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Managing to succeed in the Championship

Paul Fletcher | 23:45 UK time, Wednesday, 19 November 2008

On a midweek night in late September Preston North End manager Alan Irvine drove down to South Wales to watch Swansea play Cardiff in a Carling Cup fixture.

Nothing unusual in that you might think, as it gave Irvine the chance to check up on the form of two rival teams.

Except that the game was live on television and the 50-year-old Scot could surely have saved himself the bother of a round trip that was close to 500 miles?

"You only see what the television shows you," Irvine told me as he explained why he made the long journey into Wales. "There is no substitute for going to games."

irvine_moyes438.jpg Irvine does not watch games as a supporter normally does, following the ball, but is looking for things that might give his team an edge.

Is one player particularly weak defensively? Do they adopt their defensive shape quickly when they lose the ball? How do they line up when defending, or indeed taking, corners?

It is all part of the rigorous attention to detail that Irvine hopes will allow his team to compete at the right end of a division in which they cannot compete financially with many of their rivals.

"It is vitally important that we don't leave anything to chance," added the wily Scot.

"We can deal with our financial disadvantage by making sure that we are right in everything else we do."

This reminds me of the approach adopted by David Moyes, who cut his managerial teeth during a successful four-year period as manager at Preston when he took the team from League One to the brink of the Premier League.

And this perhaps in part explains why the two men formed such an effective team at Everton, where Moyes took over as manager in 2002 and brought Irvine as his assistant.

Moyes and Irvine, both Glaswegians, are hard working, innovative on the training field, thorough in their decision making and possessed of a fierce desire to succeed.

The two men often speak several times a week, but one year ago, on 20 November, Irvine left Everton's training ground at Finch Farm for the last time and drove across Lancashire to step out on his own and see whether he cut could it as a number one.

Preston had recently sacked Paul Simpson after a disappointing start to the season and Irvine found himself in charge of a team 21st in the table.

It was undoubtedly a gamble. In footballing terms Irvine, previously academy director at Blackburn and Newcastle, had a secure job as a well-respected coach at a club enjoying a good season.

"It was a big decision," Irvine told me. "But it was too good an opportunity to turn down and I still believe that."

The 50-year-old might have had good cause to wonder whether he had made the right move in the early months of his tenure.

North End lost seven of Irvine's first 10 games in charge and by 19 January propped up the table. The manager sat down, looked at the fixtures and set his team a target.

"There were 18 games left and I worked out we had to win nine - and that is promotion form," said Irvine, who could recall instantly the exact date when North End hit the bottom of the table.

Preston won nine of the next 14 and avoided the drop, a fate that would have been a financial disaster for the Lancashire club.

Irvine had not panicked during the difficult early months and, although relieved, did not become carried away by the spectacular up-turn in form. It testified to his strong character and hinted at the role he had played at Everton.

"At Everton, David involved me in decisions he made," said Irvine. "I was involved in planning, training sessions, our team play and the signing of players. I had second-hand experience of management and so there were not really any major surprises once I became manager at Deepdale."irvine438.jpg

Yes, there had been more pressure, but that was not something that frightened Irvine and when I asked him whether he worked more hours now he was a manager in his own right, the Scot suggested that he probably did more during his time as academy boss at Newcastle. Besides, as he said: "I'm not someone who looks at the clock. You work until the job is done."

Preston's players certainly remarked that they had been heavily worked during pre-season, with skipper Paul McKenna claiming it had been the hardest in his decade at the club.

It seemed to have paid dividends as North End started the season in winning form, sitting second in the table after six games. Supporters quickly sensed something special but the manager was keen to curb their enthusiasm, or at least their burgeoning optimism.

"People accused me of trying to play something down," said the Scot. "I kept saying that it is a long and hard season and that we would go through some tough spells."

He was right - and the manner of North End's decline brought home to Irvine some of the differences between the Premier League and the Championship.

After a six-game unbeaten start, PNE lost six of the next seven, starting with a demoralising home defeat at the hands of fellow high-flyers Wolves.

"That was probably the hardest spell I have had to endure and it is because we have made too many costly mistakes," said Irvine.

