He took a salary drop five times to play on
OWEN Coyle was 19 the first and only time he tasted alcohol. A rising star with Dumbarton, he had been invited to tour Switzerland with Celtic’s U21s.
“The captain, Derek Whyte, took us out one evening and ordered 18 half-pints of lager,” he said. “I’d never been a drinker, never wanted to. It wasn’t on my agenda.
“But I didn’t want to rock the boat so I took a small sip. It tasted horrible, and so I said ‘Look Whitey, drinking is against my principles, I’ll just have a coke’. And that’s what I did.”
And that has always been the Wigan manager’s way – principled, outspoken and avowedly different.
A teetotaller in an age when the pub was a second home. A devout Christian who took his family to visit the Pope. A man who played not for security but for the sheer joy of being a footballer.
“I've never been motivated by money,” said Coyle, a striker who won five promotions with Airdrieonians, Bolton Wanderers, Dundee United, Falkirk and Airdrie.
“I dropped salary five times in my career because I wanted to play. I used to play in the street until my mum called us in. I played until I was 40 because they were the best days of my life. And if I wasn’t taking part in training now I’d be paying a fiver to play five-aside.”
One of nine children who grew up in the infamous Gorbels area of Glasgow, Coyle took inspiration from his father, who arrived from Ireland at 15 to work on the roads.
It was Coyle snr who instilled pride and work ethic, who ordered his youngest son to practice with his weaker right foot until it was as good as his left.
The result was a driven young man who knew he wasn’t the fastest, the strongest or the best but who believed that hard graft and a positive attitude would compensate.
“I maximised everything I had, because to play at the level I managed to, with my physique, should have been near impossible,” he says. “But I made sure I was supremely fit, that I could score a goal. I used the best of my abilities and I do that as a manager.”
Fellow Scot John McGinlay was Coyle’s closest friend at Bolton and says the 47-year-old’s greatest attribute was his infectious personality.
“Owen was always the bubbly character in the dressing room,” he recalls. “He always had something to say, even if it got him into trouble at times.
“But he is a motivator and an enthusiast. He just rubs off on people. He was smiling all of the time and even when he was dropped he would be the one going round and geeing the lads up, raising their spirits. I know that inside he was hurting but he would never let anyone know.”
“In person, he seems so easygoing but he is one of the most determined men I have ever met. He would go to the limit for you as a player and brings that out in his players. I knew the moment I met him that he would be a manager.”
After a brief stint at Falkirk as player-manager alongside John Hughes, Coyle made his mark in the dugout at St Johnstone, laying the foundations for a promotion that came under successor Derek McInnes before leaving for Burnley in 2007.
A revelation at Turf Moor, he led the unfancied Clarets to the semi-finals of the League Cup and promotion to the Premier League in 2009.
Though he would leave to join Bolton in acrimonious circumstances midway through the season (for which he remains a hate figure in Burnley today) it was a remarkable achievement.
“He achieved enormous success at a club without the resources of many Championship sides,” says McInnes, a close friend who managed Bristol City last term.
“But it didn’t surprise me. He creates a good working environment and he is infectious and enthusiastic. Creating the right atmosphere around a club is arguably his biggest strength.”
What did surprise everyone was relegation from the Premier League and a surprising slump to 18th in the Championship that saw Coyle sacked by Bolton in October last year.
Injuries, bad luck and the near fatal heart-attack of Fabrice Muamba all played their part in Bolton’s troubles, but it was widely perceived as the first time Coyle’s golden touch had deserted him – that his enthusiasm had worn off.
Yet Wigan chief Dave Whelan, who chose Coyle to replace the Everton-bound Roberto Martinez, isn’t worried.
“Of all the candidates who applied, he was far and away the best,” he said.
IN WITH A SHOUT: Owen Coyle will bid to get Wigan in the promotion mix