The Gaffer Tapes: Bringing the Mountain to Muhammad

Unicorns fan Grigor Griffin interviews Sam Wilkinson

Sam Wilkinson reckons he has returned to Melville United older, wiser, and (checks notes) more patient.

But at the same time Melville’s new old (or old new) first team coach is also determined not to lose his drive, or his coaching standards after an unexpected return trip up SH1 after 7 months working with Wellington Phoenix.

Sam now wants to make Melville the best club in the country and produce world class players here (admittedly after having previously worked full-time to make Wellington Phoenix the best club in the country and produce world class players there).

The unspoken corollary of such an ambitious objective is hard to ignore: Sam will pretty much need to become the best coach in the country to make this happen.

The cynics might argue that at the moment he is not even the best coach in his own family – but Sam is undeniably upwardly mobile, and a hell of a catch on the rebound for Melville.

So in the wake of his first (pre-season) match back in charge (against Wanderers Sports Club), I asked Sam to reflect upon his coaching story so far, especially the surprise yo-yo back to Gower Park.

Wilkinson had full-time professional youth coaching gigs at West Brom and Birmingham City before joining Melville in 2017 for three seasons.

And then, almost before you could say “Did we really lose that Chatham Cup final?” he’s ducked off to Wellington Phoenix – only to now take a road less travelled and return to the amateur game by signing on for Melville again in a post-Covid world…

We pick up the conversation at Fresca Cafe in Alison St… (with text edited for clarity, brevity and grammar.)

GG: Can you compare your experiences at the Wellington Phoenix, firstly with the UK pro clubs you’ve coached at, and secondly, with community-based clubs in New Zealand?

SW: It’s very different in the UK. A totally different level in terms of finance, staffing, facilities, structures. I stole this quote, but the Phoenix are essentially a northern league club on steroids. They have a lot more resources, a bit more money, but in the academy space it is still user-pays, so they are very much running the same programme as a good local club.

On the senior and professional side, yes, there’s more full time employees, but many of the structures, practices, procedures are very similar, but people have got a bit more time to think about it.

However there just isn’t the same level of resource and professionalism of a West Bromwich Albion or a Birmingham City.

Even on the academy over there you want for nothing essentially. Players and staff have no costs involved, facilities are out of this world, and with the number of players on the books, you just can’t compare the two.

The Phoenix are very much roll-your-sleeves-up, work with what you’ve got. They’ve got more resources than a local club but they are far from being in the league of a championship club in the UK.

GG: So you’re saying Phoenix are more comparable with a northern league club than a professional club in the UK?

SW: Yes, the gap from a Melville, an Eastern Suburbs, a Central United to the Phoenix is closer than the gap between the Phoenix and a West Brom or Birmingham City.

GG: Having said that, your transition from Melville to the Phoenix and back to Melville must have brought sharp contrasts.

SW: Bear in mind I was primarily working in the academy space, although I was also working with the U20/Reserve group. The standard of the players was fine at the Phoenix, but would I say Phoenix U17 age group were light years ahead of our lads at Melville? No, they weren’t. It was essentially the same on the grass. You were working with keen, young Kiwi footballers.

I didn’t find any real difference on that front. The major difference for me in going back into that role was just ‘time available’. So rather than running a school programme, running three academy sessions and then going to a first team session it was back to doing one session a day, so you just had more time to plan, and a little bit more time to put detail into the session.

GG: How may hours a week were you contracted for at the Phoenix?

SW: I was full time. I don’t even know what the contract said in terms of hours. But we were normally six days a week, I would be in at the office at 9.30-10am. There was a lot of review, a lot of analysis, planing and then normally we would have a group in after school, or sometimes with the U-20s we would have a group training at 10am. So there was a lot more time. I won’t lie, there were times when I was twiddling my thumbs, and I missed aspects of being busy and always having something on the go.

I missed that side, but for me probably it was finding a happy medium between trying to generate a working wage at an amateur club and doing 3-4 jobs and being full-time but sometimes not flat-out busy. Somewhere in between would be the ideal for me in my world.

GG: So reflect on the frustrations in making the journey in the other direction and reverting from the Phoenix to a community-level club like Melville where there will be less of a support network and you will once again be running around flat stick trying to make a buck.

I think I’m a little bit wiser and my eyes are a bit more open this time around, in terms of what is realistic, compared to when I first came to Melville, in terms of what is realistic to demand from a volunteer committee; what the battles are you need to fight and what you need to let go and walk away from.

GG: What do you expect to be different this time around?

