The Flip Chart
The Gaffer calls us in and we all huddle around him. Picture 24 lads on a training pitch awaiting instructions. He names the team for the game the following day by taking 11 of us over to the side of the pitch and telling the others to keep warm. He lines the chosen 11 in a formation, dragging us around like giant chess pieces. Standing just a foot away from each other it seems so easy to play the game. If the ball goes here you go here, dragged by the arm in that direction. The group huddles around cones that have been laid out on the grass. We are called and then the cones are pointed at. ‘Benno this is you’, he shouts, pointing at the red cone at the back. ‘Ok Gaffer’.
11 bibs are pulled out of a bag by a hunched-over Gaffer and flung in directions. He calls out a player’s name and position. ‘Benno at the back.’ ‘Ok Gaffer.’ He raises his hand and names the team using his fingers. I’m being represented by his right ring finger. ‘This is you Benno at the back’ ‘Ok Gaffer’. He calls us in closer. As we look around us now 11 sports mannequins are in place on the pitch. The Gaffer walks us over to them are around them like a sergeant major. He points at a mannequin near me ‘This fella, who’s quicker than you by the way, is for you Benno.’ ‘Ok Gaffer.’
Later the flip chart will reveal more. The lads are chatting away in a room but everyone instantly stops when the gaffer comes in and heads towards the flip chart. In or out, moved or marking, sub or unused. The pages can sometimes get stuck together and the suspense is briefly held. But once the page is revealed the players look instantly for their own name and position. These moments often take place at hotel conference rooms in business suites with their laid out pens and paper pads. Jugs filled with water and accompanying glasses. An unnatural environment for a footballer.
Maybe in an effort to adapt, some lads test out the comfort of the chairs, their springiness and if they can swivel. They reach for the complimentary hard sweets and pocket a few. The usual Alan Sugar ‘Your Fired,’ impression is thrown out in what may be the only exposure to board room activities some lads might ever experience.
Before the Gaffer arrives, players are often relaxed and playful. This can come at a cost. On one occasion that I remember, players were awaiting a manager (one of the more colourful managers I’ve played under) to appear and name the team. The players were kept waiting long beyond the arranged meeting time, impatiently looking towards the unrevealed flip chart. One player began to get annoyed, vocally airing his doubts about the Gaffer. Then from behind the curtain, the Gaffer appeared. He had been listening the whole time. It would prove to be a long season for the player involved.
When I played in the League of Ireland with Cork City FC we had a colourful manager named Pat Dolan who liked the flip chart. He used to write up on the flip chart C…C…F…C… with a space between each letter. These letters represented Cork City Football Club. But Pat insisted that the players wrote up on the flip chart ‘Confident, Consistent, Focused and Challenged’ in the spaces provided. He used this for motivation and focussing the players and it worked well enough. The only difficulty that would be encountered was when asking players to come forward, take the marker pen and finish off spelling the words. Slowly players would make their way forward like school children to the blackboard. A lot of head scratching, a letter, then a crossed out letter, and eventually the sheepish confession that ‘I don’t know how to spell it.’ ‘Sit down’ Pat would say to a chorus of sniggering from the lads.
A phone going off is another massive mistake in these meetings and players often ring other players to stitch them up. Lads walking into a meeting late can create another tense situation. I made this mistake once myself. Having overslept in the hotel, myself and my roommate rushed down the stairs in a panic. On our arrival into the meeting room the manager of the Irish under-21 team greeted us by saying that ‘If you’re late for a meeting you’ll be late on the pitch.’ and then dropped us from the entire squad for the game. It was the last time that I was late for a meeting.
The naming of the team is an important part of the week for a professional football player because that’s exactly what he or she is meant to be; a player. He’s not meant to be a sitter or a watcher, but a player. In the modern game most clubs have 2 players for each position so with 22 players only 11 can start. This means there will be 11 disappointed lads in a group and maybe more if the squad is bigger. When you work, whatever the work is, you work towards some goal, achievement or accomplishment. When you’re not given the opportunity to do this on a game day it can be very frustrating and disappointing. When this happens it’s important to remain confident, consistent, focussed and challenged, but even more important is to check who’s hiding behind the curtain. Your whole career could depend upon it.