Among old farts and weirdos, a booming Birrell stands out
Apart from the money, you have to wonder why anyone would want to be a high-level sports coach
Football coaches are fired more frequently than a zebra farts, which is every three seconds, apparently. Unless they’re old farts like Arsene Wenger, who creaks around bearing the unfortunate look of a constipated giraffe, or Alex Ferguson, who is not at all like any creature yet born into the animal kingdom, and not in good ways. Or, in seven stints with six clubs in Portugal and England, José Mourinho, who if he hasn’t been made an offer he couldn’t refuse has left “by mutual consent”. And who is simply an animal. Rugby coaches are, without exception, weirdos. Ian McIntosh could scare the shorts off a lock forward with one glance of his glow-in-the-dark eyes, and addresses all and sundry as “Master”. Rudolf Straeuli argues with the bloodless logic and cold, curling smile of Pretoria lawyers everywhere, and wears jackets big enough to host Boswell and Wilkie and all their animals. The more accomplished and therefore famous Jake White became, the more gel he slathered through his middle-aged hair. And to think he used to be called Jacob Westerduin. Cricket coaches? Unless they teach kids how to hold a bat, bowl an away-swinger, and how to catch, they’re charlatans. Get a proper job already.
None of them would last a round with Deontay Wilder, who has made a hobby of putting his support staff in hospital as he prepares for his World Boxing Council heavyweight title showdown with Tyson Fury in Las Vegas on December 1.
“I’ve had hernia surgery where he hit me just under the body protector, on my side,” Wilder’s head trainer, Jay Dias, said.
“I noticed it hurt but I just kept working away. But it kept hurting and hurting and hurting.
“So finally I went to the doctor and he said: ‘You need hernia surgery!’ I was like: ‘What!?’
“He also separated Mark Breland’s shoulder when Mark was doing the mitts and he dislocated coach Cuz’s [Damarius Hill] thumb.”
Two things: Dias was quoted as saying all that by The Sun, which like right-wing rags the world over isn’t afraid to have a laugh at the truth’s expense, and this is boxing — which knows it should be banned but, since it isn’t, is going to have as much fun as it can with its clothes on. Sort of. Truth is, boxing understands the press better than any other sport, and far better than the press understands anything.
But it does make you wonder why anyone would want to be a coach at this level. All together now: for the money, idiot. Indeed, there’s that, and it’s not to be sniffed at; not with Mourinho’s contract with Manchester United said to be worth the equivalent of R340.6m a year to the pouty Portuguese. That’s enough to buy 51 million wings at Nando’s. Plus a side.
Still, coaches shouldn’t need danger pay just to do their jobs. They also shouldn’t have snarky reporters like this one, who hasn’t a clue what they’re like when they’re not prowling the touchline or sat between the sponsors’ banner and a thicket of microphones for the squillionth time, writing all sorts of unflattering, unfounded, unacceptable things about them.
And it’s not as if they can go out there themselves to score for their teams, or to stop their teams being scored against. They’re stuck on that touchline, a bird on a wire wishing like hell they were a drunk in a midnight choir. Worse, when things go badly it’s the coach who’s press-ganged into explaining why and not the players who got it wrong where and when it mattered.
Adrian Birrell, a rarity in that his sanity seems to have survived everything higher-grade coaching has thrown at him, gets this important aspect of the profession better than most.
SA were 117/4 in search of a Himalayan 492 to beat England after four days at The Oval in July 2017 when Birrell loped into the indoor nets for the post-play press conference.
He arrived with a boomed “Hello!” When he was done saying all the right things in all the right places, smiling all the time, he left with: “Bye-bye! I’ll see you when we’re in trouble again!”
Owning and running a farm in the Eastern Cape no doubt keeps Birrell anchored to reality, as does being married to a high-powered accountant. Susan Birrell landed a big job with an international firm in 2002, which saw the couple move to Ireland. Adrian, with that seemingly effortless ability to attract positivity that follows nature’s good people wherever they go, found himself signed up as Ireland’s coach.
For once, his sanity threatened to desert him: “I got myself ready thinking that I was going to meet the board and go to some big meeting. I got myself all dressed up and brought a briefcase with nothing in it.”
But for every Birrell there’s a Bill Walsh, who won three Super Bowl championships with the San Francisco 49ers, was twice named the National Football League’s (NFL) coach of the year, and has been inducted into gridiron’s hall of fame.
He would also be up for uttering the most mealy-mouthed nothingnesses ever to come from a coach. Here’s one: “The [best] coaches … know that the job is to win … know that they must be decisive, that they must phase people through their organisations. And at the same time they are sensitive to the feelings, loyalties and emotions that people have toward one another. If you don’t have these feelings I do not know how you can lead anyone. I have spent many sleepless nights trying to figure out how I was going to phase out certain players for whom I had strong feelings, but that was my job. I wasn’t hired to do anything but win.”
You had us at “win”, Bill. You lost us at “feelings”, and by the time you got to “emotions” we would rather have been trapped in a stuck lift with Wenger, Ferguson and Mourinho than listening to you.
Still, Walsh’s teams won 102 games and lost 63. Only 44 of the NFL’s 489 head coaches have had more victories.
Could it be that his players were only too pleased to get away from him and onto the field, leaving him to prowl the touchline in impotent angst while muttering ever more unwieldy lumps of empty management-speak to no one in particular?
They’re football players, Bill. Not accountants. And you’re lucky they’re not zebras.