Whether or not Major League Soccer has let a potentially great head coach slip away with the departure of longtime New England Revolution assistant Paul Mariner back to his native England is open to debate, but what the league and this country have lost is a good chunk of institutional knowledge.
At Plymouth Argyle, Mariner will serve as a head coach under the direction of manager Paul Sturrock, and that is not a contradiction in terms. The manager selects the players and decides strategies and tactics; a coach conducts drills and sessions, and doles out praise and criticism as needed. Every Revs player will tell you that practices with Mariner were laden with exhortation and motivation as well as information.
Mariner might seem at first glance more nutty professor -- disheveled hair, casual attire, glasses slightly askew, lanky physique -- than the international striker he once was, or the MLS head coach he might have been. But watching him work in the trenches drilling -- and that's the right word for much of what he did -- players on the finer points of the game magnified the value of high-caliber instruction on the field, every day, week after week, month after month, year after year.
If he appeared at times befuddled, it might have been just a slightly goofy smile, or the glasses, or an amazing knack for rattling off observations and memories seemingly unrelated to the topic at hand. He didn't look especially comfortable in a suit and tie or when asked for a sound bite. His persona may not fit what MLS executives envision as a head coach. Yet players who felt the sting of his criticisms and the reaped the benefits of his knowledge and experience and passion seemed to get it.
Says defender Jay Heaps, "As someone who has been here like myself a long time, I've learned quite a bit from him -- about professionalism, about carrying yourself, and I think he's just an awesome coach, an awesome individual and he's helped my game out quite a bit just by how he approaches it. I think it's a sad day for the Revolution but a great day for Paul Mariner."
Glancing at the coaching staffs around the league, I don't think it's a coincidence that Houston has former Scottish international John Spencer as an assistant coach, or that former Polish international Robert Warzycha guided Columbus back atop the standings after taking over as head coach. Not every successful team has among its assistants a former international player, and some head coaches prefer to do a lot of on-field work themselves, but with many teams more or less equal in talent the value of practical experience is considerable.
Mariner started his pro career in 1976 with Plymouth before helping Ipswich win an FA Cup and a UEFA Cup, and then playing for Arsenal and Portsmouth. England capped him 35 times, and he scored a goal against France at the 1982 World Cup. That may not be as glittering a resume as that of Revs head coach Steve Nicol, an English League and European champion with Liverpool as well as a Scottish international, but it's dotted by success.
The benefits derived from Mariner by a forward such as Taylor Twellman are obvious. He has counseled and drilled -- there's that word again -- Twellman and other Revs strikers for years about the timing and angling of runs into the box, finishing the half-chances, harassing opposing defenders, etc.
Yet he could be just as zealous getting players to protect a chute between two cones 20 yards apart, for example, cajoling the defender to push the dribbler as wide as possible to buy time and perhaps funnel the ball into the path of a teammate who could win it, or hectoring defenders to attack balls lofted into the box rather than let them drop or leave them for the keeper to deal with.
Before he joined New England as Nicol's assistant, Mariner worked as a head coach for the Albany Capitals and the San Francisco Bay Blackhawks in the American Professional Soccer League. Whether that experience, plus his work with the Revs, tacked onto a long pro career in England and for the national team would have made a successful MLS head coach, we'll probably never know.
"He deserves to go places, and he deserves to get a head coach's job, which I think is going to happen eventually," says Nicol. "We're certainly shocked that no one in MLS has come in and taken him. Our American youngsters are going to lose somebody who has knowledge and experience to another place."
Ultimately, a team depends on the philosophies and expertise of its head coach -- a manager in England -- for success, but conveying and instilling those ideas is a function of work on the training field. In the best situations, an assistant coach is not the head coach's underling but a sounding board for discussions, a partner in strategy sessions, a critical contributor in the scouting and evaluation of opponents and possible acquisitions, and a role model for success.
A head coach in MLS has to do a lot more than coach, which is one reasons his assistants are so important. The Nicol-Mariner pairing, formed in '04, reached three MLS Cups, losing them all, yet won a U.S. Open Cup and a SuperLiga title.
"I think MLS is missing out on a great coach, too, so hopefully we'll see him back someday," says Heaps. "But I think once he starts to fly, we're not going to see him around; he's going to be in some high-level coaching."