I am on the road from Castletown to Douglas. I am running late, and the phone rings. Blast it! Is it work? What have I forgotten? I pull over and look at the name of the caller. Crikey, ‘he’s keen’, I think as I answer. The caller implores, “Steve, where are you you’re late!”
“I’m really sorry pal”, I reply. “The day job is getting in the way. I’ll be there in ten.”
“Work?” says the caller. “Work! You need to sort that out, nothing’s more important than football.” That last statement tells you everything you need to know about the caller. For Chris Bass (Senior) Manager of FC Isle of Man, nothing stops for football.
It has been an exciting month for the club as we’ve had our affiliation application to the Isle of Man FA formally approved, we’ve announced a primary sponsor in Manx Telecom and finally that long awaited announcement that the cub have been granted a place in the North West Counties Football League has been confirmed. We are finally an official football club, and no one is more excited that our erstwhile Manager.
“Who wouldn’t be excited,” he says. “This is just something that kids used to dream of when they were playing football in the Isle of Man years ago. And to actually be involved and to be the first manager, it’s really exciting. I know it’s going to be hard work and it’s a new beginning and we’ve just basically got to pull a good squad together, make sure they work very hard and get this club up and running.”
Arguably it has been a frustrating time for Chris. He’s the most successful club manager in Manx football history and he was appointed FC Isle of Man manager in February this year, but in the interim there has been little he can do in terms of formulating a squad or nominating a background staff as the club has been awaiting approval of IOMFA affiliation and waiting for the FA and the NWCL to place FC Isle of Man in an appropriate league. Now those milestones have been met what are the next steps?
“Well, the next stage for me is already underway,” Bass explains. “I was finally able to start talking to people on a formal basis and get all the necessary coaches and background staff in place, which we have now done. Then we can start discussions on formations and systems that we’d like to play, when we are going to train when we’re going to train, and then beyond that it’s to start putting together the best squad we possibly can.”
And talking of squads, most people in the local game will be interested in the players who ultimately form the inaugural FC Isle of Man squad. Chris has demonstrated over twenty years of unprecedented success at club level that he is capable of building and evolving his teams into a certain way of playing that wins football matches. So, for this particular project, what type of player is he going to be looking for?
“Initially, I think I would probably be looking at some experienced players,” he says. “Players that have played perhaps at Island Games level (and above), so they understand the level of competition. That is not to say, we don’t know whether the league will be of that standard, but I think it’s important to have experienced players. Along with that, obviously there will be the youth factor and we have some excellent younger players available, but perhaps having some experienced players, they will pull the less experienced players through.”
One of Chris’ key strengths is that he knows how to get the best out of the players he has at his disposal whether it be technically, tactically or mentally. He has never been a coach with a particular ideological system of play, apart from they must win. So, what’s the secret?
“I’ve always picked a system or formation that suits the players,” he says. “If I’ve got a group of players, I don’t ask them to come along and say, ‘look, we‘re going to play this way or that way, with different formations week in or week out. I’ve never really gone for all that it just confuses the players in my opinion. My ethos has always been to have a system that everybody knows and backs up with total effort.
“Each player then knows exactly what their role is within the team. And they will be expected to maintain a certain standard. Obviously, the pressure is on them to meet that standard because I think there’ll be an awful lot of players that want to play for FC Isle of Man.”
One of the reasons Bass has been so successful is that he places a lot of admiration in a player’s mental strength as much as he does their technical and tactical ability. Players who demonstrate great determination to be better and a great desire to win. This has been able demonstrated at club level where his players have been renowned for their work ethic and never say die approach.
“The mental side is significant for me,” he says. “It’s important that we have players who are going to work hard for the squad and the team. It is also important that we also have players who can show they can handle disappointment. Whether that’s not winning, not being in the team, or not being in the squad and so on. For instance, if a player is ever left out it is not the end of the road for him. The idea is that he goes away and works harder and harder and harder and is then back knocking on my door again.”
