University Challenge

Keith Lasley is on another steep learning curve – something he has become quite accustomed to during his time in football.

From leaving behind his job as an apprentice electrician to join ‘Well in 1999, to completing his coaching badges prior to hanging up his boots, Lasley is relentless in his desire to develop and learn.

Never one to back down from a challenge, Keith admits adding in his studies to his role at Fir Park and busy family life will not be easy, though insists his commitment to helping the Steelmen continue their push in the Scottish Premiership remains as strong as ever.

“I’ve always been someone that wants to push myself and I’m not happy just standing still,” he said. “I started my coaching badges when I was still playing and luckily, I managed to make it all the way through to my pro licence which I completed in my last few years of playing – achieving that before I stopped playing had always been an ambition of mine.

“I then took on the job of assistant manager under Stephen Robinson and threw myself into that role.

“I felt as if I hadn’t pushed myself in terms of my education and improvement – I’m hungry to keep doing that. The degree is in sporting directorship, and it takes in pretty much everything the role entails, how it fits into a football club and gives a brilliant insight into how clubs are run top to bottom – I believe I had to take myself out of my comfort zone – I find when I’m pushing myself, I’m at my best.

“As someone who never went to university and left school at 15 to walk out on to a building site as an apprentice electrician, it’s definitely new. It can be hard to juggle, I think I have to be careful and realise that first and foremost my job is the assistant manager at Motherwell, working to help develop the team and win games – that is my bread and butter, and I certainly won’t veer away from that.”

Perhaps more associated with football clubs in England and abroad, the use of a sporting director in Scotland is not quite as common, though in recent times the likes of Rangers, Hibernian, Ayr United and Falkirk have implemented the role with varying degrees of success.

Lasley believes that a sporting director can help bring more stability to a club, though maintains that having the correct people in and around the club is the most important factor.

“I think it has to be done right, a lot of people get caught up in the labels and the names,” he added. “Essentially in any successful structure, the be all and end all is the people within it and not a name tag.

“I do believe a good structure helps, as well as everyone having a clear and defined role within that structure. It can be a sporting director, a technical director, the roles do manifest in different guises.

“In Scotland I think we are playing a little bit of catch up in terms of these models, they have been brought into football to bring a bit more consistency. There’s such a high turnover of players and staff, this role brings a stability – it becomes more of a club strategy where everything is stuck to for a little bit longer than usual.

“We’re probably a bit behind in this country in terms of understanding that and it being as prevalent, but just having a particular strategy is no silver bullet – it’s the people who fill these roles that is the most important factor.

“At Motherwell, because we have a tight group of staff, we do know what is going on in each other’s work daily. Everyone stays in their lanes in terms of getting their job done, but there’s certainly that crossover in terms of encountering each other every day be that on a personal level or there being a few work issues that you think you can help with.

“We are all pulling in the one direction, and I think that is why our club has been relatively successful in recent times.”

During his two-year course, Keith will cover topics such as leading for high performance, strategic operations, innovation and change, governance, and best practice – developing the skills required to take on the role of sports director.

Course alumni include Hearts gaffer Robbie Neilson, his assistant Lee McCulloch, David Weir, and former Germany midfielder Didi Hamann.

As well as familiar names from the world of football, representatives from a wide range of sports across the globe have graduated from the course – presenting a great opportunity to get an insight into how different sporting organisations operate – though it was meetings with his Scottish counterparts that presented Lasley with the opportunity to get an insight into what the course would entail.

“I spoke to Lee (McCulloch) a few times before I signed up to get a feel for it and to learn what the course entailed and chatted to Robbie (Neilson) as well,” Keith added. “The feedback was it was an excellent course but challenging and today I can certainly verify that.

“What I’ve found really rewarding is it is not just football, it is various sports from Aussie rules to basketball and rugby – it’s very much a worldwide course.

“It’s great for me to see how other sports, other countries and other cultures do things and hopefully I can pick good bits out of that to bring back for myself and the club to use going forward.”

The fast-paced nature of football can be put into context when looking at the difference between how Lasley began 2021 and the start of 2022.

Following the departure of Stephen Robinson after the 2-0 defeat to Kilmarnock in the final game of 2020, Keith would take temporary charge of a struggling ‘Well side for 10 days – including the humbling derby defeat at Hamilton.

Looking back on his start to last year, the 42-year-old admits it was the most difficult period of his coaching career, though is delighted at the turnaround in fortunes the Steelmen have experienced following the arrival of the new gaffer.

