Earlier this evening Coventry City manager Steven Pressley, his assistant manager Neil McFarlane and club captain Carl Baker took part in a Fans Forum hosted by BBC Coventry & Warwickshire and Coventry City Football Club. Here is a recap of what was said.
Q: Steven, the season on the field is going pretty well, has it exceeded your expectations, or were you expecting this sort of start?
“We’ve worked exceptionally hard over the course of the pre-season. but we’re under no illusions of the challenges that lay ahead, especially with a young group of players, and I think they have gelled together very quickly. Their response to the work that we’ve been doing has been exceptional. They’ve been fully committed and of course we are on a good run at the moment in time, but the one thing I must stress is that with young squads, as we have, there are always difficulties and challenges along the way and we’ll still endure them; that’ll be a big part of the process this year, how we deal with setbacks.”
Q: Neil, and I know you’ve both worked with young players before but this set of players, does it excite you?
“Obviously, when we came in last season, it was something we mentioned, that we wanted to work with the young players like we did at Falkirk and ever since the pre-season and beyond this season, that’s what we’ve been doing. We’ve done a lot of work with the Under 18 squad, the development squad who did very, very well yesterday; another great result and obviously it’s filtering through to the first team with players being involved. I think it bodes well for the club.
Q: In consideration of the necessity to play 50 plus games this season, allowing for injuries and suspensions, what are your views or expectations on the age, depth, experience, quality, skill, stamina and strength of our current squad?
SP: “I think it’s obvious we are relatively thin on the ground but I’m a great believer in giving young players their opportunity. It’s only last week we played SHrewsbury with an injury to Blair Adams and Ryan Haynes, a seventeen year old came in and acquitted himself brilliantly. So, we are aware we are thin on the ground and I’ve gone on record recently saying I’m not a great believer of the loan market, one, I prefer to give out own young players the opportunity to play and secondly, generally when you take loan players from other clubs they come to your club to play and with our current group of player’s form and the manner they are performing, it’s very difficult for me to justify any player coming in in a position in our team. So, if we endure injuries, if we endure suspensions and there is a need to bring in a loan player then I’ll do so, but at this moment in time I’m very pleased with the group.”
Q: Carl, you were unfortunate to have a suspension recently, but then Billy Daniels came in and did a decent job. Does that give you encouragement in terms of the depth of the squad?
“Yeah, definitely. Like the gaffer said, there’s a lot of young lads who he’s going to give the chance too if needed. The same with Ryan and Billy who stepped in recently for myself and Blair, they’ve done a fantastic job, it’s not just these two, there’s a load of the young kids who can come through and do a job. They’re training with the first team everyday and getting experience. They’re performing really well when they get the chance in the games like yesterday v. Brighton where they won 3-0. They’re really good players coming through. It’s not just Ryan and Billy, there’s a number of kids who can step up to the plate when needed.”
Q: Now we’re in positive points, only 9 points off the play-offs, what do you think we can achieve this season?
SP: I think one of my jobs and the message that I have to get out to everybody is that I need to curb the expectation a little bit. We were -10 points, we have had a terrific start to the season but as I stated in my first answer, we haven’t endured any setbacks as yet. We haven’t endured the winter gruelling months and these are all going to be tests for our young players. I’m very lucky at this moment in time to have four very good senior pros in Carl, Joe (Murphy,) Andy Webster and Leon Clarke and they are going to be pivotal to the success of the team this year; keeping them fit, but our young players are growing all the time, they’re playing with an energy, they’re playing with a commitment and I think that’s one of the most important factors for any supporter, that you see your team out there giving their maximum to the club and that I will guarantee. In terms of expectations, I don’t want to put any burden on their shoulders at this moment in time. I want them to develop. I think if anybody at the start of the season had said to me ‘would you take, considering the age of your group, the end result being avoid relegation,’ then absolutely. Of course we’ve had a great start and now expectation grows and everybody hopes for more success but I think we have to curb that and realise we’re only at the start of the process. A big part of my job since coming to the club has been to start putting the foundations in place for this football club to move forward. If you look at the history and stats, the club has been in decline for over 15 years now, and it’s time to change that but it doesn’t change overnight. It’ll change by putting the foundations in place and the foundations have to come from within the club, which is the development of our own young players.”
Q: Neil, is that a difficult balance to strike there as on one hand you don’t want to burden them with too much expectation but at the same time, presumable, you want the team to believe that they can go far?
“We do yeah, but as the gaffer said he’s got good senior pros, the four that were mentioned and with the group being so young they bring enthusiasm and a really energy and I think they’re just taking the old saying and taking it one game at a time. If they keep producing that week in, week out and bring that intensity to every single game, then I think we will win more games than we lose.”
