Gregor Townsend on his love of football and lessons learned from it

Football and rugby meet as Scotland coaches Alex McLeish and Gregor Townsend share training space. Photograph: SNS/SRU
Football and rugby meet as Scotland coaches Alex McLeish and Gregor Townsend share training space. Photograph: SNS/SRU
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Scotland’s rugby coach talks about his affinity for the round-ball game in this extract from the Scottish football periodical Nutmeg.

“I was at Scotland’s last World Cup match. It was my stag weekend and my brother got us to collect coupons from the paper for cheap flights.”

TWICKENHAM - MARCH 22:  Gregor Townsend of Scotland charges forward during the RBS Six Nations Championship match between England and Scotland held on March 22, 2003 at Twickenham, in London. England won the match 40-9. (Photo by David Rogers/Getty Images)

TWICKENHAM - MARCH 22: Gregor Townsend of Scotland charges forward during the RBS Six Nations Championship match between England and Scotland held on March 22, 2003 at Twickenham, in London. England won the match 40-9. (Photo by David Rogers/Getty Images)

Football is a thread that has run through Scotland rugby head coach Gregor Townsend’s life. Whether playing for his primary school team or the renowned Hutchison Vale boys’ club; standing with the Tartan Army on the terraces in St Etienne in 1998 as the national team were chastened by Morocco; playing fives against the staff of Scotland’s opponents before rugby Tests; or spending half an hour with Pep Guardiola and a whole day with Roberto Martinez in an attempt to glean the sort of coaching minutiae in which he trades. “I loved playing it, I love watching it, and I love learning from it,” he says, particularly in thrall to the memory of those two trips earlier this year.

Even now, as he masterminds the renaissance of the Scotland rugby team, Townsend looks to football for lessons. He watches how Guardiola constructs a culture; how Liverpool manager Jurgen Klopp interacts with the media; and how the England national team manage a World Cup campaign. A voracious reader, the 45-year-old has an insatiable appetite for improvement and football offers a rich buffet.

But the sport means more than that to Townsend. Something more ingrained. His father regularly took him to watch Hearts and Hibs play one of the Glasgow teams – “I kept that quiet when I was Warriors coach in case I upset half of the city” – and he was a regular visitor to Hampden in the early 1980s. A quick skim through the cup finalists of that time probably answers the question some readers might be asking.

At the same time, he was impressing sufficiently as a young striker in Galashiels to make a Borders select, then earn a trial with Hutchison Vale. “Until I was about 14, I had this naive view that I could play football one weekend day and rugby another until… forever,” he says. “But football switched to a Saturday so I had to make a decision, and rugby won out.”

And how. Townsend would go on to make 82 appearances for Scotland in a career that took him from the Borders to France, England, South Africa and back home again, where he carved out his coaching reputation with Glasgow Warriors.

It was during that time at Scotstoun that his twin passions began to mesh. With the Warriors briefly based at Firhill, Townsend became familiar with Partick Thistle manager Alan Archibald. Celtic academy coaches would come and watch training, too. As did Robbie Neilson. Gordon Strachan and Craig Brown delivered talks to the players. Sir Alex Ferguson recorded a video message before a big game. “That stuff is like gold dust to me as a coach,” Townsend says. But as an avowed Liverpool fan, the visit of Kenny Dalglish was the most memorable. “The King came in and I was the one in the front row asking all the questions,” he says with a smile.

There was also a surprising visitor last year. “Did you know Pedro Caixinha was a big rugby fan?” Townsend asks of the fleeting Rangers manager. “After my last game at Warriors, he came up to my office. My family were waiting and I told them I’d be five minutes but I couldn’t get him out…”

Townsend moved on to coach Scotland and, with his base now at the high performance centre Oriam on the outskirts of Edinburgh, he and his staff have struck up a relationship with the national football coaches. A bounce game is even in the offing. “We’ve talked about it, but I think they’re a little bit worried because they are older than us… Faddy might be a problem, though.”

Certainly, facing former Scotland icon and assistant national coach James McFadden would be a step up from their more familiar rivals.

Although less frequent now as the joints stiffen, the rugby coaches would regularly play their counterparts from other nations on the eve of Test matches. Townsend, who retreated from the attack to the base of midfield as he became a teenager, recalls beating the Australians with ease before being skelped by Argentina.

“We couldn’t get anywhere near them,” he says ruefully, his competitive instincts still stung by the memory.

Another contest – 11-a-side this time – during the 2011 World Cup brought them up against a semi-professional New Zealand side. “We turned up and saw these sponsored cars; that worried us,” Townsend recalls. “But we did pretty well for a while and held it at 2-2 before they got a couple of late goals.”

Townsend detours into a brief breakdown of the tactics from that bounce game. It demonstrates not only his powers of recall, but also his fascination in how football is played. Indeed, the tactical appreciation of the sport is something he believes rugby can learn from – as is naming the team on the day of the game – so much so that certain concepts from football have been integrated into his rugby coaching. Barcelona’s famed Rondos – more commonly known as boxes or piggy in the middle on these shores – have been adapted into an oval-ball exercise after an inspirational trip to Camp Nou, while Townsend also reveals that “the high press” has become a familiar phrase to his Scotland players.

Taking practices from football is one thing. But could he take his own methods in the opposite direction? “No, not as a head coach,” says Townsend, who addresses the Scottish FA’s pro licence coaches each year. “You might know the sport well as a supporter or an amateur, but I don’t believe anybody could lead a team. You need intrinsic knowledge.”

But what if a football manager asked him to be an assistant or consultant? “Why not?” he says, his eyes widening at the prospect. “I’d love to be involved in another environment. It’s probably more from a selfish point of view, because I don’t know how much I’d help, but being there to maybe give left-field advice on things away from tactics would be good. Who knows?”

That thread of football which has run through Townsend’s life might not have fully unwound itself quite yet, then.

This article first appeared in Issue 10 of Nutmeg, a Scottish football periodical available by subscription at: www.nutmegmagazine.co.uk