During this uncertain period of the COVID pandemic it has been tough to plan because of the uncertainty of whether FC Isle of Man will be placed in a league, and if so when that season will start. However, Bass believes that it has even more important (than player considerations) that he collates the best background team of coaches and medical staff as soon as possible. He is confident that that he has done just that.
“The staff are going to be important,” he explains. “They’re all different. Some will be good at putting on a practice session, others will be key to implementing tactics, some will be good at dealing with units of the team but what they will all need is to have a good rapport with the players.
“The coaches and the medics can be the go-between for the manager, and they are very important for building the camaraderie, as well as improving the team.”
It is fair to say that Chris is strong willed, knows his own mind and has never been shy of making big decisions but he admits the importance of having good advisors to hand.
“Well, if you’re watching a game of football, four eyes are always better than two,” he says. “I believe a good manager will always take on board the opinions his staff, but ultimately, it’s the manager’s prerogative whether to act on that advice. So, what you do is you sift through the information that you’re receiving and observing and decide what can be used and what can’t be used. A good manager is a manager that is prepared to listen.”
So, with a background staff now in place, the process of assessing players is already under way and the first of a series of training camps took place in mid-July.
“We needed to be able to get these training camps up and running,” explains Bass. “I noticed that some local league clubs started doing little bits in June and the Manx league is hoping to start on time. Thus, it was vital we also needed to start preparing as a football club even though at the time of the first session we didn’t know if we would be in the league.
“I think the initial training sessions have included a larger number of players. This has enabled us to run some 11v11 practice matches and assess players. The next step now is waiting for the borders to open because we don’t know when the league will actually start, but it’s important that we are prepared so our players will be at peak fitness when we do start.
“Also, on the other side of the coin, if the local league starts on time there will be a whole host of fixtures that I could be looking at, which would give me a good idea of the scope of players we have on the island that could benefit us further down the line.”
As well as his years of club success it should not be forgotten that against all the odds Chris also took the Ellen Vannin representative side to the Final of the ConIFa World Cup in 2014, ultimately losing in a penalty shootout. Despite the differences in competition, Bass believes there are similarities between that project and FC Isle of Man.
“While we (FC Isle of Man) are not a national team we will have that same pride of representing the Isle of Man in competition just as we did in Sweden that year, “ he says. “In that tournament the players honestly believed they were playing for everybody back home, not just themselves on the pitch. And you saw the reaction of that, the fact that when they scored a goal, they would run over to the camera because they knew that that was being live streamed back to the Isle of Man. There was a lot of pride from that group (players and management team) in representing the island.
“It will be the same with FC Isle of Man. Yes, we are a club, but we know we will be representing our island and our community every time we step out on that pitch. To perform in front of our supporters both home and away with home grown players is going to be extremely fulfilling.”
In terms of the actual football challenges that the team may face, Chris is quite unperturbed in that he has no qualms that the island has the quality of players to be successful, but where he does have a little concern is everyone involved getting used to the sheer number of fixtures and the volume of travelling that will be involved.
“I have no worries about what we can do on the pitch,” he explains. “I think the biggest challenge will be getting the best out of the players when we are on the road purely because of the logistics of travel and kick off times. Our players are used to playing away from the Island but not on a frequent bi-weekly basis so that will take a little getting used to.”
“But the people of the Isle of Man are known for their fighting spirit and their ability to adapt. Some of our professional athletes in other sports such as Mark Cavendish and Peter Kennaugh are proof of that. And I have no doubts that we will acclimatise quickly. Let’s face it we’re going to have to.”
By now we are well over our allotted 30 minutes with the Manager, but as Chris’ long suffering wife Karen delivers the tea and cakes, it begs one final question. How does she feel and indeed how do Chris’ sporting offspring Andy, Chris, Nick, and Holley feel about husband and father being FC Isle of Man’s first manager?
“They are thrilled to bits and everybody close to us is so pleased and proud because they know how much it means to me. They have always backed me all the way and I thank them so much for that.
“Karen would never stop me from being involved with football. Never. She might not be happy all the time, but she would never, ever stop me.”
After experiencing that phone call on the way to this interview I doubt anyone can put a stop on football for Chris Bass.