'Owen Coyle is God' proclaimed a banner during WrestleMania XXV in Houston, Texas, which was clearly visible on millions of television sets around the world. It left devotees of WWE worldwide scratching their heads in bewilderment, followers of British football smiling and fans of Burnley Football Club nodding in agreement.
For Owen Coyle is the manager who has taken the Clarets from 13th place in the Championship to the Premier League in just 18 months. FIFA.com caught up with the Scot as he made his way to Manchester for a League Managers' Association dinner.
Burnley are now sitting tenth in England's top flight, after taking 15 out of a possible 18 at Turf Moor. They claimed the first point on their travels last Saturday, when they held big-spending Manchester City to a 3-3 draw. The 43-year-old is seen as one of the rising stars of the management scene, and with his record matching his energy, charisma and enthusiasm, he appears poised for a successful future.
Indeed, given his achievements at Turf Moor, which included a semi-final appearance in the League Cup last season after defeating Chelsea and Arsenal along the way, Scottish giants Celtic were reportedly interested in taking him to Glasgow following the departure of Gordon Strachan. However, with no official approach made, the Burnley board moved quickly to secure his services by offering an improved contract.
FIFA.com: Owen, in just over a week's time you’ll be celebrating your second anniversary as Burnley manager. Could you have imagined when you took the job on that you'd be in this position?
Owen Coyle: Well, it’s absolutely flown! It’s been a whirlwind, but I have to say that I’ve loved every minute of it. In terms of my expectation, you always have ambitions and aspirations and when I first spoke with Barry Kilby [the Burnley chairman] and Brendon Flood [the club's joint operational director], I said that I wanted to take Burnley into the Premier League. I never said that I would do it in 18 months, but that’s what we’ve done. I have to say though, we’ve worked collectively, including the fans, to bring that to fruition.
What’s it like to be a manager of a football club? Is it a lonely job?
On the whole, I don’t think it is. By my nature, I’m a people person and that’s how I go about my business. I’m surrounded by great staff. It’s not a one-man crusade and all the backroom staff have played a massive part in that. Obviously, when you lose games – and we all hate losing games – it’s a horrible feeling, so yes, at that point it can be lonely, because as much as we are unified, ultimately you’re the manager and the responsibility rests with you. It’s not a nice feeling, I can assure you.
Was it easier when you were a player?
For me, there’s no substitute for playing. Your playing days are the best days of your life. If you’re playing well, the manager will pick you. Coaching and managing is the next best thing, there’s no doubt about that. But as a manager you’re responsible not only for picking the squad, but also a football club and an entire town. Because of the support we have, this football club plays a huge part in the life of Burnley, and our results affect people. That is a massive responsibility and it’s not one I take lightly.
You're still turning out for the reserves too alongside the youngsters – is the hands-on approach an important part of your management philosophy?
It is. Last year, I played through necessity because we didn’t have the numbers, but there have been other times when I’ve decided to play, as we've got young players who I believe have great potential to make a good career out of the game. In reserve games, when there are just a couple of hundred people there, you can impart your wisdom and experience on to the players. If I’m playing alongside a youngster in one of these games, I can physically and mentally get into these players, because they’re right next to me. I’ve done it with Jay Rodriguez and he’s come on leaps and bounds, and I’m doing it now with Wes Fletcher. I also want those youngsters to understand the demands of playing in my first team.
You played for 12 different clubs during your playing days. Do you think that’s helped you to achieve success as a manager, given the different situations and characters you faced?
Yes, there’s no doubt that your personal experiences mould your character and if you channel them in the right way, they can only benefit you. I’ve had a fair few kicks in teeth, but they help to form the person you are. I was very fortunate to play to a very good age and I’ve been a player-coach since my early 30s, then I progressed to be a co-manager and a player-assistant manager, so I was able to learn a lot of the coaching tools while I was still playing.
While you were at Airdrie in Scotland, the team achieved remarkable success in the top flight and in various cup competitions by playing a brand of football which was uncompromising but effective in terms of results. However, at Burnley, you’re playing attractive football. Is that a conscious decision and have you ever been tempted to abandon your principles in order to get results?
Particularly with a small club now coming into the Premier League, there is the temptation to try and win ugly. Plus, we have the smallest budget in the division by a country mile. If there was a financial league, we would fall off the bottom of the page. It’s a total mis-match, but we have a belief that by passing and moving the ball and showing quality on it, that we can win points. And, to an extent, we’ve done that. There will still be trials and tribulations along the way, but we’re up for the battle and we’re desperate to remain in the world’s best league.
I always felt that when the time came for me to be a manager, I would always encourage my players to play entertaining and attacking football. And yes, I think that comes from some of my playing experiences, as being a striker against some of the bigger clubs, I was asked to double up as a left-back! Now, I would carry those instructions out to the letter of the law, out of respect for the manager, but I can’t say it was enjoyable playing defensively. I wanted to score goals and show I was good enough to play against the best players and best teams.
