QPR's secret Japanese weapon, via Newcastle – interview
Friday, 13th Jun 2014 21:26 by Clive Whittingham
Steve Black, coach and motivational speaker, described by Joey Barton as QPR’s “signing of the season” talks to LFW about an amazing three months at the club which culminated in the Wembley win.
Through the rain
Rosler fumed. Angrily pointing this way and that. Silent Wigan players strung out like washing along the halfway line. QPR, by contrast, huddled together as one, the eleven on the pitch, the substitutes, the coaching staff, the management, the medical team, the players not selected. They were all there. The Loftus Road faithful, who haven’t seen this sort of thing from this group of players often, sensed something was in the offing and roused themselves once more. - LFW Wigan H match report
Much, much later that evening, shortly before it got light to herald the start of Tuesday in fact, a full Sky Plus run through of the whole dramatic 120 minutes of QPR’s 2-1 extra time win against Wigan Athletic at Loftus Road in the Championship play-off semi final drew to a brief, inquisitive silence in one corner of North London. Where had all this suddenly come from?
“That’s a perfect picture isn’t it? That’s togetherness,” said Derby manager Steve McClaren up in the television studio, looking out over QPR’s huddle.
Extra time should have been the last thing QPR wanted in that second leg. Wigan were younger, quicker and fitter, they were in better form and they supposedly had a more tactically astute, modern manager. Rangers had crawled over the line with an ageing squad, had spent all three of their substitutions correcting a wild Harry Redknapp team selection, and had Niko Kranjcar at the heart of their midfield playing on one leg and having used eight of his nine lives with match official Mark Clattenburg. Another 30 minutes would surely be a bridge too far.
Back at the ranch afterwards the handful of nutcases who put this website together sat in front of the television like pilots of a stricken airliner, frantically thumbing through a series of check lists for answers. Something had got to this lot. Something had galvanised them. What was it? And who was that fella with the beard in the QPR tracksuit wandering around talking to everybody with a hand on their shoulder?
“We wanted to remind each other, ever so briefly without going over the top, what it meant to each of us,” says Steve Black, said man with beard. “We spoke about all manner of things. We spoke about things like your mam and dad, your brothers and sisters, your gran and granddad, your friends and relatives, your first teacher, your first coach - people who had put themselves out to get you to this point and for you to dedicate this time to them. We said if ever you were going to pay somebody back, if ever there was a time you wanted them to be proud of you, and you wanted to create a happiness for them, and also create a happiness for all the supporters who were magnificent that night, then this was the moment.
“We were totally together, there was an absolute refusal to yield. We simply wouldn’t yield one single inch.”
Steve Black is a coach, sports psychologist and motivational speaker with an unparalleled CV – of which more later – and had been working on an individual basis with QPR’s Joey Barton before the midfielder persuaded the club to bring him in to work with the whole squad back in March when chairman Tony Fernandes has since admitted he feared the team wouldn’t even make the play-offs. Barton described him after Rangers’ Wembley win as the “signing of the season” while Harry Redknapp told his son Jamie in a Sky Sports interview before that final with Derby that he wishes he’d met Black years ago, such is the difference he made.
For the unfortunate few at Hillsborough for the 3-0 defeat the change in attitude and application to the semi-final with Wigan, and then the final against the Rams, was marked, stark and immense.
“What I saw when I first arrived was a lot of good people who I enjoyed spending time with one to one, who I enjoyed having conversations with about the game and the philosophy of sport and about life and about their families,” Black says. “I was enjoying my time talking to them all and I thought that was a good start.
“Secondly I noticed the people doing the different activities and roles at QPR didn’t seem to have a problem with talent - the raw talent seemed to be there.
“Thirdly, what I noticed about the QPR supporters is they understand when you’re committed, they understand when the team has an emotion to it, they understand when the team has an intensity to it, they understand when the team has a desire to it, and they respond to that. For the first couple of games I went in the crowd, I didn’t go in the directors box or down on the bench. I wanted to hear what was being said in the crowd, I wanted to see how they reacted. That was part of the planning process for getting the crowd totally on our side by behaving in a certain way. It can’t be made up, it can’t be contrived, you’ve got to lay yourself bare and say ‘we’ve only got 90 minutes once a week, if you can’t give everything once or twice a week there’s a problem.’
“What did strike me in that period of time was it would be quite good if everything was tightened up ever so slightly. People needed to show everybody how much they cared about each other, and needed to expect a little bit higher quality from each other on the training field and in the gym and when they were talking strategy. Everybody just needed to expect a little bit better focus from everybody else. The quality expectation could be pushed a little bit more.”
