Friday 27 April 2018

Graham Kavanagh ready for return to big time

Rookie Carlisle boss dreaming of FA Cup upset at Sunderland to kick-start career

Graham Kavanagh will be rubbing his hands with anticipation as he brings his Carlisle team to his old stomping ground at Sunderland for tomorrow’s FA Cup clash. Photo: GETTY
Graham Kavanagh will be rubbing his hands with anticipation as he brings his Carlisle team to his old stomping ground at Sunderland for tomorrow’s FA Cup clash. Photo: GETTY
Daniel McDonnell

Daniel McDonnell

WHEN Graham Kavanagh made the decision to become a football manager, he knew there was a danger the job would consume every waking hour. It was the extra waking hours that he was unprepared for.

"I didn't realise how difficult it could be to sleep," reflects Kavanagh, ahead of tomorrow's clash when he returns to an old stomping ground, Sunderland, in the hope of masterminding an FA Cup upset.

The 40-year-old manager of League One side Carlisle took the reins in September following four years on the coaching staff. In the background, he learned the trade without fully appreciating how life changes when the responsibility falls on your shoulders. The sleepless nights really do happen. Sometimes, he gets none at all. Other times, he wakes at 4am knowing that might be his lot. Reading is the only escape.

"I think in this job, you've got to find ways to think outside the box and pick up fresh ideas," he stresses. "And I enjoy reading."

The Ringsend man has devoured a variety of books which he believes can help his growth as a manager, both from experts in the sporting sphere and beyond.

Right now, his bedside material ranges from Harry Redknapp's jocular autobiography to the inspirational writings of former Olympic rowing champion James Cracknell, who survived a near-death experience to embrace new tests of endurance. Kavanagh believes there is something you can take from every story.

"It doesn't matter who it is," he explains. "It could be business leaders, sports management people, people from any walk of life. You can gain something from everyone's experience."

He has adapted the same philosophy to reflecting on his own journey from his formative days at Home Farm to a multi-faceted playing career which consisted of eight different clubs, a varied cast of managers, and allowed him to sample the contrast between the glamour of the Premier League and the grind of the lower leagues.

There were problems and frustrations along the way, and they are useful experiences when it comes to his current brief which entails understanding the quirks of players who might be going through the same process.

"I don't think there's any hard and fast rules of management," he says. "I know the good and bad times I went through myself and I do encounter situations that I was involved in before.

"There are moments where you have to be firm and strong, times where you've got to be lenient. I've learned that quickly; sometimes what motivates one person doesn't motivate another. I expect hard work, honesty and togetherness and I don't want sulkers but you've got to adapt to situations too."

The build-up to this cup tie is a perfect example of the enervating nature of the gig. In a traditionally busy period, Carlisle have managed to win three and lose three of their last six matches. On a good day, they look very good, such as the December 29 dismissal of a Peterborough side with genuine promotion ambitions.

Yet it was followed up by a frustrating reverse at the hands of Crewe on Wednesday to start the new year on a low. They sit 15th in the table, a position indicative of their inconsistency.

"We haven't got any superstars in the team," says Kavanagh. "And when we are strong, it's usually 11 players on song. When we're not, and we fall below that, then we struggle. It's been the story of the season. We take a step forward and then another one back."

His wish for this big day out is that it re-energises a club with potential. The Cumbrian town has a population of 70,000 but they have the fifth lowest average attendance in League One (4,500) and less than 3,000 attended their FA Cup second-round triumph over Brentford at Brunton Park.

However, 6,000 Carlisle supporters have bought tickets for their Stadium of Light adventure. Kavanagh did not inherit a rich club when he assumed the top job following Greg Abbott's departure in September and future progression will be determined by finances. Therefore, it is imperative they show enough to tempt the cup crowd back on a regular basis.


The rookie boss is hopeful of an upset. He has watched Gus Poyet's Sunderland twice and has brought good luck as they registered shock wins over Manchester City in the league and Chelsea in the League Cup quarter-final.

But he suspects that the scouting missions may not be relevant to this test as they face Manchester United in the first leg of their League Cup semi-final on Tuesday. "Paolo Di Canio signed a lot of players that aren't getting a look in at the moment," he says. "My guess is they might be involved in our game given they are 48 hours away from a semi-final. Hopefully we can cause them one or two problems."

Kavanagh has mixed memories of his time as a Sunderland player. He was lured there from Wigan in the summer of 2006 by the familiar figure of Roy Keane, a teenage acquaintance, who was determined to add one of his former Irish midfield partners to his growing Wearside colony.

It was all going well until Christmas Day when the 16-times capped international decided to go for a run near his home. In the process, he managed to damage his knee to the extent that his season was over.

Keane, who was enraged that his plans for the St Stephen's Day meeting with Leeds were thrown into disarray, lost faith and their relationship temporarily broke down. Kavanagh only made one more appearance for the club -- in the FA Cup -- before being moved on.

"It all went pear shaped after that (the Christmas injury)," he recalls. "We had one or two arguments at the time but, to be honest, I wasn't the same player again.

"Roy was fine with me, and I've spoken with him since. It was his first experience as a manager and there are a lot of things he would do differently.

"But Roy did a great job at Sunderland, there's no two ways about it. He got them where they wanted to be. I just wish at that time, going to a club of that size and stature, that I had been in the condition to make a bigger impact."

From afar, Kavanagh has noted the manner in which Keane's appointment as Martin O'Neill's assistant has galvanised the public at home.

"The one thing Roy and Martin will always do is create a buzz and an interest," he asserts. "It's probably just what was needed because I think after the Euros, everyone was a bit disillusioned with the whole style of play."

Considering the necessity of getting bums on seats in his own job, Kavanagh is trying to galvanise his dormant public by encouraging a more positive approach to the game.

"Managers will tell you it's all about results and it doesn't matter how you get them," he says. "But it's an entertainment industry and I think we have to be aware of that now.

"I'd like to create an attacking brand of play and get people on the edge of their seats. It's possible to do it, although the finance is a big part of it because the more funds you have then the better places you can shop."

That's why, in the growing debate about the current standing of the FA Cup, the importance of the competition to clubs like Carlisle cannot be underestimated. Their mission to boost the coffers can also enrich the knowledge of Kavanagh.

His sleep patterns might prevent his ability to have dreams, but tomorrow he can experience the real thing.

Irish Independent

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