At the end of a glorious week for Northern Irish football, two of the country’s most prominent and passionate managerial exports will lock horns in Perth when St Johnstone welcome Hibs on Saturday.
Tommy Wright and Neil Lennon played for their national team together throughout the bulk of the 1990s – a decade in which qualifying for major tournaments proved unattainable for the minnows of the Emerald Isle. While the current squad stand on the brink of following up Euro 2016 qualification by making it to next year’s World Cup in Russia in what represents a golden era for the nation under Michael O’Neill, Wright and Lennon are busy flying the flag for Northern Irish managers at club level.
Beyond Brendan Rodgers and Martin O’Neill, coaches from this part of the world have generally struggled to make it to the top level in England, or indeed abroad, in recent times. By contrast, one third of the 12 teams in the Scottish Premiership currently have Northern Irish managers – Celtic (Rodgers), Hibs (Lennon), St Johnstone (Wright) and Motherwell (Stephen Robinson).
Gerry Taggart believes his old international colleagues Lennon and Wright epitomise everything that is good about Northern Irish football people. However, the 46-year-old former Barnsley, Bolton Wanderers and Leicester City defender is disappointed that the passion, organisation and man-management skills for which his countrymen are renowned seems to be less desirable elsewhere.
“Tommy and Lenny, without a doubt, are two of the best performing Northern Irish managers around,” Taggart told the Evening News. “They should both be given far more credit than they get outwith Scotland. These guys are proof that Northern Ireland can produce good managers. They just need a chance to show it but, as with Michael O’Neill, it only seems to be Scottish teams who are willing to give them a chance at the top level. There are a lot of owners in England who wouldn’t give Northern Irish managers a second look, and, for me, that’s what’s happening with Michael. He should be managing in the Premier League, and you have to ask why nobody has really come for him. I think it’s an image thing. Northern Irish managers are just not seen as sexy enough for a lot of owners, in my view.
“It’s a shame because the one thing Northern Irish managers give you that a lot of other people don’t is genuine passion. They wear their heart on their sleeve and that in itself is something that gets through to players a lot quicker and better than some messages from other managers. When the players understand the message from the manager, football becomes simple. When you look at Neil, Tommy and Michael, they try and simplify the game and use what the players have within themselves. They have a way of being able to drag the best out of them. They understand that the game is simple – not as simple as it used to be – but they know that, fundamentally, it’s about making sure they get the best they can out of each individual. That’s what they focus on, and it works.
“A lot of managers are quite laidback and obsessed with coaching on the training pitch, but football is played by people and it’s about getting the best out of people. That’s where guys like Tommy and Neil excel. You have to be able to integrate modern coaching methods, and these guys understand that and use it, but ultimately it’s good old-fashioned man-management, the sort of stuff they don’t teach you when you’re doing your coaching badges, that makes the difference. Neil and Tommy are managers of genuine substance and they use their own emotion to motivate their players. That gets through to players and drags the emotion out of them, which plays itself out on the pitch. If you’re a passionate man who wants to win a game of football and you project that on to your players, they will respond to that, and that’s what you see with Neil and Tommy. They know how to press players’ buttons and get inside their heads in a good way.”
Taggart has known Lennon since the pair were ten years old, representing Lurgan Celtic Boys’ Club on a Saturday and then playing Gaelic football together on a Sunday. They would eventually progress to Manchester City together as teenagers before being reunited at Leicester City under Martin O’Neill and playing for a struggling Northern Ireland team under the likes of Bryan Hamilton and Lawrie McMenemy.
“Even as a kid, you could see Lenny had what was needed to make it as a player,” said Taggart. “Myself and Lenny were probably the standout players in our area as kids and we both ended up going to Manchester City at near enough the same time, then we were together at Leicester and we also played together for the national team. Straight away after joining Leicester from Crewe, Neil started making his mark in the Premier League. He was a very underrated player. If you were looking for your stereotypical player who you knew would go on to manage, then Lenny, by the time we played together at Leicester, was that. He’s gone on to be a very good manager, no doubt about that. He had a tough time at Bolton but that was just a case of right job, wrong time. There’s only so much a manager can do in those circumstances. He’s had to go back to Hibs to rebuild but he’s started off really well and won promotion at the first time of asking. He’s bounced back really well from Bolton.”
On Saturday, Lennon, 46, will bid to end an unbeaten start for Wright, who was this week named as the Ladbrokes Premiership manager of the month after leading Saints to ten points from their opening four matches. Early signs are that the 54-year-old former goalkeeper from Ballyclare – just 35 miles from Lennon and Taggart’s hometown of Lurgan – will lead his team to a top-six finish for a fifth consecutive season.
“Not too many goalkeepers go on to become good managers but Tommy’s bucked that trend and been really successful with St Johnstone,” said Taggart. “He’s won a cup and had them consistently in the top half of the league on one of the lowest budgets. He was a very vocal goalkeeper, always chatting to his team-mates. Having said that, if you get 11 Northern Irish guys together, there will always be plenty moaning, shouting and chatting. Tommy was no different – he was very passionate about playing for Northern Ireland so he was doing his best to make sure the players in front of him were doing the best to keep the ball out of his net. He played against some of the best players in the world at the time, and that gives you invaluable experience that you can take into management. I always look out for his results and he’s done really well.
“I bump into him every now and then if we’re over watching Northern Ireland so we’ll have a chinwag and maybe a few drinks after the game. I’m still friendly with most of the lads from that team because we had a very good team spirit. In fact, the spirit was probably better off the pitch than on it. We had a good set of lads, all from different backgrounds and religions but it didn’t matter. We all got on well – we were just good, honest, hard-working pros basically.”