“When I reflect on it, there was a lot of learning for me personally,” he explained. “From Stephen Robinson moving on and then bridging that gap for the Accies game before Chris and Graham came in.

“You are going to have these times in football, and I think I have come out of it a better coach and a better person as well.

“The gaffer and Chris have done a fantastic job in turning things around, stabilising first and then pushing on this season. For us, it’s never going to just be a linear line in an upwards direction – there’s going to be bumps along the way as we all know – it’s all about how you react to that as an individual and as a club – I think we’ve done that this year well, hopefully we can keep it going.

“I never knew the manager or Chris before they walked into the building, obviously I’d worked hard when I stopped playing to build up that relationship with Stephen Robinson and although I’d been a player under the previous manager, I’d never actually coached beside him – that was my real motivation moving into the role initially, to prove myself that I wasn’t just Keith Lasley the ex-player, but that I could really make an impact on a daily basis.

“As a coach, I want to be the best coach I can be and it was the same when Graham and Chris came in, I wanted to prove as quickly as I could that I can be a real asset and assist as much as I can – that’s what I continue to do every day.”

“It’s just about building relationships, naturally these things take time, but myself, Chris and the manager, along with Hinchy (Craig Hinchcliffe) and the rest of the coaching staff, we’re at our best when we are together, we’re tight and that’s something we are trying to build.

“I want to be doing this for a long time to come, coaching is a passion for me, that and improvement is something I feel really passionately about. I’m ambitious, I want to be as good as I can be and do as good a job for the manager alongside the other coaching staff and push Motherwell as much as we can – we are in a decent position, but we want more and are never satisfied.”

Beginning 2022 in fourth spot in the Premiership table, some ‘Well fans are letting their minds drift towards the possibility of clinching a European place come the end of the season.

Having turned out 20 times in European competition for Motherwell during his playing days, Lasley is well versed when it comes to the atmosphere that comes with those special occasions.

Unfortunately, during the Europa League qualifiers in 2020, Covid-19 restrictions meant that supporters were not permitted inside stadia and as a result the occasion felt somewhat underwhelming in comparison to previous campaigns.

With the landscape now looking much more positive, a chance to sample those special nights at Fir Park and abroad is looking increasingly possible, though Keith insists there is nobody at the club getting carried away.

“It would be absolutely amazing, when I get the chance to sit back and reminisce, my mind goes back to games against the likes of Panathinaikos and Levante,” he smiled. “To have the opportunity to coach at that level would be pretty special.

“So far, the semi final wins against Rangers and Aberdeen at Hampden have been the highlights for me coaching wise. To get the chance to coach in Europe would be fantastic there is no doubt about that, but we are a long way away from that right now.

“If we are still sitting in this position in two or three-months’ time then maybe we can start dreaming about that, but hypothetically it would be great to be involved in.

“We’ve given ourselves a platform, we are certainly not talking about Europe internally, our focus is just on the next game. The fixtures are coming thick and fast following the winter break being brought forward and we need to concentrate on these games.”

This afternoon, Fir Park welcomes supporters for the first time in 2022 for the Scottish Cup fourth round clash with Morton.

Due to restrictions introduced to help prevent the spread of the Omicron variant of Covid 19, the final game of last year against Livingston was played in front of just 500 fans – sparking fears of a return to closed doors matches.

Thankfully, the measures taken and pushing forward the beginning of the winter break seem to have paid dividends and outdoor events were able to resume at full capacity earlier this week.

Lasley is delighted that the team will have the full backing of the loyal ‘Well supporters today and believes that the absence of supporters during the pandemic has emphasised what football is all about.

“I’ve always loved when we play at Fir Park whether that be as a player or a coach, but I think Covid has brought an appreciation across the board as to what football fans bring to a game of football,” said the former ‘Well captain. “We always knew that fans were important, but I think the situation has almost crystalised what football is in this country and that is it’s about the fans.

“Even the mini break and the Boxing Day game with limited numbers, it was so disappointing. You can tell with the players and coaches; we all feel that disappointment and that lull.

“The excitement of having fans being back in the stadium, it has just grown that appreciation for the players and everyone inside the club of why we play – essentially that is for the four or five thousand fans that come every week to watch us.

“That is why we are here, that is why we are pushing ourselves and why we get up every morning and train as hard as we can – I think that has been a really key factor and there is no better feeling, particularly after a win of showing that appreciation and hopefully we’ll have many more opportunities to show that between now and the end of the season.”

First published in the matchday programme – Motherwell v Morton – 22/1/22