The principles Irvine imparts to his players are more or less the same as at Everton but the quality of execution and the number of individual errors is different. "It is what separates the top players from the other. Every level you go down you see more of them," concluded Irvine.

Squads are often smaller in the Championship and a series of injuries early in the season restricted Irvine's ability to change a struggling side. But on the flip side, Irvine is now a manager in a league that still retains the capacity to surprise.

"This is a tough league with not much between the teams," he told me. "I think all of our results this season could have gone another way."

Irvine's final game before his first anniversary was a morale-boosting 3-1 win at local rivals Blackpool.

He thinks his team should be higher up the league but knows that there is still everything to play for. Preston are 13th but just four points off the play-offs.

"In the Premier League you probably know the top four before the season starts but in the Championship you know that if you get it right you have a chance."


  • Comment number 1.

    Irvine did a fantastic job at Everton, and he is missed. Working with Moys, you really got a sense of the "team" when you looked at the two of them together. I wish him well, he seems like a decent honest and hardworking bloke.

  • Comment number 2.

    AI has been a revellation and we have to give him time to mould a squad to compete in the top 6 . He has shown incredible coolness during bad periods and calmness in acheivements . The players AI has bought are all IMO doing a job they were brought in to do and that AI specified for . In time , if he is given it , he will take us to the Promised land . Up the Whites .

  • Comment number 3.

    Being a Cardiff fan, I know all about having a lack of squad depth.

    Our first 11 are really good, but the back-up is not on par. This is mainly why we tend to start reasonably well, then fade due to fatigue near the end of the season and end up mid-table.

    On a plus note, we have signed Wayne Routledge on loan for two months (BBC yet to report this) as cover for the injured pairing of Joe Ledley and Peter Whittingham.

    This along with the speed at which we signed Chopra to cover for McCormack and Bothroyd suggests to me that the manager and the board are looking for a GENUINE push for promotion this year. They really want to celebrate moving across to our new stadium with a Premier League status.

    Most years we would be told, as fans, that we would have to make do with what we had already available - Square pegs into round holes if you like.

    Dare I as a Cardiff fan get excited?!?!

    I think I just might!!!

  • Comment number 4.

    Alan has been very good for us, very thorough and precise in what he wants. The number of individual mistakes goes up the lower down the league you go and that has been our problem I believe. For example, Alan told the players about a corner kick routine Plymouth did, culminating in Fallon scoring at the back post . . . but unfortunately we were cuaght out, as a result of an error.

  • Comment number 5.

    Where do they make these wily, hard working, intelligent Scottish Managers?

    I want one for Bournemouth, it seems they have a production line up in Glasgow - baggsy the next one.


    Paul Baker - AFC Bournemouth

    Your club is safe in our hands.

  • Comment number 6.

    Clubs like Preston are excellent places for managers to learn their trade - and I mean that as a complement. David Moyes, Billy Davies and now Alan Irvine have all been able to cut their teeth at a club which combines a great sense of history with a realistic approach to where they should be now.
    Deepdale is one of the best stadiums in the country. It still retains charcter, unlike a lot of the new build, and it is a club firmly rooted in its community. Preston know that Championship football is probably their natural environment, but they would not be averse to a go at the Premier League - if the Hulls, Boltons and Wigans can handle it, why not Preston?
    They employ managers who are good coaches and who have a good eye for a player. Alan Irvine knows the game well and loan signings like Ross Wallace will continue to keep them competitive.
    Preston are a club to admire and I wish them well this season - a good, honest, traditional town club.

  • Comment number 7.

    I for one hope they stay down. Stoke are losing enough games as it is without our token two defeats to Preston!

    Seriously though, best of luck, the more "proper" football clubs in the top flight the better.

  • Comment number 8.

    Speaking for probably most Evertonians, we wish Alan Irvine all the very best in his managerial role at Preston. As someone said earlier, when he was at Everton with David Moyes you got the sense of a really good partnership with an excellent understanding between the two and so it was no co-incidence that Everton’s stability and then steady climb up the premiership table under David Moyes was also because of the input Alan Irvine.
    As long as you guys at Deepdale give him the time then I feel pretty certain that AI will deliver in a big way for you. You may want to cal, it the "Hull City way"!
    In Football, you can, if you look closely, spot those managers and players with a bit of something between their ears called intelligence and these individuals will, if given time, deliver the goods. So good luck to you AI and Preston at it would be great to see you over at Goodison one day in a premier league fixture. I for one will be clapping both managers when that happens.

