31st August 2018
In Focus: Mike Phelan on the ‘Manchester United machine’ and his new role in Australia
With turmoil at Manchester United, and no one sure who’s to blame, some leading journalists feel a Sporting Director is the answer. All rather timely you could say as former United assistant manager Mike Phelan settles into his new post as Consultant Sporting Director at Australian League outfit Central Coast Mariners. UCFB academic and Sensible Soccer Director Dave Horrocks caught up with Mike earlier this week to bring you an extended interview and to reveal how he’s settling in Down Under.
So Mike, why Central Coast Mariners?
I have had a year out now and it’s the first real break I’ve had since Manchester United in all honesty. That has allowed me the time to really think about things and what I want to do next in the game.
How did this role come about and what is it?
It all started with a chance meeting with owner Mike Charlesworth when I was working in London for Sky, we had a coffee, he is a switched on owner with good ambition and an understanding of the building blocks and processes of success.
And the role?
The role is ‘Consultant Sporting Director’ overseeing the football club as a developing concern, a community hub, ultimately their long-term sustainability and the ‘on-pitch’ success of the football club at all levels.
What will that entail?
A lot in all honesty. The Mariners finished bottom of the A-League last year although this isn’t as disastrous as it may appear, as there is no relegation from the league. Bottom is not acceptable in any football environment but what impressed me most is how Mike was looking at the bigger picture and wanted to address things throughout the football club from top to bottom.
This role will not be solely a first team instant results fix. The job entails the bigger picture, the youth academy, the community, the wider provision on the sporting side of the business operation and the support personnel that surround all of this, the governing bodies in Australia and its overarching region, the facilities, the mode of operation, the standards of work, the chains of accountability and ultimately building something over a period of time where people enjoy coming to work, people have direction, a goal and a purpose and eventually Central Coast Mariners teams becoming successful.
This appears different from coaching and certainly a wider remit, is this something you’ve been preparing for?
Yes, absolutely, and in two ways in particular. Firstly, while I was at Manchester United, that is a 24/7 organisation with high quality playing and support staff and when you are in it the nature of the beast is always: What next? How can we push boundaries? We’ve won today so how do we win tomorrow? When I came out I went into other jobs at Norwich and at Hull City and never really reflected extensively on what I’d done in my time at United and more importantly how.
While at United I had two main roles. My first key role was to coach and prepare the first team and then my second role was assistant manager to Sir Alex. These jobs were totally different. In the coaching I had to challenge the players – top-class players – every day and consistently be a part of taking them to another level personally and tactically in the context of how Manchester United are approaching each block of games. We were expected to win everything, we had a constantly evolving process in terms of new players coming in from our own academy and internationally from other world class leagues and you’ve had to integrate all that into eleven players to perform once every three days. Looking back that was a fantastic job, a big responsibility, but a great job and a very enjoyable one, but a role that needed constant planning, evaluation and thought. The detail I have inside my head and in my office at home now which I’ve finally had time to reflect on and evaluate is astronomical in relation to what I’m seeing and hearing elsewhere.
And the second role as assistant manager to Sir Alex Ferguson?
That was a totally different ball game. There was still some coaching involved in key moments and important tactical situations, but by and large this was quite literally as it says on the tin, assisting the manager in running a big football operation. We had one of the most successful academies in world football and I had to be aware of that and have a professional eye on what’s going on in there, and also what we needed and possibly when we may need it in terms of the first team. There were many coaches involved at this stage of Manchester United – the gaffer, René Meulensteen, Eric Harrison, Tony Strudwick and myself and it’s a case of that blend being right for the team, the units and of course each individual player.
Alongside that you are dealing with a highly efficient youth system run by the likes of Brian McClair, Paul McGuinness, Warren Joyce and Tony Whelan among others. We had an unbelievably progressive and efficient sport science department run by Tony Strudwick involving a multitude of staff with responsibilities right across the range of the human body, right through from a player’s feet to his eyes. We had external consultants involved such as Nick Littlehales (sleep), Gail Stephenson (eyes), we had a recruitment department scanning and travelling the globe looking for audacious young talent for our future and also for what I’d class as first team ready talent to challenge an already successful squad. All of this as you can imagine was a very big awareness and information management operation to enable discussion with the manager and assist him in his decision-making process once things find their way into his office. In a nutshell, I had to know and understand everything. You can’t say to Sir Alex “leave that one with me, I’ll get back to you, boss”.
You said you’d prepared for this next step in two ways in particular, what else have you been doing to get to this point?
Well, in all honesty, it’s not specific preparation for any new role as such, it’s more personal development. To be fair this was also spurred by my days with Manchester United. During my time at the club we were always digging around, researching if you will. It was an obsession in our culture to know and understand high-performance and we spent time in some very interesting situations; there is a lot to be learned from these and I wanted to re-ignite that part of my life.
Could you give any examples?
We visited many people and places. We spent time at NASA; we were lucky enough to visit Nelson Mandela on several occasions; I’ve spent time in The White House and in military academies such as West Point in New York. We were very privileged to be regulars at Nike and integral in their performance lab. We looked at other sports such as the National Football League and spent time with the Philadelphia Eagles; we looked at British Cycling over here and even spent time immersed in Chinese ancient Buddhist Monk environments. There were a whole bunch of experiences and they contribute to you as a person then as a team and a culture in terms of things such as discipline, standards, acceptable and non-acceptable behaviours, and ultimately a way of life – all of this helps players as performers and management staff as leaders. I’ve spent time looking at this over the last 18 months and also reigniting myself through reading, studying and engaging with informative people.
