Gary Smith: Zakuani Injury was the Worst Day of my Coaching Career

Posted in Columnists, Other MLS, Seattle

Tagged: ,

Published on June 13, 2013 with 16 Comments

Gary Smith1

Zakuani Injury was the Worst Day of my Coaching Career

by Gary Smith

I can’t do a Gary Smith column without talking about the lowest point in my coaching career.

That low point wasn’t leaving Colorado, or being sacked at Stevenage because I learned from them both. It was the incident between Brian Mullan and Steve Zakuani, largely because it had tragic consequences for a great player.

It was a difficult, a very difficult situation.

If we go back prior to that incident with Brian and Steve, many in Colorado felt that the team had come into some undue criticism. I still believe to this day there are a lot of people that think the MLS Cup Final in Toronto was won in part because it was played late at night in very difficult conditions on a tough pitch or that we muscled Dallas out of a final.

I think the team itself had been unduly criticized for the way that they play and the type of individuals that were in the team.

So come the Seattle game when Brian gets himself sent off and of course Steve suffers a terrible injury, I think it fueled what was already a bit of a feeling to come out if not in player circles, then at least in supporter circles.

But before I continue, I want to stress that I am not justifying or condoning that individual incident.

MLS and football in general have taken steps to rule out the two footed lunge and with good reason. John Spencer was right when he said that there are 200 tackles like that a season and they don’t all cause injuries like Steve’s, but everyone in football knows that the possibility is there, just as if you jump with an elbow you could smash an opponent’s face.

What was tragic though was that it happened to a man like Steve Zakuani. I have nothing but respect for him as a player and a man, and was especially delighted to hear about his successful surgery on Wednesday.

The sheer class of the young man was demonstrated later when he swapped shirts with Brian.

Steve and I obviously share our support of Arsenal too, and I always felt some sort of bond with my fellow Londoner because of that.

But more importantly than that, and this is less well known, I suffered exactly the same injury as Steve Zakuani in my career.

While the whole thing brought back some painful memories for myself, that time was harder on Steve than on anybody, and I am in no way comparing how I, or more importantly, Brian felt to what Steve suffered.

But I don’t want to duck the incident now that I have a column and I feel there is one small side of the story left to be told, the Colorado Rapids.

Smith: This shows what a class act Steve Zakuani is

Smith: This shows what a class act Steve Zakuani is

We decided to observe a media silence and allow events and the Disciplinary Committee to take its course.

The reality is that Brian was such a fantastic professional. What I mean by that is, he’s based his career on just being the most genuine guy that you could ever meet.

And there was plenty of support for Brian, of course from his former coach Dominic Kinnear in Houston. You only need to look at the numbers he posted there and you’ll know why he is considered one of the Dynamo’s finest servants.

Houston were the team I tried to model the Rapids on when I took the job.

Dominic had done a terrific job with limited resources there and were one of the most uncompromising groups I’d seen. Dominic is still doing that!

Brian had played for Sigi Schmid as well.

So Sigi had a terrific idea of the type of character that Brian was as well and his words to cool down the rhetoric in the aftermath were also appreciated. I phoned Sigi once and I wanted to speak to him about Brian and about Steve.

Sigi was very good. I know Sigi only as an acquaintance, not as one of the closer managers that I’ve met in the MLS.

He reiterated his thoughts on Brian, having managed him before and said that he didn’t believe what Brian had done was deliberate in any way, shape or form. He just wasn’t that type of guy.

I offered my sincere apologies and hoped that Steve Zakuani was going to recover not just quickly but fully as well. The tackle itself when you looked back on it was indefensible. I think the key element to the actual incident was prior to the challenge.

If you remember, and I think people played it an awful lot, Brian was actually fouled prior to the challenge. As I recall he went down on his haunches or his knees, and he gesticulates to the referee, and the referee waves it on. Brian then acts too fast to rejoin the game, fails to take time to read it, and makes the challenge.

