Pressure? Rookie boss is used to it!
BOOED on. Booed off. Booed for the best part of a season and a half. Gary Caldwell may be new to management but he is an old hand at dealing with paralysing pressure.
Signed on a free from Hibernian by Gordon Strachan’s Celtic in 2006, the big centre-half was hardly welcomed to his boyhood club with open arms.
Widely perceived as substandard and error-prone – thanks in part to playing out of position at right-back – Caldwell rarely got through a game without the jeers of 60,000 Bhoys ringing in his ears.
More talented players have crumbled under such hostility.Yet Caldwell, a quiet and measured man off the pitch, always possessed a core of steel.
Header by header, tackle by tackle, pass by pass, he won them round. By 2008, he was the first name on Strachan’s team-sheet.
By 2009, he was the Scottish Premier League (SPL) and Scottish Football Writers’ Association (SFWA) player of the year. By the time he left in 2010, Caldwell had won two SPL titles, two cups and captained his country, even scoring the winner in a Euro 2008 qualifier against France. And though he never convinced everyone at Celtic Park of his ability, his fortitude and persistence had, at the very least, earned their respect.
“It was fantastic to see Gary get the appreciation he deserved,” said former Celtic and Hearts defender Steven Pressley.
“He was an easy target for too many people. He played at rightback for a spell and was not in central defence. He accommodated others and did not complain, even though he took stick.
“But Gary turned out regardless of what people were saying and he was never on the treatment table, not wanting to come out.That showed real guts – I really admire him, as a player and a person.”
In fairness, Caldwell has never taken the easy route. As a 16year-old on the books at Celtic in 1997, he turned his back on the Bhoys to join brother Steven at Newcastle, reasoning with remarkable maturity that home comforts could hinder his progress.
“I decided that I wanted to leave home and eat, sleep and drink football,” he said.“If you’ve got your Mum and Dad looking after you, it’s too easy. I wanted to develop and to this day I don’t regret it because that experience made me the player I am.” Nor did the man Celtic fans
sere- naded as having “the biggest heed in the SPL” lack the courage to fight his corner – however undignified or inflammatory the means.
Having spent a successful season on loan at Tony Mowbray’s Hibs – winning two Scotland caps along the way – the then 20-yearold returned to St James’ Park determined to force a move to the Scottish side.
“He came knocking at my door in tears, begging me to let him sign for Hibs, saying he was homesick,” recalled legendary Toon boss Sir Bobby Robson in 2004.“In the end I was sick of the tears and let him go.”
Later, with his contract running down at Celtic and that player of the year award in his pocket, Caldwell refused to budge on wage demands of £19,000 a week, even going public to air his grievances.
It was the beginning of the end at Celtic Park but, while it sullied his fragile reputation with supporters, Strachan refused to get stuck in. “Gary came to us for nothing and many people don’t like it when players come for nothing because they assume nothing means bad,” he said.“But he proved that is wrong. He proved that nothing, with will, determination and character, can make a great player.”
Signed by Premier League Wigan in 2010, Caldwell was named captain by Roberto Martinez the following season and, in 2012, collected another player of the year award.
Then he jointly lifted the FA Cup as club captain, alongside Emmerson Boyce, in 2013 at Wembley after that remarkable victory over Man City, though he didn’t get on.
Ex-Wigan man James McCarthy remembers his skipper as a quiet man who transformed into a bellowing leader on the pitch – and an underrated footballer.
“Gary was great for us,” said McCarthy, who also played against Caldwell as a Hamilton player.“He liked a tackle, and he wasn’t the easiest man to get around because he’s a big boy who knew how to be physical.
“He could send the ball long and short which is great when you’re under pressure. I always liked his technique as he had good control and read the game really well. But he also kept things simple when it was needed, which is what you want in a centre-half.”
Now, after injury forced his retirement at 32, Caldwell has been tasked with bringing that quiet assurance to the dugout – and rebuilding Wigan, more than likely in League One. According to Pressley, he is the perfect choice.
“He’s a good influence on those around him and is an intelligent lad,” he said. “More importantly, he’s a natural leader – someone you would want with you in the trenches.”
FRESH-FACED: Wigan manager Gary Caldwell looks on ahead of his side’s midweek defeat at Millwall
GLORY DAYS: Wigan’s Gary Caldwell and Emmerson Boyce show off the FA Cup during the victory parade in 2013