The big interview: Neale Fenn on nurturing a young squad at Cork City

The big interview: Neale Fenn on nurturing a young squad at Cork City
Cork City head coach Neale Fenn has a big job ahead in 2020. Picture: INPHO/Laszlo Geczo

NEALE FENN the player would like playing under Neale Fenn the manager, but he’d have to improve on a few things to impress his older self.

Fenn’s silky skills were to the fore as he helped the club to win the League of Ireland in 2005 and now he is trying to bring about success as he faces into a first full season in charge of the Rebel Army. Naturally, his playing days informed the style of management he brings.

“I try to be a manager that thinks about what a player would like,” he says.

“You’re not going to suit every player but you try not to drag out sessions over a long period of time, you make sure you get good quality and intensity so the players aren’t standing out.

“Ball on the ground, which is what I like — I didn’t want to battling for it in the air! — so I think I would enjoy playing for me.

“Then, I also like my forwards to press and I didn’t really like that as a player. I was a little bit difficult to manage, I kind of thought I knew everything. I’d need to get a bit fitter too!”

And is it that sense of confidence in his views that led him to management?

“It’s a strange one because being a manager didn’t interest me,” he says.

“It grew on me a little bit and I was looking at things and thinking I could do better and put a better product on the pitch and give flair players and entertainers a bit of a run, rather than managers who look at what they can’t do.

“That’s what I like, let’s focus what they’re good at and play to their strengths.”

Unfortunately for City, a player of Fenn’s calibre is probably outside of their financial remit right now, meaning that he is having to recruit carefully and hope that he can unearth a rough diamond.

“Obviously, you know where you are budget-wise and geographically, you’re trying to target players that are going to suit the budget and the age-profile and you’re trying to tie them down, if you don’t get them you’re moving on to the next one,” he says.

“Then, all of a sudden someone else might come up, you get offered a lot of players so you’re spending a lot of time checking them out.

“It is a time of year that is hard work but it’s good, I like it and enjoy it.

“Sometimes, you do get lucky with a player. You might have a player that you’re taking a gamble on and you get lucky, other players mightn’t do as well.

“The chances of signing an established 20-goal a season player from wherever are slim, so you’re hoping you can pull a younger lad out of the reserve team or get someone a little down on his luck or a player from the lower leagues that you feel can play at a higher level and they embrace coming to Ireland.

“In an ideal world, you could cherry-pick every player you wanted. Unfortunately, it doesn’t work like that so sometimes you’re sacrificing whatever it is to get a player in.

“You need a squad to start the season with and you have to know the level you’re at and adjust on the back of that. Even then, I’m sure you could ask the top managers in the Premier League and they haven’t got all they want.

“What I wouldn’t do is get a player in and try to change him to what I wanted to do if I didn’t think he could do it.

“If you only had one left-back and he was a defensive player, you couldn’t ask him to keep attacking, you would adjust your tactics.”

Fenn’s preference for flowing football shouldn’t mask a steely side, though. There is an element to management that isn’t for everybody, but Fenn is ready for the difficult conversations when it comes to telling players they’re not wanted.

“I think when you come through the system in England, you become a bit a hardened to that,” he says.

“Maybe it’s a bit different over here and it’s not as cut-throat. It’s not entitlement in that they expect loads from you in England you’ve hundreds trying to take your place whereas here there aren’t as many and you can get a bit more comfortable.

“Any player that you let go, you’re doing it for a reason. I’m sure a player is never shocked when he’s let go, for whatever reason — you’re not going to let a 20-goal striker go.

“It’s going to be because of budget restrictions or he’s too old or whatever and you explain it – at the end of the day, it’s your opinion. It’s not nice but I don’t find it hugely difficult.

“It’s part of the job and it’s part of life.”

City are coming off the back of a forgettable 2019, having finished in eighth place, with Fenn replacing John Cotter, who had in turn taken over from John Caulfield. There has been a lot of player turnover, but Fenn doesn’t feel that those remaining will be scarred by the experience.

“I’m not sure,” he says, “you’d have to ask them.

“I had bad seasons and you just try to brush it off. You need to mentally strong and have self-belief, but I’m sure that, come the start of pre-season, they’ll have forgotten about it. They’ll come in fresh and be excited about a new year.

“I keep telling everyone to forget about 2019 — it’s the same as if you won the double, it means nothing when pre-season starts.”

It’s all part of the territory, along with the step up in exposure that comes with managing City compared to his previous job at Longford Town.

“People outside Cork don’t realise how much the spotlight is on you but that works both ways,” he says.

“We’ve seen last year when it doesn’t go so well, they’ll let you know about it. As a footballer, I think you have to have confidence and self-belief and you have to be able to take a bit of stick from people and give it back when you’re doing well!”

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