Managing in the Modern Game: The Assistant – Derek Fazackerley
In the latest instalment of Managing in the Modern Game, a series of interviews looking at specific elements of football management through the eyes of those involved, Dean Eldredge of Oporto Sports Management speaks to Derek Fazackerley of Oxford United, to look back on his remarkable career as a number two to some of the most well-known managers in football, on what makes a good assistant and how the role has evolved…
What are the qualities you believe are most important in being an effective assistant manager?
I think there are several qualities; your ability to do the job from the professional point of view, e.g. taking coaching and training sessions, planning and organising schedules, to be able to communicate and work both with the players and the other members of the support staff, but I think to be loyal and trustworthy is absolutely integral to the role. It’s not always necessary for the manager to know everything that’s going on in a player’s life and likewise, not always necessary for a player to know exactly that the manager’s thinking of the player, to get the balance right is vital. That isn’t to say that you can’t disagree or offer critical opinion, but once a manager has made their final decision, you need to be prepared to back and support them. The role of a manager can be a very lonely place at times, and when the pressure is on, there can be a number of negative influences looking to be disruptive, and that’s where your loyalty and support is so important.
If you’re working day-to-day on the field, you need the technical skills to be able to communicate and build up a relationship to get the best out of them of course. From the manager’s point of view, the last thing they would want would be a ‘yes man’, I would think. You’ve got to be able to have a robust discussion about certain situations and as an assistant you need to help inform the manager and justify your own view to support them making their decision. Those decisions could be related to a player you are considering signing or dropping from the team, a tactical decision, something budget related, even external factors such as the media, and your role is to give a considered view to help them. You also need to be adaptable around the manager’s skills, and then hopefully you are giving them the advice and support that they need, whilst at the same time you get the satisfaction and enjoyment from the role too.
An example of how not to do it, I remember, was whilst working with Kevin Keegan at Manchester City. We had Eyal Berkovic and Ali Bernarbia, two fantastic midfielders. Kevin was thinking of playing them both together and I disagreed, as I was sure we’d get overrun by teams when out of possession of the ball, as both of them were around eight stone wet through. I had to give him my honest opinion. Typical of Kevin though, he didn’t agree thankfully. I was more than happy he proved me wrong, as the pair of them were unbelievable for us. I was worried we’d never be able to win the ball back, I needn’t have feared as those two never gave the ball away, and we romped to the league title. In hindsight, I might have communicated my views in a different way?
How do you feel the role has changed during your time in the game?
The biggest change, undoubtedly, has been the increase in the number support staff around teams. When I started at Newcastle, with my appointment under Jim Smith as the reserve team coach, I was pretty much left to my own devices to get on with improving and trying to help develop the younger players, and make sure the more senior players that were falling down the ladder weren’t too disruptive. My promotion to the first-team to assist Kevin didn’t bring with it a great deal of extra assistance back in those days, not that many years ago (1990). Myself, and the physio, Derek Wright, planned the pre-season calling on our own past experiences, with Kevin throwing in a few runs he’d remembered from his days as a player at Liverpool and in Germany with Hamburg. The support staff around a team today is vastly different. There could easily be around 10-12 staff. Now you will almost certainly have a fitness coach, physiotherapist, masseur, nutritionist, psychologist, player liaison office, match analysts both pre and post-match, a recruitment analyst, kit man, the list goes on. In my more sarcastic moments, to wind them up, I would call them the LTB’s (The Laptop Brigade). There’s no doubt the knowledge and expertise they’ve brought to the game is invaluable, but at the same time, the amount of data and information out there needs to be controlled and managed and is one of the areas that as an assistant you might be expected to have some sort of influence over. It’s fantastic to have all this information at your fingertips, and the people to source and store it for you, but it’s also important to filter and decide which are the most useful and most valuable.
During your playing days, how did you prepare for a career in coaching? What advice would you give to current players in order to prepare?