Q: As captain, do you have any personal goals you want to achieve this season?
“I haven’t really set many to be honest, I’m just taking each game at a time. Obviously starting on the -10 points made it a bit difficult to set targets but after the start we’ve had I’ve got great belief in the lads, the management and everyone involved at the club. We can’t get carried away with the start we’ve made, it’s a long season and there’s a lot more football to be played yet. All we can keep doing is keep picking points up, keeping performing well and giving our maximum week in week out, doing ourselves proud, doing the fans proud.”
Q: How was that points deduction, it’s been well publicised that Steve Waggott had you Joe Murphy and Leon Clarke in to talk about it? How difficult was it taking that blow?
CB: “Obviously when we found out then news, it wasn’t great because you want to start off on a level playing field but I think it can either go two ways. You can either sulk about it and still be in minus points now, or you can do what we’ve done and have a reaction and a response to it and go out there and give our all to wipe the points off as soon as possible so it doesn’t get made a big deal of. They’ve gone now, it doesn’t even enter my thoughts; the minus points are now completely out of the window. For the first time after the game on Sunday, I’ve actually looked at the table and started looking at the teams who we can catch. Hopefully we can just keep performing the way we are and keep clawing other teams in and climbing above them, pushing away.”
Q: Obviously with the team playing as well as they are, the profile has been raised and other teams are looking at some of our players, have you any strategy in place for the January transfer window to keep the players we have and have you discussed this with the board at all?
“Our attention is to definitely retain the squad. We’re currently in negotiations with a number of our young players about extending their contracts and hopefully in the next couple of weeks we’ll have some very positive news on that. I think everybody has to be clear on this, every football club is a selling club. What I mean by that is every club and every player within a club, whether it’s Manchester United, Arsenal or Coventry City, there is always a valuation to your players. If somebody comes in with an offer that meets the valuation of the players in a higher league, then of course we’d have to consider it but we have no intention, and I genuinely mean that, no intentions in selling our players. We want to build a team, we don’t want to be a team, a club shall I say, that develops young players for others to take. We want to be a club that develops young players that allow the club to move forward for years to come.”
Q: Can you clarify what truth there is in Sheffield United being interested in Leon Clarke?
SP: “Absolutely none. Absolutely none, and he will not be going to Sheffield United that is one thing I can absolutely guarantee.”
Q: I watched you at our last match on the touchline and the way you’re involved and engrossed with what’s going on in the field and when Callum Wilson scored that first goal, of course you showed your appreciation in no uncertain terms but then I noticed something fascinating. You turned away, took two steps towards the bench and I’m sure you kissed your wedding ring. Is that an example of superstitious behaviour or something between the two loves in your life?
SP: “I do. I kiss it before the game as well. To be perfectly honest, I’m very much a family man. I’ve got two kids and a terrific wife and they are very much my strengths, so I do appreciate that. With Callum being the second love of my life, as you say. At this moment in time anyway.”
Q: What is it about Pressley as a leader? Can you name something about his judgement, about his nouse, about his style?
NMcF: “I think we’re both just passionate people and I think if you’re trying to install that in your squad you need to see it coming from this side as well. I don’t think that’ll ever change between the two of us. As for the gaffer, I’ve enjoyed working for him for a number of years. To answer your question, I think no matter what is thrown at him, he just deals with it. He never moans about it, and I think the players see that. For a lot of scenarios like I said earlier on, ten points last season, ten points this season but we just really came together as a squad & management staff and we’re really working hard. I think that’s the main thing; whatever is thrown at him, he’ll deal with it.”
CB: “I’ve played under a lot of top managers over my career but the gaffer is the best out of all of them. His man to man management skills are fantastic. When you wake up in the morning, you’re excited to come into training. The atmosphere around the training ground is unbelievable. You can see how passionate he, and Neil both are on the sideline and that just makes you want to drive and do as well as you can because you know they’re going to be appreciative of it. They’re top guys. At the moment it’s an absolute pleasure to play for this club and this management. Hopefully that’ll continue.“
Q: Obviously as captain you have to lead the team, and a lot of young players. Do you enjoy that?
“I do, yeah. I really enjoy it. I’m a father of two myself and I do a lot of coaching with them too. So when I go into training if I can help the younger lads out and pull them to the side and help them out, I’ll always do that. I had it done when I was younger and I really appreciated it. I see them all as one big family. It’s the best bunch of lads I’ve ever played with. There’s a special feeling about this group.”
Q: As the season gets worse, and the weather gets worse and we are going to start playing on bad pitches, it gets more and more difficult to play the amount of football on the ground that we have been playing, and in order to keep doing that, how do we keep playing the passing game on those bad pitches.
