A View from the Fort

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Of New Plastic Cards, A New Plastic Pitch, Box Goals and An Interview With Paul Mariner

A VIEW FROM THE FORT by Jim Dow

Over the eighteen (gulp) years that I’ve been going to Revolution matches I’ve developed the habit (obsession maybe) of saving every single ticket stub and putting them into a container in my office. From time to time I look over at them and contemplate the dollars and passion spent, beer and gasoline guzzled and games seen good and bad. So imagine my sadness when those two little plastic cards showed up in the post. From thirty-four, or more, differently decorated ducats to demarcate the passage of a season to two more electronically charged silvers to shove into my wallet with all the other cards; well maybe I’m showing my age.

Of course it is actually a great idea, and not just for the trees no longer involved. Those little cards become symbols of membership in a club, a football club and maybe it can be taken as a sign, along with the new, improved plastic pitch (maybe Thierry Henry will deign to play once at The Morgue before his time is up) and the box goals that the management is starting to understand that there are two kinds of football in the United States and they don’t have much, if any, synergy whatsoever, to use a corporate term.

Certainly all MLS teams, along with the league itself, are investments. The Revolution do not have their origins in politics, neighborhood rivalry, religion or any of the myriad other reasons that football clubs around the world got started. Of course neither did D.C, Portland, Red Bulls or even Seattle. All of them are brands, some even re-branded, often multiple times like Sporting KC, once Wiz, then Wizards. But the difference is that many MLS franchises now understand the need to present themselves as clubs and make multiple moves to foster that illusion. Hopefully these small new changes indicate that some folks in the belly of the corporate beast that is Fortress Foxboro are beginning to understand that.

One thing that has always been understood is the value of televising Revolution games and over the past 18 seasons almost every single match has been on the tube, in one way or another and that might be the best advertising of all, at least potentially. While the numbers may be low compared to other Boston area team telecasts, they are not insignificant and a good show on the pitch early on sometimes translates into more folks in the stands later in the schedule.

A particularly heartening addition to this year’s presentations has been the addition of former assistant coach Paul Mariner as the color commentator. Of course the loquacious man from Lancashire has a long, long resume that includes being hailed as one of the best strikers of the 1980’s, along such stalwarts as Kevin Keegan and Gary Lineker. He has played with Arsenal and Ipswich Town, in league, FA Cup and European competitions and has represented England in the European Championships and World Cup. When you combine that kind of experience with the fact that he has plied his football trade in the States for a quarter of a century and knows the ropes on both sides of the pond, who better to sit in the booth and analyze what is going on below?

With that in mind I spoke to him on the telephone as he was preparing to leave for Houston to call the first game of the season. Of course certain developments have taken place since then that may wilt the post-post-season glow that is evident in my questioning and his responses but his observations make a great deal of sense and it is the earliest of days, despite being 0 and 2 with a goal differential of -5 and having a supposedly skillful team that can’t maintain possession.

And so, while we now have membership cards, a new pitch, box goals and an excellent broadcast crew there are, quite obviously, significant problems on the pitch that need to be addressed with what may require an even greater level of commitment of resources.

JIM: First of all, congratulations on your coming in to do the Revs broadcasts, it’s great, sort of a homecoming for all concerned, certainly for fans of the team.

PAUL: Thank you very much.

JIM: I’m writing about the old cliché of “seeing the game.” You’ve been lucky enough to see the game from three quite different vantage points; as a player, then as a coach and manager and now from the broadcast booth.

What I’m curious about are the differences between those positions, for example, one time I sat up with Brad Feldman in the TV perch and I was able to see practically everything developing for what seemed like a second or two before it actually happened, the game, literally, slowed down. On the field, as a player in the heat of the game, that is an entirely different perspective, in the midst of elbows, studs, and mud and then, of course, there is the bench. And the type of skin that one has in the game is, of course, completely different from each position. So, I’m curious on your perspective on those differences.

PAUL: Well, from the pitchside, from the bench you are hoping that the work that you have done over the week and in preseason, in the plot and the plannig you have put down, there are certain patterns that most coaches have so that (they)…are the bread and butter of the team, they know that the players know where to be when certain players have the ball, when certain wings will go out (and so forth), so there’s that aspect.

If you aren’t privy to the way the team is set up then when you are in the press box or in the broadcasting booth you (still) can, 1.) use your experience (to read the game) or, 2.) if you’ve not got a great deal of experience either coaching or from the pitchside, then you’re absolutely right Jim, you (still) can see things developing. And the more that you see your team, either as a supporter, or the team that you work with, you can see the players habits and then that spills over into the pattern of play.

