Stresses

Jesse Marsch in the arena

Written by: Moxcowhite • Daniel Chapman
A photo of Jesse Marsch, looking quite tired and emotional, is hugging Crysenscio Summerville after he scored the winner at Liverpool

It’s tough aiming for rueful in a world of memes. “I hate my job,” works as a bit when your t-shirt is still soaked through from the touchline on Tyneside, you’ve segued from one post-match press conference into the next pre-match one, journalists are asking you about stress, and with your hair sticking up and a wry smile and a chuckle, you can say a point against Newcastle isn’t a relief and get a laugh from the crowd in the room. “No, it’s always stressful,” said Jesse Marsch. “It’s like I hate my job, but I have to keep going. I try to enjoy the moments and try to be there for the team for what they need. But I hate the stress.”

But it’s 2023 so a Premier League manager has to be cautious about how announcing “I hate my job” will look if it’s refracted from the soft smile of its delivery and plastered across a photo on the internet. This is a reckless world now where context is deemed excess and the headline is taken for enough. Marsch has named 1) attention on transfers and 2) mid-table teams being really good as some of his biggest surprises since moving to the Premier League, but 3) media attention has had mentions too, and he doesn’t seem able to crack the format. A relaxed chat about leadership for a podcast listened to by sports executives? Like comfy slippers to Jesse. The relentless pre- and post- and pre-game again barrage of invasive queries? That’s not him.

The problem is when pillars of his management style are translated into soundbites. Marsch relies on messaging, whether in the signs around the training ground, the quotes he reads out to the players, or the themes he concentrates on in the press. But his attitude towards stress doesn’t reduce well to soundbite. It needs the context it came with.

“They [the players] know me pretty well,” he went on. “They know that I’m pretty open. One of the things with the way that I manage, and the openness I have, is sometimes people think they can almost use that against me, or to think that my openness means weakness.”

Openness, to Marsch, is a strength, and that includes the strength to be open about the stress. He will tell you what he hates about his job, because he wants Jackie Harrison, say, to be able to say the same thing to the boss or the players around him. Openness, honesty. Leadership councils, player input. If there is stress, and it is spoken about, its sources can be found, and changed.

Experiencing stress is not the same as struggling with it, or suffering from it. Some jobs are inherently stressful: you don’t meet, or want to meet, many chilled out air traffic controllers. Top level football management is, ludicrously given it’s a game, one of those vocations, and stress is part of the challenge. I’ve written before about Howard Wilkinson, seeing in photos of himself the toll that promoting Sheffield Wednesday took on his physical and mental health, swearing never to let football do that to him again. He didn’t quit the game; his hunger for soccer success stayed strong. But when Leeds won promotion at Bournemouth in 1990, he let the players ride the team bus home without him, and headed for a friend’s house in the New Forest, where after a relaxing night with some good wine he could wake next morning to sunshine and bird song. Two years later, when Scum’s defeat at Anfield confirmed United as champions and ITV’s Elton Welsby got Wilkinson on the phone from his home, there was shocked silence when Howard said he hadn’t been watching. He’d deliberately organised a Sunday roast with his family, permitting updates from his son in the other room but otherwise occupying his mind with anything but football. Wilkinson founded, and still chairs, the League Managers’ Association, precisely to support other managers towards the same goal: not removing stress, but managing it.

That said, I do wonder about Marsch choosing his rueful, wry, reflective tone on an afternoon when he could, rain and all, have been elated by a hard-fought point that was built on the defensive foundations he’d worked hard to install during the winter break. Wasn’t this a day to love his job, not hate it? It was New Year’s Eve, so perhaps he was feeling the inevitable melancholy that comes with a calendar swap, and some of the press questions were directing him that way. But it wasn’t the first time in December that I’d heard Marsch sounding as if, perhaps, the stress of Premier League management is not the best thing for him. Not in the sense that he can’t handle it, or he’s cracking up, but that there are other things he might feel better by doing.

