Conducting a live interview can be tricky, so having control of all the elements within your power is a necessity. Research finessed, topics ready to go and of course the environment around you in order. Some of my gaffs have been right up there with the best of them. That’s for another day.
When it all falls apart you lean on the mercy of the interviewee to take pity on you. Such was the case with Nuno Espírito Santo on a cold evening in Manchester.
It was 7.30pm and Man United had just played out a pretty tedious 0-0 draw with Wolves, who looked the better team for the majority of the game. Old Trafford was empty, other than the stewards, the ground staff and of course me, sat on my own with a headset speaking to a disgruntled United fan from London for the talkSPORT phone-in show.
We had teed up a live interview, in the stands, with Nuno. I have to emphasise managers and press officers can absolutely tell you to piss off when you ask for something extra like this, taking the easier option of a tunnel interview with a reporter. This was above and beyond.
I watched Nuno climb the stairs of the stands towards the cramped media area I was set up in and asked my caller to hold the line. One by one Nuno picked up each of the spare microphones and began speaking. None of them worked. My producer had popped down to the tunnel as Nuno had made his way up so I was on my own. Suddenly, you could hear a pin drop. I felt every listener stare at the radio as we fumbled around with the equipment. Unfortunately my technical prowess doesn’t extend to microphones.
What can you do? The only microphone that was working was the one attached to my headset, so we shared. After each question I twisted it as far away from my face as possible, the squeak from the cable comically audible. I leant a little closer and tried not to make eye contact, so as not to heighten the awkwardness.
While all of this played out, live on air, Nuno remained unfazed. He stayed for over five minutes and answered each question as efficiently as he always does. I’ve no doubt it could have gone a very different way. I’ve put other managers in his shoes and visualised the outcome to varying different results. As we wrapped it up he shook my hand and descended back down to his press conference in the bowels of Old Trafford. I sunk to my seat and carried on the conversation with the United fan who had listened carefully. "I wish we had a manager like that," he said.
While Nuno can be charming this will not be an article telling you about what a lovely man he is. This article will hopefully give you an insight into how he operates and how a manager we constantly link with a top-six side has at the same time been building one of the most historic clubs in the footballing pyramid into a top-six candidate right under our noses.
Nuno’s relationship with the media can be a frustrating one, especially for the print journalists. Every word he softly speaks is delivered in an organised and controlled fashion, each one carefully selected and choreographed. You won't rattle him. Unless you ask a stupid question. And I’d say i’m always a whisker away from that.
There’s a calmness behind the scenes with transfers. A feeling of security that no one will leave unless Nuno does. Why? Because, as one source at the club told me, "he is like no one else with his players." Each and every one of them has an understanding that he simply makes them better. That’s why they give him everything. And if you have the wrong attitude or you don’t fit into his vision the axe falls swiftly. He can be ruthless.
He has a small group of people around him whom he trusts, a trend which is replicated in his squad of just 18 or 19 first team players that travel everywhere together, happy and united. So how do you get in? Respond to his style, work to your full potential and you’re in this amazing and exclusive little club, which is rapidly proving capable of achieving extraordinary things.
In training, as you’d expect, he is at every single session. "He doesn’t shout, he chooses his time to speak to his players, one-on-one or as a group," that same source told me.
He rarely conducts meetings or trawls through video clips. Instead, "he saves all his energy for the training pitch and gives those two hours everything."
What Nuno maintains is a sense of acceptance and harmony. They are like disciples. The players that start know what is expected of them and the players that don’t understand why. There is a belief in the manager and an unwavering loyalty to him. His message is crystal clear, removing the possibility of mutiny in the ranks.
In return he is fiercely protective of those players. But what you won't see, much to the frustration of journalists around the world, is any public and individual praise. We beg for him to gush about his players and individual performances, just as we do in the media as well as in the stands. But he won't. And you won't change that. No player is bigger than the squad. Perhaps it keeps them humble.
Among the many things Nuno has managed to do where others failed is turn Adama Traore into the finished article.
"After one season at Wolves, not even the staff believed Adama would develop in this way," I was told. Nuno was the person who wouldn’t give up on him, while everyone else questioned the investment. Nuno was the one that would never lose faith.
If you want details on exactly how, good luck getting them. The extra training after sessions when the rest of the team go in will be part of it, but this is very much a two-way street. Adama has the attitude and the commitment.
"If a player wants to put in that extra graft Nuno will match that."
It’s a tangible example of the kind of manager and man Nuno is. If you have patience and drive he will make you the best version of yourself. And if you don’t, you’ll see his brutal side.
"He wants to concentrate on his own ideas. He is fiercely driven and single minded. He is not afraid to be himself. He can be short. He doesn’t care if people don’t like him - there are no chinks in the armour."
For the staff around him its simple: "Do your job properly and don’t bother him with trivial things."
He holds everyone to his standards. It's this unapologetic attitude that we class as an elitist mentality. Success is king and everything else is collateral.
But there is a lighter side to him too, however rare that sighting may be. When he moved to England he took up golf and had a round with the players. They changed his golf ball to an exploding one. The fact that no one was hospitalised suggests to me he can show mercy.
He values bonding time and hard training sessions - at their warm weather training camp in Marbella over the winter break he took the team paintballing. Although, I struggle to imagine a player would be brave enough to take aim so in my head he walked out with his clothes as clean as when the session began.
Wolves is a club known for its community and closeness. But he’s no Mick McCarthy and he doesn’t spend time making small talk with club staff. His job is on the training ground and in the results on match day. What the club and fanbase do have in common with him is the hunger for success.
He commands respect from everyone, cares little for propaganda, will not conform to your ideals and is not interested in building his image or a brand outside of football. By doing so, he's cultivated an environment of love and respect, but with a sprinkle of fear. It’s the perfect blend.
I’ve had the pleasure of interviewing him three times and I’m not too proud to admit I’m a disciple too. And, as you watch this club transform from a Championship side to a European team, you realise all roads lead back to him.
- Laura Woods will be writing for Sporting Life every fortnight throughout the season
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