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You would think football management, with its unending pressure, would be an older man’s game. The need for sober analysis and clear-headed thinking means that stout, sturdy men who have seen and done it all before are invaluable, right?
Wrong. At least, that seems to be the way the modern game is moving. Where once the names linked to a managerial vacancies were the same old grey-haired with multiple managerial gigs (read: sackings) under their belt, these days the list of favourites is a who’s-who of absurdly youthful ex-pros and highly-rated coaches most fans have never heard of.
The youthful manager revolution shows no signs of slowing. Hull City recently appointed Marco Silva as their new manager, who at 39 is already on the fourth managerial job in his burgeoning career. At the tail end of last year, Hearts appointed 30-year-old Ian Cathro, a young coach who had never played professionally, as their new boss.
But if you thought 30 was the lower age limit for a manager, you would be wrong. Over in the Welsh Premier League, you’ll find a man marshalling the dugout in the top flight at the age of just 25.
When Just Football had a chat with the youngest manager in Europe’s top-flights, Rhyl FC boss Niall McGuinness just after Christmas, we learnt that this ambitious young manager isn’t overawed by starting in the job so young…
Meet the youngest manager in Europe
“It was always something I wanted to do,” McGuinness, born in 1991, tells Just Football about managing. “I just didn’t expect 2016 to be the year I started managing at a senior level.”
— Rhyl Football Club (@rhylfc) May 7, 2016
McGuinness was parachuted in initially to pull off a great escape in February of 2016. Gareth Owen, a former Rhyl player, had been a disaster in the dugout, winning just three games, and McGuinness – then the club’s Academy Director – was hand-picked to replace him and steer the club away from relegation danger.
“I didn’t apply,” McGuinness says of his ascension to the top job. “I was working as an additional body with the first team.
“I was manager of the youth team, overlooking the academy as well, and used to sit on the bench with the first team purely to keep a link there. I didn’t have any input into the team. And then the manager [Owen] got sacked and they asked me if I would see the job out for the final eight games. It was an opportunity I couldn’t turn down. I managed to keep us in the league so they offered me the job permanently.”
Name: Niall McGuinness
Date of Birth: 14th May 1991
Previous coaching roles: Rhyl FC Academy, North Wales Under-14
Playing career: Derwen Rovers, Chester City, Wrexham, Prestatyn, Denbigh, Rhyl FC
The-then 24-year-old had a growing reputation with his local club when he took over the reigns. He retired at just 22 after spells at Wrexham and Rhyl to concentrate on coaching, and that focus paid off with his first manager’s job coming just two years later.
Rhyl’s relegation battle was a sign of the times for the seaside club. It wasn’t so long ago that Rhyl were competing in the upper echelons of the Welsh Premier League – they won the title in 2003/04 and more recently in 2008/09. They also won the Welsh Cup and the Welsh League Cup twice each in the early years of the new millennium. Things are very different now.
“They were winning the league and players were coming out of the Football League to play for Rhyl because the money was better,” says McGuinness of the club’s modern glory days when the club “had a lot of money.”
In their 2008/09 title winning season Rhyl were spearheaded by former Wales international Neil Roberts, once of Wigan, Doncaster and Wrexham. But the days of signing players from the English football leagues soon ended. In 2010, the club lost their licence to play in the Welsh Premier League following restructuring that saw the league go from 18 teams to 12.
Three years in the Welsh second tier – known as the Cymru Alliance – followed. Rhyl are now back and slowly re-establishing themselves in the top flight, but McGuinness said it can still be difficult for fans to accept the reality of the situation.
“I think some of them are still hung up and expecting that sort of thing again,” he says, referring to Rhyl’s former successes. “But at the moment, we’re not in a position to do that. Some understand it, some don’t.” For all that, McGuinnes says the fans have been supportive of his work. “It’s started well. No-one’s ever come up to me negatively.”
Rhyl’ ambitions have certainly been downsized since the title winning days. He describes the club’s budget as “the joint-lowest in the league”. And it’s a league not exactly known for big budgets.
“The first ambition is to survive, maintain and keep us in the league,” he says. The second ambition? “Have a good cup run. The Chairman said if we can maintain it then the budget is going to go up next season and then maybe (we) look at trying to achieve a top half finish.”
Faith in youth
With the club’s big spending glory days of the past, part of McGuinness’ remit is to balance the books and find new ways for the club to progress.
With that in mind, the former Academy Director and youth team boss is keen to give Rhyl’s youngsters a chance, but he feels progress is being hindered by the Welsh system. He is unequivocal, though, when asked if Rhyl’s youth players will get a chance to play.
