Tony Mowbray: 'It's about changing habits - I want my kids to make their own bed and I want my players to keep their boots tidy and run where I tell them to'

·6-min read
Sunderland head coach Tony Mowbray in training with members of his squad
Sunderland head coach Tony Mowbray in training with members of his squad

AFTER five-and-a-half years of living in the North-West while managing Blackburn Rovers, Tony Mowbray is relishing being back in his family home. As he readily admits, though, Sunderland’s new boss does not always like everything he has seen.

“One of my children was sitting at the table the other day, and the fridge is literally two feet behind him,” said Mowbray. “His mam was at the other side of the table, and he said, ‘Will you get me a drink of water, mam?’ I’m looking at it thinking, ‘Am I listening to this?’

“You have to remember I haven’t really been there for five-and-a-half years, so I’m thinking, ‘Hang on a minute. Stop. Get up and get the water yourself. It’s there, it’s right behind you’. Yet they’ve become so used to their mam doing everything for them, and you become what your habits are. So, you have to change the habits, just like I have to change the habits of the young players we’ve got here.”

Mowbray the family man, both at home and at work. Back on his native Teesside, the 58-year-old is the proud father of three teenage sons and is enjoying being a core part of their lives again after an extended period on the other side of the country.

On Wearside, in his role as Sunderland’s head coach, he finds himself presiding over his footballing family, another group of youngsters that have been assembled on Wearside as part of the Black Cats’ new policy of recruiting emerging young talent from all corners of the globe.

On Saturday, as Sunderland drew 2-2 at Watford, Mowbray’s five substitutes had a combined age of 99 and therefore an average age of less than 20. A further four members of the starting line-up were aged 22 or under.

That brings challenges, but also opportunities. Mowbray has worked with young footballers throughout his 18-year managerial career, and likes to think he knows what makes them tick. And while there might be a generational gap between the head coach, whose playing career began in the early 1980s, and those playing under him, raising teenage sons is as good a way as any to appreciate the mindset of the current generation of young players.

“I understand things can be different when you’re young,” he explained. “But I try to live my own life by really high standards, with how I live and what I do. I’m living back at home now and I have it right in front of my face. I see it every night with my children. There are things I’m trying to change with them, but it’s not always easy.

“I want them to change their own bed on a morning. I don’t expect their mother to have to go and make their bed. ‘Make your bed’. What are they doing? It’s literally just a duvet. It’s not like it was in the old days with sheets – just pull your duvet up, get your pillows straight, open the curtains, what are you doing?

“It’s a bit similar with young footballers really. Make sure you brush your boots down and put them back on your own peg. Make sure you’re ready for training. Turn your shorts and your socks the right way round otherwise the kitman has to do it, to put them in the wash. It’s little things, but put them all together, and they’re actually quite important.

“It’s about changing the habits of the players we’ve got here. I’ve got to make them look forward, get turned, recognise space, travel with the ball, put it in the box, run in the box. You have to change their habits, and it’s not easy to do. What you can’t do is try to change everything in a few days, or a week or a couple of weeks. Changing footballers’ habits takes months, but hopefully along the way, things gradually improve.”

Mowbray is still getting to know the players he inherited when he agreed to take over from Alex Neil, especially the four youngsters who arrived in the final week of the transfer window with little or no previous experience of playing in England.

Jewison Bennette might have scored a wonderful equaliser at Vicarage Road at the weekend, but the teenage Costa Rican can barely speak a word of English. Edouard Michut has played in the first team with Paris St Germain, and is therefore extremely highly rated, but he had hardly taken a step outside France before flying into the North-East last month and turning up with his kit bag at the Academy of Light.

“If I can help them in any way, then I’ll do that,” said Mowbray. “I’ve always tried to put family above everything really, and the football club has to be a family for these young lads. I’ve had some trauma in my life (he lost his first wife, Bernadette, to breast cancer when she was aged just 26) and can understand how important family is. Young footballers should know I’m here to help and protect them. As long as they live their lives well and professionally, they’ll get huge support off me.

“I don’t feel I’m a dictatorial coach. I want the players to come along on the journey with me. I want to be able to put my arm around them, and support them and try to make them better. I want them to believe I’m a good guy who’s here to help them.”

That caring, paternal approach is somewhat at odds with the caricature that is often painted of Mowbray as a gruff, curmudgeonly figure, devoid of feeling or lightness.

He is well aware of the way in which he is generally portrayed, and while it does not really bother him, you do not have to spend too long in his company to quickly ascertain it is a long way from the truth.

Mowbray can be talkative and witty, but management has forced him to develop and hone a steely side and his pride and professionalism mean there are times when he switches into ‘football mode’ and the blinkers inevitably come on.

“What is my personality? People will often say to me, ‘God, he’s very dour, isn’t he? That Mowbray, Jesus, he’s dour’,” he said. “Yet the reality behind the scenes is that I don’t think I am dour. I think I’ve got a normal personality, really.

“My job is professional, I have to be seen as a head coach or a manager, which means you’re in charge and you have a responsibility about your job. So, it’s right to stand in front of a TV camera and talk sensibly, getting across that you know what you’re doing and where you’re going, and what’s right and what’s wrong.

“But when the camera’s not on, there’s no problem to interact and be funny or to have a bit of banter with someone and try to embarrass them and make a laugh.

"I feel as if that’s the human being I am. But with stress every two or three days because a football match comes along.”