WHEN Steven Pressley meets up with Arsene Wenger on Friday, he will gift him a bottle of whisky. “I’m hoping he has a few too many swigs before the game!” he laughs, as he contemplates the magnitude of the task facing his Coventry City side as they travel to the Emirates Stadium on FA Cup fourth round duty.
It’s the kind of humour that had been in short supply during the latter part of his managerial tenancy at Falkirk. Back then the feeling was that Pressley had developed something of a siege mentality, the bonhomie buried below an intensity which endeared him to few on the outside looking in. But, down south, away from the goldfish bowl of Scottish football, he is more relaxed. He remains driven and craves wins but he has mellowed slightly.
Back when he first embarked on the management path, he talked of wanting his players to be “animals”, and while others extolled the values of footballing philosophies, silky passing and the need to entertain, he was frank. He wanted to win. It was as simple as that. In that regard he could be considered the ying to Wenger’s yang. But, in truth, Pressley has nothing but praise for the Frenchman.
“I think the one thing I have learned is that you need to know how you’re winning and how you’re losing games as a manager and as a team. Sir Alex [Ferguson] created that environment at Manchester United and that winning mentality but you want to know how you’re doing it.
“As a player that turned manager I thought I knew more than I did. In truth, I knew very little. I was fortunate to have someone like Alex Smith beside me guiding me [at Falkirk]. The one thing about football management is the day you think you know everything, the day you think you’ve found all the solutions, you are in trouble. As a manager you have always got to be evolving and listening and learning.”
He remains his own man, but he is also an ardent student of the tactics of other managers, especially those on the continent and among the English football hierarchy.
“I greatly admire Arsene. I think he has done a remarkable job and the one thing about him is that he has been true to himself and true to his beliefs and the one thing that has been difficult for him is that I think other clubs have abused their spending powers and indulged in what could almost be considered financial doping at times. He has managed that club in a truly brilliant way and he has never compromised on the style of play and what he believes and I have the utmost respect for him for that.”
The fortunes of Coventry and Arsenal are hugely different. In terms of their current standing in the game, their infrastructure, their finances, the squad.
Ensconced in League One, Coventry were on the verge of a play-off place when the club slumped into administration last season. Docked ten points, the dream died. This season, though, despite embarking on the new campaign with another ten-point deficit, they are back in the hunt. The pre-season target was simply to get back into plus points and then to cement survival, with anything else deemed a bonus, especially as they were the subject of a signing ban, which has only just been lifted thanks to their escape from administration, and remain involved in a dispute with the company which owns Ricoh Stadium, forcing them to play their “home” matches 34 miles down the road at Northampton Town.
Such circumstances could be testing for a man still fairly new to the management game. Pressley, though, is happy with his lot.
“I love it, I really love it,” he says. “I’m lucky. I work with some very good people and very good staff. But we are only scratching the surface here and that’s the honest truth. There’s loads and loads and loads and loads still to do and there’s a long, long way to go but step by step we are moving forward.”
On the pitch, Coventry are in the top half of the table, with Scots pair John Fleck and Andy Webster mainstays in the side.
Off the park, Pressley says the day-to-day facilities at the training ground are superb and runs through a lengthy list of staff, facilities and ideas which indicate that despite the hardships this truly is a sleeping giant. Rousing it will be no mean feat, though.
Pressley is a guy who surfed wave after wave of financial fear and boardroom travails while a player at Hearts and this is the man who stirred up a storm when he took over the reins at Falkirk and insisted the club would avoid the drop from the SPL only to be proved wrong. Many considered that bold pronouncement disrespectful to the teams, and managers, also in the mix. Then, when the club had to adapt to life in the second tier, he had to cut his cloth accordingly. It means that he is as well versed in how to deal with the mess he inherited as any young manager could be and he has learned some lessons in diplomacy.
“I’m hugely respectful of other managers as well because it is such a difficult profession. It is such a precarious and difficult job and we shouldn’t underestimate that. But the most disappointing thing about the Scottish game is that it’s a goldfish bowl and I think it’s to the detriment of the game up there because people form opinions on individuals based on nothing, absolutely nothing, apart from hearsay.
“It is a very different environment down here and it has been a fresh start for myself and I have loved that. Also the freshness of new grounds and playing teams once at home, once away, there’s such a freshness to that. Having spent most of my playing career and my early managerial career in Scotland I was desperate to come south of the Border for a number of reasons and I have certainly not been disappointed by it. It’s been a terrific experience and learning curve for me.”
It helps that his family settled into their new life in Leamington straight away. Kids Aaron and Amy are happy at their new school and his wife June has friends through a part-time job she took on for that purpose.
“I do see my family a lot. I went to the Arsenal game [to suss them out ahead of this week’s tie] but it was the first game for a long time. I let other people do that and what I have learned is that you need a work/life balance.
“I work from 8.30am to 5.30pm most days. At times, as a manager, you can end up going to games for the sake of going to games and it is fatiguing because you don’t get home until after midnight. As a manager it’s important you get your time away so I work really, really hard during the day and in terms of going to watch games at night, I trust my scout, my analyst and the people who go to watch the games for me.”
While he was doing his pro-licence he, like every other aspiring manager, was warned about the dangers of taking too much on. “Jim Fleeting [of the SFA] spoke about that, about going to games just for the sake of it and I learned from that. I work extremely hard in the hours I’m here but then I go home and I try to spend the evenings with my family.”
He knows that won’t always be possible this month, not with new signings to scavenge for in the quest to boost the squad and help the push for the play-off place the punters still feel they were denied last term.
“The one thing I suppose we have already given them is hope. Considering we started with a ten point deduction and are now within striking distance [of the play-offs]. When I arrived, even the kitman spoke about comfortable Coventry and he has been at the club for 30-40 years. I wanted to change that culture. It’s not comfortable Coventry any more, it’s a competitive football club that wants to win things. We have worked hard and honestly I inherited a brilliant staff.
“We had a situation the other day where eight of our players, off their own backs, went back out in the afternoon to work on their weaknesses and that’s the type of culture we are trying to create. We set the standards but it’s the players themselves who drive them.
“When you look for excuses your players then have the opportunity to do the same, but if you don’t give excuses, the players try to find their own solutions and take responsibility and I think that is key. We understand the difficulties we have been left with but let’s try to find a way of overcoming them. That’s the important thing.”
They have been handed a tough, tough tie on Friday but it is realities rather than excuses he is serving up.
Pressley added: “It’s probably the highest profile game in my short managerial career but getting a result would be nothing short of a miracle for us when you consider the difference in terms of finance and resources, in terms of experience, but going there and trying to find a way to beat them, it will be a great opportunity for us all.”
It’s a fresh challenge but one that Pressley is relishing.