Martin Rennie to coach in 2012. Q&A with two Carolina journos and a fanBy: Felegy | August 9th, 2011
Martin Rennie, currently at Carolina Railhawks, will become our coach at the end of the current season. He’s young, charismatic, talented, and seems to win a lot wherever he coaches. One can’t help but think of a young Jose Mourinho or André Villas-Boas, freshly moved over to Chelsea from Porto.
But for all his wikipedia accolades, I don’t know much about the guy.
(Montreal tried to sign him earlier this summer but apparently he baulked at leaving Carolina midway through the season. Eat it, Montreal.)
I looked through old match reports but couldn’t find anything. So in order to find out about Rennie, I got in touch with two journalists that cover the Railhawks, and a fan of the team.
Neil Morris and David Fellerath write for Triangle Offense, the sports blog of The Independent Weekly in Durham, North Carolina, home of the Railhawks. Neil broke the story last night on the twitter. Daniel S is a fan of the team, and has followed them through the Rennie era.
Thanks to the three of them for taking the time to do this. Here, then, are their responses to my hastily scribbled questions.
1) What are your general thoughts on Martin Rennie as a coach/manager? Is he as good as everyone says?
NM & DF: Rennie’s supporters and detractors (what few there are) alike agree on one thing: he is a master motivator. His background before becoming a full-time coach was in sales, and that knack carries over to his dealing with players, supporters and press. Players gravitate to him and his philosophy, and they want to play and perform well for him. He is also a terrific recruiter and has an innate eye for talent.
During a recent match the RailHawks won 1-0 that had to be abandoned in the 51st minute due to severe weather. Rennie later said that, being aware of the forecast, he had stressed to his players in the locker room the need to score early. Entirely characteristic of him to be that prepared. He is a fine in-game manager, although I believe other D2 managers (Colin Clarke, Manny Lagos) are at least as good. He is tactically conservative and relies a great deal on fitness and preparation.
He likes to surround himself with his own players with whom he’s built a personal relationship, although that has relaxed a bit since last year as I believe Rennie has become a more pragmatic manager. He’s also become interested lately in new theoretical and technical developments, like fitness science, breathing exercises and deep statistical analysis.
Personally, he is effacing and tries to avoid overt conflict with others, other than screeching at referees more often than you’d imagine. However, he is also absolutely confident, decisive and resolute in his decision-making.
As for part 2: So far he is [as good as everyone says].
2) What are his approaches to formation and tactics?
NM & DF: Rennie adapts his tactics according to game conditions, the opponent and his personnel. We’ve seen a little of everything. This year has been more long ball from the back, due partly to the superior quality of our strikers. In contrast, last season’s roster [had] a wealth of talented and versatile midfielders/wingers (two matriculated to MLS), so the featured formation was often a 4-5-1 revolving diamond with a target man up top and 5 midfielders rotating around the midfield.
His teams have a tendency to grind out soporific draws on the road, which are good for banking points toward the playoffs and little else.
DS: This season the Railhawks have played primarily possession ball, moving the ball up through the center or distributing out to the wings as necessary. Part of this is that they have been playing against fairly inferior opposition, so it will be interesting to see what Rennie does with a team constrained by more parity.
3) What are his strengths and weaknesses? What has he done well at Carolina, and what has he done poorly? Is there anything you can see him struggling with in Vancouver?
NM & DF: Rennie seems very centered emotionally and is always prepared.
It is hard to pinpoint a weakness. It remains to be seen how he fares in a more pressurized media and fan environment. Up till now, he’s basically worked in front of 1,500-3,000 fans and two or three regular beat writers, with little or no attention from the local dailies, radio or TV. Also, last year he had a large squad and some players were unhappy with uneven or lack of playing time. His small roster this year renders this issue moot, but he’ll have a deeper squad next year with some bigger egos. We’ll see if he can keep charge over a more difficult locker room.
4) Our first MLS coach, Teitur Thordarson, was also very successful in USL/NASL but struggled to get results at this level. Do you think Rennie can make the jump to MLS?
NM & DF: If he has the support he needs to get the players he wants, he should succeed. One issue that remains to be seen: whether he can work with a technical staff and oversee the development of academy players. Also, during his tenures at Cleveland and Carolina, Rennie enjoyed nearly carte blanche authority to pick and choose the players he did and did not want – regardless of the titles possessed by others in the front office, Rennie was the head coach, GM, director of player personnel, etc.