Speaking with former Everton and USA goalkeeper Tim Howard, on NBC Sports, Marsch was asked, ‘What do you do that makes you happy?’

“For me, it’s travel and experiences. That’s the number one thing I love, and it has a lot to do with people. Even when I took this trip around the world with my family [in 2013], people asked what were the best, favourite countries? And I said, Nepal, Laos and Jordan. And it was because of the people. They’re very friendly and generous and open, and you can share things. And so, like, the shared experience we have as human beings, like going — you know, when I went to Machu Picchu a few weeks ago, this was incredible, life altering, like educating yourself in that moment in time, how people choose to live and what they value, and what was important, and adding it to you as a person. So yeah, I’m a people person, for good and for bad.”

And he’s a person who, as a Premier League manager coaching weekend-to-weekend, will not get the opportunities to go to Machu Picchu very often, to achieve his bucket list target of travelling to 100 countries. He’s in the mid-seventies now, but the passport stamps have been slow coming since the round the world trip of ten years ago that he often refers back to as the foundational experience of his post-playing career. Another thing he’s objected to in the Premier League: 4) the intensity of the fixture list.

As illuminating as the limitations of schedule, in this interview, was the discussion about the future of the USMNT ahead of co-hosting the World Cup in 2026, and Marsch’s ideas for developing football in the USA, and developing players. They started by discussing the growth of the two players most closely associated with Marsch, first, new USMNT captain Tyler Adams:

“My job as as someone who believes in him entirely, and as a mentor and as a coach, has been just trying to guide his energy and his efforts in ways that I believe could benefit him and us as a team … The conversation I had with him before he left [for the World Cup] was about holding people accountable, supporting his coach and his best players, keeping everyone focused, having no room for for lack of discipline, keeping the noise outside, keeping the process and controlling the things that you can control. And I think from afar it looked like he did that perfectly. Certainly the interview before the Iran game is something that, I don’t know if we’ve ever seen a professional athlete handle himself in such a graceful manner. And he will add those things to him.”

Then, how he dealt with Brenden Aaronson’s initial lack of confidence at Leeds:

“We had one conversation where I said, you’re 21 years old. You’re one of the most important players on your team in the Premier League. Three or four years ago, if somebody would have said that to you, you would have said ‘you’re crazy’. But you are, Brenden, and it’s all to do with your personality and self-belief and aggressiveness. And don’t ever, don’t ever doubt, don’t ever stop, keep going.

“And then he played in the Crystal Palace match, and he made a play that hit the post and almost went in. And it was an incredible individual action. And in that game overall, he was non-stop for the entire match.

“So, you know, part of this as a coach is just knowing your players and knowing the kinds of messages that are important, and helping unearth what is valuable for them to understand and hear and know about themselves, so that they can go out and be the best they can be. And that’s something I enjoy about being a coach.”

Then it was all brought back to youth development in the USA, and what more can be done to get young American players to a higher level sooner:

“When I said I’ve coached in five different countries, what I’ve also seen is I’ve taken my family — unfortunately for them, ha — to all these different places, but I’ve also seen my children play youth football in all these different places. And I’ve seen what different cultures value, you know, according to what their culture is, what their environment is …

“And so what are we [in the USA]? I think we’re a collection of a lot of different ideas, partly because the country is so big. We’ve done a lot to invest in youth development and coaching, and I think that’s helped the game progress, putting the players in competitive environments and getting them on the pitch, and then also in their free time letting them play and enjoy the game. I’ve been to New Jersey, I was in California, I’ve seen these things implemented in good ways. So yeah, of course I have a lot of ideas, but what I do like to see is just that more people care. You know, more people are investing in coaching, and more kids enjoy the game, and enjoy watching the World Cup or the Prem or even MLS or whatever. It’s just becoming more part of who we are, which I think is probably in the end the most important thing.”