“One hundred percent, that’s what I want. A lad came on for us yesterday [a 6-1 away defeat to Bala Town on December 26th], a 16-year-old who has been in the academy for nine years, so we’re trying to bring them through.
“There is talent in Wales but I don’t think there’s enough opportunity given, and I think if given a chance there are young lads across Wales that are good enough.
“The hardest thing is there’s no stepping stone in Wales. There’s Under-19s – which is like a youth team – then they have to go straight to the first team, but for me it’s too much. I think it would be good in Wales to pick that up with an Under-21 or Under-23s, something like that.
“It’s ridiculous, but it’s so hard to actually bring these lads through. In the Under-19s you could be a great footballer but you just haven’t quite got the know-how – you haven’t quite adapted from youth team football. First team football is not as “nice”.
“I’ve worked with the youth team, and you probably see more actual football being played than you do in the Welsh Premier League. It’s hard to adapt for them.”
McGuinness admits he has had to adapt to Welsh Premier League football, too. Sometimes, he has to adopt a more pragmatic style than he would like.
“I’ve tried to stay true to what I believe in. I do try and stick to it as much as possible, but there are times in games when you have to adapt. 1-0 up and 10 minutes to go, we’ll change the tactics slightly – but we rarely change the way we play.”
Despite his young age, McGuinness knows his own mind. He doesn’t beat around the bush when talking about players who can’t – or won’t – adapt to his tactics: “If they don’t like it then they can go, it’s as simple as that”. But as long as players listen to him, he will listen to them, particularly older pros who have been around the block a few times.
“I have little conversations with them and it’s, again, just about know-how. It’s little things like maybe how we can deal with officials better, sly little things that you need in football that maybe I haven’t been through. Players’ ideas are taken on board, but obviously to a certain extent – they understand that the manager’s decision is final.”
Unexpectedly for a manager in his mid-20’s with experience in youth football, McGuinness finds the advice-filled senior pros easier to deal with than the teenagers progressing through the academy system.
“The hardest ones to manage are the younger ones,” he admits candidly. “The older ones are more streetwise, more experienced, to be honest with you…they’ve got more respect. In the modern era it’s different.
“I think some of them [the younger players] get ahead of themselves and think they’re better than they are. They’re probably the toughest ones to manage. They will come in [to the first team] and play, but they don’t give that work rate that they used to give because they feel they have achieved something – and then other players can get frustrated with them.”
To talk about what he expects from a young player, McGuinness thinks back to his own truncated playing career.
“I know I’m only 25 myself, but when I was playing I’d have done anything to get to that first team level. And, if I had to go back to the reserve team I’d have still tried my best. That’s what makes a footballer.”
Hard work makes a footballer, but what makes a manager? McGuinness does not look for advice from his fellow managers in the Welsh Premier League (“at the end of the day, you’re competing against them, they are trying to beat you”) but who are the managers he does look up to, and try to learn from?
“To manage against Mourinho… that’s the dream”
“Alex Ferguson, and Jose Mourinho’s one as well. Being a Manchester United fan, it’s those two. And I shouldn’t really say this as a United fan, but to be fair I think that Jurgen Klopp at Liverpool is a class act in the way he conducts himself and everything he does.”
Does McGuinness see himself one day crossing swords with Mourinho and Klopp in a Premier League dugout?
“It’s the dream, isn’t it? Obviously I’d love to work in the Premier League one day. Everyone can dream and that would be the ultimate ambition. As long as I keep believing and get my head down then you never know. The chance to manage in that environment would be unbelievable. It’s up to me to try and get as high as possible.”
For now, though, McGuinness is happy in his role at Rhyl and recently signed a new contract until 2018. In the short term at least, avoiding relegation with Rhyl again is his focus, with a Premier League a distant dream.
“I’ve got to make sure I do as well as possible with Rhyl. I speak with the Chairman and I’ve got his backing. He’s told me the ambitions and to be fair to him he’s said if it doesn’t work out I still want you as a manager and we’ll work towards how we can get back in the league. Managers don’t get enough time in football anymore, and he’s given me that.”
Does the knowledge that he would not be sacked even if the club are relegated mean he can relax?
“There’s still pressure,” he says with certainty. “As a manager I’ll feel like I’ve failed if I don’t do it. So there’s still pressure.”
If he can handle the pressure and succeed with Rhyl, who knows. One day Niall McGuinness could be regularly sparring with the game’s most experienced bosses.
Featured image credit: Rhyl FC official website.