One important point is that going back to Rennie’s final year with the Cleveland City Stars in 2008, he has managed the last four seasons under the parameters of four different league entities (USL-2, USL-1, USSF D2, and NASL), three different majority owners and three different team presidents. The one constant is Rennie and the superlative performance of his teams (1st or 2nd in the league’s regular season or playoffs each year). Six months ago, the Carolina RailHawks were dissolved as an organization by their previous majority owner and the team’s brand, logo and mascot were put up for sale on eBay. Despite that, the entry of a new owner and 13 new additions to the roster, the RailHawks are somehow better than last year and sailing high atop the NASL table.
DS: As coaches move up the pyramid, continued success obviously becomes harder and harder against better opposition. That said, Rennie has not only risen to the occasion, but far exceeded hopes and expectations from his first year in PDL, through USL-2, USL-1 and NASL. While I wouldn’t count on him to have the Caps in the championship his first season in (Like he’s done almost every other year he’s coached,) I would expect him to succeed and flourish. His four consecutive coach of the year nominations reflect his coaching pedigree (trained at the same place Sir Alex Ferguson and Jose Mourinho learned their trade) and are a testament to what someone with his talent and work ethic can achieve at a young age. I’m sure the move won’t be without hiccups, but if anyone should be able to manage the jump from the second division to the first, Rennie would be it.
5) I’ve read that he has a great eye for finding talented players and that he gets the most out of players that other coaches have overlooked. This seems like a perfect fit for a team new to MLS. Can Vancouver fans expect wholesale changes at the club, or will he try to work with what he’s given?
NM & DF: Expect all the changes Rennie can muster within the existing contractual commitments. When he arrived at Carolina in 2009, he turned over almost the entire roster. He has connections throughout the American soccer landscape and overseas, finding and recruiting MLS castoffs and talented players from the Caribbean, Britain, Africa, Japan and even Malta to a D2 club in the middle of North Carolina. He has established working relationships with a number of MLS clubs while at Carolina, including Columbus and Seattle – Sigi Schmid’s son Kyle is currently on the RailHawks roster.
DS: Rennie is a Scotsman, and during the offseason two years ago, he asked to go scouting in Scotland and Malta. Even staff at the organization figured this was probably a cover to take a nice vacation back home and at a lovely Mediterranean island. Instead he came back with Allen Russell, and Etienne Barbara. Russell has been a solid player with 5 goals in 28 appearances, and Barbara has been a force of nature. The Maltese International has set the club scoring record two years consecutively, including notching an incredible 16 goals in 19 games. Rennie’s eye for talent also extends to the defense, with this season’s Captain being signed mid-season by HB Koge in the Danish 1st division where he promptly went on to do this. Many of us in the stands actually expected to lose him not to a head coaching position, but to a European team’s scouting and technical staff.
With that, I would expect some changes at Vancouver next season. When Rennie came into Carolina he cleaned house and then took the team to its best ever finish in the league. I doubt the changes will be as wholesale, as the player contracts in MLS are more expensive than in NASL, but I would expect plenty of new faces to be taking the field in Vancouver at the start of the 2012 season.
6) Rennie is highly-touted in North American football, and has had numerous offers for his services. He’ll see out the season in Carolina rather than jumping ship early, though. Can we hope to keep this talented young manager for a few years, or will he soon leave to manage a bigger club?
NM & DF: Rennie has often told us he wants to coach at the highest level he can, and considering that his role models are the likes of Mourinho, Ferguson and Sven-Goran Eriksson, it’s to be expected that he would find an offer from a European club very attractive. One “x” factor in his career decisions is the fact that he has an American wife and young children. Another is his strong Christian faith.
Still, he’s a man of his word and likes to finish what he starts. He completed his three-year contract at Carolina despite some turbulent off-field times for the club. If he attracts attention from a bigger club, that means he’ll have given Vancouver fans some good seasons, perhaps including a championship.
DS: We have known since his first season it would be hard to keep him past the end of his contract, but Rennie has always made clear he respects his contract and would evaluate his situation when his contract was up. He has already turned down one offer this season from Montreal because he was committed to finishing the season at Carolina, so Caps fans can expect to see Rennie finish out his contract, and perhaps longer, depending on results. He has stated a few times in interviews that, like any professional he’s hoped to move up to a first division team sometime, and I think it would take an offer from a larger, first division European club at his contract’s end to get him out of Vancouver.
Thanks tons to Neil, David and Daniel for doing this. Great insight.