These days, he scouts for Tottenham, doing what he always loved — playing or watching football. From Manchester United to Wrexham, Brian Carey has seen the obscene spending and the hand-to-mouth existence of the haves and have nots.
SOMETIMES he remembers the beginning, or maybe it was the end of the beginning. Brian Carey had already signed with Manchester United but he still had FAI Cup duties to fulfil with Cork City. One of those games stays with him. “Semi-final of the FAI Cup against Bray Wanderers, and in that game a ball came across the park towards me - and went straight under my foot.
“I’ve been thinking about that since beginning work with Tottenham - I’ve thought of who might have been watching me that day and what they thought of that. It comes back to ‘conscious competence’, the difference between being at home in the front garden, throwing the ball on the roof and catching it on the half-volley. Happy, confident, no coach there: in the zone.
“At United I started to think about playing. Being told ‘this is wrong, try that’ - all that information, which you want on one hand, but on the other hand overloads you.
“Now if I’m dealing with kids my attitude is more ‘let the game teach the kids’ - help them along, instruction along the way, but ultimately let them find their way themselves.”
The main elements of a conversation with Carey are all present: the consideration, the thinking, the experience, the examples. At a time when the soccer world is focused on the European Championships, the Cork native represents a different career path: Manchester United, Leicester City, Wrexham. The firestorm of publicity around the Premier League means clubs outside the English top flight may not figure on your radar, but while Carey is now scouting for Spurs, he’s seen the local passion up close and personal.
“Obviously it’s not at the same level, you’re being force-fed the top league through Sky Sports and so on, but I knew lads at Wrexham certainly, supporters of the club, who had no interest in seeing Man United, or clubs like that.
“They’d head to Cowdenbeath versus Alloa before going to Old Trafford. That was their thing; the funny thing to me was the supporters of ‘big’ clubs, how they couldn’t understand that. You also have those lads who want to do all the league and non-league grounds, collect all the programmes and so on. There’s a real culture there of interest in those clubs.
“What do those supporters want ultimately? Some of them are happy with keeping their club stable, which can be more of an achievement than you might think. I’d know the Wrexham situation well, for instance - they’re run by the supporters at present, and they’d love to get from the Conference back to the League, but there’s your dilemma straightaway. They’d need a backer to do that, it takes funds to get up, and I don’t know if they’d like to do that.
“A lot of people want a stable club, but down the line ambition kicks in, and the desire for the club to progress, but that only really happens if you have a plan, and you need finance to back up that plan.”
Planning is a key term for Carey. As he puts it, having money isn’t a plan.
“The reason that people get sacked all the time in football is nobody has a plan. It’s all short-termism. I know, I experienced it myself. I’ve been sacked.
“I’m not saying I was perfect, but looking at those situations, in particular what happened before and after I was there, there was clearly no plan in place.
“Money isn’t a plan. The top clubs have thrown money at problems over the years, and they’ve suffered because of it. You look at Bolton, Blackburn, Charlton, all of those, they spent millions, often on the new fad when infrastructure might have been a better investment.
“Or it was spent on players who mightn’t be up to it. The classic scenario was to spend millions on a Hungarian international or whatever, whereas with Leicester winning the title you might see more players along the lines of Jamie Vardy getting a go. There have been plenty of players who got into clubs because the manager was desperate, the player had a decent reputation, then the whole thing went wrong . . . and again, you’re back to managers getting sacked.
“Everyone thinks the money - and just the money - will make it work, but it doesn’t. The lesson from Leicester is they had everything right around the signings - they created the environment that enabled everything to work, rather than just throwing money at one part of the equation, and throwing everything out of balance.
“Unfortunately, though, there are plenty of examples which show how to do things the wrong way.”
THE money, though, is many people’s first association with the professional game across the water. Working with the youth teams at Blackburn Rovers and as assistant manager with Chesterfield, Carey saw the kids filled with expectations and the adults with a sense of entitlement.
“People look at top pros and see the sports car and the Gucci gearbags, all of that. I’ve seen it from two different sides in the last few years, whether that’s with the kids at Blackburn or working with the first team at Chesterfield.
“First of all, you have to create the right environment. The player’s age doesn’t matter. It’s a matter of the staff saying, ‘this is where you are and this is what you can become’.
“We used to have a saying at Blackburn for the kids and their parents, ‘I’ll let you fail’. We’d made a video of all the kids who’d gone through the system that we showed the parent of kids, and it showed whether they’d become first team players, whether they’d decided to qualify as physios, say, and stay involved in the game, or drifted from football altogether. Warts and all.
“We’d show that to the kids and their parents, what could happen in their couple of years in the system at Blackburn, and tell them, ‘here’s your target’.
“If you gave them responsibility they’d respond.
“But you’re also talking about kids who’d be buying a Versace washbag for four hundred pounds because the pros had them - though those kids are making eighty quid a week. It’s hard.”
Three decades in the pro game give Carey a feel both for the trends that drift in and out of fashion and an eye for the basics that are always in vogue.
“I came across a picture of myself with Cork City at 21, supposedly fully grown, and I was as skinny . .. I was late to the pro game - I’d been to college and so on - so I was thirsty for knowledge always. I had commitment and determination but technically I was nowhere near the level when I got to United.
