John Coughlin on Berwick: Squad revamp, Thompson & boosting crowds

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After an eighth-placed finish in Ladbrokes League 2 last term, Berwick Rangers boss John Coughlin is undergoing a “shake-up” of his squad this summer, as he looks to young loanees – and last season’s key marksman – to kickstart the Borderers’ rise.

Ladbrokes News caught up with the experienced boss, to discuss his summer signings, how to fix last season’s defensive struggles, and instilling a “winning mentality” into his squad. Here’s John’s take on all things Shielfield Park…

Ladbrokes News: Berwick avoided the relegation play-offs by five points last season, but didn’t manage to mount a sustained promotion push. What pleased you about the side last season, and what do you consider to have been the negatives?

John Coughlin: I was pleased with the start we had to the season. We were in the top four for the first quarter of the season, and only lost two of the opening 11 games. I was unhappy with the run we had throughout December and January, though – we were beaten, and well beaten on too many occasions.

In midfield and attack, I was happy overall – we were as competitive as any side in the league on those fronts. But defensively, we had problems. Berwick shipped 65 goals in League 2 last season, which is not my idea of a successful team!

Generally, I’ve built teams which are solid in that area, and I’d go as far as to say stingy defensively. So that’s the main area I’ve been focused on taking action about.

With the money available at a club our size, it’s sometimes difficult to bring in players who can create the kind of defensive unit I’m looking for, so we’ve invested in youth in this window – largely through loan moves.

I’d also say that with the club having struggled to seriously compete for promotion in recent times, we’d maybe lacked a little of that winning mentality. So we needed to freshen up the squad, and I’m happy with the business I’ve been able to do so far. I think it’ll give us the competitive edge we need going into the coming campaign.

LN: Probably your outstanding performer last season was Steven Thompson, who managed 13 league goals last season. What do you think makes him such a big talent at this level, and how important is it to have him again for the season ahead?

JC: Steven was a complete unknown when we signed him last summer, at 31-years-old. I know other clubs had looked at him, but maybe thought it was a risk because he was something of a late-bloomer.

He’d spent his whole career up to then in Junior football, but we liked what he’d done at Musselburgh Athletic, and it’s a move that’s worked out brilliantly for him and for Berwick.

Steven’s a bona fide match winner. He might not do a lot more in a game, but he’s repeatedly come up with a moment of magic at absolutely vital moments.

I think you could put a decent DVD out of just his goals from last season! He scored from all angles and with both feet. It was tremendous to watch as his manager, and possibly even more so as a fan. His performances were one of the high points in our season.

I’m delighted we’ve managed to retain Steven. There were a number of clubs looking to speak to him earlier in the year, but he’s chosen to stay with us, so hopefully we’ll see more of the same from his performances this season!

LN: You’ve touched on the fact Berwick have brought in a number of new loan arrivals this season – with youngsters like Andy Irving, Robbie McCrorie and Kevin Waugh arriving from top-flight clubs. What’s the vision behind bringing in quite a few youngsters from teams of that calibre?

JC: You know you’re getting quality from those players – and personally I’ve been able to make certain of that. I’m in an unusual position, being a full-time manager at a part-time club, which gives me the chance to be totally in charge of my own destiny as far as recruitment is concerned.

I’ve been in a position at certain clubs in the past where you’re signing players largely on the advice of people working around you. But having a full-time role with Berwick has allowed me to get along to a lot of Development League games, which tend to be in midweek.

That means I’ve had five or six looks at some of these players before signing them, so I’m sure of their ability and the fact they can hit the ground running and make a big difference for us.

There are some younger players who would struggle with the physicality of this league, but looking at the guys I’ve brought in, I feel they can handle every aspect of that – especially with their background as full-time players. They’re here to try and improve their game and get experience, and hopefully they can bring us success in return for us being a stepping stone.

Our budget comes into it too, of course. Bringing in a Development player is a hell of a lot cheaper than buying a senior player, so pragmatism is a part of it. We’re in a position where we need to be shrewd with the money we have.

Shielfield Shake-up: Coughlin is overseeing a major revamp of the Berwick squad this summer

Shielfield Shake-up: Coughlin is overseeing a major revamp of the Berwick squad this summer

 

LN: Are there other areas where you’re still looking to strengthen over the summer?

JC: I’m still looking to bring in a few new players – primarily on the left-hand side of the pitch. Without trying to give too many secrets away to the opposition [*laughs*], I’d say we’re very quick and dynamic on the right flank, but we’re maybe lacking a bit of that on the other side – and it’s something I’m working to fix in this transfer window.

I’d also like to add another out-and-out striker. Steven has been fantastic for us, but he’s currently our only recognised centre forward, so we need to add some more quality and depth in that position.

You don’t usually want to do too much ‘surgery’ to the squad, because you want to keep a core of players there, but given the fact we had a pretty poor season last time out, there’s been more of an impetus from a shake-up and a fresh start than I’ve usually had as manager.

LN: What’s the aim for Berwick next season? Are you firmly targeting the promotion play-offs, or is the focus for now just on trying to improve last season’s place and points tally?

JC: I’m a pragmatist. I understand the fans want us to aim for the play-offs – and obviously, that’s where we want to be as well. It’s about game management for me – focusing on the short-term.

We lost a lot of games very narrowly last season, and the impetus has to be on turning those fine margins around and ensuring we sneak those sorts of matches. I don’t take any comfort from ‘coming close’ against the top sides. History will tell you we lost those games, and we need to work out how to rectify that.

Of course, you do set longer-term targets ahead of the season, but they’re not – and shouldn’t be – the main focus for my players at this moment.

Four teams have the opportunity of promotion come the end of that 36-game season, and I think we’re building another side to be battling for those spots. But for now, we just need to get off to a good start and gel quickly as a side.

Key Man: Berwick's Johnny Fairbairn (here facing Hibernian) is heading into his fifth year with the club

Key Man: Berwick’s Johnny Fairbairn (here facing Hibernian) is heading into his fifth year with the club

 

LN: You had a season-high crowd of 695 for the Edinburgh City game on the final day of the 2016-17 campaign. What do you think the squad and the club can do to keep those fans coming back to Shielfield Park, week in, week out?

JC: The short answer is that we need to win more games. If you have a winning team on the park, and a product that people enjoy watching, then the crowds are bound to increase.

What’s frustrating for me is that you get crowds of up to 1,000 for the Speedway at Shielfield Park, and they’re not numbers we’ve been close to matching for the football.

That’s no reflection on the Speedway team – they’re obviously very popular here, and everyone in Berwick likes to see them doing well, but I’d love to see more of the town coming along to the football. But I’m hoping that with a more successful season this time out, we can gradually increase the number of people coming through the turnstiles.

Those tipping the Borderers to put last season’s struggles behind them and lift the League 2 title this season can back them at odds of 20/1.

All Odds and Markets are correct as of the date of publishing

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Dave Burin

Dave graduated with an MA in English Literature at Durham University, and worked in marketing before joining the Ladbrokes News team. A Man United fan and avid groundhopper, he’s also an ardent follower of Rugby League. You can usually find him at a ground near you, clutching a big cup of tea.