SW: I think I’m in a better space to manage that transition now. I think I’ve said this before, but I’ve come back here with a greater appreciation for the good things of being at a club like Melville, in terms of the buy-in from the players, the buy-in from the club members. These are people that are there for their passion for the game. Or in the players’ cases because they really want to try and achieve something in the game and kick on. That kind of wholesome buy-in is actually really refreshing. Sometimes you don’t know that you’ve got that sort of commitment until you go away.

I think I will manage the workload and where I put my energy into things a lot better. More than anything that’s from going away from a club like Melville and then coming back.

GG: You will also be a much bigger fish in a small pond and enjoy having a lot more influence here, so talk about your goals.

SW: If I look back, Melville was my first job where I was top dog or senior coach, and I was impatient. I wanted everything ‘now’. As soon as there was a sign of anybody challenging, it was a case of ‘right, let’s go to war with them’.

Through maturity I’ve learned where those people are coming from at times. The big thing for me is, it is a case of striking a balance. I don’t want to lose any of my drive, or my standards. I want to make Melville the best club in the country.

And I want to help produce world class players – I’ve always said this – out of shitty little Hamilton on a back pitch at Gower Park.

I don’t want to water down those goals but I think I have learned that to achieve that there are ways you get people on board with you. Hitting them over the head isn’t always the best way of achieving that.

And look, going back to the Phoenix and the point about them not being a million miles off these clubs, what I would say is a lot of the issues that crop up at a Melville, also crop up exactly the same at the Phoenix.

Instead of having the conversation or the argument at 9pm after everyone has finished work you’re have it at 10am because you’re all full-time.

GG: But your training facilities, say, would be better at the Phoenix which would at least reduce pressure points on that front?

SW: They were better by way of Lower Hutt as the partner club having managed to inherit from the council a brand new astro turf. What I would say is the first team at the Phoenix are training at Martin Luckie Park in central Wellington, which is a public field.

We used to joke that while Steven Taylor’s marshalling the back four, you’ve got a guy walking his dog across the field. After the first team have finished training quite often you’ve got Dial-A-Cab versus Maxi Taxis playing a game on the same pitch.

So it’s not a million miles away from bozos using our pitches down at Gower. They’ve got the same issues at the Phoenix with the first team.

GG: Since you have left and returned, you appear to have made another transition. You’ve turned into a coaching guru, with multi-media platforms, a website, a podcast, and an opinionated social media presence. You’re not just a garden variety coach any more – you’re a guru. What’s that all about?

SW: Time on my hands was one thing. It gave me a chance to write some ideas down and toy around with some projects. I definitely see that side of things and the website as avenues to maybe help earn a living out of the game.

Again, with my first experience at Melville I was probably stretched a bit thin in trying to run school football programmes and club football programmes and I am funnelling my energy into projects where they link in better and I am not so stretched.

There’s the website and the articles and plans to deliver content for some people – there’s a new podcast in town. The aim is to try and use some of the contacts I’ve got to try and provide a bit of insight for young Kiwi players who want to try and crack the pro game, or for coaches. I haven’t got all the answers – and I’m not a guru, though obviously that is now going to stick with the lads – but I have got some experience.

If I can share some of those ideas and people think they are crap, that’s fine, but they might provoke some thought. If people think it’s great and there are ideas they can implement, that’s also great.

GG: Are there football things you need to get off your chest?

SW: I guess I’m at a stage now where I think that if nothing else, I’ve got things to say. If i can use a vehicle to say them and it can create opportunities for me, and provoke thought for others.

Like it or not, I am slowly morphing into the Roger Wilkinson and John Cartwright mould – the ‘Renegade with a Cause’ thing – and slagging off governing bodies and being the voice of the people. They are my two mentors, and as much as I have fought their route in the past and always thought, ‘Nah, you’ve got to play the game’, here I am now finding myself being more and more outspoken.

GG: Of course we almost expect our coaches to have a pop now and then as guardians of the game.

SW: I think added to that, my own coaching aims and where I see my career going, have changed.

I think I got to a point where for a long time I chased ‘CV jobs’ as I called them. Everything was a stepping stone to a better job, something that looks great on a CV and I was building a career.

But I’m at a stage now where I have realised I like being able to implement my own ideas. I like having the authority and autonomy to do that. I like working with serious and hungry players. I’m actually happy doing that at a good local club like Melville, where I think for my own ego or my own career, I will get a lot of attention if all these things I am talking about can produce some world class players, or maybe if I could take Melville to the Club World Cup.

That’s what could give me a bit of recognition as opposed to what I originally thought when I came to Melville, which was, ‘I’ll do my three years here then jump to the next job and the next job’.

That doesn’t interest me as much. I’m happy spending my time here, and if this makes sense, I now want to bring the mountain to Muhammad rather than Muhammad going to the mountain.

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