Assessment made, changes enacted, things started to turn QPR’s way. The return of Charlie Austin from injury was key, the form and fitness of Bobby Zamora from the bench an unexpected bonus, Danny Simpson slotting back in at right back helped, Harry Redknapp’s gamble on Ravel Morrison paid off, but there was a noticeable improvement in the attitude, commitment and togetherness as well. Black himself takes little credit, saying he simply worked with the talent already in place.
“Once we’d started doing that, we needed to get to the play offs and once we got there we were unbeatable,” Black says. “We actually felt, all things being equal, if we played well it didn’t really matter what the opposition did. If the opposition had a particularly good day that didn’t affect us because we were going to be better anyway. When the opposition got the ball we’d be so well organised we’d disrupt their possession and they wouldn’t get chances. The chance of them scoring against us was a long shot.
“We couldn’t lose in the play-offs because another team were better organised than us or wanted it more than we did – it wasn’t possible. It wasn’t possible. I refuse to believe there is anybody in the world who can organise a team better than our staff can. I refuse to believe there is a team out there who want it more. They can’t want it more. They just can’t.
“We felt unbeatable.”
As Wigan found to their cost – beaten by a typically opportunistic strike from Charlie Austin in the first 15 minutes, and then by an aerial rear-guard defence not seen since the days of Alan McDonald led by Richard Dunne and Nedum Onuoha.
QPR were at Wembley for the first time in 28 years.
Lessons from the car plant
If Derby fancy some salt seasoning for their open, gaping, pulsating Wembley wound then it may interest them to know that the sprawling Toyota car plant, housed by the A50 on the outskirts of their city and an employer of many of them, is one of the chief exponents of a crucial part of Black’s thinking and teaching. The Japanese practice of Kaizen is the one Queens Park Rangers have been working to since Black arrived at the club in March.
Popular in the Japanese manufacturing industry, and warmly embraced by Toyota, it’s essentially the constant search for the absolute best, optimal, most efficient way of doing everything and then, once it’s discovered, immediately starting the search for a new, even better, even more efficient, even more advanced way.
Black was a talented amateur footballer and boxer in his younger days. He was on youth terms at his boyhood club Newcastle United and speaks with unfailing, almost impossible, positivity in a broad Geordie accent. When it was clear that playing sport professionally wasn’t going to pay his bills he quickly got into coaching and motivational speaking and has spent the last 40 years honing his craft.
He worked with Sunday league sides, junior sides, pub teams. He taught at colleges and the YMCA and wrote the manuals and exams for other people who wanted to qualify as coaches. Uniquely, he coached bitter rivals Newcastle and Sunderland, first as Kevin Keegan threatened to lead the Magpies to a Premier League title then and Peter Reid took the Mackems out of the First Division and to consecutive seventh placed finishes in the top division during the late 1990s. He talks warmly of working with the great entertainers of the era at St James’ Park - where he helped develop a youth side that included Lee Clark, Steve Watson, Alan Thompson and Robbie Elliott - and of a devastation that they couldn’t claim that coveted league title, a hurt that still burns to this day.
He hasn’t lost very often since. Through his work with the Newcastle Falcons in Rugby Union, and Jonny Wilkinson, he’s won Premierships, Heineken Cups, World Cups and Lions Tours. He’s worked at Norwich, Birmingham, Huddersfield and Fulham during good, successful times for those clubs and coached boxers to British and Olympic titles. As well as helping QPR back to the Premier League and Wilkinson to lift another European Cup this season, Black has been working with Danny Cipriani who has turned his career around and won an England recall, and young Newcastle goalkeeper Freddie Woodman who saved a crucial penalty as England won the Under 17s European Championships.
Black has also become a go-to man in the corporate sector, moving in and embedding with companies to look at how they can function better and be more productive. The theory being that businesses, like football teams, rise and fall by the decisions made day to day by the individuals involved in them.
“People have asked me for years how I can coach at the elite level in all these different things and the answer is I coach the person primarily, rather than the sport,” Black says.
“I might advise on the intensity of training, how to relax, how to manage your energy, how to ensure you know and understand the game, and your role, and the team strategy, and the way the tactics are going to play. Are we eating properly, are we staying hydrated, are we going to bed and sleeping, are we reading the right things and watching the right things on television? I’ll look at the level of interaction with each other, the support for each other you need to have on a day to day basis. I’ll talk to the CEO, the manager, the players, the backroom staff and try to pull the whole lot together. I want to make sure everybody is working effectively and efficiently, everybody is getting better, and people are subscribing to a mindset of Kaizen.
“I want to ensure people enjoy working together, I’ll manage relationships between people and make sure people see the best of each other because invariably if people do feel happier and do feel recognised and rewarded in their chosen environment, whatever they do in life, they’ll probably do better. You have try to ensure everybody is made to feel welcome and needed, by talking to anybody with any role in the club no matter what they do, to make them to realise they are part of the team and their contribution is not just a filler role it’s necessary and they add spiritually to the whole experience.”
