Mike Phelan, handed the Hull City reins on a temporary basis on the same day as Sam Allardyce landed his ‘dream job’ with the Three Lions, was certainly made to wait for his first job in management.
But, with a contract signed until the end of the season, the 54-year-old Lancastrian is finally able to focus fully on the challenge of keeping the Tigers in the Premier League. It is a task he is ready to face head on.
“It is striking when the winners of the league last season, Leicester City, are still talking about surviving in this league,” said City’s new head coach ahead of today’s trip to Bournemouth.
“For us to get carried away and say, ‘We are going to win the league...’, well I think we have to look at maintaining our status in this division. That’s as high up as we can possibly get.
“We know it is going to be turbulent and we know it is going to be difficult. But I think if we focus on that aim alone, we have as good a chance as anyone of staying in the league.”
Phelan’s 83 days in temporary charge was not the longest stint by a caretaker manager in the top flight of English football.
Far from it, in fact, with one of three temporary spells in charge of Tottenham Hotspur for David Pleat lasting more than eight months.
Tony Parkes, too, spent more than half the 1996-97 keeping the hotseat at Blackburn Rovers warm for Sven Goran Eriksson – who gave backword after initially accepting the post – and Roy Hodgson.
At times, however, Phelan’s stint as caretaker manager at the KCOM Stadium felt like it would never end. Week after week once the season was under way, Sir Alex Ferguson’s former assistant would face the media and say it was close. And how, over coffee and a cake with the club’s owners, he hoped an agreement would be thrashed out in the next few days to allow everyone to move on.
Then, though, when we all met again the following Friday at City’s University of Hull training ground in Cottingham, little would have changed. It even got to the stage where Phelan’s opening gambit when facing the cameras would be to smile and ask, “So, whose turns is it to ask me the question this week?”
Now, such a ritual can be banished and the focus switch entirely to Hull’s quest for Premier League survival. The timing couldn’t be better, in that respect, with today’s trip to Bournemouth being the first of eight consecutive fixtures that, on paper, suggest points can be won.
Yesterday, vice chairman Ehab Allam described this block of games as “a business part of the season” and City do need to deliver.
This responsibility falls on Phelan’s shoulders, which is why he was so adamant during negotiations that he have full control on football matters.
“The deal, as is stands, is football,” he said when asked about the autonomy of his role as head coach. “All to do with football. Whatever decisions are made on the football side, I will be involved that is for sure.
“That was massively important for me to be able to do that. Without that, what control have you got?
“Right now, it is about picking teams, getting players on a football field up until the next transfer window, where I am sure everything will be as hectic as it usually is.
“We have to be in a position to do something then but the important thing now is to make sure we know what direction we are going in. The players are aware of that and they want to be Premier League players.”
Phelan is likely to be joined in the dugout today by Michael Dawson, who played last night for the Under-21s as part of his rehabilitation from injury.
The 32-year-old will help with coaching duties alongside Academy manager Tony Pennock. Both have been drafted in to supplement a coaching staff that, Phelan estimates, is as many as six members below strength following Stephen Clemence’s decision to join Steve Bruce at Aston Villa. Keith Bertschin also left the backroom team soon after Bruce’s exit in the summer.
Warren Joyce, Manchester United’s reserve team manager, is one name that has been mooted but any discussions on appointments can wait until after today’s game, according to Phelan.
City’s new head coach knows the importance of a positive start and admits that there is a chance he will be judged differently now no longer in temporary charge.
“You are there now as the leader of the gang,” he added. “But, equally, I think if people appreciate what you are trying to do and see progress then there are some good people out there. Supporters as well, who understand the issues of the football club. They all want to be successful but it is about degrees of success.
“We are working towards stability, camaraderie, being tough and hard to beat. We have to enjoy the games as well because if you can’t enjoy this sport, what can you enjoy?
“It was once said about clubs like Hull City that you have less good Saturday nights in the Premier League than you do in the Championship. That is a fact but it is about how you deal with it.
“We must galvanise everyone – players, staff and certainly supporters. There will be ups and downs and they have to ride through the storm. They will express their views.
“But, ultimately, we have to stick together to achieve our goals.”