I think a lot of people felt that it was almost a retaliatory type of challenge, and it really wasn’t. I’m sure there was a little frustration in Brian because of the missed free kick prior.

A number of things have to come together; you have to be caught on the worst place on your leg, you have to fall almost perfectly, you have to just be in the most prime situation for that to happen.

It doesn’t happen often and it’s so pleasing that it doesn’t of course. It was a difficult moment for all. I know that Steve is probably still trying to get over it. Fortunately he is still a young player and no doubt he will get himself back to some of the sort of form he showed before.

In the immediate aftermath though, my responsibility was Brian and then the team.

Brian went out and said something very unwise to the media post-match about making that type of tackle again. In reality, we should have never let him near a journalist that night.

We were waiting for a smart new Media Relations Officer to arrive from Chivas and this one match fell between the cracks of the last one departing, and the new arrival. I have no doubt that had it happened at any other time, Brian would not have been allowed near the media and would not have uttered those words that quite understandably angered Seattle fans. Any hope that the anger at his tackle might display some sense of proportion went right out the window. He had made things worse.

The impression came across that Brian didn’t care. In fact, the complete opposite was true.

Brian was absolutely distraught after the event and needed therapy to deal with what he had done to a young man’s career. When he received the 10 game ban, the club’s immediate reaction, of course, was to appeal.

It was Brian Mullan himself who made it absolutely clear that he did not want to appeal what he felt was the decision of the larger footballing community, and certainly the league. And if that were going to be his punishment, then he would duly serve that. And he would do so with dignity.

It took him a long, long while to come to terms with what had happened. A five time MLS champion and he was being frowned upon, especially on a lot of the social media sites. Players within the game were supportive but the internet vilified him, almost as if it was the only thing that had ever happened in his storied career at Houston.

As I said, he was distraught but he came back after his ban. One date was looming on the calendar though. Our next match with Sounders FC, this time in Seattle.

It was just before they played Manchester United and they had put grass down on the pitch.

Brian didn’t play in that game, and it was for obvious reasons. I spoke to Brian at length about it and he’d loved to have played of course. That’s a tribute to his character. His team needed him and he would take the lumps in person from the Sounders fans. Maybe he subconsciously felt they deserved some closure too. Who knows?

But I felt it made sense for the team, for the occasion, and of course, for Brian’s own well being to withdraw him. Brian was desperate to play, desperate to play. In Brian’s own words, “It’s another game of football. It’s important for the team, for the club and I want to be part of that.”

It was a decision that myself and (GM) Jeff Plush took. I spoke to Jeff at length about it. I think we both felt that in the interests of the game going off on a sensible and professional footing that we should go, unfortunately, without a key player for us. We lost the match 4-3 but I still believe that was the right decision.

Jeff thought that some of the immediate reaction from inside Sounders FC was somewhat unnecessary but the circumstances were of course extremely difficult. Hindsight is a wonderful thing where time has elapsed between an incident and the present, you have a lot of time to reflect on it.

Looking back now, Seattle had lost not just a very good footballer, but of course in their eyes, almost their marquee player; potentially one of the top players in the MLS at the time.

Reading between the lines, there was an awful lot expected of Steve Zakuani. I can understand the frustration at what had happened and I do believe that most of the Seattle fans and their staff therein, without knowing Brian’s mentality and professionalism, felt it was something that was deliberate and it wasn’t.

Sounders won the match 4-3, having come from behind twicePhoto: Rick Morrison

Sounders won the match 4-3, having come from behind twice
Photo: Rick Morrison

But when you feel something was deliberate, in whatever walk of life it is, you tend to react in an angry fashion, as Seattle did. I can see that now but at the time we all felt the reaction was a little unjust.

So, it was a very, very tough time, and in the end, I think all parties have come through it as well as they possibly could have done given the difficulty that surrounded it at the time.

I was writing this when I saw the news of Steve Zakuani’s successful surgery. Before that I was wondering how to end this column.

Now I know.

To Steve Zakuani: I was delighted to read news of the successful surgery. I wish you a speedy recovery Hope to see you back playing as soon as you can.

