As one of only two former England internationals currently managing in the English game, Carlisle United boss Keith Curle knows what it takes to be a manager.
Three years ago, Keith Curle accepted the daunting task of guiding Carlisle United, then adrift at the bottom of the English Football League, back to safer ground. Following year-on-year improvements under his artful stewardship, the side made it to the upper reaches of League Two last season, only narrowly missing out on a play-off promotion at the semi-final stage.
It was a crushing disappointment for Curle and his team. Yet, rather than soaking up the negativity around the event, he harnessed it to help his players improve.
“The first thing I did when we walked into the changing room after the game was leave the door open, because Exeter were celebrating their opportunity to fight for promotion at Wembley and I wanted our players to hear what success sounded like,” Curle says. “Having that celebration ringing in our ears has given us real motivation going into the next season.”
Any disappointment at missing out on a trip to Wembley is also outweighed by his pride at how far the club has come during his tenure. Since his appointment in September 2014, with Carlisle at the foot of the table, he has led them to 20th, 10th and 6th place finishes respectively.
“The effort from the players has been excellent and the club as a whole has moved forward, because everyone has bought into the professional standards that we as a management department have set.”
In December 2015, the club’s progress under Curle came under threat, not from competition in the league, but from forces of nature, as Storm Desmond devastated the region with floods several-feet high. With many in the local community left desperately in need of support, Curle’s attention shifted away from the competition in hand and towards the harrowing events unfolding around him.
“We had just finished playing in the FA Cup, away to Welling, when we heard the news,” he recalls. “But it was only when we approached Carlisle on the way back that the extent of the devastation hit home. The remnants of people’s lives were floating down Warwick Road.”
Football became of secondary importance, as Curle’s attention and that of the team turned to the local community, with the football club playing a central role. “The players did their part by providing physical labour where it was needed, which might have looked to some people like a PR opportunity, but was far from it,” says Curle. “They would finish training and go straight out into the local area to help wherever they could, as guided by the authorities. You could see what hardship people were going through, as they were relocated or rehoused; some didn’t have insurance and it was clear how badly it was affecting their lives. Any troubles we might have experienced on the football pitch just couldn’t compare.”
The devastating effects of the floods also had a profound impact on the club’s stadium at Brunton Park. However, Curle was able to keep his team focused, and disruption to the season was minimised thanks to help from the local people and the football community, in particular, Preston, Blackpool and Blackburn football clubs.
“There was a unity that grew as a result of the storm,” says Curle. “I think that people saw that we wanted to help and do everything we could for them, so when the football club was itself in need, they wanted to help. They helped us to empty the stadium of debris, enabling games to be played there again as soon as possible. Thanks to that support, we were able to host Everton and get the business back up and running again.”
Curle talks candidly about the challenges he has faced and the resilience he has had to demonstrate throughout his career. “Most of the time, I’d say I’m surviving, because with expectations and pressure so high in this industry, surviving is really what it’s all about,” he says, adding that the greatest pressure he feels comes from within.
The memory of being dismissed from his first job in management ranks among his worst in football, yet his unyielding self-belief is apparent as he recalls how he picked himself back up.
“The first time I got sacked was the biggest challenge in my career, because I knew that so many managers only get one chance,” he says. “How quickly you can get back into the saddle is vitally important, so I stayed in the game as much as I could, did some scouting and attended games just to stay knowledgeable about the players. Every time you watch a game you see different movement patterns, which you may be able to learn from and use.”
Ultimately, though, he believes his second bite of the cherry came as a result of studiously updating his CV and having the personality to do himself justice in interview. “When I’ve attended interviews, I’ve been able to demonstrate my knowledge of the game and the professional standards that I set, and also to communicate my vision of how I could improve each club,” he says.
EXPERIENCE AND EMPATHY
As one of only two former England internationals currently managing in the English game, Curle is able to identify with the challenges faced by top-level players. His rise through every league to represent England at senior level began when his management team of Terry Cooper and Clive Middlemass saw potential unbeknown to Curle himself.
“I started my career as a right winger, but it was Terry who first said to me, when I signed for him, that he could get me to play international football as a defender. I didn’t believe him at the time, and I think many other people would also have had their doubts, but he was right. Now, as a manager, sometimes I see characteristics in players and I can see how I might be able to help them to change and improve, positionally, technically and tactically.”
His own experience as a player has also influenced how he sees the players’ roles, in particular, the importance of the captaincy.
“When I became manager of Carlisle, I made Danny Grainger captain, not only because of his playing ability, but because there were aspects of his personality that I liked,” he recalls. “He proved to be especially important last season when, after a fantastic start, we sold our striker, had horrendous injuries and went six games without scoring. We had to adapt and find another way of playing, and to do that meant getting the buy-in of all the players. The captain plays a very important part in achieving that and, even though Danny was one of the players that was injured, having him as part of the group was instrumental in us winning games again and, ultimately, reaching the play-offs.”
Curle is also well placed to help those players who hope to transition into coaching roles, but cautions that, “just because you’ve been an international footballer, doesn’t mean you are going to be a fantastic coach. You’ve got to be able to organise a team and training sessions, and communicate your vision,” he says.
Curle’s own transition to coaching and management has now reached its 15-year milestone and his dedication to the profession is solid. This is demonstrated not least by his commitment to his personal and professional development, including a decision made three years ago to give up alcohol.
“It has given me stability as a person, which is something you need in life, and especially in an industry where it’s easy to get over-excited when you win and despondent when you lose,” he explains. “I think it has brought a level of consistency to my personality that wasn’t there before.”
Curle has also made changes to how he coaches over the years and regularly assesses his performance and abilities. “By videoing or recording myself coaching and relaying information to the players, I’m able to self-evaluate and be more critical and aware of how well I’m getting my messages across,” he says.
What’s more, this clear process of personal development has impacted positively on his leadership of the wider team. “The development of the coaching team around me has been great,” he says. “They have always been critical, professional and had their own views, but recently I’ve paid even more attention to them and to the level of responsibility that I give them. It has helped to create an environment where everyone’s opinion counts and is valued.”