The life of Brian
APRIL 17 — Reading boss Brian McDermott does not carry the immediate appearance of a football manager.
For starters, there’s the name. Brian. With apologies to any Brians out there, it reeks of unremarkable ordinariness. When Monty Python were looking for an ironically comic name to give the lead role of their satirical movie about an average dullard suddenly being exulted as a supernatural religious icon, they had good reasons for choosing Brian.
Mr McDermott doesn’t look much like a manager, either. Short, bald and bespectacled, he has the physique of the kind of middle-aged chap you’d expect to find in the accounts department of an unsuccessful door handle manufacturing company in an anonymous business park — sitting next to a few more Brians.
But appearances can be deceptive, and Brian McDermott is now on the verge of becoming a Premier League manager after superbly leading his team to the top of the Championship standings; Reading host Nottingham Forest tonight knowing that victory — coupled with West Ham drawing or losing at Bristol City — would secure promotion to the top flight with two games to spare. And even if tonight isn’t the night, it’s surely just a matter of time.
Putting aside the flippancy of my introduction, McDermott’s story is an inspiring one, providing a shining example of exactly what can be achieved from humble beginnings through a combination of hard work, dedication and the consistent application of nature-given talent.
Diehard Arsenal fans with long memories may recall that McDermott started his playing career in the late Seventies as a crafty winger with the Gunners, making a few dozen first-team appearances before leaving to find regular first-team football with Oxford United and Cardiff City, amongst others.
The most notable aspect of his playing days was his willingness to take opportunities overseas, demonstrating the open-mindedness that has served him well during his coaching career. In addition to brief spells in Hong Kong and Australia, he enjoyed a very successful sojourn in Sweden, where he was named player of the season after helping Norrkoping win the league title.
McDermott’s playing career drifted to an unremarkable close in the mid-Nineties — nearly two decades ago — but his progression into his current lofty managerial status was anything but immediate.
At first, he even had a year out of football, taking a job as insurance salesman in London, before returning to the game at one of the lowest possible rungs on the ladder: working with local schoolchildren as a community coach for non-league amateur side Slough Town.
He later became manager at Slough — in the sixth tier of English football — but was sacked after a poor run of results and found himself out of work. Then, in 2000, came the phone call that changed his life: Alan Pardew, now Newcastle boss but then in charge at Reading, was looking for a new scout to profile forthcoming opposition and monitor potential new signings. McDermott was his man.
And so Brian was back in work, albeit in a low-profile, moderately paid and distinctly unglamorous role with a third-tier club. But with his astute judgment, strong work ethic and easy-going, amiable personality, he quickly became an important element of Reading’s backroom team, and remained so when Steve Coppell took over to lead the club into the Premier League for the first time in 2006.
McDermott also distinguished himself as a coach by leading Reading’s second string to the Premier Reserve League title, demonstrating his ability to assemble winning teams from unpromising beginnings and make the very most of whatever opportunities come his way.
Finally, after nearly a decade at the club, McDermott was appointed Reading’s caretaker manager when Brendan Rodgers was dismissed following a brief spell in charge in late 2009. At first, he was widely regarded as a temporary appointment, a safe pair of hands to keep the hot seat warm until a long-term solution could be found.
But that estimation changed dramatically when his charges were drawn against Liverpool in the FA Cup, held them to a draw at Madejski Stadium and then caused a minor sensation by knocking them out with a 2-1 replay victory after extra time at Anfield. Quickly, McDermott was named permanent manager, and neither he nor the club have ever looked back.
Last season — McDermott’s first full campaign in charge — ended with a heartbreaking near-miss as the Royals lost the play-off final 4-2 against Swansea City at Wembley (ironically being beaten by his predecessor at Reading, Brendan Rodgers).
Undeterred, McDermott did what he has always done: calmly assessed the situation, rebuilt the defence that had let him down at Wembley, spent well to replace departing striker Shane Long, and quietly prepared for the new season.
Less than 12 months later, there should be no need for the play-offs this time around. A magnificent run of form culminated in a decisive 3-1 victory at league leaders Southampton on Friday evening, catapulting Reading above their hosts and taking them to the top of the table for the first time all season. The promised land of the Premier League lies in wait.
From coaching kids on holiday football schools to managing a Premier League club? Brian McDermott has shown that it can be done, without even resorting to flashy gimmicks or extravagant egotism — just good decision-making and reliable, consistent hard work. If he keeps on going like this, he’ll even start to give Brians a good name.
* The views expressed here are the personal opinion of the columnist.