United’s head coach Garry Monk wanted a big challenge for his next job which would test him as a person and boss, while bringing the rewards if successful. He says he’s got all those ingredients at Leeds. Phil Hay reports.
The past is never far behind anyone at Leeds United. Garry Monk was about to start yesterday’s training session in Dublin when Johnny Giles, a luminary of Elland Road, arrived on site for a brief visit. After speaking for a while, Giles shook hands and left Monk to his work. Management? “I didn’t like it,” the Irishman joked.
Monk, in contrast, caught the bug; so much so that when Swansea City first named him manager, his wife was pregnant and about to give birth. “She was expecting my twin boys,” Monk says. “I go straight into the job at Swansea and then they come along two weeks later! It was all a bit chaotic. But that’s management. I love my work.”
That scenario was a good and early lesson in the actualities of his job: the commitment, the stress, the impossible task of managing time. And in a tent beside the training fields at the Irish Football Association’s headquarters, beside wheelie-bins doubling as ice baths for his squad, Monk sounds happy and buoyant. His sacking by Swansea last December separated him from a sport he had worked in daily for 20 years. He had been at Swansea for 11 of those, as a player before turning to coaching. Part of the furniture one day, gone the next.
“It really wasn’t that hard, or not like you might think,” he says. “These things happen especially when you go over to the management side. Everyone knows it’s more volatile than playing. Every manager I’ve ever spoken to has told me to get used to that. It’s good advice.”
Monk at 37 is a young head coach even by today’s standards. He was a Premier League boss at the age of 35, invited to start that part of his career near the top. For a while at Swansea it was good for him; very good for him and his reputation. Then one win in 11 league games – 11 at the end of 77 as manager – led Swansea to a decision which the club took “very reluctantly and with a heavy heart”. Monk was sacked on December 9.
“It was the first time in my whole career where I had a period out of football,” he says. “That was very strange and I found it very difficult to adapt in the first couple of months.” Were Swansea justified in sacking him or were the club too quick to act? “I honestly don’t think about that. I don’t dwell on it. For a while I was in this strange situation (of being out of a job) but I realised soon enough that I had to get to work – and not just back into management.
“I did a lot of studying in those six months. I analysed what I did in my time at Swansea. There were many positives but there were negatives too, the same as anyone. I tried to be honest about those and I tried to get my mind clear about certain situations – why they happened, what you would do differently, what I maybe did wrong.
“I went to Seville to see how that club was run, I analysed the way different sports work – rugby, cricket, hockey, baseball – and I spoke to a lot of people in football. I wanted to get back into management as soon as possible but that time was really useful.
“It’s easily wasted if you sit around doing nothing because you never get the chance to do any of that when you’re in a job. You don’t get free time. Managers always have something to think about or something to deal with. I’m not complaining about that. I just felt that when the opportunity came to get myself out there and better myself, I had to take it. How else do you learn?
“And of course I got some time with the family. It was unusual and it was nice. That’s another sacrifice you make but by the summer they were ready to kick me out the house and I was ready for them to kick me out. I think we were all glad when the chance at Leeds came my way.”
And so to Leeds. When Monk became head coach last month, the club’s seventh in two years, he seemed to be investing his potential and his record in the riskiest position going. He was, perhaps unexpectedly, a sound and imaginative appointment. Some might call his decision a risk or blind faith but Monk is more pragmatic. He liked Massimo Cellino when he spoke to him first and says he was not warned off the job by anyone around him. Cellino has been close to Monk in Ireland this week and present at several training sessions, though the Italian and Giles – an open critic of Cellino’s – conveniently avoided a meeting yesterday.
“I needed to get my teeth back into something,” Monk says. “There was interest, there were other jobs, but Leeds matched my own ambition. What I mean is that I wanted a really big challenge. I wanted to take something difficult on, something that was going to test me. I wanted to come to a club which would demand a lot of me – but where the rewards at the end of it all could be really special. I think that’s Leeds United.
“As I see the game, there’s no such thing as a honeymoon period for managers anymore. Maybe there was once but you don’t expect one now, or you shouldn’t. Yeah, it’s tough but that’s the way it is and nobody forces you to be a manager. It’s best to accept the reality and come into a job organised and well-planned so you hit the ground running. It’s the only way and I’m happy that I’ve got six weeks (of pre-season) here – much as we’re cramming a lot in.
“My way of thinking’s quite simple: you do your best, put everything you can into the players and you hope it’s successful. I’m more than confident that it will be successful here, more than confident.”
Monk, who has a 12-month contract at Elland Road, described Cellino as “misunderstood” when he spoke at his first press conference on June 2. “When I sat down with him I had a good feeling about him and the club,” he says. “One thing that I think gets under-estimated is how much he wants the club to do well. From that first meeting I knew I was interested in the job and the more we talked, the more I liked the sound of it. I felt I could come here and do something.
“He does know football, I can tell you that. There are lots of people in football who don’t, or don’t know as much as they should. But it’s not for me to speak about what’s gone on before. It doesn’t bother me and I’ve never lived in fear of my job, even at Swansea. I’ve proved in the past that I’m capable of delivering a good brand of football, a winning brand of football, so I’ve got a reason to believe in myself.”
Winning football has been United’s holy grail under many different manager and several different owners. Monk is not expecting breathing space at Elland Road or even asking for it. “Football is totally results driven now,” he says. “That’s the be-all and end-all so as a manager you trust what you do and you trust the players to go out and do what you’ve asked them to do. You back your style and identity and you believe that it can win games. I proved at Swansea that more often than not we produced winning football.”
So what is Monk’s identity? Steve Evans before him promised winning football but delivered too little in the eyes of Cellino to keep his job at the end of last season. Uwe Rosler’s idea of “heavy metal” – a phrase coined by Jurgen Klopp – kept him in post at Leeds for only 12 games. Brian McDermott, Neil Warnock and others; no brand has confidently established itself at Elland Road since Simon Grayson’s talented squad began falling apart in 2011.
“Words are easy to say but I like my teams to be aggressive,” Monk says. “I like us to get on the front foot, I like us to have the ball and to be possession-based but not in terms of statistics or keeping the ball for the sake of it. I don’t want to come off the pitch with 800 passes and be happy about that when we’ve not won the game or scored any goals. I try to be versatile, to make the players know when to be more offensive and when to be more defensive. It’s about being smart, especially in a league as competitive as the Championship.
“But I want the players to be excited by the football they’re playing and I want the fans to be excited by the football they’re watching. The worst thing for me would be people coming in, paying their money and watching what they think is boring football. I’ve got a responsibility there, definitely. But the bottom line at the end of it all is that you have to play winning football. You have to be a winning team.”
Monk’s finishes on the subject of promotion, an avoidable topic at Leeds but one which is slightly premature a game into pre-season. Managers talk about the next fixture, the next training session, the next signing and the immediate priorities but any coach at Elland Road who doesn’t think about the bigger picture could be accused of missing the point.
“It (promotion) is the ambition of all of us and there’s no getting away from that,” Monk says. “The concentration for us is day-to-day but you have to have an ambition. You have to have a dream and you have to have an end focus. I want my work to achieve that as soon as possible.” And therein lies the lure of the job: the knowledge that the man who breaks the ceiling at Leeds will spend his years walking on water, as Johnny Giles still does.