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Staying power | An interview witih Mixu Paatelainen

IT IS the assertion that he had taken the club as far as he could that seems the most surprising aspect of Roy Keane's recent resignation as Sunderland manager. Mixu Paatelainen is not making judgments. That's not his style. But, as a guy who insists he is still learning every time he takes a training session and in every game he watches, the idea that there is nothing more in the tank is alien to him.

Both fledgling managers, Keane felt he could do no more, whereas the Hibs gaffer is convinced this is simply the beginning in the process of heading onwards and upwards.

That's the great thing about Mixu. There's no preamble, no faffing about. He's a straight talker. Yes, he has his own frustrations and he recognises he is in the midst of a rebuilding programme at Hibs but he has never felt he has run out of questions or of possible answers.

"(Keane] is a young manager and young coach and I am a young coach and definitely a young manager and I feel I'm still learning every day so it is surprising that he thinks he has taken them as far as he can already. I can't imagine feeling like that. Not at the moment." It has only been 11 months but the novelty has not waned in the slightest. The learning curve is steep but not too acute a gradient to be scaled.

"I was surprised but he obviously thought about it and I think if anybody comes to that conclusion and believes 100% that they cannot improve the team then it is time to go, they shouldn't just hang about for the sake of having a job because football clubs and teams mean too much to so many people."

There had been rumours earlier in the season that Paatelainen himself had reached a similar conclusion but he has always denied that. At that stage the flak was flying due to a swift Intertoto Cup exit, a difficult pre-season and a demoralising League Cup defeat at the hands of Morton. But rather than cut and run, the big Finn did what he tended to do on the pitch – he grafted.

"The media had plenty to speculate on and they got their headlines easy. It's an understandable part of the game and whoever plays football or goes into management must realise that when things do not go according to plan you get criticised. It doesn't affect me in the slightest. Vice versa, it motivates me. People always ask 'how are you coping with the pressure?' but the biggest pressure is created by myself. I demand a lot of myself and the players and if I feel we have not delivered at a certain time then I am not happy at all. I do everything to change that. I don't get down and start feeling sorry for myself, I roll my sleeves up and fight against it and make it right. That is the attitude we all must have."

Some haven't and have been moved on. Some have gone quietly, others have been less diplomatic. Last week Abdessalam Benjelloun, on loan to Charleroi, criticised Paatelainen's tactics, accusing him of playing football that's stuck in the 1960s. Asked about it, the Finn maintains an admirable equilibrium.

"Knowing Benji I was not too surprised. Benji is a different character to myself. Benji is a talented player, no question about that. He is a striker who can produce fantastic goals, although he has not done that in the last year." But, having played him when he took over, Paatelainen said his opinions began to change. "He wasn't as sharp or as willing to get on the ball, to make space for himself on the pitch and other players had a chance to play and perform and they did it better. I can only be fair to the other players and if they do a better job then they deserve their place in the team and Benji got frustrated." And he says the pattern seems to have been repeated in Belgium.

"He went there, played a couple of games and the reports were great but then suddenly he fell out the team and now he has been dropped from the national team. Benji is frustrated and wants to hurt me and that's the bottom line. I don't want to go into his comments at all because they are rubbish. I can see why Benji is so concerned and not happy with his situation but I don't think that was the correct way of channelling his frustrations. I think he should look in the mirror and make things happen."

Tactics are a topic for debate, though. There are still some supporters with reservations about the man they once idolised as a player. Paatelainen himself is unperturbed. He knows it is a work in progress.

He says that after initially trying a 4-3-3, he has settled on a 4-4-2 system, believing it makes it easier for the players to get their passing going and, by sticking with one formation, he says it makes decision-making on the pitch easier as players are coming up against similar problems week after week.

"If you change and swap things all the time, you don't learn, you are starting from zero time and time again and I am a person who wants to build. I don't just go there and buy him and buy him and buy him and buy him. It's about finding the best partnerships and positions and about players developing and learning. It's a very, very slow process and it doesn't happen overnight. It maybe takes two or three years."

The DIY revival is under way and, after the sticky start to the season, there have been recent signs of improvement. But there is still a need to enlist new faces. A goalkeeper. More depth in defence and greater competition for the striking berths. "Yes, I feel we need more competition for the goalkeeper's position and I would like to bring in somebody possibly a bit more experienced in there to challenge the other two good goalkeepers. But I want competition all over the pitch. We have two or three strikers who are more or less automatic choices and that's not right."

The likely arrival on trial this week of former Dundee United keeper Grzegorz Szamotulski could solve Paatelainen's problems at the back. Up front, Jonatan Johansson will join in January – not, the manager insists, as a replacement for Steven Fletcher, but as someone who can supply goals for the youngster. But still it is the defence which worries fans. Paatelainen will look at acquisitions but stresses it can also be improved with training.

"I do set out my teams always positive and want to go and cause the other team problems but I also feel that you have to have a solid defence. That's where you start and we practise defending more than attacking. In recent matches I feel we have defended well in open play but what has cost us is defending at set pieces, and it's just been slackness. These are the things we cover on the training ground but it's the players' responsibility out on the pitch."

Responsibility is something Paatelainen takes seriously. He does not take days off and while he makes mistakes, he also tries to learn from them. He has a young squad, but he is a young manager. They are all evolving. But they have not taken the club as far as they can, he says – not yet. Not by a long shot.

 
 
 

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