Gary Smith


USMNT Editorial: The Day the Nats Came to My Town Matches My Great World Cup Memories

Previous Gary Smith Columns:

Gary Smith: You Don’t Bless Your Luck When You’re Injury Free – But You Should

Gary Smith: There’s Both Anger and Reflection When You’re Fired

Other Columnists:

Nigel Reo-Coker

Hubert’s Hub- Hubert Busby

Once a Cascadian – Ian Joy

Don’t Call him Dan – Daniel Scott

 





16 Comments

Comments for Gary Smith: Zakuani Injury was the Worst Day of my Coaching Career are now closed.

  1. Zak will never be the player he could have been. The FACT is, Mullan didn’t receive a call in his favor, and took his anger out on the guy with the ball, ruining Zakuani’s career with the most vicious two footed tackle I’ve ever seen.

    We loved Zak, still do, but watching setback after setback for the man hurts just as much as when I first heard his leg break. I remember exactly where I was, leaning against the pool table at the Atlantic Crossing drinking a Guinness in my left hand, and what happened next, which was people literally getting sick and throwing up.

    Mullan’s mentality was too vicious on the day, his professionalism curiously absent, previous accolades forgotten, his character left in tatters after what was CLEARLY a retaliation style foul for a call not going his way. You can’t in good conscience call it anything else. Doesn’t matter if he was Jesus Christ himself, you make that tackle, you become a thug, fair assessment or not, doesn’t matter.

    I’m glad it was the worst day of your coaching career, because it was the worst day I’ve ever had as a Sounders supporter. Hows that for honesty Gary Smith?

    • Retaliatory and angry? Probably. Brainless? Certainly. Intentional? Not at all. Forever a thug? Get a grip.

      • Intentionally retaliatory, angry and brainless. Get a grip he’s a thug for life.

      • Past and future good deeds do not excuse Mullen from his actions. Do we care if a murderer has won a Nobel Peace Prize? No. You murder someone, in cold blood or the heat of the moment you pay the price. Anyone who believes that it wasn’t intentional has a head stuck firmly up a dark, smelly place. It happened and Mullen deserved all the outrage he received, Mr. Smiths excuses aside. Perhaps other coaches who make excuses for their players should use this as an example of what can happen when their players are constantly shielded from the consequences of their actions.

        • Comparing something that happened on a soccer field to murder is just ******* stupid.

    • Thats the thing about professionalism–you need to work your whole life to achieve it, but can loose it in an instant.

      Ultimately it doesn’t matter how I feel about the incident, Zakuani has chosen to move beyond it–that being said, it just sickens me to see others trying to excuse Brian Mullins actions. Its clear his intentions were to stop the run of play as quickly as possible to turn and complain to the ref. The fact that he did this even after he MUST have heard/felt the crunch of Steve’s tibia and fibula snapping tells all one needs to know about his state of mind.

      Its not enough to say that he feels remorseful after the fact and therefore he should be given a pass. To feel nothing would be sociopathic. The fact is the horror of that instant–the damage done to two souls with such distain–the sheer selfishness of that one act forever taints how millions will remember Midfielder Brian Mullins and all the wanting to wish it away can’t make it so.

  2. Did I use the words Intentional? No. Did I attach the word “forever” to thug? No. Like all anonymous posters too cowardly to attach their name to their prose, you cherry picked what you wanted from what I wrote.

  3. Thank you, Gary, for your article.

    Jon, while I am extremely sympathetic of your position, it may be time to swallow some of the bile.

    • I’m with jon.
      For me, it’s like old when the old wizard cries for Conan because he does not cry. I am angry and bitter, for Zakuani does not possess these traits.

  4. I remember seeing it at a bar, luckily, I couldn’t hear it,

    In my heart of hearts, I always hoped Zak would come back to what he was, but the last couple of weeks finding out he was injured and having surgery finally the reality that was hiding in the background, never wanting to show itself, has been creeping slowly into my mind, that basically, the incident ended his career. Here we are three seasons later pretty much, valuable seasons he’ll never get back.

