In his first spell in charge, Dean Keates showed he’s very good at getting the best out of the people around him. He was secure enough to listen carefully to a range of opinions, while being definitively the boss. Just a couple of weeks after being appointed, this aspect of the club is already coming together.
In giving youth a chance last Saturday, Keates also shone a light on the good work of Dan Nolan with our young players. Five of the starting eleven were youth products, and two more made their debuts off the bench. In the previous round Bryan Hughes gave two youth players a start: the Saint Mirren game was a step forwards, and the kids looked well-prepared.
Bringing Andy Davies back with him is also a positive step. Having a permanent assistant is a positive step; having a coach of Davies’ quality fill that role is great news. The coaching fraternity speak highly of Davies, and his work with our youth players before stepping up is there for all to see.
Being a proficient, diligent coach can be a thankless task. Fans often point the finger at coaches and criticize their input. I can’t see how they can question their work without being at the training ground to see it, but that doesn’t stop them.
I’m not saying it isn’t always legitimate criticism, because sometimes you can see a team isn’t properly prepared. An obvious example was when Wrexham beat Middlesbrough in the FA Cup twenty years ago.
We were struggling in League One, and Boro were a Premier league side with the likes of Paul Gascoigne and Juninho in their ranks. It was plain that their attitude was to just turn up and impose their superiority over a team that was having difficulty two levels down. Perhaps that’ll be an adequate plan more often than not, but they failed to exploit the glaring weaknesses which lesser teams were taking advantage of week-in, week-out, and paid the price.
The most obvious flaw in our side was at the back. Kevin Dearden was a short goalkeeper with no presence in the air and no real interest in devising a strategy to remedy this, save hiding at the near post so he wasn’t in a position to challenge for crosses anyway.
As a result Brian Carey was starting to make mistakes, not because he was cresting the hill, but because he was having to do two men’s jobs. This was illustrated when, with Andy Dibble behind him three years later, he was imperious as we earned promotion.
We were particularly vulnerable from corners: all you had to do was whip the ball into the goalmouth and attack it with tall players. In Gascoigne and Christian Ziege, Boro had two remarkable set piece talents, and they had plenty of aerial targets – Brian Deane and Gary Pallister in particular were man-mountains. Yet they didn’t sweep any set pieces into the danger area, playing them short instead and failing to pass their way through our defence.
As a result we beat them 2-1 and I’d like to say that the game learned that detailed preparation was the way forward, but Robson stayed on the gravy train for many more years, so I guess I’m being a little idealistic!
Dan Nolan is very highly thought-of among coaches, and the development of the young players who have appeared in the Scottish Challenge Cup this season suggests he’s certainly getting something right with them.
He’s protective of his charges too, which is very wise. Denis Smith was a brilliant manager and a smart cookie, but his public proclamations on a couple of teenage prospects were a millstone around their necks.
He predicted that Matty Done would play for England, and claimed Michael Jones would become the best goalkeeper he’d ever worked with in his long career. Praise indeed, but it only served to give the fans an unrealistic level to judge them by.
Nolan, on the other hand, didn’t want any of his youngsters to speak to the press after their first team appearances, as he wanted them to keep their feet on the ground.
Throw in the likes of Matty Sargent and Jack Thorn, who have been loaned out but are the type of players Dean Keates would be likely to look to use, and we’ve an interesting crop of youngsters coming through. It looks like we’ve got the right man nurturing them too. Keates’ modus operandi is to get good people around him and listen to them, while always having the final word. He has some clear, confident voices around him already.