  • Comment number 9.

    I just hope he starts making a few more substitutions!! I saw the Notts Forest home game and it seemed to me like he was running the players into the ground. Especially Sedge and Big Jon Parkin (although he does need to fitten up a bit!). Even when the momentum shifted after Youl's own-goal he was reluctant to make any changes and shore up the midfield.

    Apart from that, I have been very impressed with his attitude and the way he gets the players to work for him. Even I (the most pessimist of football supporters) had delusions of premier league football next season when we were sitting in second! But... there's still a long way to go, I don't think anybody should be surprised if PNE are pushing for promotion at the end.

    Come on the Invincibles!

  • Comment number 10.

    Another excellent article Paul, how about an update on Owen Coyle at Burnley next?

  • Comment number 11.

    u13356670 - catchy name. Owen Coyle is definitely on the list. He has done a cracking job.

    Based purely on their achievements this season - who are the top three managers in the Championship?

  • Comment number 12.

    Surely, if you base it on achievements, then it has to be the 3 managers of the 3 Championship clubs still competing in the League Cup (surely the only thing we can base achievements on so early in the season).

    So, Coyle, Jewell and...........


  • Comment number 13.

    Roberto Martinez, Owen Coyle, Dave Jones.

  • Comment number 14.

    Irvine has done a really good job at Preston, great run to secure survival and an impressive start to the season. (Just a shame it has slipped away a bit.)

    Top 3 managers:
    Martinez - Swansea
    McCarthy - Wolves
    Coyle - Burnley

    Also think Sturrock is doing a good job at plymouth.

  • Comment number 15.

    Owen Coyle, Paul Sturrock, Roberto that order. All doing superbly well with the resources available to them.

  • Comment number 16.

    Interesting - Owen Coyle and Roberto Martinez are certainly pulling in plenty of votes at the moment.

    I wonder if Paulo Sousa will join the ranks in the next few weeks?

  • Comment number 17.

    I think Mick McCarthy, Roberto Martinez and Dave Jones are currently the best managers in the Championship.

  • Comment number 18.

    Being a Burnley fan, its great to see what Owen Coyle is doing to our football team...I went to the Chelsea game last week, and it was brilliant to see us compete against one of the greatest clubs in the world! I agree with other bloggers on here that Owen Coyle is one of the best managers in the Championship, along with McCarthy and Martinez, and may the great days carry on for the clarets!

  • Comment number 19.

    some good managers mentioned but how about the Reading Manager

  • Comment number 20.

    Can people stop mentioning Owen Coyle, we were hoping that we could keep creeping along without people noticing us.

  • Comment number 21.

    Great article and some excellent comments. Am chuffed to see good comments on from non-PNE fans.

    Happy 1st Anniversary Fr. Ted! Let's hope your 2nd is in the Prem.

    PS Who's that jumping off the Pier!

  • Comment number 22.

    Interesting to see that Coyle is getting the praise he deserves. Dont think too many fans were very impressed when you first got him. Yet up here he was gaining respect for the job he did in Perth. Your board deserve praise for that one!!

  • Comment number 23.

    Simon Grayson Is manager of the season so far- capitulation like that from his Blackpool team last week was a delight to see!
    Come on you whites!

  • Comment number 24.

    Don't know about the other two but Steve Coppell for one.

  • Comment number 25.

    Am really impressed with the job Alan Irvine's doing at PNE. I'm sorry to say that anything other than relegation is a success in this division, when you look at the assets that the majority of teams have over us. Teamwork,spirit and organisation, those are the qualities that Alan has brought to the club. He is also very fair in his selections i.e. if you play well, then you keep the shirt.

  • Comment number 26.

    Reading Irvine's comments he is an ambitious manager who will be aiming for a top-10 finish at the very least . As some of the Preston players have said in interviews they have got enough quality in the squad to finish in the play-offs but it is a case of working well as a team to continue the good results that they have had at present.


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