So there are different levels of knowledge I suppose, to put it in a nutshell. I mean, if you are on the inside looking at the inside, you are looking at the fruits of your labors (of all the preparation).

JIM: Along those lines, being on the inside, I remember when the Revolution first started, back in the late 90’s, they used to bring in trialists, sometimes informally, often on the word of an agent, or a friend, whatever and I was told that it might take roughly three kicks of the ball to figure out if somebody was up to it.

PAUL: Sometimes not even that, sometimes just walking behind them, or just seeing their gait gives things away; it is really quite remarkable. I mean it is absolutely ridiculous when you don’t give anybody a chance but you can just tell the people who aren’t athletic enough. It’s happened in my career, with a player walking on to the training ground for a test and the decision between the coaches has already been made and it was proven right, the guy was buried and not even sighted again (at that level).

JIM: Have you ever been surprised in the other direction, somebody has come along and you just couldn’t see them, didn’t rate them and they turned out to be terrific, not asking you to name names but in the abstract has that happened in your experience as a player and a coach?

PAUL: Yeah, I mean the classic for me was when I was at Ipswich Town and Sir Bobby Robson, Bobby Robson then, was thinking of bringing a guy called Terry Butcher into the team as a professional…

JIM: Oh yeah, he was something!

PAUL: (Yes) and Terry was such an ugly duckling and he turned out to be a defensive swan. He was six foot four and he was a little ungainly, he wasn’t the quickest and when the manager said to the senior pros I want to sign this kid we sort of questioned it. And he said, well just give him time and sometimes that level of manager, you can just see something in somebody and what you got with Terry, I mean he wasn’t (gifted) with blistering speed but he had a superb left foot and he was absolutely electric, he was as a defender always in he right position, positionally he was sensational and a great leader and turned into an England captain. So yeah, that’s one that most people will know but there’s others, obviously.

JIM: Do you think that today, in 2014, if a raw Terry Butcher walked in to try out with your experience now you might see him differently, perhaps in the way Sir Bobby did?

PAUL: Yeah, you know that experience (does make a difference) and that’s why my hat goes off to the coaches and staffs of MLS teams because you are looking at some teams (that are on a) budget and they have to go through the draft (which) is somewhat not (so much) obsolete but with the advent of youth academies now being (increasingly) plausible you’ve still got to make some good decisions and experience always counts for spotting that raw talent that will eventually come good.

JIM: Switching to broadcasting, there seems to be something of a lineage of people associated with the Revs going into the booth and also having had a pretty high level of broadcasting talent here over the eighteen years; is that unique or are there some kind of waters of loquaciousness in Foxboro?

PAUL: I’m not so sure, I think it’s maybe it’s got a lot to do with Brad Feldman, to be perfectly honest. I mean he’s highly connected in the football world and highly connected in the broadcasting world and he keeps an ear to the ground constantly and over the past years it’s been great, I mean Jay’s been there and Greg Lalas, Greg was there and apparently (before that) there’s been a lot of very good people.

JIM: Yes,of course there were Adrian Healey, Derek Rae, Shamus Malin, going all the way back, plus Brian Dunseth, Alexi Lalas and Taylor Twellman and you and Stevie on the national side, it is kind of a talent farm or at least a breeding ground.

PAUL: Was Adrian doing color or was he play by play?

JIM: I think he did both, at different times, I think he was at the point where Brad came in and at one time he was commenting and at another time doing the description of the action.

PAUL: Well, right, there’s some good lineage there.

JIM: Switching again, what do you make of this young group of Revolution players?

PAUL: I must say, I’m very excited, I think that defensively they’ve got a top man right there in Goncalves. I think A.J. and McCarthy will be fighting it out; A.J. seems to me to have the edge over it. (They are) healthy in the fullback position (with Andrew) and the kid they are trying to develop, Smith, to go across the back four. In midfield it seems that you’ve got holding midfield players, creative midfield players, I’m not saying it is an embarrassment of riches but you have some very creative players and some that can put their foot in and nullify the attack for protection for the front. Then going forward with Teal coming in, Diego, Kelyn, Mullins, all these guys, who are very, very (talented) it is actually quite exciting.

JIM: Do you think that with a lot of contemporary pro teams everywhere, not just in MLS, doing their goal-scoring by committee, so to speak, that might prove to be the situation here, maybe not having one high scoring striker but a number of players taking turns, even from different positions?