“When I got to Wrexham the lads would slag me for stretching and yoga, and there’s always a fad, but the basics - hydration, a good diet, proper preparation in the gym, those are constant. “
So is coaching. Carey divides good coaches into two categories: “Coaches who can improve an individual and a coach who can improve a team.
“Martin O’Neill’s very good with a team - makes things simple, doesn’t complicate matters. Again, that’s a bigger deal than you might imagine. Colin Lee was a coach I had at Leicester who’d take his time and practice in training what you were supposed to do on the Saturday, which sounds obvious but was actually a huge help. The sessions were the same as what you did in a game and my performance levels went through the roof. ‘We’re doing this all week, all month’ - go for it.
“Joey Jones, Brian Flynn, Kevin Reeves, the guys at Wrexham, they made you feel appreciated. They were inspiring. Joey had European Cup medals at home - probably tucked away in a plastic bag, very unassuming - but he made you want to win for him.
“At Man United I struggled early on with injuries and so on, but Jimmy Ryan came in as a coach and stripped everything down to basics. Simple things. He took the time and if I hadn’t had that I might have drifted home.”
The basics are dear to the former defender’s heart: “When I was with United I’d have been comparing myself to midfielders, strikers - the likes of Adrian Doherty, for instance - when I should have been concentrating on heading the ball, defending. The things that I needed to be good at.
“They’re always important. Always. What some people overlook, for instance, is that Leicester’s style is based on two centre-halves defending.
“It sounds common-sense, but it’s essential because to a large extent the Barcelona style has come in in the last 10 years. I think you’re seeing a lot of centre-halves being picked who can step out from the back and pick a pass, or play their way through the midfield, rather than players who can head the ball clear or get in where it hurts.
“Finding the balance is tricky, but generalising hugely - which I shouldn’t do - a lot of Irish players come up through the ranks playing Gaelic football and hurling, confrontational sports. Again, I’m generalising, but because of that a lot of them are brave, committed, they want do well, and they have the basics. That’s why you’d be amazed how many managers and coaches in England go for those players. The reliable, seven-out-of-ten types.”
How about the nine-out-of-10 types?
“Ha, I tried to stop a few of them over the years,” he laughs. “Skilful players? Over the years you’d come across guys with speed, touch . . . going back to my time with United, Giggs was coming through and he was the one. So quick. You needed to get close to him early or else it was all over, he was gone. As for the Liam Brady, Paul Scholes pick-a-pass type - David Beckham was top of the tree for me until he went out wide. He was ahead of people in terms of ability but he couldn’t tackle, for instance. He got through on ability alone, which is good going.”
Carey collected qualifications along the way but he’s learned to marry those with his own experience.
“I did a degree in sports science and you can think you have all the answers, but there’s also a balance that has to be found. John Toshack’s line was ‘if you’re eating cream cakes but you’re scoring hat-tricks, keep eating the cream cakes’.
“That’s extreme but there has to be a balance. Being a pro is a 24-hour mindset on one level, but you can’t be switched on all the time, you’ll burn out. You have to strike that balance between focusing on your profession and switching off.”
Of course, switching off has to be managed too . ..
“Whatever’s happening in society is happening in football, that’s common sense,” he says. “Don’t think for one second it’s squeaky-clean, it only makes sense that whatever’s happening outside football will be reflected in the game.
“I’ve seen them all - food, drinking, gambling, all of those compulsive behaviours pop up in the game.
“Performance-enhancing drugs? I was joking to people recently that the likes of Jamie Vardy will get cloned for the future, but that’s because the business is so lucrative. In my experience I never came across an individual I knew was into PEDs, or an opponent.
“By its nature I know it wouldn’t be discussed. It’s something I never came across but because getting players to the top level is so lucrative it’d be naive to think people aren’t stepping over the line.”
THAT scouting gig keeps him in touch with the game, particularly in the northwest of England. “Spurs send me a list of five or six names and it’s ‘tell us what you see’, basically’ — from the physiological aspect, fitness, technical ability, psychological - if the player is acting up on the field, anything. They have things they’re looking for specifically, while Manchester United will have different things they’re interested in, and so on.
“I don’t pick the names, so they have probably collated a lot of information and these are the names coming out. I give my opinion. Everybody’s into statistics and Moneyball and so on, but you need eyes on the ground too for the stuff that doesn’t come up on stats. Those are hugely important, but you need both working together.”
He’s also starting his own business. After years of listening to complaints from Irish teams landing in England, he’s started sportingreferrals.com: “I’d have lads ringing me saying, ‘our coach never turned up’, ‘we were playing the wrong team’, ‘the referee was nine years old’ - all this sort of stuff, and over the years I ended up helping lads out.
“In March a schools team came over from Ireland and I felt they were being ripped off, so I helped them out with a few things. From my time in the professional game I’d have good contacts and experience, so I went to Spain, Portugal, around Europe, the UK and Ireland, of course, to do some ground work.
“I’m looking to move teams around - and not just soccer, either, I know GAA and rugby teams are looking to play and train abroad as well and I’ve been in touch with some GAA teams already. If they need help and want to improve, I can give them a hand.”
Why not? Helping and learning is what he’s been doing for almost 30 years.
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