The first interview: Athletic Club manager Mike T opens up to the Top100

By: Rick Disneck (sports writer and former pommel horse 1988 Olympic Bronze medalist)

It was a little over three months when one of manager Mike T’s assistants, Paris or Lexus, and I will admit is it extremely hard to tell these biological twins apart, contacted me with the suggestion that I join Mike on his tour down under (or Australia for those who are short on the vernacular) at the end of the season.  Mike planned was to visit some more obscure places, off the beaten track, to recharge ahead of Season 7 and Bilbao’s return to Division 3.

I can see why Mike T lives in a state of perpetual confusion …
After confirming that my several convictions for youthful indiscretions in Mallorca and Ibiza would not preclude me getting a visa I agreed and had my editor book the tickets.  Having never been to Australia I was not sure what to expect.  The closest I came to an Australian was a 19yr old gymnast at the World Championships back in 1986 who snuck me into her athlete’s accommodation during the post event party and promptly passed out from excessive alcohol consumption.  I was told not to show fear to anything with eight legs because they are all deadly (no point worrying about it I was told).
Upon landing in Australia at Hobart in Tasmania, I was greeted by the assistants who took me to the tour bus that Mike had procured for the tour.  “One rule” he said “only one question per stop”, and with that we climbed aboard and set off for our first destination
The story begins; Paradise – Tasmania

Paris in Paradise
Mike T took over from the accomplished Gareth Crisp in May 2016 a little less than half way through Season 5.  Comfortably nestled mid-table in Division 3 and with a competitive squad, with the Los Leones fans mourning the departure of Crisp, he made a low key start primarily aimed at holding the line and not losing ground in the Division 3 promotion race.  The squad was left in excellent shape by the outgoing Crisp, who had taken on the challenge at Sampdoria, also in Division 3.  Whilst this could have riled the fans their tempers fizzled as Mike T took them on 12 match league unbeaten run pushing them into the playoff picture.
The tour begins; Eggs & Bacon Bay – Tasmania

What attracted you to the Top 100 league?
“It was the challenge of facing off against 99 serious, skilled and knowledgeable managers, with no gimme’s or freebies.  A true test of your abilities as a manager.  Professionally run and stewarded, a realistic game world.  And a healthy dose of Sir Stephen Beddows badgering, in all likelihood wanting at least one manager in the league he thinks he can beat”.

The tour goes on; Break-Me-Neck Hill – Tasmania

Approaching the end of Season 5, you were in a multi team race for second and automatic promotion to Division 2, what was that like?
“It was a tough.  We are not a team that was built to score 3 or 4 goals every week.  And the competition is so tight each and every week.  If we dropped a few results in a row we would be back on the outside looking in.  We had managed to squeak out results and there was a kind of shocked belief that we could actually win promotion”.

And on; The Edge of the World – Tasmania

What was the feeling like when you had sewed up 2ndplace and promotion to Division 2 at the end of Season 5?
“Absolutely bloody amazing mate.  I could not have imagined it when I took on the job.  It was Gareth’s team which I inherited and to an extent I was manning the rudder.  We had a good run without any key injuries which included a number of tight 1-0 wins.  It all came together at the right time”.

And on; Devils Kitchen – Tasmania

What was your scouting and transfer plan in the offseason ahead of the ascent to Division 2?
“Erm yeah … I’ll be honest, I had no plan.  It was a bit of a shock to get promoted, and I underestimated the step up in class that is Division 2.  I was approached for a number of deals and only accepted one or two.  I had a view that we would use the same tactics and pretty much the same squad.  The target was not to get relegated.  We were under no illusions that a top 6 finish was within reach, but not looking to strengthen the squad probably sent the wrong kind of message to our squad and fans”.

To follow on with the wrong messa …
“Steady on their tiger, the next stop is perfect for what I think this question will be”.

And on; Dismal Swamp – Tasmania

Why did you think it was the wrong message you sent to the players?  Don’t you think it could have been viewed as a sign of your confidence in them?
“Good question. We had a solid first eleven and three or four quality subs, but we dropped off after that.  We were also an aging team that would likely lose a step in the next season.  I had some discussions with our captain Camacho during the offseason where he suggested we get a little more aggressive and chase some transfer targets, and even offered a few names.  I knew he hadn’t come up with these by himself and had likely discussed them with our leadership group (Forster, Sagna, Rico and Inan) who knew well who we would be facing in the upcoming season.  In the end I didn’t push hard enough and we didn’t bring in enough new talent, and it probably caused a small fissure between me and the squad”.
We drove back to Devonport to take the ferry over to Melbourne and the continuation of our tour.  The twins were proving to be accommodating hostesses and Mike T a generous host and honest interview subject.  As I gathered my thoughts I wondered if the promotion had come too soon during his tenure at San Mames?  Were the fans expecting too much from their team in Division 2?  Did Mike T underestimate what was needed to be successful in Division 2?  I think we know the answer to the last question.
Roll on Victoria; Poowong – Victoria

So you arrive at San Mames to take on a strong Internazionale side in your first match in Division 2 and leave with a win?
“Yep … the crowd was amazing, not a full house but raucous and loving every minute.  Young Sandro Ramirez had earned the starting centre forward role replacing our stalwart Emenike and he was MoM, setting up Danilo Silva for the first and scoring what turned out to be the winner.  Probably the work of Forster between the sticks saving a screamer from Carrick was key in getting the win.  Brilliant.  3 pts after one game …. if only we knew what was ahead”.

