Wednesday 16 October 2019

'If you get engulfed in fear, there's no point being in the job'

Graham Coughlan knew he was taking a risk going into management with Bristol Rovers, but his career in England has been all about survival

Bristol Rovers boss Graham Coughlan enjoys the status as the only Republic of Ireland-born manager in the English Football League. Photo: Kevin Barnes - CameraSport via Getty Images
Bristol Rovers boss Graham Coughlan enjoys the status as the only Republic of Ireland-born manager in the English Football League. Photo: Kevin Barnes - CameraSport via Getty Images
Daniel McDonnell

Daniel McDonnell

As he flicks through the pages of the magazine, the volume of Graham Coughlan's disdain grows louder.

The monthly circular sent out by the PFA to its member players always succeeds in frustrating the Bristol Rovers manager.

"You get these magazines advertising things that players in League 1 and League 2 can't afford," he says, shaking his head. "Yachts. Mansions. Watches."

"I don't understand it. The elite players can afford everything but the lower-level ones can only dream of things like that.

"Young lads will go out to try and compete and get themselves into all sorts of financial bother. It's no wonder kids fall into these traps. We cause ourselves no end of problems in this game."

The setting is the perfect backdrop for the discussion. It's a Wednesday afternoon at The Lawns on the outskirts of Bristol and the car park is deserted. For the players, it's a day off.

Graham Coughlan in his office
Graham Coughlan in his office

A knock on the door of the main building is met with a polite if somewhat brief response from the man behind it.

"Bristol Rovers?" he says. "The portakabins out the back."

The Lawns is actually the base for the Cribbs Sports & Social Club, a community-based members club serving Bristol.

Rovers may be a League One club with an average crowd of 8,000, but they lack a training ground to call their own.

Coughlan during his playing days with Plymouth. Photo: Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images
Coughlan during his playing days with Plymouth. Photo: Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images

Coughlan's desk in the compact cabin is surrounded by whiteboards detailing training plans and forthcoming fixtures.

The admin staff are all based at the Memorial Stadium but this rented space is where the football department resides.

On this day, his only companion is fellow Dubliner Joe Dunne, who came in to work on a voluntary basis before Christmas.

A few seasons back, Dunne was the sole Republic of Ireland-born manager in the Football League. Coughlan can draw on his experience as he finds himself in a similar position now.

Dunne learned a lot about the business in stints with Colchester and Cambridge and is now assisting Coughlan as he takes his first steps as a number one.

He was a year above Coughlan at Cherry Orchard. "Looking at him now you would think it was 10 years," quips Coughlan.

"One thing's for sure, I don't want to end up looking like Joe Dunne."

He's grateful for his company, however, and makes that clear when Dunne leaves the room to fetch a cup of tea for the guest.

"Joe knows what I'm going through," he asserts.

"He's been a coach, an assistant manager, a manager. He's been through the sackings and all of that side of things. I'd be foolish not to tap into that knowledge and experience. And he's cheap. That's how we have to work."

Glamour-free

This is a glamour-free zone, but Coughlan isn't complaining. This is the type of role that he had always craved.

Modest facilities are a minor irritation compared to the sacrifice of living away from his wife Tara and his three kids who are settled in Sheffield.

The 44-year-old lives in a small flat near The Lawns which he leaves at 7.30am most mornings. But this is the price to pay for the big break.

After several knockbacks, he feared that he would never get the opportunity to show what he could do.

He had joined Rovers as a defensive coach last summer, grateful to get back into the business after six unemployed months that followed a jarring end to eight years at Southend where he filled almost every role apart from the number-one job.

When Rovers boss Darrell Clarke left in December, he told Coughlan that he was putting him forward as a possible solution. A successful stint as caretaker led to a full-time offer.

The BBC story announcing his appointment struggled to summarise his CV.

"After a 19-year playing career with Bray Wanderers, Blackburn Rovers, Swindon Town (loan), Livingston, Plymouth, Sheffield Wednesday, Burnley (loan), Rotherham United, Shrewsbury Town and Southend United, this is Dublin-born Coughlan's first job as a manager."

There's more to it than that, however. His Dublin accent is still as strong as it was on the day he left in 1995.

He was in his 21st year and had worked in an electrical warehouse since completing his Leaving Cert. Making a living from football was a pipe dream.

John Wilkes and Joe Healy had put Coughlan into the Cherry Orchard men's team when he was 15 and encouraged the centre-half to believe in himself. But he presumed that the League of Ireland would be his ceiling.

Pat Devlin brought him to Bray and his no-nonsense style attracted admirers. Blackburn Rovers were the Premier League champions and a deal was agreed. Coughlan didn't make the grade there, but he stuck around and survived in a tough trade.

"Survival?" he muses. "That's a good word. You do have to look after yourself a little bit. As a kid in Ireland you have this dream about the glitz and the glamour but when you get over here you realise it's a lot different in reality.

"At first, not a lot of people will talk to you or be friendly. If you're coming across to take a jersey off an English lad whose been in the system here, they aren't going to sit back and accept it.

"You need to be thick-skinned and have an inner strength and discipline. If you don't have that in England, it will swallow you up.

"I never thought I would play 511 professional football games," he continues, without needing to check his figures.

"I never would have thought that I would have done maybe 470 or 480 games as coach and assistant manager. I'm not far off 1,000 professional games in England.

"People may not see it that way but that's a massive achievement for a young kid from a council estate in Clondalkin."