I got involved a little bit while I was still playing at Blackburn Rovers. I got my coaching badges in 1980/81, and you’d go down to Lilleshall to get the Full Badge as they called it, as there was no Pro Licence back then. I was 30 in 1981, so I had five or six years left of playing, but the manager Bobby Saxton asked if I would be interested in coaching in the school of excellence at the club, working with the young kids in the area, one evening a week. Through that, Bobby would come to me and knowing my interest, he would ask me to do the odd shooting or passing drill with the first-team, so it was all experience I was gaining on the job.
I played in an era where salaries weren’t that great necessarily, even at the top of the game, certainly not compared to salaries now. I had to actively consider what I was going to do, and I didn’t fancy working nine to five for a living, My time as a player revolved around the buzz and excitement I got from a matchday and I wanted to retain that and stay in football. You still need an awful lot of determination and luck along the way, and those breaks can determine how far you go. Even if you are secure financially nowadays, I still feel there’s probably a need to have some structure or purpose to your life. Getting qualifications and gaining experience is a good step on the pathway. The PFA and The FA have put on courses, and helped to fast-track former players, which is a good thing, but it’s a very competitive industry.
You’ve worked with a list of talented managers; Kevin Keegan, Roy Hodgson, Sven-Göran Eriksson, Michael Appleton and Karl Robinson among others. What have you learned from them?
I think it goes back beyond that to my playing days, with managers like Jim Smith, Bobby Saxton, Howard Kendall, Gordon Lee. I was fortunate to work for really good people then, and some very good people as an assistant. They all bring different qualities. I was writing down sessions as a player, trying to listen and learn from them to help me prepare for my own coaching career. It was as much about what you would do similar to them, and also what you might do differently.
When I went in at Newcastle there was a takeover bid on-going with Sir John Hall eventually taking control of the club. He sacked Jim Smith who had brought me in. Then I had the opportunity to learn from Ossie Ardiles who promoted young players like Lee Clark, Steve Watson and Steve Howey to name but a few to play in his first team, which was hugely satisfying for me. Then Kevin came in, and his enthusiasm and drive made the people of Newcastle believe they could achieve something really special, he unlocked the potential in the club and dragged them into the 1990s. He was fantastic to work with. He’d been out of football, living in Spain for six or seven years, but the impact he had was incredible. I left for Blackburn which didn’t quite work out how I’d hoped, but to see Roy work on a football field coaching really helped me with my own progress as a coach. Working with Sven was something I couldn’t turn down. Sven was calm, thoughtful and collected. Usually football can have fire and brimstone, and be very emotional places to work, but he would make a considered decision and more often than not he had the ability to look at things and make the right call. He wasn’t soft either; he could be strong and resolute, able to make tough decisions when he needed to.
When I worked with Michael Appleton at Oxford, the club had a new chairman, and I felt that my role was to help as much off the field where I could as on it. The club was obviously a lot smaller than most of my previous clubs and as such it gave me the opportunity be involved in other parts of the club’s development on and off the field. I felt that the manager and the chairman’s relationship was crucial to how the club would fare, so I was supportive to them both, as we all helped to improve the club and move us forward. Part of my job was to help us to prioritise as a club to ensure that the more important issues were attended to first. We weren’t the richest of clubs, but if we made a positive case, the club were supportive of our wishes, and the vast majority of the time we were supported by the chairman, in bringing in players or improving the infrastructure of the club.
Explain a little about your role now at Oxford United and what your thinking was about moving from being an assistant to working ‘upstairs’?
It was difficult for me as we’d been beaten by Wycombe Wanderers in the play-off final last season. If we’d have won, as I think most people expected we would, it would probably have been a good time to step away from Oxford, having completed the job you joined the club for, and to say thank you. Last year was my 50th pre-season. I explained to Karl (Robinson) that I felt it was time for someone else to have a go, after six years of working with the club. With the pandemic and lack of supporters, I felt it had changed the dynamics of a matchday and it didn’t feel the same as before, and maybe it was a time for me to move on. Perhaps I was starting to feel like I needed a new challenge and maybe spend more time at home. The club expressed a desire to retain my experience and asked if I could spend a few hours a week working behind the scenes, helping with the loan players out at various clubs, on the recruitment side and perhaps supporting some of the younger staff in a mentoring capacity, generally helping wherever required.
