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.
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.
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.
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