Neale Fenn: Managing the unmanageable

How do managers manage when there’s nothing to manage?
Neale Fenn: Managing the unmanageable
Craving the Buzz:: Cork City boss Neale Fenn admits he’s missing the emotional extremes that are part and parcel of being a manager. Picture: Eóin Noonan/Sportsfile

As best they can, footballers can adhere to personalised fitness programmes throughout the lockdown but what can the gaffers do when there are no games, no training sessions — hell, not even referees to moan about?

“The trouble is, as footballers and managers, you’re always working towards something, with a start date and an end date,” says Cork City boss Neale Fenn.

“We are currently working towards the 19th of June as being the league restart date, with the hope of getting the boys back in a month before that. But we just don’t know if that will come to pass.

“So it’s hard to keep them going when in the back of their minds they might be thinking: ‘Will we really be back in then?’.

I do call them and check on them to see if they’re alright. But a lot of them are young lads and what are they going to say to me except: ‘We’re doing everything we have to do, we’re ok’?”

Fenn’s assistant Joe Gamble, who is also the club’s strength and conditioning coach, has furnished the players with individual fitness programmes to tide them through the lockdown but the manager is the first to admit that, in the absence of collective training as well as games, some kind of condensed pre-season will be essential before teams are ready to resume competitive football.

“You would need at least four weeks, I would imagine, of getting back into it, playing friendlies and getting the groove back again,” he estimates.

“If you look at a normal season, the boys would finish at the end of October and start pre-season in January so that’s two months off. And then you don’t expect the team to have gelled and be doing as well as they might in the first few games.

So there’s no difference there, if you think of us ending in March this time and starting again in June, the break is just as long as a normal pre-season.”

But, again, all of that must come with a significant caveat.

Already, a June 19 restart looks like a wildly optimistic best-case scenario, amid what appears to be a growing belief in Irish football that, barring some major breakthrough in the fight against the pandemic, it could be far later than early summer before the League of Ireland is able to resume — if, indeed, the 2020 season is to be salvaged at all.

But, right now, that’s mere speculation, just one of a host of uncertainties thrown up by these unprecedented times.

In Cork City’s case, another relates to the personnel Fenn will still have at his disposal come the resumption of play.

“Are we going to have the same players as we had when we stopped?” is how he puts it.

“Obviously we’ve got four loan players (Joseph Olowu, Kyron Stabana, Deshane Dalling, and Joe Redmond) who were due to go back to their clubs in June.

"With football here stopping, they are now back in England, and we’re not sure yet what’s going to happen with them.

"It would be great to extend the loans but their clubs don’t know what’s going on.

"We’re in communication with the clubs but it’s all up in the air and there is just no clarity.

“Two or three of those players would be definite starters every week and, if we couldn’t get them back, we’d have to replace them.

"That would be tough but we would have to get on with it. But, again, this situation is unprecedented and no-one is sure how it’s going to go. That’s where we’re at.”

In the meantime, ask Neale Fenn what he is missing most about football and there’s no hesitation in his reply.

“I’m missing the day to day contact with the players. I’m missing just going out there and having the training sessions.

"You’re used to being busy, you’re used to preparing, but now there isn’t that excitement, those ups and downs, that you get as a footballer or as a manager.

"It’s not that I enjoyed the downs as well as the ups but now I miss them both. As any football fan or sports fan will tell you now, there’s nothing to look forward to.”

Does he accept the conventional wisdom which holds that football management is an intrinsically and exceptionally stressful job?

“I’m not someone who stresses out too much over stuff,” he says.

“I like looking for solutions and the reasons why, rather than start panicking. Yes, there’s stress because you’ve got a lot of people relying on how the club do and how the results go.

"You’re also aware of the demands of the crowd, that’s always there in the background, but I wouldn’t be one of those people who have sleepless nights about it.”

He didn’t, he says, succumb to any sense of crisis or of “doom and gloom” around City’s torrid start to the season.

They might only have managed one win in five before the cut-off — including a 6-0 hammering by Shamrock Rovers — but Fenn insists he saw enough positives across those games to suggest his new young side would, given time, be able to get to grips with the challenge.

But all of which is not to say that he is necessarily better armed than most to deal with this new age of anxiety.

“We like routine and we like habits, don’t we?” he reflects. “I can’t just sit there and watch TV, I just can’t do that.

"I’m trying to read a few books but I’m finding that a little bit difficult as well. Your mind tends to be elsewhere because you’re used to being busy, you’re used to having interactions with a lot of people on a daily basis.

"There are 24 players, there are staff, so there’s always a lot going on. That’s not here at the moment so you find yourself trying to find stuff to do. But everyone’s going through exactly the same thing.

“We all just can’t wait to get back.”

In the meantime, alongside family life with his wife and three children, and doing what he can as Cork City manager, he has his own Pro Licence coaching course to be getting on with.

“I’ve been using this time to really focus on that,” he says. “I’ve been doing a lot of watching Germany.

"We were all given, as an assignment, a country to analyse during the Euros qualifiers. I got them and they’re so good to watch.

"They’re really good going forward — maybe a little bit suspect at the back. But they play attacking football which is what I like to see.

"They beat Estonia 8-0, beat Belarus 4-0 and beat Northern Ireland 6-1 so they’ve got plenty of goals in them.

“You have to do video clips of them to show evidence in your analysis of how Germany play, including corners and set-pieces, throw-ins and re-starts.

“So it’s not just watching matches and writing a few notes. It’s very in-depth and takes up a lot of time. But it’s very enjoyable.”

Hmm…so perhaps a distinctive German influence might even be detectable come the longed-for day when the faithful can return to the Cross to see the Rebels back in action.

“Yeah,” says Neale Fenn, with a chuckle.

“I’ve just been on the phone trying to replace the four lads with German ones.”

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