So now I encourage my players to be positive, albeit in the framework of a good shape and a desire to work hard when they didn't have the ball. But I also wanted them, when they had a chance to play, to go and express themselves and try and win. You have to be respectful of the fact that your fans have worked ever so hard all week and they’ve earned the money they’ve used to pay for the ticket. In the current climate, they’ve probably also made sacrifices to come to the game, so with that in mind, I believe they’ve come to watch a team who is trying to go out and win.
I don’t think they’d get a lot of enjoyment from me putting 11 men behind the ball and trying to hold on to a point from the first whistle to the last. For me, that’s not football. It’s not for Burnley Football Club and it’s not for Owen Coyle. And that’s why I’ve always, and I always will, try and win football matches.
If you look at the Premier League today, you've got yourself, Sir Alex Ferguson, David Moyes and Alex McLeish all from the Glasgow area. What is it about the city which makes it breed managers?
Well, first of all, it’s a footballing city, so because it’s in the mindset of the people, I think that’s helped. But I think if you asked any of us about what we've achieved, nobody’s handed it to us, we've all had to earn it. And I think that’s got a lot to do with your upbringing and social skills, which brings about a burning desire to be the best you can be. Things aren’t always achievable, but if you leave no stone unturned to try and do it, then you can’t have any complaints. I think all of us would agree that we’ve needed a little bit of luck, but we’re all very driven people.
I was never the greatest player in the world, but then again, I should never have played professional football in terms of my physique. I only weighed ten stone and I was a striker, which is unheard of. But I had the drive and the burning ambition to be the best I could be. I was pleased with how my career went as a player. I didn’t have much pace, but I knew where the goals were and I could run all day, so I maximised that. Back then, I tried to drive myself on and that’s still the case today.
It’s almost been six months since the play-off win at Wembley. What lessons have the squad and you learned in that time?
We’ve learned that if you switch off for a single minute, you’re liable to be punished. That’s happened to us, particularly in our away games against Chelsea, Liverpool and Manchester City. I’m confident that with more Premier League experience behind us, we’ll cope a lot better. It’s a learning curve for us all. The players don’t have all the answers, I don’t have all the answers, but I’m prepared to listen and learn on a daily basis and I’m trying to get my players to do the same.
You came up against Manchester City on Saturday, and it was a case of a £7m XI coming up against £140m XI, yet you held them to a draw – and deservedly so. You also did it in the cup last season. How are you able to bridge those gaps?
Well, you can’t be thinking about how much a team has cost before you’ve played them. When all said and done, it’s 11 men against 11 men. I have a belief in my squad that they will perform to their maximum, physically and mentally, each and every day for us to achieve points in the Premier League. If we do that we can, because we do have quality. We are good to watch, we have players who can hurt the opposition, but we have to do that as a team. The thing about our football club is that, as good as the individuals we have, our strength is the unity, belief and hunger of our group as well as our organisation. We work hard when we’re in possession and we work hard when we’re not in possession. I think those factors give you a chance against anybody, regardless of finances.
How would you describe the transfer policy at Turf Moor?
Any money we’ve had, we’ve invested in younger players, who we’d hope would grow with us and become better players. If we’d have tried to bring in established Premier League players, we wouldn’t have been able to afford their fee or their salary. But that suits me, I want to bring in young players who I can mould and make better, Steven Fletcher being an example, who can serve this club for years to come. We’ve had to put a business plan in place to secure our future. We couldn’t go out and spend £20m and lose our place in the league, because then we’d be on a downward spiral which has happened to some other clubs, who are now in the third tier of English football. So, we have done our best to attract younger players, who will give us consistency and longevity, to protect the club. We're founder members of the league, and that’s something we take great pride in.
What would be the bigger achievement for yourself, reaching the Premier League or staying in it?
Reaching the Premier League was an unbelievable achievement for us, given that we’d played 61 games in the season, we'd used the fewest amount of players in the Championship and our turnover and revenue was in the league’s bottom four. But to stay in the Premier League would totally surpass the achievement of getting here. Getting here was great, but it's in the past and I can't change it now, but I can affect our survival in this division and I'm doing everything I can to achieve that.
In terms of quality, how much difference is there between the Premier League and the Championship?
Well, there are very good players and very good teams in the Championship. But what each and every Premier League team has is quality players with pace and power, so at any given moment, they can hurt you. So, as I said before, you have to have exceptional levels of concentration. It is the best league in the world and it’s not the best league in the world by accident, it’s because of the world-class standard of players in the league which are present in each and every team.
And finally, Owen, are you ever able to switch off?
To be honest, I love football. I really mean this when I say it, because there are so many clichés connected with the game and it’s very easy to give sound bites, but I genuinely feel so privileged to be the manager of Burnley Football Club and to have made a career out of the game. If I hadn’t have been a footballer, I'd still be paying a fiver to go and play five-a-side because I have a genuine love of the sport, and for me, that’s the way it should be. We all love football, that’s why the fans come week in, week out. It's the greatest game in the world and when you win, it’s the greatest feeling in the world. And for me, it’s only natural that you should be enthusiastic and passionate about it.