The Patience of the Next Big Thing
BURNLEY, England — As he looked ahead to the summer, Vincent Kompany realized he was entering unfamiliar territory.
He had spent his whole career with barely a moment to catch his breath. During his playing days, the seasons whirled by: league games, cup games, European games, international games, all piled on top of each other. Summers were squeezed into the brief gap between major tournaments and energy-sapping, globe-trotting preseason tours.
As a manager, if anything, Kompany’s summers had been more hectic still. Not that it had come as a surprise: He had chosen Burnley, freshly relegated from the Premier League to England’s second tier, as his first head coaching post outside his native Belgium. The Championship is proudly, unapologetically, gleefully grueling, a competition that self-identifies as an endurance event. “Just mentioning the name is fatiguing,” Kompany said.
And so it had proved. From the outside, Kompany and Burnley had made it all look rather easy. The club had confirmed an immediate return to the Premier League by clinching promotion with a month to spare. It ended the campaign with more than 100 points. To Kompany, though, that was a misconception. “This league is brutal,” he said.
As evidence, he pointed to the fixture list: 46 league games crammed into 39 weeks, with the season wrapped up by May 5. “And we had a month’s holiday for the World Cup,” he said. The most valuable reward of promotion, in his mind, is not the riches that it brings but the prospect of not having to go through all of that again.
“Coming out of the Premier League is the best motivation for getting back into it,” Kompany said.
All of that, of course, had been precisely as he had expected. The trouble was figuring out what to do once the motion stopped. There would be three months between Burnley’s last game in the Championship and its first of next season in the Premier League — a break far longer than Kompany had previously experienced. All of a sudden, there was too much time.
The solution he alighted on — something he had, by his own admission, never tried before — was in effect to give his players two preseasons. They would have two tranches of vacation on either side of a training camp in Portugal, an attempt to find a balance between allowing them to recharge and not permitting their sharpness to dull.
He did not, though, quite practice what he preached. His season did not finish with the conclusion of the Championship schedule. On his first free weekend in 10 months, he attended four games: three in the Premier League, already scoping out the opposition for next season, and one at Salford, in England’s fourth tier.
That combination, of a perfectionist’s attention to detail and an obsessive’s work ethic, is characteristically Kompany. It is what those who played with him, particularly at Manchester City, remember most clearly: a focus, a sense of responsibility and a studiousness that is perhaps best encapsulated by the fact that he used to record all of the various (and largely warranted, he was not an unjust ruler) fines he had levied as captain in an actual ledger.
And it is what made his move into management — first with Anderlecht, the club where he started and finished his playing career, and then at Burnley — seem so natural, so obvious, so clearly destined for success. It is impossible, of course, to predict with any surety which players will make fine coaches; Kompany, though, seemed a pretty safe bet.
Safe enough, certainly, that Burnley was not his only option last summer, or his only offer since then. Kompany has a policy of not engaging with speculation on any level; the only time he grew at all flustered, during an interview at Burnley’s training facility this month, was when his determination not to discuss it chafed against his natural inclination to openness.
And so while he did acknowledge that he turned down a number of “really big clubs” last summer in favor of joining Burnley in the Championship — thereby volunteering to partake in what even he describes as a “fight with a load of hungry dogs” — he would not be drawn whatsoever on what has happened since.
Fortunately, others are not quite so discreet. Those voices said Tottenham got in touch after it fired Antonio Conte. Chelsea, a team seemingly permanently on the hunt for a new manager, approached him, too. Leeds considered him as a replacement when it fired Jesse Marsch. He said no to them all.
This summer would, doubtless, have brought more offers, not just because of the fact that Kompany led Burnley to promotion, but the manner of it. In the space of 10 months, he has completely refashioned the club’s style, taking a team that had for years been defined by a gruff, battle-hardened, pared-back style and filling it with youth, and flair, and élan.
“I built on the values that defined Burnley,” Kompany said. “Culture is different to style. What was Burnley before? Hard-working, brave, tough. I say to my players that while we might not be the biggest team any more, we can still be the toughest, the smartest, the bravest. There is a grit to our game. That hasn’t changed. We couldn’t have the flair players that we do if they did not understand what it is to a Burnley player.”
He may not see it quite as the transformation it appears to be, but it is an impressive body of work nonetheless. Rather than parlay that into a lucrative offer elsewhere — the Spurs job is still available, and Chelsea’s will doubtless come up again in a few weeks — Kompany elected, just before the end of the season, to sign a new five-year contract with Burnley.
It was an unorthodox, vaguely heretical decision. Elite soccer is a shark, forever moving forward. Managers, like players, are conditioned to believe that they have to grasp bigger, better things the very instant they appear.
This, surely, was Kompany’s moment. He is only 37 — in his infancy, by managerial standards — and he had served his apprenticeship. Now was the time to clamber up another rung on the ladder toward what many assume to be his ultimate, inevitable destiny: to replace Pep Guardiola as manager of Manchester City, whenever he chooses to step aside.
That Kompany chose to wait instead can be attributed, in part, to his relationship with the hierarchy at Burnley — “I trust the people” — and his excitement at what is left to achieve. The game’s economic reality might place winning the Premier League with Burnley, for example, out of his reach, but he is confident that his team, this club, has not yet topped out. “We are still really far from our ceiling,” he said.
Mostly, though, his decision to stay is down to his conviction that speed should not be confused with progress. Soccer, Kompany knows, offers very few “good settings” for coaches, places where they can hone their abilities and define their methods without worrying about needless interference or the sudden, wild mood swings that can come on the back of a couple of dispiriting weeks.
At Burnley, he feels he has found one. “If I am with the right people, that is a big advantage,” he said. Moving on, moving in what most would see as the general direction of up, treating management as a series of challenges to be met and levels to be passed might not be the accelerant it seems. Standing still might be a better guarantee that he gets to where he wants to go.
“The only destination I have in mind, from a coaching perspective, is to be the best,” he said. “The pathway is not how quickly I get there. I want to be the best, whatever the steps are, and that outcome takes time in any walk of life.” In his mind, it is a “universal recipe,” though perhaps it is best thought of as an equation.
Kompany clearly has an aptitude, and a talent, for management. His work at Burnley proves that. But talent is just the first step. “You develop talent into quality through time and effort,” he said. He has never been short on the latter. It is what has marked his whole career. For once, he feels he has the former, too. He has time, and he is prepared to take it.
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