NEW: MARTIN RENNIE INTERVIEW!
Martin Rennie is the manager of the new Korean second-tier team, Seoul E-Land. Nine years ago, he was working in sales and marketing in Scotland. The 39-year-old has since coached across North America, including two years as manager of Vancouver Whitecaps in the MLS. Here, he talks about giving up the day job, life in North America, and his first press conference in Seoul…
When I was 30, I was working in sales. Getting the train to work, reading the newspaper, going to an office, doing the things everyone else does. Now I’m able to – for my job – do what I love doing, which is coach football. I’m very fortunate. It’s not like I pinch myself all the time, but there are certain moments when I go: “This is a great privilege – I’ve got to be so thankful for this.”
I aimed to retire from business at the age of 30. It meant doing well, saving money, and getting my coaching qualifications (Rennie passed his UEFA A licence aged 26). The aim was that, on the day I retired from business, I was a fully-qualified coach, I had the contacts, and I was ready to go. One of the things I learnt from business was setting goals. If you have a clear goal, a clear plan, then it’s possible. Other people will say it’s impossible, but if you believe, it doesn’t matter what they say.
When I left the company, I was the top salesman in the company (a software firm called Blackbaud). I was making a lot of revenue for them. So when I said: “I’m really thinking about leaving, really thinking about this coaching thing,” the chief executive of the company came over from the United States. He sat me down and said: “I don’t think you should be leaving to do that.”
He then spent the next couple of days with me. We went to London, we went to a number of big meetings, we met a number of big clients, and so on. He was saying: “Look at where you are. Look at how much money you’re making. Look at how much you could be making. We value you, and if you start coaching soccer you’re going to be scraping by,” and so on.
At the end of the couple of days, he said to me: “You know what Martin – after spending time with you, and speaking to you, I think you should go for this soccer thing.” I thought that was incredible. Years later, I was going to the MLS – I had a couple of offers, but I needed a reference. I got in touch with him and said: “I don’t suppose you remember me…”
He said: “You know what, I absolutely remember you – I’ve followed your career closely, and I’m so happy you’re moving to MLS.” That was a great moment. I think I would have moved from business into coaching anyway. But to have his encouragement meant a lot. He was called Bob Sywolski, and I learnt a tonne of things from him. He was a top CEO.
In 2003, soon after I got my UEFA A Licence, I went to Africa with a team doing humanitarian work (the tour was organised by Christian charity Ambassadors Football). We went to Mozambique, South Africa, and Sudan. There were guys who played professionally in the US, a guy who’d played for Nigeria, a guy who’d played for South Africa, and a couple of guys from the UK.
One day, on a trip from one part of South Africa to another, one of the guys told me he was going to direct a Premier Development League team in the US (the top level of amateur football). He had a real vision for it, and he wondered if I would go and coach there. So when I left Blackbaud to start my coaching career, that was where I went – the Cascade Surge in Oregon.
People say: “Are you amazed how far you’ve come?” (Rennie went from Cascade Surge up the US soccer pyramid, to Cleveland City Stars, the Carolina RailHawks, and then the Vancouver Whitecaps in the MLS). But one of the secrets – if there is a secret – is that, until you’ve convinced your mind that it’s possible, you can’t do it. So when it does happen, you’re already expecting it. In Cleveland, here was a team that didn’t exist two or three months before the season, then we went the whole season only losing one game. And the next season (2008) we won the championship. Looking back, I’m like: “Wow, that was great.” But in my mind, I expected it to happen. The pieces were in place.
When I joined the Whitecaps, they were the worst team in the MLS by quite a bit. In fact, they were one of the worst teams in the history of the league. They’d never won an away game. But right away, we got into the play-offs (a first for a Canadian team). It was one of the biggest turnarounds in the history of the MLS, and the second year was better – it just so happened that every team did well, apart from one (Vancouver finished seventh out of nine in the 2013 western conference).
I wasn’t surprised to lose my job (the Whitecaps sacked Rennie in October 2013). I knew for a long time that I wasn’t a good fit. They ran things in a certain way, and it wasn’t right for me. It hurt to some extent, but it gives you extra motivation. My career – whether in football or business – had been more a less a direct line upwards. That’s been great, and I’m thankful, but sometimes you need a setback to reignite you. And that’s how I viewed the situation at Vancouver.
The job in Korea came about through a player I coached in Vancouver called Young Pyo Lee. He played at Tottenham, played for Korea, played in multiple World Cups. He retired at the end of the season in Vancouver and got in touch saying: “There’s a new club in Seoul, it’s run by a massive company, it could be really big – would you be interested?”
The club brought four or five delegates to Vancouver and spent time with me there. Initially, I was a little reluctant. I had three good options – an opportunity in the UK, an opportunity in North America, and the one in Korea. But I just felt that, if I didn’t do it, I’d always regret it. I’ve grown up in Europe, done well in North America…and if I can do well in Asia, that opens doors in the future.
I had my first press conference last week – there were 74 journalists there, plus bloggers, columnists and so on. I was pretty impressed. The press conference lasted around 40 minutes – it’s difficult going through a translator, as you’re not always sure your point is getting across. But it seemed to go down well, so the guy must have done a pretty good job.
It’s a new club, so we’ll start training in January, and probably start playing in March. It’s been nice to have time to learn the culture, get to know the company, look at players, and get the infrastructure right. Often in football it’s instantaneous: you’re not sure what you’re doing, or how to get to the shops, but you’ve still got to get three points at the weekend. This is different.
In terms of players, it’s a blank sheet of paper. We’ve identified some, and now it’s a case of signing them. Also, a lot of people have reached out to me and the club, which is interesting. The world is becoming a smaller place. In the past, people wouldn’t want to leave certain countries, but I think that’s changing now. We’ll sign predominantly Korean players – you can only have four foreigners, and one of those must be from Asia. But I actually really like that. When I was in the MLS, you could recruit from anywhere in the world, but that makes it difficult. This way, I can really zoom in.
Seoul is a fantastic place to live. The two kids are settling in at school, we’re finding our way around, and we’re really enjoying it. The communication can be difficult, but I think it opens up your brain a little bit. You think differently. You find your way round problems. Sometimes in life, we’re in such a routine, we’re kind of on autopilot. Coming to a new city, a new culture, it makes you see things differently. It makes you way more aware. I think there are parts of your mind it energises.
Football at home (in Scotland) was always a case of “the strongest survive”. People’s confidence was always knocked – be it by players, managers, fans, or whoever it might be. When I went to America, it was so different. It was the first time I’d seen people patted on the back and encouraged. I could see the effect on people’s confidence, and the effect it had on their performance on the field.
In business, I learned that yes, you can get short-term results from hammering people every now and then. But in the long term, you need to highlight what they’re doing well. There’s always something to point to. Not in a “don’t worry, everything’s great” sense. But in a way that says: “You’re not always wrong, you’re not always stupid, be positive.” I’ve worked with players who’ve really improved, and I hope part of that was building their confidence and self-image.
I think we all have an ideal job, or a dream we want to follow, or a passion. But then you get a mortgage, a car, other bills. It becomes a big sacrifice to make that jump. A couple of times, when it wasn’t coming into place as quickly as I wanted, I found myself thinking: “Was this a good decision?” But in the end, it was more than a decision – it was almost a calling. Leaving business to start coaching football was a big step. But certainly, I’ve got no regrets. It’s been a heck of a ride.