Persevering through those early days was the key. Meeting and marrying Tara - who hails from Burnley - meant there was always a fair chance he was going to lay down roots in England.

"She's more educated than me," he says.

"But she followed me around and put her job on hold while she had the kids."

When their youngest, Rachel (6), started school, Tara went back to work as an estate agent.

Their eldest Shannon (17) is a talented footballer with designs on a sports scholarship in the US.

Cian (13) is a Sheffield Wednesday season-ticket holder. When their father arrives home for a day, he quips that his main job is to function as a chaffeur. By his own admission, he finds switching off to be a challenge. They all learned that during his dormant six months.

"My longest time off in 24 years," he muses.

At first, the reboot was welcome. He brought the kids to Disneyland Paris and visited friends in England and Ireland.

"But there were days where my missus was looking at me saying, 'you're supposed to be on a break but you're going to a game or going training'."

Sheffield United boss Chris Wilder was one of the people who threw open the doors to allow Coughlan watch him at work and even join in with analysis sessions.

"Those gestures matter," he says.

"It restores your faith in people. I don't do this friends act and go to seminars shaking hands and being nicey-nicey to people. I don't go for those falsehoods. But there are good people in football."

And there are risks. He knows that one bad run can send a manager back to the couch, and the stats suggest that first-time bosses struggle to get another chance if they fail badly.

Staying in the background can be safer, yet he had served his time there.

"This was a job I had to take," he stresses.

"It carries a lot of risk. You'd be crazy not to worry about job security and the future but if you get engulfed in fear then you stop enjoying it. And then it's pointless being in the job."

Positivity was essential given that he inherited a relegation battle. A record of eight wins and five draws from 17 matches has eased fears and lifted Rovers to 13th in a 24-team table - but they are just two points from safety in a congested division. He's looking up rather than down though.

"It was a losing mentality here," he says.

"We were struggling, we were sinking so I decided to brighten the place up with little messages to people.

"I always like to put up pictures and messages. Eye-catching things to keep players ticking over.

"I don't want them stale going into the same changing-room every week. You become robotic and go on auto-pilot."

In his mini-office, there are motivational messages printed on A4 paper and taped on the wall next to his desk.

"I have the skill but do I have the character,'' reads one. ''Winners do more'....'Winners win the next game'.

There is a sterner side too. Coughlan sent the players home on the eve of one match because the attitude in training wasn't good enough.

He can be guided by instincts, but he doesn't quite fit the old-school category either and speaks at length about an increased emphasis on systems and shape and how Dunne is a like-minded soul when it comes to meticulous planning of training.

"As a player, I never slept with a pen and paper by my bed," he says.

"As an individual, you look after yourself and cater for your own needs. But as a manager, I do that. Every day is a schoolday.

"But in some ways, I don't think the game has changed that much. You put it in one end and stop it going in at the other. Honesty and hard work remain a massive part of it.

"Where I was growing up, you didn't have pony tails or alice bands or players going out on the pitch thinking about how they look rather than how they perform.

"We wore plain black boots. Now there's battles in car parks to see who has got the biggest car. Or who has got the best gear, the best manbag. But you have to be adaptable because there's a load of different traits you have to manage."

Wisdom

He has a good network of contacts who can offer their wisdom. Wilder and Tony Pulis are two examples. The Scot, Paul Sturrock helped him to develop as a player and a manager. And Mick McCarthy has offered helpful advice too.

The geographical proximity between Southend and Ipswich led to multiple meetings when McCarthy was at Portman Road.

Players were loaned to the smaller club and training matches were frequently staged. McCarthy would put on food after and share his experience.

Over Christmas, the rookie boss was mulling over whether to change a winning side. The head was saying one thing; the heart was saying another.

"Mick gave me some wise words and I put the same team out and lo and behold we won," he recalls.

A lingering regret is that he never got to pull on the green jersey at any level. He went to the USA World Cup in 1994 with mates and has travelled around Europe to watch Ireland when his schedule has allowed. Green, white and orange training cones line the Bristol Rovers pitch.

"I'm as patriotic as they come," he stresses.

"I'll be roaring and shouting at the rugby. The women's hockey last year... that was brilliant. I'm proud of my upbringing. I am where I am because of where I've come from. The making of me was my background."

He smiles and describes his late grandfather, Ed Corrigan, bringing him to his first rugby match at Lansdowne Road, and to Hill 16. His close-knit family also had to come through the devastating loss of his younger brother Shane in 2007.

"I've always got support from back home," he says, referencing his parents Tommy and Eilish.

"There were several occasions where I was on the verge of waving the white flag and going back but I'm probably not built that way.

"But wherever I go now, I represent my area, my estate, my county, my country."

When Ireland take the field in Gibraltar this evening, Coughlan will be on the way home from Plymouth, ideally tuning in with another point or three in the bag.

He signed off his text message response to the initial interview request with a tricolour emoji. In his mind, he always feels like he's flying that flag.

Coughlan factfile

Date of birth: November 18, 1974

Clubs as player: Cherry Orchard, Bray Wanderers, Blackburn Rovers, Swindon Town (loan), Livingston, Plymouth, Sheffield Wednesday, Burnley (loan), Rotherham United, Shrewsbury Town, Southend

Career appearances (UK): 511

Clubs as manager: Bristol Rovers (since December 2018)

Managerial record: Won 8 Drawn 5 Lost 4

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