As I’ve mentioned already, about a structure in your life and a purpose to get up for in the morning, the role at the club has given me the opportunity of that and at the moment it appears to work for the club and for me. I feel that we’ve both benefitted, and I’m enjoying helping some of the younger people at the club passing on my experience where needed, whilst at the same time having an interest in the team on a matchday.
Do you enjoy the financial/administration side of your role?
We have to learn to live with all factors contributing towards the game. Agents, for example, get a bad rep, but there are good agents who work well and are easier to deal with. I’ve had lots of experiences, and I do enjoy liaising with all parties within the club. We have a board that are based abroad, so I am around if required to represent the club. We have a very talented recruitment department, who have achieved a great deal for the club over recent years. I can offer a different opinion, hopefully opening people’s minds to another way of working, or just simply having a vast array of contacts built up over the years that can be invaluable.
It’s so important to be able to manage upwards as well as down. I’ve always felt it was important to have contact with people on the administration side of the club too, as the people working in departments like the ticket office are so valuable to the club and the culture you are striving to develop. They are often supporters of the club and it’s important to work with and recognise their contribution.
He’s worked with the biggest names, on the biggest of stages, but regardless of this Derek Fazackerley maintains his process and his love for the game, and being an assistant manager, whatever the level.
Across decades, ‘Faz’ has provided expert advice and support to managers at their peak and to those climbing the ladder, acting as a trusted and valued confidant, with the ability to speak truth to power whilst contributing towards the collective objectives of the club.
Fazackerley’s dedication and loyalty to the game and to his work is no surprise – he is Blackburn Rovers’ record appearance holder – and whilst he may no longer be working as an assistant, he is still working, providing advice, experience, all with a dash of his warm, sense of humour, as he plays a vital role behind-the-scenes for Oxford United, chasing one more slice of success from a career that has delivered so much already.
For more information on Dean Eldredge and Oporto Sports Management, please visit www.oportosports.com and follow them on Twitter @DeanEldredge and @OportoSports
2001 UEFA Pro Licence
1986 NEBS Certificate in Supervisory Management (Salford)
1981 FA Full Coaching Licence
1969 4 O Levels
Assistant Managerial Landmarks
2020 League 1 Play-off finalists
2017 Football League Trophy finalists
2016 Promotion to League 1
2016 Football League Trophy finalists
2010 League 1 Play-off Semi-Finalists
2001 Championship title-winners
2002 Qualified UEFA Cup
2008 Qualified UEFA Cup
2000 European Championships Group Stages
1999 Championship Play-Off Final
1995-1996 Champions League campaign
1997-1998 Qualified for UEFA Cup
1992-1993 First Division Champions
1993-1994 Qualified for UEFA Cup
Coaching Highlight to-date?
I’ve been very fortunate in the way my career has panned out, but probably that first promotion with Newcastle United in the 1992/93 season was a standout. I’d helped Kevin (Keegan) the year before, but that was my first full season working with the first-team. It just took off. It wasn’t just the promotion; it was the brand of football that we played. Then a year later we qualified for Europe. It was just such a special time and the people loved Kevin dearly. It was such a wonderful place to work. The size of the club? Wow. The day we walked around the pitch celebrating the promotion is hard to put in to words. Then afterwards, you couldn’t walk anywhere without having a beer put in your hand!
The other highlight would again be working with Kevin, for England, and our first game, the 3-0 home win over Poland. I can remember more about the journey to the game than the game itself. Sitting on the coach, open-mouthed at the people lining the villages on the way from the hotel, waving to us, was just surreal. Flags being waved everywhere. I didn’t realise it was going to be like that and for someone who never played international football, it was quite emotional. When we reached Wembley it was just a sea of flags and people. It’s something I will never forget.