Marsch’s enthusiasm when he talks about these subjects is as striking as the downbeat figure he can cast from the media room at Leeds. It’s not that he’s suffering with the stress of the job of managing in the Premier League. It’s that what he loves is travel, mentoring, advocacy. Behind the blackboard squeaking that cynical Yorkshire folk hear in his talk about the personal and professional development of fine young men, is an earnest desire to be making a difference in the lives of footballers as people. It blooms alongside the discussions of Gareth Southgate’s role as England manager, how he can intervene at length with certain players in a way he could not in a club job. Whereas in Marsch’s tired demeanour while discussing the stress he’s under as a manager there is an unasked question, about the brief hours snatched on the training pitch post-recovery between high pressure Premier League matches, as he tries to have an impact on one small group of twenty or so young men at Thorp Arch, a question about whether this job contains the scope and the potential to make the impact that will satisfy someone who speaks with so much excitement about seeing youth coaching in New Jersey, in California, in five different countries where he’s worked and watched his kids train. In England, by the way, Marsch says, “my son plays, and it’s about tackles and battles, and every game I go to, I’m like, I hope my son doesn’t break his leg!”

It’s tempting to think Leeds United Football Club has a unique mechanism for crushing optimism out of fresh idealists like Jesse Marsch, but really that’s just a bastard form of group ego. Marsch has had a tough and illuminating eighteen months even without the Peacocks’ contribution. Summer 2021 was supposed to be the summit of his career with Red Bull, six years working through New York and Salzburg to the company’s top job in Leipzig. It turned out to be the start of an autumn when the challenge of the Bundesliga, Covid restrictions on coaching and his wife’s diagnosis with breast cancer combined to end the job after a few months. Thankfully his wife recovered, but at the World Cup this past December, his close friend and fellow Princeton alum, the pioneering journalist Grant Wahl, collapsed and died while covering Argentina’s match with the Netherlands. Grant was one month younger than Jesse. A couple of weeks before that, Marsch had been at Machu Picchu celebrating another classmate’s wedding, having “an incredible, life altering” experience learning about “how people choose to live and what they value”. That is all quite enough to make one person think about how they’re choosing to live and what they value about life, long before they come sopping wet off a field to have a bunch of journalists barking at them about the stress of managing Leeds.

If Marsch looks tired lately it might be Leeds United and it might be other things. And it might be because he’s holding on to Leeds United, and the buzz that comes from the stress, as the best route available to who he’s always wanted to be, even as the answer to that question is changing, the more he learns.

“Listen, there’s nothing better than standing in the box before the whistle,” Marsch said in his post-Newcastle/pre-West Ham talk. “It’s right where you want to be. Maybe you guys have read ‘The Man in the Arena’?”

That’s Theodore Roosevelt’s speech, including lines like:

‘Far better it is to dare mighty things, to win glorious triumphs even though checkered by failure, than to rank with those timid spirits who neither enjoy nor suffer much because they live in the gray twilight that knows neither victory nor defeat.’

Marsch went on, chuckling again: “It’s right where we all want to be. But it’s also awful, it’s stressful beyond belief. And then what determines matches, with such a fine margin of success and failure, is always, in this sport, not so easy to process.” Remember that he had, for the previous half-an-hour, been asked to do that post-match processing in public.

And that is when I wonder, after meandering as an intruder upon pictures of his psyche, about what Jesse Marsch wants to do in future. Not about the stress, which I’m sure he can deal with, but about the results he’s getting from it, the victories or defeats, what he feels about those fine margins where a referee’s decision or a defender’s mistake can ruin so much, at so much cost — a relegation, a job. Marsch sounds, to me, happier when he can envisage the wide open pages, the flickering travel guides, the arcs of growth that take a young man and make him finer as he pushes for the horizon. He might not be allowed the grace to build those particular successes as a head coach in the Premier League. But he might take his current experiences forward to a place where, stress free, he can fulfil Roosevelt’s speech by making greater use of himself as the person who, with ‘The great enthusiasms, the great devotion, spends oneself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement’. Marsch has the enthusiasm, he has the great devotion, but is a 0-0 draw in the pouring rain at Newcastle the worthiest cause, the highest achievement on which he can spend himself? ⬢

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