    I can only hope that he can finally get all these injury issues behind him and even if he can capture some of what looked like was developing at the time, that he will be able to be at peace with what life dealt him.

    I can only call it tragic.

  5. It takes real cojones for Smith to come and write about this especially on a Seattle website, and real balls for a Seattle website to run it.

    Though I understand Jon Danforth’s anger, it is fair to finally allow the other side of the story to be heard.

    • Soccer warrior, like you, I too feel where Jon’s pain/anger is coming from. Though I don’t live in Seattle, I am a huge fan of the Sounders and really appreciate the love their fans have for their team. I can honestly say that when I started following the Sounders back in 2009, it was mostly because of Freddie L. However, I quickly became a huge fan of both Feddy Montero and Steve Zak due largely in part to their fancy footwork.. It has been painful as a lover of the beautiful game to watch how much Steve has lost skill wise, as a result of that terrible accident. However, I do agree with you that it is indeed time to move on. Maybe Steve may never recapture the flare and ability he once displayed. But, with the amount of love you Seattle heads show your players, I’m show Steve will be fine as long as you guys continue to show him love and support. Hope all is well and hope to caught a Sounders game live some day… Much regards, cheers!!!

  6. Mr. Smith,
    Thank you for reopening this wound. Your major role in that unfortunate incident was to be an apologist. After all this time you are again being an apologist. Never could you admit that that tackle was total garbage and not add in “but Mullin is a really great guy”.

    You were fired from your MLS job by the club. You then went to the lower level (3rd tier of England) league and failed and were again fired by your club management.

    The only point of this article is to seek sympathy…and that, you twice fired goon…is pathetic.

    I pray that you and your goon tactics never disgrace this league again. Not as a punishment for that foul but because the quality of the league is improving and your re-admittance to the league would take it in the opposite direction.

  7. If Zak and Mullen can move past it, the rest of us should as well. It makes no sense to hold a grudge, or to play counterfactuals with what might have been. Moreover all the doomsaying about Zak’s career seems a bit premature. He had some fine showings last year, and just because he has had a few false starts doesn’t mean he won’t ever recover his full form. People have come back from the same and worse. Even if he doesn’t, a player of his talents can find ways to compensate. It might take a while, but the Sounders deserve a lot of praise for giving him the chance and trusting his commitment… a lot of teams in a lot of sports would rather have had the roster space.

  8. “….some of the sort of form he showed before.”

    This says a mouthful. I’m sure Steve would like this as well, but so far….

    Was this column necessary?

    • The more I think about this column, the more I think about it. I guess that is a sign of an interesting writer? Unfortunately for Gary Smith, the more I think about it the less favorable I am to him. Was this column necessary? No it probably isn’t. It really only seems to serve Gary Smith and I don’t think it serves him well.

      I might agree with James in the sense that it almost seems like a sympathy play. Poor me, that was the worst day of my life. Yet it rings hollow when you consider that he actually throws a few people under the buss along the way:

      Colorado Rapid management: “We were waiting for a smart new Media Relations Officer to arrive from Chivas and this one match fell between the cracks of the last one departing, and the new arrival.” So if it wasn’t for these idiots not having a MRO in place half of this never would have happened.
      Brian Mullin: “I have no doubt that had it happened at any other time, Brian would not have been allowed near the media and would not have uttered those words that quite understandably angered Seattle fans. Any hope that the anger at his tackle might display some sense of proportion went right out the window. He had made things worse.” Yeah, that idiot Mullin. Why did you have to open your mouth?
      Jeff Plush: “Jeff thought that some of the immediate reaction from inside Sounders FC was somewhat unnecessary…” Hey Sounders FC this guy Jeff thinks you are a bunch of******.

      So in conclusion I don’t really understand why this topic is being brought up again unless it is so Gary Smith can get a little attention. I don’t think he helped Steve, Brian or Colorado management in the process.