CHANGING hearts and minds has not been a simple task for Dougie Freedman in his continued efforts to usher in a modern era at Wanderers.
Squad rotation, split training shifts, possession-based football – even compulsory yoga sessions have come as a culture shock in some quarters since the Scot walked through the doors back in October to succeed Owen Coyle.
Although moves towards a different, even continental, way of thinking had already been made by interim management team Jimmy Phillips and Sammy Lee for a short spell prior to his arrival, the scale and speed of Freedman’s revolution behind the scenes has possibly gone un-noticed by the fans, whose attention has been firmly fixed on underperformance in the league table.
Some aspects, such as style of play, and his oft-maligned rotation policy, have been hard to miss.
Other alterations behind the closed gates at Euxton have been less publicised, yet their impacts have changed the general feel of the football club and shaken up much of the established order.
But whether or not you prefer the old school approach and values favoured by previous regimes, or welcome a new era, one thing is crystal clear when dealing with the savvy former Palace boss; he has brought a game-plan with him from London, and he is sticking to it.
Despite becoming the first manager since the war to remain unbeaten in his first six games, progress in league position terms has been limited. And for that reason, Freedman is yet to gain the full momentum of support from the terraces.
Under his tutelage Wanderers generally look more robust defensively and are now coming to terms with a more patient brand of football. Marrying the two together has been the difficult part.
Freedman inherited a club still suffering from a monstrous relegation hangover but feels he is now making enough progress to start reversing the slide and begin moving up the table. Indeed, he even stated this week that a late dash for the play-offs wasn’t beyond the realms of possibility.
As a player, the Glaswegian fell through the trap door from the top flight at Palace and today’s opponents Forest, and knows full well what impact it can have on a squad of footballers.
“If you get relegated, the chances are that you haven’t been near the top of the league that year, so your style of play has to change accordingly,” he explained.
“Then when you drop down you have to adopt completely the opposite approach with the same players. All of a sudden, the onus is on you to win games.
“That, I think, is the key to teams being relegated and not bouncing straight back up.
“Since I came to the club I have tried to change some things, some attitudes. We haven’t won as many games as I’d have liked but we haven’t lost many either – there have been a lot of draws in there.
“But that is what I have tried to change because I have experienced it as a player. And most importantly, it can take time.”
Freedman is currently studying for his UEFA Pro Licence in Scotland alongside legendary Everton striker Duncan Ferguson, and his studious approach to coaching also reflects earlier experiences in Italy, where he spent time with AC Milan and Palermo to gain his earlier badges. From his first game against Cardiff City, Freedman demonstrated a willingness to chop and change according to the opposition. And though the squad rotation approach does not appeal to everyone, it is undoubtedly the path he has chosen to tread.
“I just think that in the intensity of the modern day game you absolutely have to rotate your squad,” he said. “It’s unfortunate that the more experienced players in their late 20s and early 30s don’t quite understand that as much. They are a little less patient and think they should be playing 46 games.
“It’s difficult for me, as a coach, to understand that.
“Tyrone has done very well over the last three or four games. We took him out against Watford because I wanted to try a different way of playing and I thought that Sam Ricketts would be better suited.
“I think the whole squad – everyone, in fact - has got to understand that I have got to play certain players in certain games.”
Freedman admitted to making a mistake recently in asking Keith Andrews to continue playing despite a reoccurring Achilles problem. The Irishman has now been sidelined because of a thigh strain associated with his original injury.
That experience has underpinned the manager’s resolve to use his squad – now boosted by the return of some of its key players such as Mark Davies, Stuart Holden, David Wheater and, soon, Matt Mills, to its full in the final third of the season, “I made a mistake by playing Keith for the last couple of games because he had an injury,” Freedman told The Bolton News. “I have to learn from that.
“I do want my team to play in a fresh and enthusiastic way. People will come out for tactical reasons, rest, or injuries, but there will be a reason.
“You do come across certain sections of the fans wanting their players to play, people who have opinions on who should be playing and that we should have the same starting 11 for the last 46 games, it’s mind-blowing to me as a coach how people can think that way.
“I think in such a way that we have got a squad, so you might as well use it.”