was being made this season. Some criticised his style of play, and upon his appointment as Rovers manager, he said he wanted to give the club a playing identity as it was lacking. That plan was yet to come to fruition, in reality.

Lyttle is adamant though that next season was when it was all really going to come together. We will never know how that would have worked out.

"This season I thought we were getting there. I like attacking full-backs so we were working really hard on getting Regan Donelon to attack, we couldn't do it on the right side because Gary Boylan got injured and that threw us back. We were slowly getting there. I thought the fitness levels had improved.We didn't have an out and out strength and conditioning coach, that was pulled from under our feet as well because the budget didn't allow for it.

"We were doing the coaching, the managing, the analysis, the strength and conditioning, we were doing everything. It was a tough job. We're very proud of the job we did."

As for now, Lyttle is going on holiday with his family to get away from it all. He has had some job offers, but he will take his time before making a decision now on where his future lies.

"I think the next job that I take will be an important move, not just for me but for my family as well. I was committed to making this work and I've got to take them into consideration. I have had offers from a couple of different places, one in Sweden, two in America a little whisper about one or two different opportunities here in the south, and one in Scotland.

"I have a holiday booked, that was booked already. I want to spend time with my family and enjoy it. I'll take stock of where things went wrong , what I could improve on as a manager. This is the start of a journey for me. I want to b successful. I won't rest until I get that. I wish Sligo Rovers success going forward. I hope the manager coming in gets time and I hope the board back him and his plans. Hopefully we'll meet again sometime."

Sligo Rovers were asked for comment but said they did not think it was appropriate. They did reiterate their thanks to Gerard Lyttle for his efforts at the club and consider him always welcome at The Showgrounds. In relation to fixture scheduling any home team can change their fixture with 12 days notice and this happened in the circumstances of the Bray game.

Sligo Champion