As managers we have to make the best of a sad situation we all so desperately wish could be reversed. Whenever I speak to my counterparts the conversations return to the same topic: the fact that in our professional lives we can take some positives.
While players have to stay physically fit during the shutdown, in our job the emphasis centres just as much on staying mentally fresh. That is why many of us are using this time to take stock, reset, step away from the constant pressure of having to win on a Saturday or a Tuesday and keep a perspective on the important things in life.
That is not always easy when you have been immersed in this job for, in my case, two decades, and for many of my colleagues far longer. So we are being taught some valuable lessons, because in football we are sometimes cocooned from real-life situations. You appreciate the need to care for each other and learn to connect with yourself in ways that are rarely possible.
With the intensity of competition taking a back seat you find yourself thinking more like a coach: considering what the game is about and how you can get the best out of a team. The release of pressure means you can focus on your methods, on what works and what does not and see things that might not have caught your eye during a typical cycle of games.
The break has not favoured any team. Once you lose the routine of playing, things change
You discover, too, that as a society and as individuals we are much more resilient than we think. Football is about resilience and self-discipline but the present situation is too. This can be a lonely time for many people, managers included. You have to find a way of creating a schedule for the day, sticking to it and staying focused on your work despite the uncertainty and terrible news that surrounds us. Nobody wished for a test like this but you learn interesting things about your capacity to adapt.
While my players stay on top of their physical and nutritional plans, monitored daily by our staff, there is a lot to keep me busy. A typical day’s work is spent in three ways. First is in-depth analysis of a season where our team, Birmingham City, are 16th in the Championship. It has been fruitful: there are many things we can improve but also a lot of aspects in which we’ve been better than I thought at the time. I certainly feel I’m getting to know the team more deeply.
The second is watching our nine remaining opponents for whenever football restarts to make sure our preparation is as sharp as possible. And the third involves close contact with our scouting department, working on our options to improve the squad next season. I’m writing this column after spending a morning completing my fourth assessment of a player who may interest us when the transfer market is up and running. We can get to know our targets very, very well in a period like this.
The relationship with players changes a little bit now. Usually we might be out on the training pitch, speaking about tactics and football as well as personal matters. Now our communication is more individual. I speak to them all to make sure they feel on track, motivated and happy within themselves. Some need that kind of conversation more than others but we have been positively surprised by their reaction. They all seem driven to keep busy and stay fit. In the circumstances I think our squad is in a good place both physically and mentally.
It is particularly tough for the younger guys, especially if they are living on their own. We have a multinational squad, and some players have spent a season away from home for the first time. I can empathise to an extent. My wife and two children, aged one and three, travelled back to Spain in mid-March and the plan was that I would join them during the international break. But on the very same day Igualada, our home town, was locked down and the rest of the country followed. It is not easy to handle but we are always in contact and the most important thing is that everybody is safe.
I feel proud of how the club has handled things. Our owners are Chinese and have been updating us ever since Covid-19 first arose in their country. The chairman has been in the UK since December so he helped us prepare well in advance. China has dealt with several things like this before and the owners’ perspective was that it would be better equipped to respond than many in the western world.
You could see how the global markets were reacting and it was clear we would soon be caught up in something bigger than anything we had lived through before. We knew something very tough was coming and we were able to ready the players for it before the shutdown. The next time a virus like this breaks out somewhere, nobody in the world will joke about it: everyone will be prepared properly.
I don’t think a single team can say the break has favoured them at this point. Once you deviate from the routine of playing, things change. In the remaining games we’ll see some different performances from sides whose fortunes might have contrasted before such a long hiatus. We can’t wait to return when it is safe – hopefully as wiser professionals and as better people, too.
Pep Clotet is the manager of Birmingham City