The Agenda: Pressure hits home for Carlisle boss Graham Kavanagh

A wealth of notes, books and badges can only take you so far. Graham Kavanagh tells Stuart Rayner he's been taken aback by the pressures of management at Carlisle

Graham Kavanagh
Graham Kavanagh

It has been a tough week for Graham Kavanagh. For the first time he is rethinking his approach to management.

When Kavanagh sits down in Carlisle United’s media room it is nearly the end of the toughest seven days of a managerial career then only 12 matches old.

A goalless FA Cup draw at Boreham Wood and a televised Johnstone’s Paint Trophy exit to League Two Fleetwood Town bookended problems which until a few weeks ago were someone else’s. Now they keep him awake at night.

Pascal Chimbonda’s groin is playing up and goalkeeper Mark Gillespie has been ruled out for two months. As we speak, Ben Amos is signing a loan contract but he is unavailable for tonight’s Boreham Wood replay.

On top of that Kavanagh has had to defend his decision to take former England Under-18 captain Courtney Meppen-Walter on trial days after his release from prison for death by dangerous driving.

Nothing in four years as Greg Abbott’s assistant prepared Kavanagh for this.

“Thursday was the most difficult day I’ve had since I took the job apart from the day after Greg had just left,” he admits. “After Wednesday night (at Fleetwood) I had to speak with the board and I had meetings with the players, I had to examine myself and what I could have done better.

“I didn’t leave until half six, seven. I’d been up since five o’clock in the morning.

“I’d been at the game and watched the video straight after so I didn’t get to bed until about half two.

“You’re dreaming about players and systems, where we need to improve. One or two things still crop up that you didn’t expect.

“It’s very much easier when you’re an assistant. I took the pressures home but it wasn’t anywhere near the level it is now. You don’t realise at the time. When we lost our first game John (Nixon, the managing director) phoned me on the Sunday to find out what went wrong. That was when it sunk home that I was accountable for all this.”

Being accountable for the Meppen-Walter decision was always going to be tough.

“The kid has made a mistake but it was a pure accident,” he argues. “He’s very remorseful. He can maybe improve the squad. I knew the situation would have repercussions for the football club, the player and myself but these are the decisions you need to make. I would never jeopardise the image or integrity of the club.

“I wanted to see Courtney man to man, see what his body language is like, look him in the eye and see if he was genuine. He was that and more. He’s a really, really good kid and I just hope he gets a chance.” Advice often given to would-be managers is to be their own man. Kavanagh has decided to ignore it. “The biggest thing I’m learning about myself is my reaction can’t always be as honest and expressive,” he says.

“As a player I wore my heart on my sleeve, now I need to rein that in. It becomes too wearing on me and it can come across as very impatient to the players. I want them to feel I’ve got a calmness they can feed off. The players are going to be struggling at times confidence-wise and I’ve got to learn that I can’t be telling them they didn’t do things well enough, we’ve got to find a way to do it.

“We had a session this morning with 21 players in a very tight area and they handled it incredibly well. You see it in fits and starts but not consistently. They are going to make mistakes occasionally and it’s not to worry about it. It can be a little bit frustrating and I’ve vented that at times. I am definitely going to try and be a bit more cautious.”

When Kavanagh was made caretaker manager it was with the stigma of having been the sacked Abbott’s assistant, but three straight wins quickly saw to that. “In my interview they asked what I would say to those people who see me as part of the problem and not the solution,” he recalls. “It was a difficult question. I think I was 18 days into the (caretaker) job and we already had two wins so a lot of things had changed within the building, the dressing room, the training schedule and the framework of what we were trying to do. John said if it hadn’t they wouldn’t have given me the job regardless of results.

“Myself and Greg had quite a few similar ideas but one or two things weren’t similar. Greg was excellent in his time here but towards the end it was difficult because the pressure was getting to him. He accepted it (the sack) was probably inevitable because the results weren’t coming.

