Brian McDermott

01 Sep 2012

BRIAN McDERMOTT: HOME IS WHERE THE HEART IS

The rule of thumb used to be that if you lose in the Play-off Final, you’re destined to struggle the following year. In Reading’s case, they won the npower Championship instead. Brian McDermott explains how he helped to break the mould.

Identifying and relating to the fabric of an organisation are key components in achieving and retaining success. In football, a defined club culture is knowing how to accelerate their growth and help retain their most valuable assets. For Brian McDermott, his understanding of the Reading culture runs deeper than most. Born in Berkshire, he is the only current Barclays Premier League manager to be managing his local club; an accolade in which he takes great pride.

Combined with his understanding of his club’s foundations is McDermott’s commitment to continuous communication and the need for the human touch. Such an approach saw a united Reading turn 2011’s npower Championship Play-off Final disappointment into promotion to the Barclays Premier League in 2012. The Manager magazine speaks exclusively with the LMA Championship Manager of the Year...

You started your playing career with Arsenal and concluded it at Slough, punctuating it with a number of other UK clubs as well as playing overseas in Sweden and China. At what stage did you realise you wanted to manage?

“I know this is a strange thing to say, but to be honest, many things in my life have fallen into place rather than been pre-planned. I was working for Slough’s Football in the Community scheme where I was happy enough. The club’s first-team manager left and I was given my first job as a manager. My first taste of management with Slough went wrong because basically the club went under. I then went on to manage Woking and when I lost my job there I received a phone call from Reading manager Alan Pardew, who asked me to do a bit of scouting. I’d never actually done any scouting before but I went on to become Reading’s chief scout. So my career does feel like it has just fallen into place. However, I have always worked hard to do the best I possibly could in whatever role I was doing.”

What lessons did you learn from those early management experiences with Slough and Woking?

“They were tough experiences because I was working part-time, the facilities weren’t great and it was never easy. I learned that management is something that you have to work hard at every single moment of every single day. You have to speak to people and communicate regularly, which I didn’t do particularly well when I was younger... but I do now. It’s important to recognise any areas that you can improve on and you either learn or you don’t. Like everyone I have made mistakes in the past and that’s part of life. My approach is to make sure that I learn quickly from mistakes and try to improve through what I read and by speaking with both business and football people.

“If a player reaches the point of knocking on my office door with a problem I feel disappointed that I haven’t seen that coming through good communication and dealing with any discontent he has before it gets to that stage. Good communication is extremely important to me too because everybody needs to feel good about themselves. Whatever the issue, it is important that you always put yourself in someone else’s shoes.”

As well as Reading’s chief scout you were also in charge of the under-17’s, under-19’s and then the reserves, winning regional and national titles. Knowing the culture and ethos of Reading at all levels must be of great benefit to you as first team manager...

“I know the club off by heart and when I took the job here I knew the players, staff, and the supporters and how we play so that was a big plus for me. I was born up the road from Reading and raised in Berkshire so I know the area really, really well and it’s an important part of my life.

“One of the most important achievements for me personally last season was after we won promotion to the Barclays Premier League at Nottingham Forest. Every single member of my squad and staff were in the dressing room together, everyone was really, really pleased for each other and there were no divides, which I view as very important. That is a culture that we have tried to deliberately create at Reading and we have a real strength between the staff and the players.”
From the outside you seemed to adapt to becoming first-team manager of Reading very smoothly. How big did you find the step up?

“I was relieved when I was appointed as Reading manager because I did feel that I was the right man to do it, with the right people around me, and I felt comfortable in the job. I would not have taken it if I didn’t think I could do it or if I thought it would put me under strain to a ridiculous level. You get to a certain age when you know what you want. My first management job at Slough was when I was in my thirties and I had a lot to learn. I was 48 when I became Reading manager and I’d paid my dues. Not too much surprises me any more in football and you just have to be prepared and ready. At this stage of my life, I am.”

