GARRY MONK has never shirked a challenge. His career in football tells us that much.
This is someone whose professional debut as a callow 16-year-old came up against the worldly-wise Cyril Regis, then 37, three stone heavier than his marker and determined to put the teenager in his place. “He smashed me with an elbow,” laughs the Leeds United head coach at the memory. “I learned a lot that day.”
Later, Monk would battle back from a career-threatening injury at 26 and then, with zero experience in management, take charge of Swansea City when relegation from the Premier League loomed.
His first game as caretaker manager? Cardiff City at home. “No-one had done the double in 80-odd years of the derby and we’d lost the first game,” he recalls, again with a smile. “I remember thinking, ‘I’ve spent 10 years building up a good relationship with the fans here and I could blow all that in 90 minutes.”
He need not have worried. The Swans marked Monk’s bow in the dugout by thrashing their hated rivals 3-0. Three months later, the dreaded drop had been avoided comfortably.
A year after that, Monk was reflecting on the Welsh club’s highest league placing in their history. It was typical of his ability to take on a challenge and prosper, as he had done throughout a playing career that – in the wake of that rude awakening against Regis when an apprentice at Torquay United – went on to include two stints in the Premier League with Southampton and Swansea that book-ended three promotions.
Now, of course, the 37-year-old is preparing to tackle what, in recent years, has proved to be one of football’s tougher assignments – reviving Leeds United.
Elland Road last hosted Premier League football a little over 12 years ago and there were times last season when it felt like the club had never been further away from a possible return.
Off-field rancour, together with seemingly constant upheaval behind the scenes and some decidedly unimpressive results combined to leave United the very epitome of mid-table mediocrity.
Monk, though, represents a new broom sweeping through the West Yorkshire club and if enthusiasm and ambition are to be prerequisites for getting things going again in LS11 then 2016-17 just might be the time when the tide turns.
“Looking from the outside,” said Monk when speaking to The Yorkshire Post at United’s Thorp Arch training ground, “it has seemed difficult at Leeds. We have all seen the stories about things going on off the pitch.
“But, because I have been in football for 20 years, I know not to always believe what I hear. You have to go and experience it yourself to make your own judgement.
“I came in here with my eyes wide open. I wouldn’t have taken the job if I didn’t want to be here and didn’t think things would be okay – or that I couldn’t make an improvement to the club itself.
“This is a massive challenge, there is no getting away from that. But the club is ambitious, I am ambitious and I enjoy taking on these big challenges.”
Monk’s arrival at Elland Road in early June came as a pleasant surprise. Steve Evans had proved a decent stop-gap last term and kept Leeds clear of trouble but he was not the answer. Nor was, as seemed would be the case in the wake of last April’s pronouncement from Massimo Cellino that he could not work with British managers, looking abroad for a head coach with minimal experience of English football and a contacts book to match.
By turning to Monk, Leeds gained themselves someone with an impressive reputation for playing good football and instilling a strong sense of togetherness.
Cellino had also brought on board a manager who is highly regarded. Had Roy Hodgson gone in the summer of 2015, for instance, and not after this year’s European Championships then, chances are, Monk would have been one of the leading contenders to become the next England manager.
Monk is too modest to acknowledge that point, instead preferring to talk about his hopes of breathing fresh life into a club that has flat-lined in recent seasons.
“Togetherness is going to be key,” said Monk, who made the Swansea players leave not only the dressing room on match-days en masse to foster a collective spirit but also during the week at training. “Let’s not forget ‘Marching on Together’ is the club mantra.
“We have to stick to that. It is how we will succeed, by sticking together and going forward.
“The ambition for this club always has to be to get back to the Premier League, that just has to be the case. The challenge to get there is a steep one, when you look at the clubs in this league and how competitive it is going to be, that much is obvious.
“Look at the managers involved in the Championship this season, there are some very big names. Everything filters down into this league in terms of better quality, too. That makes it an extremely tough place to be.
“But, if we stick together and do treat it like us against the world, we have a chance. We suffer in the difficult times together and enjoy the good times together. It has to be that way. We can’t have it one way but not the other.
“This is a very young group but it is also a group with potential. We have to try and grow, and the way to do that is fill the lads with confidence. I have a role in that but so, too, do the fans.”
Getting the fans on board is crucial, in Monk’s eyes. He knows from his decade at Swansea just how pivotal support from the terraces can be, especially when a club is trying to forge a new identity.
The Swans, let us not forget, have not always been known for the stylish football that the likes of Roberto Martinez, Paulo Sousa and Brendan Rodgers pioneered at the Liberty Stadium.
At first, such a seismic shift in approach did not go down too well. Jeers could be heard as the ball was passed sideways to retain possession, along with the plea ‘Get the ball forward!’
In time, though, fans came to appreciate just what Martinez and his players were trying to do. The reward came via the promotions that took Monk from League Two in 2005 to the top table of English football just six years later.
During that rise, Swansea passed Leeds along the way but Monk vividly recalls one particular afternoon at Elland Road in September, 2007, that gives him hope that the siege mentality he wants to instil can become a reality.
“I’ll never forget that afternoon,” he said about a 2-0 home triumph that stretched United’s winning start to the campaign to seven games. “It was the season when Leeds had 15 points taken off. We came along and could see straight away that it was ‘Leeds against the world’.
“The 15-point deduction had brought a siege mentality. The players, the staff, the fans all seemed to feed off each other.
“What I most remember from that game is Leeds starting well and going ahead. But then, even when we came back into the game a little bit, the crowd stayed with the team. I can assure you that made a massive difference. We went on to lose and, on the way home, I remember thinking, ‘Leeds are a club that is totally together right now’.
“I am a big believer in everyone having their opinion when a game finishes. You are entitled to that. But, when the game is going on, we are in this together. We need total support from the fans towards the players, the same from me and the staff towards the team and also the players supporting each other.
“This is still a young group and mistakes will be made. It is how we deal with those mistakes and how we then develop as a unit that matters
“We all know what Elland Road can be like when it has that kind of atmosphere, when everyone sticks together all the way to the final whistle. Only then can we make a judgement about how things went.
“That is what we had at Swansea when getting promoted. Bournemouth have also had something similar, all thanks to the mentality. Of course, it is also down to how you play and how good your players are. But those players stuck together and rewards came.”
Reviving Leeds is a challenge he is relishing after six months out following his dismissal at the Liberty. “Swansea didn’t end how I wanted it to end, but I proved during my time there that we got things right for a good period of time.
“I have to take confidence from that and put that across to my players. This is a young group and they need to improve but we are developing well. The lads are coming out of their shells. We still need to strengthen but we have a great chance of competing.”