Adding spiritually to the experience? Kaizen? One can only imagine what Harry Redknapp, Joe Jordan, Kevin Bond and Wally Downes made of all this at first.
“I don’t hear things like scepticism, I don’t accept things like that, that’s no good to anybody, that’s negative,” says Black. “If you listen to those things you may as well not bother going in.
“If you do genuinely care for people, if you genuinely like the people you work with, if people like you they’re more inclined to listen to you. If you’re a clever clogs people won’t listen to you, if you’re arrogant or don’t give people the attention they deserve they won’t listen to you. It’s very important that people like you and that’s why I say, and always have done, it’s about personalities and relationships that need to gel at first, then we need to create habits and the habits we develop have to deliver. If you put that in place you can’t go wrong.”
So it seems…
“Well, I’m not going to pretend I envisaged it ending like that,” says Black, when the subject of Bobby Zamora’s Wembley winner is finally raised 55 minutes into our scheduled 20 minute interview which began with him telling whoever he was with that he’d “just be two secs” and ended with him confessing that during the course of our discussion he’d gone up to his room and changed back into his QPR training gear. And boots.
“What I do know is when you're in a good frame of mind, you're working your socks off collectively together, you almost pull good luck towards you,” he says. “It’s invariably true that if you're working so hard for each other, you're covering and getting a foot in, and once you've got the ball you're giving options, and if there are no options apparent because people are tired and you put a ball into space you're closing it down, pressing, disrupting them, keeping the shape… something is going to break for you.
“Derby want to play football and that's great, but when you get tired with football you make mistakes, and sometimes it's not any scintillating play that wins you games it's you taking advantage of someone else's mistakes. I would suggest that coming up to the end of the game we were the team more likely to do that, certainly in my mind, because I knew Derby couldn't break us down. I knew that. That couldn't happen. It hadn't looked like happening.”
If only I’d been sitting next to Steve Black for that final 30 minutes at Wembley, imagine the hair, stomach lining and major artery walls that could have been preserved. For while the supporters were mostly in a state of nervous despair that the club’s first Wembley appearance in nearly three decades was going to come down to a red card, Black remained confident that Derby were always likely to fall victim to something that he believes is becoming more and more prevalent in the English game.
“People are making too much of the fact Derby had a lot of play, because having a lot of play doesn't make that much difference,” he says. “I totally accept that when you’ve got the ball the opposition can’t score, and if you keep the ball for a long time then that works for you defensively. Totally accept that. But if you're playing without actually making opportunities, all you're doing is keeping the ball. From from an offensive point of view, from a scoring stand point, it's not necessarily that good.
“That's why some teams who are just good at keeping the ball, and it's become prevalent over the past couple of seasons, keep getting beaten by teams who are brilliant on the counter attack. The teams that have tried to become Barcelona have found they don't have the Barcelona personnel, they don't have a little fella called Messi and his pals, so even if they get good at pass pass pass pass there's sometimes a problem after that because they can't finish.
“Derby are a good Championship team, very well coached by Steve, and had the lion’s share of possession – but they didn’t look like they were breaking us down at all. I was still very, very confident when we went down to ten men because you lose a man up front, you don’t tend to lose your structure at the back. We just got tighter again, people got their body in the way, they were disrupting things, they got their shape back and there wasn’t a great chance of them scoring goals. In fact the actual clear cut chances, and there weren’t many in the game, came from us. Charlie Austin’s chance, for Charlie, was quite a good one. On many occasions Charlie would have put that away.
“We were so confident in having Robert at the back there, in great form and a positive frame of mind as he had been since I’ve been at the club. We had some great characters there, people like Dunney who I would suggest, for laying your body on the line, was superb for us; like Clint Hill who loves the club that much it’s infectious and contagious, and it’s marvellous that he would be prepared to sacrifice himself for the best of the rest of the team; like Joey, who played a pivotal role there, on the training ground, in the changing room, in the huddle, driving the quality, driving the desire, making sure we kept doing the right things all the time.
“We kept saying we’re going to find a way. That’s one of the things I’ve used all the time - let’s find a way to be successful, let’s keep searching and find a way. We found a way. I would suggest for the future let’s keep finding a better way.
“That’s what Kaizen is all about. Let’s keep finding a better way.”
Thanks to Ian Taylor and Paul Morrissey at QPR for setting this interview up for us, and to Steve Black for sparing us “two secs”. Steve, whose ongoing involvement at QPR has yet to be worked out, asked LFW to pass on his best wishes to the supporters and everybody else at the club. He said: “My feedback has been sensational from the fans, the messages I've had, the conversations I've had, it has been lovely. I've been very warmly received and I really appreciate that. The club has got enormous potential. It’s a winning environment that’s for sure.”
Tweet @B1ackie, @loftforwords
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