FIVE years ago, almost to the day, I met Steven Pressley just as he was embarking on his managerial career. We talked for more than an hour and at the end he tried to insist: “I’m like every other young manager and there are busloads of us.”
Well, in one respect, he was right. Despite the role arguably having become even more difficult since I interviewed him, another candidate will soon get off the bus to replace Pressley at Coventry City following the latter’s sacking yesterday.
But Elvis back in 2010 didn’t come across as just another rookie boss. Even in a superficial way he was different. There was the beard – five years ahead of the trend – and the designer skinnyfit raincoats. But more interesting still, after just two games in charge of Falkirk, were the things he said.
He quoted the great movie dialogue of Al Pacino at me. A propos of nothing very much, he asked: “Do you know If by Rudyard Kipling?” The verse had been his “bible” since his schooldays and was on display at home and in his office. Even more intriguingly, Pressley confessed to having made no real friends from his 20-odd years in football as a player, that his best buddies were still the guys he got to know in the playground, now joiners and security men.
These were good lines but I didn’t get the impression Pressley was saying them for effect, in an effort to stand out from the bus clamour. He’d always seemed like sound manager material, having turned out for both halves of the Old Firm. Then there was the time at Hearts when he stood up to Vladimir Romanov’s meddling ways. As one of the Riccarton Three, he’d frequently been urged to kiss and tell. “I’ve been asked six times to write a book but I can tell you Steven Pressley will never do that. I’m not a lad who feels he has to justify anything.” Another good line.
So where is that career now? The axe fell as Coventry slipped into League One’s bottom four, the relegation playoff places. Chief executive Steve Waggot claimed the club had a budget more in line with the top six and that Pressley had failed to make the most of it. Not all who follow the Sky Blues agreed with that assessment. “Tiny budget, dreadful owners, unforgiving fans,” tweeted one. “The real masters of our destruction remain in charge,” agreed another. And even among those who felt a change had to be made there was lots of sympathy for our man: “Top bloke … a great guy … there’s only one Steven Pressley … a fighter whose hands were tied.”
Pressley, manager for exactly 100 games, was hit by administration, a transfer embargo and a ten-point deduction almost as soon as he arrived in the West Midlands. And then the club lost their stadium. A row over rent at the Ricoh Arena forced them 35 miles along the motorway to Northampton Town. The fans didn’t take to the ground-share. Very quickly, Coventry notched up their ten lowest “home” attendances in the club’s history. Some made the journey but watched in protest from a grassy knoll above the emergency address where the view was restricted to a third of the pitch.
Here was Pressley’s greatest test of Kipling’s challenge: to “keep your head while all about you are losing theirs and blaming it on you”. The team made a mockery of the points deficit and challenged for the promotion play-offs. Pressley won admiration for that effort and the fans had been looking forward to seeing what he could do on a level playing field, their own field, back at the Ricoh.
Pressley had gone to Coventry – not sent as a punishment; he used to play for them after all – kitted out with his raincoat and his morals. “I very much want my players to be good people,” he told me. But in football these days, and especially lower down the leagues, it can be a challenge maintaining your principles. The Sky Blues used to be a big club, or at least one which featured regularly in the top flight, winning one of the best FA Cup finals into the bargain, and some can’t understand why they aren’t anymore. They’re owned by a Mayfair-based hedge fund, which hardly makes them unusual when other English outfits are run by Indian chicken farmers, but you’d imagine some things must get lost in translation. It is always going to be tricky squaring high idealism with the realities of life in Coventry, especially when Coventry is really Northampton.
Pressley’s dismissal follows soon after England’s top flight was declared a Scot-free zone, at least in terms of managers. “Well, at least we still have Elvis,” was the reaction of the football sages including Alex Smith, Pressley’s old mentor at Falkirk. Not any more, though. So where does he go from here?
He’s admired by the likes of Smith and Sir Alex Ferguson, who was his referee for the Coventry job. He’s liked by journalists because he gives good quote. “As a footballer you do whatever it takes to win the game,” he told me back when he was starting out at Falkirk, “and I want my players to become animals.” When you meet him you’re impressed by his intensity, if also a little daunted by it.
He speaks passionately about the game, about how you win matches, and back in 2010 few were quibbling with the Barcelona philosophy of pass, pass and pass again, but Pressley was. Maybe, just as he anticipated the beard revolution, he was forseeing the short-lived appeal of tiki-taka.
We like our football people to cut through the flim-flam, speak from the heart, speak their mind, and Pressley certainly does that. But what does football itself like? Elvis, who was big enough to admit he thought he knew a lot when he started in management but soon realised he didn’t, has upset some with his bullishness. A year ago, when he thought the Coventry revival was finally happening, he reflected on his time in Scotland and why he’d taken the decision to fly south.
“There’s a little bit of ‘Hope he fails’ when Scottish managers move,” he said. “It’s a cynical country in that respect. Scotland can be not great as an environment to work in: it’s a goldfish bowl, a lot of agendas and the atmosphere in the grounds is not particularly good.”
You sense the bold, opinionated, dapper Steven Pressley will be continuing to seek employment opportunities down there rather than up here. Or else he might have to start widening his circle of friends.
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