SP: “The truth is I’m a big studier of football, of European football, I hear a lot about the English game with regard to the lack of talent of ability within the game which I don’t believe. I think there is terrific talent in the English game at the moment, we need to trust them more. A lot of continental managers base it around ‘out of possession.’ The balance of the team out of possession, how quickly do you get the ball back. Carl will tell you we do a lot, a lot of work out of possession, which allows you to dominate the game in possession. If you go into academies, they all try to follow the Barcelona model. But they all try to follow the Barcelona model all with the ball. The movements, the split centre backs, the full backs high, they’re all copying this model but the model when you speak to Barcelona players is built on ‘out of possession.’ How to get the ball back. How to get the ball back. We do lots of work on that as it allows us quick turnovers and allows us to press the game high. What is key, and I understand it will become more difficult, one thing we are trying to do is press the game high. We can work towards pushing teams into errors in their final third. I can’t praise my players enough now, they came back in incredible condition (in terms of fitness.)”
Q: How are the players coping with playing in Northampton?
CB: “They’ve treated us really well, they’ve looked after our families. As footballs you’ll play anywhere. It’s no secret we want to play at the Ricoh, but we turn up and give it our all, that’s all we can do.”
Q: Which manager do you look up to as a role model?
SP: “No one in particular. I look up to many, many managers. I’m very much a student. In football you shouldn’t neglect anybody’s opinion from the person you meet in the street to the greatest manager. You can always take away something, even a throw away comment may trigger something. I have huge admiration for Sir Alex. I was fortunate enough to spend three days in his company at the Carrington training ground. He himself gave us a tour. He could have got anyone to do the tour, but he wanted to do it himself because he was so proud of what he’s built at the club. I’ve also worked with some great managers; Gordon Strachan, Walter Smith.”
Q: A number of managers have had Callum Wilson available to them, what have you done to turn him into the player he is this season?
SP: “I think in terms of Callum he’s been very unfortunate with injuries, so I don’t think at any time he’s been fully fit and available for selection for a number of managers. The second thing is he’s maturing. He’s now at a good age; 21. He deserves great credit as well. When I talked about young players coming back for the pre-season in top condition, that kid came back in incredible condition and he’s hugely hungry to succeed. Even with the recent publicity he’s remained very grounded. He’s a terrific boy. He’s the type of player I want in the football club. Sometimes you can look at the manager, but it’s the player who has got to have that drive and ambition. I think as well, a lot has been Leon Clarke’s influence. He seems to take pride as well in Callum’s performance. I think that’s been a big plus for us. Leon is a very misunderstood person; he’s a great influence on the great and around the club. So I think there’s a number of things.”
Q: How hopeful are you of keeping him at the club?
SP: “Very hopeful. I’ve already spoken to him about a new contract. He’s very keen to stay at the club. He’s a Coventry supporter and a Coventry lad. I don’t think Callum is ready to move, I think he needs to prove himself over a number of seasons, and I want him to do that here.”
Q: Last season we lost Mark Robins when things were going well in bad circumstances, should we be worried if a more stable club come in for you?
SP: “Listen, in a few months you might be calling for my head. I’m committed to the job, I’m truly committed to the job here. I went to Falkirk and built an identity there, and I want to do that here. There will be difficult times, but we need to give ourselves time. I really want to see the job through here, that I can assure you.”
Q: Obviously with the low crowds and the low income being generated, if you can only spend 60% of your income on player’s salaries, how will that affect the squad, and will you have trim the squad down?
SP: “No, I don’t believe that to be the case. At this moment in time, I am being told to secure the future’s of our young players. I am also able to sign players under the one in one out rule. We are going to try and secure the services of the left sided centre back we’ve had on trial. We will try and see if there is potential to bring him in, however there is substantial compensation hanging over him.”
Q: In your opinion what are the most important characteristics in a young player for them to progress?
SP: “One of the key aspects is desire. I think political correctness has taken over football. There’s a feeling that you can’t tell young players the truth. We demand standards from the young players. If they become a top player they have to handle 40,000 people shouting at them. They must understand what it takes to become a football player. There’s lots of good young players, but desire and commitment but most importantly they must be educated on how to play the game. One thing with young players is there is a naivety with them.”
Q: Can you comment on how things have changed for Jordan Clarke?
SP: “I spoke to Jordan at the end of the season and told him he wasn’t in my plans. He was devastated. What pleased the most was his response. He went away and got fitter and became more determined. We gave him a second chance. Jordan admits he needed that disappointment to kick start his career again. He’s a really good reader of the game for 21. He answered in the way I wanted him to respond. We’re delighted to have Jordan at this football club.”