“From the first day it was very evident the players were capable and willing of changing. I still ask them to call me Kav. I want them to know I’m approachable.

“There has been a change when I walk into the dressing room, there’s respect now, which is great.

“I’ve had quite a few issues already that haven’t been football-related which the players have been confident enough to ask me about. I’ve done my best to help.

“But there has to be a line. I had an incident on the bus coming back on Wednesday. One or two players weren’t acting in the manner I felt they should have so I addressed it there and then. There were no grey areas.”

Kavanagh’s has been a long apprenticeship.

“I started my badges at 27, got my A licence when I was 34,” he says. “I left Sunderland at 34 and was offered a coaching role at Carlisle, which I jumped at.

“If you’d asked me at 35 was I ready to be a manager I would have said yes but I wouldn’t have been.

“I’m doing my Pro Licence, graduating in the summer, but learning things here on a daily basis you can’t learn on any course.

“At Wigan I would consistently take notes of sessions, pre-season programmes and diets I’d learned. I’d speak to lads in the Ireland team about what they did.

“I’ve still got the notes in a little silver book. There’s phrases from autobiographies of managers and players. I’m reading James Cracknell’s book, I’m also reading a book called ‘The Gold Mine Effect’ on how you spot talent.

“I’m in the course of reading about four books! I’ve obviously read (Jose) Mourinho’s and I’m still only halfway through Clive Woodward’s. He used music in his training sessions and he was talking about sitting on a plane one time speaking to this woman and she gave him an idea he implemented. In every walk of life you can learn something.”

Kavanagh is hoping his players are equally receptive as he tries to teach a more fluid style of football. “It is going to be a slow-burning process,” he cautions. “One week we’re very good, the next week we’re average. That can happen sometimes in the one game.”

Graham Kavanagh: My old room-mate Roy Keane will be better for learning from Martin O'Neill

Graham Kavanagh thinks making the opposite journey to the one he has set out on could be the making of Roy Keane the manager.

For a long time now Keane has been the boss.

As captain of Manchester United he ran the dressing room, so the move into management with Sunderland and Ipswich Town was a logical one. But after nearly three years licking his wounds as a pundit – a job he memorably showed disdain for at the Stadium of Light – the legendary midfielder is back, this time as the Republic of Ireland’s assistant manager.

Keane’s former international room-mate Kavanagh (pictured left), part of his first batch of Sunderland signings, is excited by the partnership with another ex-Black Cats boss, Martin O’Neill. “I’d never offer advice to Roy, Roy’s his own man,” says Kavanagh, perhaps wisely.

“Roy was very successful at Sunderland. When he went to Ipswich he probably wasn’t the person he wanted to be.

“Maybe he is now in position to look at where he can improve. He’s not been a first-team coach or an assistant manager. Now there’s less pressure and he can maybe have a more balanced view of things. It might be interesting for him to learn outside of the pressure and the manager he’s working with will give him an incredible amount of experience and wealth of knowledge.

“I think he will be a better manager for it. There will probably be times where he would like to say what he would like to say, as he probably has done as captain and manager. He now probably has to leave the floor to Martin to instigate everything.

“I’m wondering if it will be more a case of Roy doing one-to-one work. I don’t know how that dynamic will work but it will be interesting to see.”

Kavanagh thinks the pair will be a breath of fresh air after Giovanni Trapattoni’s stifling management. “Something like this had to happen because of the way the Irish squad was going,” says the Carlisle manager. “The supporters weren’t particularly pleased with the defensive style we were playing.

“They have different characteristics and personalities but they’ve both got a lot of knowledge and an understanding of what the Irish fans want. It’s important to see signs of improvement and enjoyment.

“Hopefully they will be more progressive and I’m sure it will be exciting whatever happens.

“Martin’s had the right experience and I think he’s at the right stage of his life.”


David Whetstone
Culture Editor
Graeme Whitfield
Business Editor
Mark Douglas
Newcastle United Editor
Stuart Rayner
Sports Writer