Thursday 23 May 2019

Lyttle determined to fight for Sligo Rovers

Jessica Farry

When the Sligo Rovers management committee outlined the aims and objectives of their strategic plan during a meeting in December 2016, 'stability' was one of the key words.

Stability within the playing squad and management team was needed, the meeting was told.

"It is hoped that key players will be signed on two year contracts. Stability within the management of the first team is key, while the club will be required to recruit management and players who share the club's vision, passion and commitment as club's supporters and volunteers," read one of the many objectives.

Unfortunately aspects of the very detailed and ambitious strategic plan have since been put on the backburner due to Rovers' struggles on the pitch, but some of the plans have come to fruition since then, with work continuing in the background to grow the club.

With four games left this season, and Rovers virtually safe from relegation, but for a miracle for Limerick, there is uncertainty over Lyttle's position and whether or not the management committee want him at the club next season. The former Cliftonville manager wants to be there, and he wants to be the man to bring stability to this club.

"I will fight for this club. I will fight for everything. I believe in my own ability as a manager. I've been here 16 months and every week I am understanding the club more, and I am understanding the fans and players more. It is not something that can be done overnight," he said.

It's been, at times, a rocky road for Lyttle. Mere weeks into his arrival as manager, he had to deal with the fall-out of the leak of an explicit video involving players Tobi Adebayo-Rowling and Mathew Stevens. There is a consensus among some fans that Lyttle is too nice, but he feels that discipline off the pitch has been tightened up, with no stories emerging about players' behaviour towards the end of the season. Rovers struggled over the line, and secured safety on the last day of the season.

"When I came in last year the squad was really lacking in confidence, and fitness was a huge issue that had to be addressed immediately. I felt the leadership wasn't there within the squad that was needed. The training week was not as structured as I would have liked and I felt that the attitude among some players was not what I would have liked from professionals."

The sale of Kieran Sadlier to league leaders and later the champions Cork City, didn't help Rovers' cause, as they struggled for goals in the aftermath of his departure.

"When it came to pre-season and the season starting I felt that I had addressed most of the issues. Players' fitness has definitely improved, and players were made well aware of their roles on the pitch. I have made sure that the training week is highly structured. We have one of the youngest squads in the league."

It's been an incredibly frustrating season for everyone involved. There have been some good days, albeit very few, but Lyttle holds his hands up, and knows that mistakes have been made throughout the year.

"Have I made mistakes? Yes, that's normal. Maybe I've played the wrong team or formation, maybe I've made wrong substitutions, maybe the approach to a game has not been right. I fully accept that.

"The night of the Longford game was probably the lowest I have felt since coming here. Our home form has been nothing short of diabolical, and to go out and play like that against a part-time First Division club, it was embarrassing. I was looking around my bench that night looking to see how I could change the game. The options weren't there."

At 40, Lyttle is young to the coaching industry. He was somewhat of a risk for the Rovers committee, but then again, most managerial appointments are a risk of some description.

"I'm still learning as a coach. I'm still learning about my players, about the league, about other teams and about myself. I have learned an awful lot in my 16 months, but I am still learning and I have more to learn. This was our first full season trying to build something on a smaller scale budget in just one season. You're trying to plant the seeds here for something."

To a degree, Rovers have achieved some form of stability within their playing squad. David Cawley and John Mahon have committed until 2020, Mitchell Beeney, Jack Keaney and has signed a deal until the end of 2019, as has Ed McGinty.

The real positives from this season are the development of those young, local players. Lyttle has also rewarded Liam Kerrigan, Niall Morahan and Luke McNicholas with professional contracts. Darren Collins too has been included in squads.

It is often the demand of fans that locals are included in squads, but few give time for locals to development in order to cement their place in the starting eleven. Lyttle is adamant that Rovers make use of their underage structure and include young players in senior squads regularly.

Since Ian Baraclough's departure mid-way through the 2014 season, the club has been managed by John Coleman, with Gavin Dykes and Joseph Ndo taking over when he departed in September. Owen Heary was appointed manager at the end of 2014, but he was sacked mid-way through the 2015 season, with Micky Adams taking over for the remainder of the season. Dave Robertson took the reins in 2015, and was at the club until April 2017, when he was then replaced by Lyttle.

It is an extraordinary amount of chopping and changing. To put this into perspective: Stephen Kenny has been at Dundalk since 2013, John Caulfield at Cork since 2014. Shamrock Rovers appointed Stephen Bradley at the end of 2016, and have stuck by him despite pressure to get rid. Alan Reynolds has been at the helm of Waterford since early 2017, while Keith Long has been manager at Bohemian since 2014. Derry City have stuck with Kenny Shiels since 2015, and before his departure last week, Liam Buckley had been manager at St. Patrick's Athletic since 2012.

Limerick and Bray Wanderers, similarly to Rovers, have gone through a lot of managers in recent years.

It's worth noting that only four players who played under Robertson remain at the club; Gary Boylan, Regan Donelon, Kyle Callan McFadden and Raffaele Cretaro. Mahon, Keaney and McGinty were with the Under 19s before establishing places in the senior squad under Lyttle.

Recruitment has not been easy, something that the Rovers boss has been open about. Most of his first choice targets ended up at top four clubs this season. The lure of European football, 52 week contracts and an extremely desirable weekly wage is just not something that Rovers can compete with. During the summer window, a number of players were released, with Lyttle hopeful that this would mean he could bring in more signings. Lee Lynch, Kris Twardek and Mikey Drennan joined, but he wanted more.

He has identified targets for next season, despite not knowing whether or not he will be with the club. He knows what he wants, and he feels he knows the type of player the club needs.

"I think it's important that we recruit players that know the league and are experienced. Recruitment has not been easy at times and you really have to use all of your contacts," he said.

It can also be difficult to attract players away from Dublin. Even if their other option is part-time football while working a full-time job, if the money is not the equivalent to what they're already earning, or more, players might be more attracted to clubs in the greater Dublin area. It's been four years since Rovers played European football. Budgeting without that money is one thing, but selling a club to players without the guarantee of European football is another thing.

At the AGM in February of this year, Lyttle stated that his targets for this season were to achieve a mid-table finish and push for a European spot, while also going on a good cup run. None of this has really come to fruition, but Rovers did reach the EA Sports Cup semi-final, but were knocked out by a mediocre Derry City at home, before crashing out of the FAI Cup in an embarrassing defeat to Longford days later.

It was clear early on this season that Europe was out of Rovers' reach, but they can still move up a spot or two in the table with four games to go, given their home form (where they've lost ten games this year) nothing is guaranteed.

"We wanted to improve our away form this season, which we have done. But sadly our home form has not been anywhere near as good as last year. I'm not sure our position in the table reflects our performances. Silly mistakes have cost us throughout the year, and I don't think we've been uncompetitive in any game bar Cork City at home when we lost 4-1."

Lyttle, though, is fully committed to the job. His family have moved to Sligo with him, his children are in school and college here. He and his wife make it their business to attend events and get involved in the community.

"Since I've come here I've seen the importance of the local community to the club, and vice versa. I enjoy meeting people, and talking to fans about Sligo and the club. There is an important crossover there and I am determined to be a part of the community. This is part of what Sligo Rovers is."

Sligo Champion