PAUL: Well, to win anything in MLS you have to have more than one person contributing to the goal-scoring, whether it is a few from the defenders, half of them from midfield and then you’ve got your usual suspects scoring goals, your forwards. I think that scoring goals is always difficult, no matter what league you are in because defenders are smart, some teams defend deep and sometimes ten behind the ball, so it is hard to score goals but I think it looks as though this team has got goals in it.

JIM: It certainly seemed to be the case at the end of last year and while there is no more Agudelo, there have been additions at the same time.

PAUL: If you look at the goals that Teal Bunbury scored in preseason, that one he scored the other day when he dipped inside and rifled it with his right foot, that wasn’t a fluke, you have to have a certain level of ability to do that so I think with everybody saying, “who’s going to fill Juan’s shoes?” I think maybe a few people can fill his shoes.

JIM: Right and again, a committee may fill those shoes.

PAUL: Right.

JIM: Thinking about the long season ahead and the fact that this is a young team and in your experience I’m sure you have seen players seem to come good but then they peak, then start to fade away and finally fizzle out. What do you think is the most difficult thing to do from a coaches’ point of view, to be sure that these kids keep on the uptick, keep growing as players?

PAUL: I think that it is to do with Jay, the great thing about Jay is that he is very innovative, he’s on the front cusp with technology, he’s been there and done it, so to speak, he knows what its like to play (a great) many games; the Superliga, the Cup games, the league games, the traveling, he knows how to manage that, he knows what the players need as far as work on the training ground is concerned and (how to) factor in all the travel.

So I think that experience will work wonders for the players…I think the North American players, I think they understand it, they understand they have to rest at the right time, because…of the travel schedule, playing in different temperatures, the heat, the cold, you’ll be starting in Philly next week, it’s not going to be too warm, then again you are in Texas, or you go to more southerly regions and it will be warm, so I think the coaching staff of Tommy Soehn and Jay and Remi, I figure that is a wonderful degree of experience for them (the younger players).

JIM: What do you do to get ready for a game? At one time you trained, you rested and then laced them up to play, then you did it all as a coach but now, when you do the ESPN stuff you are doing games as well as tussling with Craig Burley on ESPN FC…

PAUL: Yep, there are Champions League games, international games, La Liga, Serie A, you know all the leagues, don’t do the Premier League… but it is super-professional. (At the Revs) we (do) broadcast conference calls on Mondays, eleven o’clock with the supervisor, the producer, director, the PR people at the Revs just to help with the injuries and what we need to look for. (Then) we come up with our story lines, we’ll come up with our featured players, so, for example, this (coming) weekend we’ll take a slight look at last year, who is going to fill Juan’s boots, then on to our featured player, it will probably be Fagundez I’m guessing, and then something (about) what do the Revs need to focus on to try and win, we put the keys (to the game) up and other stuff and do some research on the starting lineup and what are the changes for the starting lineup for the Revs, what are the changes in the starting lineup for Dominic’s team, etc.

Fortunately, I know the coaches very well and I’m not saying I’m capable of telling the starting lineup ahead of time but if I was to call and say, “are we expecting any surprises?” and they’ll say “no,” so…having been in their shoes you sort of gather (what is going on), I know that coaches are much more open now in MLS but you really don’t want to give away your starting lineup beforehand because then it does give other coaches time to adjust a little bit. So, I’m in a privileged position and it is a position of trust and I would never, ever betray that trust.

JIM: I understand how that works, for sure and it is important. Is there a difference say, in doing MLS games, where you know everybody from the recent past, and doing the European games, where even though you were over in Plymouth, and certainly you have tons of connections, it still is from a distance?

PAUL: With the Revolution, you have to be very careful because I do know the players, I know the coaches, like this weekend (against Houston) I’ve actually coached both coaches when they were playing, Dominic when he was with the Blackhawks, which was in the old NPSL, and so I think the mantra should be this, if you were playing, Jim and I said something detrimental to you, you were having an absolute horrible game, you can’t pass a thing, I’ve got to be able to tell you to your face. It is a fine line, I’m going to be impartial, I don’t want to compromise my integrity as a judge of football, I’ve got to tell it the way that it is and I think most professional athletes will concur with that; they’ll know when they’ve had a good game and again, they’ll know when they’ve had a bad game.

I don’t want to state the obvious, in that everybody’s got eyes, most people have eyes, they can see what’s going on so I don’t want to state the obvious. I figure I need to state how things are coming about and why and what happened and then sort out the judgment calls, did the referee get the penalty right, was that a bad tackle, should there have been a red card, you know, little stuff like that.

JIM: Well, welcome back and have a great season in the booth.

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