How Owen Coyle got Burnley smiling
It did not take me long to realise why Burnley manager Owen Coyle has been able to squeeze so much out of his players this season.
I texted him last week to arrange a time for our interview. Shortly afterwards the reply arrived. Not only did he call me 'm8' but he dropped in smiley faces at the end of his sentences.
It was unlike any other text I had ever received from a professional sportsperson. Smiley faces are what my nephew uses, or perhaps my wife after a satisfying day out shopping. I showed it to a couple of people in the office and, without realising it, I guess I had already started to become infected by Coyle's unbelievable enthusiasm. I hadn't even spoken to him yet.
Coyle's Burnley will take on Bristol City on Sunday knowing that victory will guarantee them a place in the Championship play-offs.
It will be their 58th game of a season that has seen this famous Lancashire club reach the fifth round of the FA Cup and come within three minutes of Wembley in the Carling Cup before two goals late in extra-time from Tottenham delivered the most cruel of knockout blows.
All of this has been achieved with a small squad - no other outfit has used fewer players in the Championship - and at a club that would be battling relegation if their league standing was determined by average attendance.
Nonetheless, Arsene Wenger, Luiz Felipe Scolari, Tony Mowbray and Roy Hodgson have all shaken hands with Coyle this season on the wrong side of the scoreline.
Without doubt there is something special about this 42-year-old Scotsman who arrived at Turf Moor from St Johnstone in November 2007.
Burnley's cup exploits this season significantly raised his profile and a browse through the internet shows there has been plenty written about him this season.
He is one of nine children and was raised in the uncompromising Gorbals district of Glasgow, he is a teetotaller who likes Irn Bru and has been compared to Bill Shankly by the man who employed him at Burnley.
The increasing profile of Coyle was even brought to a wholly unsuspecting audience when a Burnley fan based in the US held up a large poster with the words 'Owen Coyle is God' written on it at a Wrestlemania event. The poster was captured by the cameras several times, to the bemusement and befuddlement of the watching American public.
Yet it seems obvious to me that Coyle's sheer love of the game is crucial to understanding why he is able to get so much out of his players.
Not long after Andy Cole retired a colleague of mine interviewed him looking back at the striker's glittering career.
Cole, who played for Coyle during a loan spell at Turf Moor last season, was careful with his praise of many he played under but said of the Burnley manager: "I cannot say enough superlatives about him.
"His enthusiasm made me feel like I was 21 again."
Coyle himself explained when I chatted to him: "I just love football.
"I was fortunate in that I had a professional career as a striker but if I didn't I'd still have been paying a fiver for a game of five-a-side. I hope that at 60 I'll still be able to get a game somewhere."
He still turns out for Burnley's reserves and recently scored a spectacular goal against Accrington. Yet his love of the game is allied with a determination to improve his players.
The Scot, who played more than 600 games during his career, reckons that by playing alongside young strikers at the club he can help their development far better than if he was standing on the touchline. "I have tried to do that with Jay Rodriguez and I think he has responded," said Coyle.
Coyle, assistant boss Sandy Stewart and first team coach Steve Davis often participate in training. "The way we are with numbers we often need to do that and if something goes wrong we are fair game for banter," said Coyle. "We do have a fantastic team spirit."
Coyle insists his players turn up to training with a smile on their face. It is part of his policy. I reckon more employers would be well served to do the same.
But it would be an over-simplification and a disservice to Coyle and his squad to suggest that enthusiasm alone has taken them so far this season.
Coyle is constantly searching for an edge over his rivals. He doesn't play golf because he can watch three games in the time it takes him to play a round.
"If there is a game on - especially one abroad - it is worth taking in because you might uncover a hidden gem - and those are the sort of games we need to take in because we often cannot afford to fight for a player on a strictly financial basis," he said.
Sometimes he says to his wife that he is switching his phone off but he often just puts it on silent and checks for messages every now and again.
"The game moves so quickly now that you cannot afford to miss out on anything, you need to have your finger on the pulse all the time."
It is enthusiasm translated into dedication. Or as Coyle puts it: "There is no doubt that the harder you work the better chance you will have of succeeding."
Coyle sleeps for just six hours a night and has football on the brain at all other times. I asked him to give me an insight into what it is like to be a manager. "I don't think until people really dip their toe in the water they realise just how difficult a job that is," he said, before expressing a genuine admiration for anyone in the job. I detected a real sense of kinship towards his colleagues.
For example, had local rivals Preston not snatched a dramatic winner at Birmingham last weekend Burnley would already be in the play-offs. Coyle's take on it was to express real admiration for Ross Wallace's stunning free-kick and congratulate manager Alan Irvine for his efforts this season.
"It keeps it going to the last day," said Coyle. "What I love about football is all the twists and turns involved."
As a striker he enjoyed nothing more than hitting the back of the net and as a fan what he enjoys most is seeing a winger take on a full-back. Not surprisingly, the Clarets often line up with two wingers in their side.
He believes that as manager he has a duty to send his team out to entertain a public shelling out good money to pass through the turnstiles.
"Each and every game we enter we try to win - and to do so by playing a style pleasing on the eye with chances being created and goals being scored," Coyle told me.
The stakes are high this weekend but expect more of the same from Coyle and his men.