What is your approach to management? What is your philosophy on and off the field?

“My philosophy is that I have a formation that fits the players that I have. I haven’t got a formation that depicts that I am a 4-4-2 man or a 4-3-3 man. I know the players and I try to fit whatever formation is right for them. We have a culture here that I’d say was set up by Alan Pardew in 2000 where we have an attacking, athletic side with two wingers and that is what we try to produce here. I am pragmatic when I need to be and I will play the system that I feel is right.

“Off the pitch my philosophy is to try and treat people as I’d like to be treated. When I have to leave players out I try to tell them why and sometimes there is no real reason other than it is just a gut feeling. I am as honest with them as I possibly can be and I always have the conversation. The night before I tell players they are not playing I have a sleepless night because it takes a lot of energy to try and pick the team and get it right.”

How do you motivate your team?

“We will do a pattern of play on a Thursday or Friday and I will have a game plan which will be very, very succinct and everybody will know their jobs which is first and foremost. It is very much a team ethic where nobody wants to let their team-mates down and everybody has to buy into that. As far as motivation is concerned, I’m not a teller or a shouter. I am a manager who suggests things more than anything else. I always make sure that we have total clarity.”
You were Swedish ‘Player of the Year’ in 1984 and also played for a year in South China. How have those experiences shaped your approach to managing overseas players?

“When I was Reading’s chief scout I was also Reading’s liaison officer and I’d collect overseas players from the airport when we’d signed them. I always made sure that I looked after them. It was really important to me that when they came to this country they knew that they were coming to a club where they knew they were going to be looked after.
“I can’t now do that myself as manager but we still have a structure in place and make sure players from different cultures are well looked after. I experienced that myself when I went to play in Sweden. I had a chap there who looked after me I learned from that.”

In any business identifying talent is crucial. You’ve had real success during your time at Reading unearthing absolute gems like Kevin Doyle, Shane Long and Stephen Hunt...

“We’ve had success in identifying talent at Reading and it’s not just me, it’s Nick Hammond, Steve Shorey and a team of people who have really done a great job for us. We’ve had to survive that way and in the last three or four years we’ve had to sell to survive. The likes of Doyle and Long have gone to ensure the future of the club. We are hopeful now that this is a new era for the club. We’ve returned to the Barclays Premier League, which is massive for us, we’ve got new ownership, which is really important, and now we want to take the club on another step. It’s amazing what you can achieve on and off the field with a team ethic and people all pulling in the same direction.”

In the main, the role of director of football hasn’t transferred well into the English game but at Reading it is successful.

How important is Nick Hammond’s role to you?

“Nick is very, very important and he takes a lot of pressure off me. My assistant manager Nigel Gibbs and all my coaching staff are also very important people for me because they are very talented and I let them get on with their jobs. Nick does the player contracts and a lot of things around the training ground and the stadium. We speak regularly and talk about player transfers and the director of football role works well at our club. I don’t know how they do things at other clubs, but I wouldn’t want to be without my director of football.”

You described your Play-off Final defeat to Swansea as ‘your worst moment in football’. How did you rally your team and yourself to recover from the inevitable ‘fragility’ you must have all felt and go on to earn promotion as champions?
“I had to mend myself first and it was very important for me to get myself right before I dealt with the players. I didn’t think too much good would come out of that Play-off Final defeat, but in hindsight it has. At the time I had just lost the biggest game financially in world football and not too many teams recover from that. It’s important not to make excuses and just get on with your job because nobody wants to hear excuses. When we lost five games on the spin at the start of last season I realised that we had to get over the disappointment of the Play-off Final and get on with our job quickly. The problem we had was we all kept looking back to that Play-off defeat and what could have been. So, we got together as a group and my approach was to concentrate on very much living in the moment; looking forward on a day-by-day basis, giving the best that we had in training or during a game. Too often, many people focus on the end of the journey and forget to live in the moment and enjoy the journey as it is happening.”