So in terms of putting that into the ‘here and now’ what has your evaluation and further study entailed?
My evaluation has helped me to be absolutely certain of what makes a winning organisation and that’s not something I’ll be giving away in this interview! Let’s be fair, I’ve been involved as a player, a coach and an assistant manager in a serial winning first team environment and a prolific youth development programme for a very long time. Reflecting on and documenting this has been an extremely energising and interesting process. My further study is really an extension of this through books, visits, chats and TV, all in related high-performance fields, which believe it or not I’ve not really had time to watch in extended detail in these last 20 years.
Can you give us some examples?
I’ve spoken with Eddie Jones at England Rugby and Kate Richardson-Walsh of England Hockey, both in meetings. I’ve got involved with academics and tapped their brains, as they are at the forefront of tomorrow’s world. I got involved with a virtual reality company and helped them develop what I think is fantastic technology, which will be integral to the modern footballer and the modern coaching process. I’ve read books such as The Story of Nike by Phil Knight, read articles on successful businessman such as Jeff Bezos of Amazon. I watched with fascination the recent documentary where Anthony Joshua and Wladimir Klitschko met again at Wembley to discuss their title fight and the process of the two boxers as people and athletes. I’ve met with surgeons and with leading businessmen and women from the likes of Gulf Oil and Tag Heuer and I’ve also set up two companies which are in their early stages but doing well in grassroots football and in sports education for colleges and universities. I’ve generally networked and tapped into the brains of various business leaders, sports people, academics and visionaries on my travels around England, Australia and the Middle East, and the whole thing has been rather refreshing and energising and I’m now ready to bring something back to the game.
Have you had any offers in England or is Mike Phelan’s work done in this country?
Yes, I have, and who knows?
Is that something you’d like to discuss?
I have spoken on various levels to three clubs and been tentatively linked with others but not pursued them after I’d done my homework. I think as this interview reveals, to be fair, I have a value and I have a process and for me it’s a case of those things being aligned for me to work for a club and for a club to achieve what they say they want to achieve. Mike Charlesworth and Central Coast Mariners are what impress me right now and that is what I have committed to. I had many successful years at Manchester United and won 26 major honours as player, coach and assistant manager and there’s a lot more left in Mike Phelan, I can assure you of that.
Is it difficult for you perhaps in England, having been in the machine that is Manchester United for so long?
Far from it. People are often sometimes too quick to presume and not check the facts. I’ve won titles as a player at Burnley and Norwich; I’ve done the leg work and earned my coaching stripes at the likes of Stockport and Blackpool; and in 18 months at Hull City we won promotion to the Premier League in extremely difficult circumstances.
Was Hull a blip on your CV?
I wouldn’t say so. Firstly, we achieved promotion to the Premier League, many a bigger club has been trying and failing on that front for a long time as we all know. The issue was that we probably achieved that promotion by outperforming the car we were in and Steve Bruce knew that, which would ultimately be the catalyst for him leaving.
And your time in charge?
Well again I think context is important. We had the smallest and worst prepared squad in the history of professional football. I myself was not actually given the job until October, then to add to that all my coaching staff left within this interim period. To be anywhere near still in with a chance of survival and be in the semi-finals of a cup was arguably a miracle.
That can’t have been enjoyable?
In a perverse way I did enjoy the challenge. We were fighting every day, I was trying to improve the club in terms of culture and processes and I was trying to get in world class coaching staff. I was enjoying working with young players with vast potential such as Harry Maguire, Andy Robertson, Ryan Mason and Jarrod Bowen, and I was assisting in the coaching opportunities and next career education of people such as Michael Dawson. All the club really needed was alignment, commitment and patience and we would have been fine. It wasn’t to be at Hull City but I did enjoy it. Has it added to me learning? Yes, absolutely.
So returning to the new venture, Central Coast Mariners. What’s the current situation and when do you start?
Well, I’ve already been out there on a 10-day visit. The owner was very diligent in his processes and flew me out to Australia to see for myself what he was talking about in terms of the whole organisation and how it operates. I spent time with various people from the different sectors in the club; I looked at the expansion plans; I took in an A-League play-off game; I coached in the academy and met all the staff from first teams to youth and academy, the coaches, and externally linked parties such as staff from The Australian Institute of Sport. I’ve done my additional homework and football is the most popular and fastest growing sport in the country, which was a surprise to me in all honesty. I feel the country is on the up and that the popularity and potential is vast for football in Australia and for Central Coast Mariners.
I have connections in Australia from my time at Manchester United in Warren Joyce (Melbourne City manager) and have spent time with him getting to understand more about the challenges, opportunities and processes of football in Australia. Central Coast have a history and have won the A-League on two occasions and been runners up twice. The youth and ladies’ teams are doing very well right now and should hopefully step up to the next level for the coming season. I have met the first team manager Mike Mulvey and the first team coach Nick Montgomery and both are energetic and enthusiastic football people. I have spent time with the academy manager Ken Schembri who is also doing great things with the younger generation at Central Coast. There is work to be done, there are good people in place and it’s now a case of adding to and building a structure and an operational process for the future of the football club and in time success will come. There will be a lot of hard work involved but with a belief and a patience in what I will be implementing over the next 12 months and beyond, great things can be achieved and I’m looking forward to the journey.
Mike Phelan was speaking to Sensible Soccer director and UCFB academic Dave Horrocks.