Sought-after coach leaves a big hole to fill

James Marrs, the new head coach of Brighton (Photo: Geoff Penn/BHS)

Photo: Geoff Penn/BHAFC

Brighton are getting themselves a coach who is fast becoming the envy of the Women’s Premier League.

James Marrs transformed Gillingham’s fortunes in two years as their manager, taking them from mid-table to the brink of a championship – admittedly via a flirtation with relegation.

Marrs, who was unveiled yesterday as the club’s new head coach, has clear views about how football should be played – and an even stronger philosophy on how it should be coached.

His striking methods took some time to be absorbed by his new charges at Gillingham’s Chatham Town ground when he took over two summers ago.

But absorbed they were – by a bunch of disparate, but close, team-mates only too willing to follow his master plan.

Gillingham’s game is based on passing, with every player expected to be comfortable on the ball.

They pass it in defence, and they pass it in attack. And in-between… yes, there is more passing.

Target-driven

While long passes are not outlawed, Marrs expects everything that his players do to conform to his match strategy – and of course, he won’t shy from letting them know if it doesn’t.

More significant, in some ways, is his approach to games, and especially to the question of blame.

He says he is not results-driven, but target-driven. Marrs – named Sent Her Forward‘s manager of the season – subscribes to the theory that if the team achieve their targets, the results will look after themselves.

And last season about 75% of the time they did.

In fact, it’s not really an exaggeration to say that Marrs would pronounce himself more satisfied with a defeat in which his players performed as he required them to than a scrappy victory gained when a match had not gone according to plan.

As he told me: “They know the result isn’t important. As long as they get my targets out, I don’t care about the results.”

As Gillingham’s players struggled to get used to his methods, the team found themselves fighting to avoid relegation in their first season under his charge.

But they carried on listening, they carried on learning – and they became a better team for it.

In Marrs’ second – and, as it turns out, final – campaign at the helm, they did not lose a game until well into the New Year, and retained the County and Ryman Cups that they had won in his slightly under-par first season.

Other managers have voiced their respect for his team’s style of play. On the eve of Portsmouth’s Premier League encounter with the Gills in March, their joint-boss, Perry Northeast, described Gillingham as the best team his side had faced in the league.

“They have worked hard to get to that level… They are a good footballing side; they keep the ball down and have nice sets of patterns of play.”

Doing the right thing

On every occasion I have spoken to Marrs’ eloquent charges, whom he has encouraged to talk to me, they have spoken about him with nothing but admiration – volunteering their respect, even if I hadn’t asked specifically about him.

After their last-minute victory – ironically, over Brighton – in what proved to be his final game in charge, midfielder-cum-striker Charlotte Gurr explained how the team had managed to put behind them an individual error that had led to Brighton taking the lead.

“If we do ever concede goals, they tend not to be because we have been outplayed but because we have made mistakes,” she said. “But we were trying to do the right thing. We had faith in our ability. We had the patience.”

Jay Blackie, Gillingham Photo: Julian Hart

Blackie: It took time to learn (Photo: Julian Hart)

They were sentiments echoed by Jay Blackie, who captained them with such distinction this past season.

She explained in one of her blogs on the club website: “We haven’t concentrated on results but on performances. If each week you can improve your performance and try to be better than the week before, the results will start to follow.

“We started to learn a new style of play last year, and with that came mistakes and losses.

“Everyone is going to make mistakes, but by concentrating on your individual – and your team’s – performance, those mistakes will become less and less, and we are now getting our just rewards.”

Striker Lisa Fulgence had also extolled the coaching virtues of her boss in a previous interview with Sent Her Forward.

She said: “A year ago I was playing football at Ebbsfleet and I was happy. But I’d met [Marrs] at county level (he is one of the Kent FA representative coaches) and I wanted to be playing for that sort of coach. I’m a bit older than some of the girls, but I really am still learning. I learn from him every week.”

It transpires that Brighton had already marked him out as the man they wanted to take the club forward long before they got him.

Marrs revealed at his private unveiling yesterday that the club had approached him last summer, but he felt he was too far into pre-season preparations with Gillingham to leave them then.

Transition

Marrs is expected to take some of the Gillingham players with him to Sussex, though none I have spoken to has been prepared to say whether they will be among them.

They, of course, will be familiar with his coaching methods. Those already at Brighton will probably need time to learn them.

But Tracy Doe, the club’s Elite Women’s and Girls’ Football Manager, has indicated that while a fast-track to the Super League is on the agenda, Marrs will be given time.

She told the club’s website: “I have a lot of optimism going into the new season, but any transition like this is difficult. It will take a while for the players to get used to him, but I’m sure that by the time we start the new season, everything will be fine.”

While it might be clear what Brighton’s players can expect, quite what his departure will mean for those left behind at Gillingham is less so.

His resignation as his side looked to build on their achievements of 2013/14 will have come as a bombshell, although the club has not yet commented on his departure.

Gillingham celebrate their Kent County Cup win over Charlton Athletic Reserves, April 2014 (Photo: Julian Hart)

Marrs led Gillingham to two County Cups, two Ryman Cups and second place in the league (Photo: Julian Hart)

Some players were also reluctant to comment so soon after Marrs’ shock decision.

Others chose their words carefully.

Gurr told Sent Her Forward: “I’m not surprised, really, that he has gone, as knowing him and his aspirations, Brighton’s fantastic infrastructure would have been difficult for him to turn down.”

Fulgence said: “He did let the squad know beforehand. I personally was surprised, definitely, that it was Brighton. But finding out they approached him last year, it makes sense they would come again after the great year Gillingham had under his management.”

One player, who asked not to be named, admitted Marrs’ departure would have a big impact on the club, just as they were looking to push on from that final-game heartbreak of missing out on the Premier League title by just two points.

“It will have a huge impact, for sure,” she said. “There isn’t another coach with his ability in the women’s game.”

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