Saturday 23 March 2019

Coughlan attracted by attitude over ability

Bristol Rovers manager Graham Coughlan: ‘The modern player won’t accept finger-wagging or take criticism’. Photo: Getty
Bristol Rovers manager Graham Coughlan: ‘The modern player won’t accept finger-wagging or take criticism’. Photo: Getty

Sean Ryan

When Bristol Rovers signed Dubliner Graham Coughlan as their defensive coach last summer, they signed a winner. Throughout a senior career that began in 1995 with Bray Wanderers and went on to encompass significant spells at Livingston, Plymouth, Sheffield Wednesday and Southend, his influence as a winner and leader has been notable.

So it was no surprise when he was asked to step into the hot-seat on a caretaker basis last December after manager Darrell Clarke resigned. With the team mired in the League One relegation places, it looked like a poisoned chalice, but after five games Coughlan had guided his team out of the drop zone with three wins and a draw, their sole loss being a narrow defeat away to Sunderland.

Appointed manager on a full-time basis last month, he is the only boss from the Republic with a British club. He hasn't lost his Dublin accent after 24 years embedded in the English game, and nothing pleases him more than to get home to see Ireland in action in the Aviva. One of his regrets is that he never pulled on the green jersey - at any level .

He was his own worst enemy as a youngster. Called up for a trial for the Irish under 15s, he spent the night before at a disco, while selection for Leinster under 17s for a game in Germany clashed with a family holiday in Malta, and he chose Malta.

"I didn't know much about the professional game," he says. "I didn't know that I could have a professional career. I was enjoying life, I loved following Ireland and having a good time with my pals, so I didn't dedicate myself as a young lad as I should have.

"At Cherry Orchard, Joe Healy, John Wilkes and Jimmy Winters were big in my development days, but it wasn't until I got a flea in my ear from some of the senior players . . . that made me knuckle down. I also got a lot of self-belief from playing with the senior team and I began to think I might strike lucky."

He was 20 when a phone call from Bray manager Pat Devlin changed his life. "He signed me. It wasn't a lot of money, but it was a confidence boost and an opportunity. I always thought I had missed the boat, but Devlin and Wilkes made me realise that I should maximise the talent I had. I had good mentors who helped me on my journey, and I'll be eternally grateful to them for what I have done, things I never thought I could do.

"It would have been a dream come true to pull on the Ireland jersey, but I missed out through not being good enough - that, and not playing in the Premier League. I played in the Championship and at a decent level with Sheffield Wednesday before 40,000 every week, which was a hell of an experience."

From Bray Wanderers, Coughlan went to Blackburn Rovers, but never got a look-in with Kenny Dalglish's Premier League champions. Instead Scottish side Livingston got the benefit of his no-nonsense, aggressive centre-back play, which so endeared him to the fans. Twice he was voted Player of the Year, and he helped Livingston gain promotion to the Scottish Premier League.

He was looking forward to playing at Parkhead the following season when Plymouth enticed him to the other end of the island and he began a successful partnership with manager Paul Sturrock. Two promotions, two more Player of the Year awards, a place in Plymouth's Team of the Century (for the club's centenary), PFA Player of the Year in League Two and also in the PFA Team of the Year . . . Coughlan became renowned as a winner and a leader.

In his book, To Be A Pilgrim (written with Steve Booth in 2004), he outlined how every away game for Plymouth involved huge journeys, so it was no wonder he followed Sturrock when the Scotsman took over Wednesday. Once again his leadership qualities won the admiration of the fans and he was voted Player of the Year in his first season. However, when Sturrock was sacked and succeeded by Brian Laws (later to be boss at Shamrock Rovers), Coughlan was let go.

"My times at Plymouth and Sheffield Wednesday were the highlights of my career. To have 20,000 to 40,000 people singing your name and to captain Wednesday in the Sheffield and Leeds derbies - those were the games."

It was time to future-proof his role in the game, so he took up coaching while playing at Shrewsbury and found he had a flair for it.

"I have done all my UEFA badges - the B licence with Denis Irwin, the A licence with Gary Neville, Ryan Giggs and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer - and I'm going to do my Pro Licence. I also did a Diploma in Football Management at Warwick University with Martin Keown and Aidy Boothroyd. Interesting times!"

He teamed up with Sturrock again at Southend United and combined playing with coaching. It was there he had the experience of leading his team out at Wembley. "It was the JPT final, Paul had been sacked and the club asked me to walk the team out. It was my third time at Wembley, the first time was with Shrewsbury, and then a win and a loss with Southend, where we won a play-off final, but lost the JPT."

Appointed first team coach under new boss Phil Brown, Coughlan began to develop an impressive coaching CV. "I have a number of £1m players on my CV," he explained. "Like Britt Assombalonga, who I spotted training at Watford and brought him to Southend on loan. I encouraged the club to sign him, but they wouldn't, and he's been sold for millions since. I'm good at identifying young lads and like to give them a chance. We also got promoted, were in three finals, three play-off campaigns, but it didn't end well.

"I was unemployed when Bristol Rovers came for me. After eight years with Southend, Phil Brown was sacked and I ended up going as well. I thought I was treated harshly, but Darrell (Clarke) had been on my case for a few years. I knew him from playing against him and always had a lot of time for him. I struck up a relationship with him and we would meet at the League Managers' Association and player dos.

"I had six months with my family so the break was refreshing, and I kept my eye in on coaching. I was doing work for Darrell on the opposition and a bit for the BBC which I enjoyed. Then Darrell asked me to help out with the defence and I moved to Bristol. The family are still in Sheffield because the kids are at school and my wife works, so it's a flat in Bristol and a 160-mile each way journey every week."

From player to manager, what's the big difference? "As a skipper I could lay into people but you can't act like that as a coach or manager. The game has changed and the modern player won't accept finger-wagging or take criticism. That side of the game has gone, so I have had to become more subtle and political in what I say, but I won't lose my mantra of hard work, honesty and integrity.

"You're there to educate and teach the players. If they're not listening you're losing them. If you get results you'll get the group, but as soon as the results go some will start wavering or go off on their own script, thinking they know best - they revert to type. I know because I was like that as a player.

"The quest to win is what makes people do that and sometimes the red mist descends and they make irrational decisions. On the sideline you can't let that red mist descend."

The past month has been a major learning experience for him, as it was his first transfer window and, with no money to spend, it was a case of offloading one to bring one in.

"I had a lot of setbacks in the window. I had shaken hands on a deal with a Championship striker, and then he gets called into his team, scored a goal and stayed. I lost a couple of players through geography: the travel was too much for them, and others for being unlucky. Fans want new faces, but it's pointless flooding the club with mediocrity."

How does he go about spotting talent or does he leave it to others? "I cover three games a week and depend on my knowledge of the game, but still depend on other people like my assistant manager and coaches, and then I have enough contacts to be able to pick up the phone to get a reference on a player.

"First of all, though, you've got to know what market you're in. It's pointless phoning up about £1m strikers if you haven't got £1m to spend. My first transfer window was mad, crazy, but a great experience. I make a presentation to the CEO and he'll tell me if it's a realistic or unrealistic prospect."

Then, reminded of what the great scout Billy Behan once told me, I ask Coughlan what was the most important attribute required of a player. "Attitude over ability all day long," he responds. "Character beats talent, because if you don't have the character and application you're no use to anybody."

It was like hearing an echo of the Behan mantra, which augurs well for the three signings Coughlan secured in the window - and for Bristol Rovers' future.

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