Roll on more Victoria; Mt Misery – Victoria

Ten games in you are sitting towards the bottom of the league, but not under threat, 4 wins and a draw, 5 losses, 13pts, what was the mood at the club?
“Still hopeful.  We had copped a 3-0 thrashing from Schalke, but had lost the other matches by only single goals.  A bit of luck and we could turn some of these losses into points, maybe even sneak a win.  The mood was not buoyant, but calm and hopeful.  We had gone on a run when I took over the previous season and there was belief that we could do it again.  But I was noticing that some of the young players were getting frustrated by the lack of opportunities, and it was apparent some of the older squad members were starting to lose a step”.

Across the border; Come by Chance – New South Wales

The next ten games and you are in trouble, with one win one draw and eight losses, and buried in the relegation zone?
“Yeah, we got tired and the squad depth and my lack of interest in bringing in some new talent was being highlighted.  After we lost our sixth game in a row, a 3-1 beat down and repayment for their opening fixture loss (Internazionale) I got called in to see the chairman on Monday morning.  It was not pretty.  We had lost our captain to a broken collarbone just before this six game losing streak.  It was a tough and lucky 1-0 win over a quality Benfica side.  In the second half Matip and Emre Can sandwiched Camacho fighting for a loose ball and he landed awkwardly.  I tried to blame a few other club officials who I didn’t get along with for our predicament and form and the chairman and I got into a shouting match.  Needless to say I was on notice to fix the results on the pitch, and he knew I had used some flimsy arguments to defend myself.  Not my finest moment”.

We use vowels in this Wales; Nevertire – New South Wales

Ten more games and the lads had responded, four wins, two draws and four losses and there was a sense of hope that you might pull off an escape?
“Absolutely, two wins in a row, against Sampdoria and Schalke, only time all season we stitched two together but we rounded out these ten matches with three losses in a row and there were some jitters in the dressing room and upstairs.  Father time had caught up with some players and they had lost that step and we were running out of legs and my lack of transfer market activity was about to bite us in the arse”.

Across the border; Banana – Queensland

The next four games, you only scored one goal, three losses and a draw, the last of these a 3-0 beating by Everton and you were pretty much consigned to Division 3 football next season?
“Banana’d mate … we were banana’d.  The local press … including you Rick … were calling for my head.  The fans were not happy.  Some of the more seasoned longtime fans understood the swings and roundabouts of the challenges we faced and were prepared to cut the team, and to an extent me some slack … but they don’t sign our checks do they”.

And it ends; Yorkeys Knob – Queensland

The last four games of your Division 2 tenure, another 3 losses and a draw and you were done.  And I notice we have arrived at an appropriately named place!!
“Hahaha yes sir … we were screwed.  We managed to score a few goals in this run of games but just couldn’t bridge the talent and quality gap to our opponents.  Benfica had scampered away from the bottom four and created some space and not even a miracle could save us.  It was a long arduous season, punctuated with some errors from me, most notably not recognizing the lack of depth and a gap in quality our squad had.  I had meetings the squad lined up the week after our last match against Leverkusen, and a meeting with the chairman at the end of the week to discuss my future”.

We cut back down Queensland and across into South Australia to continue our journey.  The girls were very friendly, the whisky was always available and I was seeing places in Australia that I was quite sure I would never want to see again.
Having gained a rather frank understanding of Season 6 and what went wrong, we are approaching some interesting events.  The coup that has brought Chinese ownership to what was previously and fiercely a club owned and operated by its members, the reprieve that was given to Mike T as manager and a renewed purpose that has already been evident in the off season, notably around reshaping the squad for the future.
The state in Australia you fly over; Foul Bay – South Australia

How did this “Chinese coup” start?
“Trump … well that is the rumor.  Or if you believe some of the media reports it is hard fact!!  Actually it was a little known codicil in the bylaws outlawing salubrious premises on club grounds that was triggered.  We arrived one morning to a temporary building housing a massage parlor next to the groundskeepers shack.  It literally popped up overnight.  No-one knew where it came from or who built it, but the Chinese consortia were all over this like white on rice and forced the issue through the club and local government, which triggered an ownership dissolution.  After that the deep pockets of the consortia were simply too much for the local members to fight against, and the rest was history”.

For the club’s previous owners and members a trip down; Nowhere Else Road – South Australia

So your new chairman, what do you call him?
“Hahaha, well I jokingly call him Chairman Mao, but the crazy bugger actually has a cat that stays in the club offices called Chairman Meow.  Jokes aside, I call him sir.  He offered me another season at the helm when I thought I was getting the old heave ho.  Look, we are all working towards the same goal, he has offered to support me if I get the results, and he has been receptive to my transfer and squad plans.  A necessary shake-up and disruption can only be good, what we were doing, what I was doing was not working.  He generously has set the bar low this season, to simply avoid relegation, but I hopeful of more than that”.

Squad plans, re-tooling; Coffin Bay – South Australia

And here we are at Coffin Bay, the girls are swimming and sunbathing.  Care to share your plans for the squad, most notably some of your older players?
“Yeah Rick, we knew we were getting older.  I knew we were getting older and had neglected the squad with regard to this, so it was time to take some action.  We let Mikel Balenziaga go at left back, but we can slide Torres Nillo over there which is his preferred side in any case.  We received Thomas Delaney, a 26yr old midfielder who will move straight into the starting line-up and allow us to slide Camacho to center back.  We also received Joe Ledley who can provide cover at left back or in the midfield. 
Moving Danillo Silva, Macenlly Torres, Emenike, Velarde for some younger players has helped.  Have also made some tough decisions on the youth team, either moving some players for others, or selling.  We were running most of the season on a 50 man squad and I ideally want to get that down to 40”.

Squad plans, re-tooling; Gunbarrel Highway – Western Australia

A long drive ahead, what can you share about your plans for the squad, what sort of player are you looking for?
“I am usually open to most types of players, however we wanted some younger and hopefully improving promising players to come into the squad and start fighting it out with your starters.  Delaney and Ledley as discussed above have come in, Marcos Rocha was considered excess baggage at Leicester and will slot in at right back or the right side of the midfield at times.  Frederic Guilbert, a young defender who can play center back or on the right was a good cash signing.  We picked up a raft of 24 yr old’s from defence to attack who should be approaching some good development years.  We don’t need to hit the jackpot on each, but it would be a vindication by the end of this season if one or two have pushed into the best eleven.  A couple of project players we picked up, Allione and Palacios, maybe we can help get the best out of them and focused on football”.

Squad plans, re-tooling; Useless Loop, Shark Bay – Western Australia

Transfer market, is it difficult to do business?
“It is, but I like it.  The quality of your squad that you can offer for player exchanges often dictates and drives the deals you can chase.  There are opportunities for cash deals in some cases, Guilbert as discussed above, but these are few and far between.  When we search for the next young talent, the competition is fierce, and some clubs have outstanding academies that the youngsters seem to migrate to when deciding on multiple offers.  The 23 to 25 yr old player bracket, 83 to 86 is where we are hoping to uncover a couple of talents, 87 to 88 risers to strengthen the squad.  We have a couple of talented players that might attract some bids which we will review, if it makes sense and chairman wants to let them go then we see that happening”.

What does the future hold; Valley of the Giants – Western Australia

It is almost as if you planned this trip to end here!  What are your hopes for the upcoming season, what are the chairman’s expectations and what are your hopes?
“Three questions, ok mate I will cut you some slack!  Let’stake a walk across the treetops …The chairman, well he has told me that he doesn’t want to get relegated to Division 4.  So that will be our first goal.  My expectations are that we are top half of the table coming into the final several games of the year within touching distance of the play-off positions.  My hopes, promotion would be nice but having some of our younger players develop further and win some playing time would be a fantastic result”.

We left the Valley of the Giants and drove back to Perth where Mike T grew up and down to Cottesloe Beach which was close to where he lived and swam as a kid.  I marveled at how beautiful and clean everything was, the air was clear, the Norfolk Island pines swayed in the breeze, and the ships in Gage Roads waiting to come into Fremantle port several miles away in plain view between Rottenest Island and the beach.  I asked him why would you ever want to leave here, this place is simply superb.  His answer “that is the amazing beauty of Perth … you don’t feel like you want to leave … and many many people never do …”, after a pause he added “and to be honest mate, Bilbao and Espana ain’t that bad of place to live either”.
And with that, I took a cab to the airport and onto the Lufthansa flight back to Frankfurt.  Mike, Paris and Lexus had another week of serious down time at the beach before coming back to the pre-season fixtures.  During the trip, despite wanting to decompress and get away from his day job, he was still fielding calls and taking in Skype meetings on transfer options and squad decisions … in his cargo shorts and blue and yellow Hawaiian shirt and thongs … maybe he should conduct his off season business like this every year, you see, he slept like a baby every night, not a care in the world ….

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