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Eric Najib

Leading Questions: Eric Najib

14 August 2018

As part of our regular series looking at what makes a good leader, we talk to Eric Najib, manager of Stonewall FC – the world’s most successful gay football team. We talk to him about the importance of having the right people around you, the club’s aims on and off the pitch, and how he takes inspiration from Sir Alex Ferguson.

What characteristics make a good leader?

Whether it’s in football or not, I think one of the most important aspects of leadership is patience. It’s important to take a calm, balanced approach towards players to get the best out of them, and you need to be able to understand your team’s characteristics in order to get positive results.

It’s that understanding that will inform your approach, which should change on a player-by-player basis. Whereas one player might react well to a kick up the backside, another might switch off and his game will be negatively affected. Similarly, the form of the team can dictate how you approach a situation. If we’ve had five wins on the bounce and then a bad 45 minutes, I know I can enter that dressing room and scream and shout because confidence is high. However, if you’re on a bad run of form it’s unlikely that that approach will work – that’s when you need to come together as a squad.

Do you think people are born with leadership skills?

I think it’s undeniable that some people are born with certain qualities ingrained within their personality. However, I also think a person can develop leadership skills. If a new player joins the team, they probably aren’t going to be showing leadership skills straight away, but as they grow in confidence – and come out of their shell – you often begin to recognise those qualities within them. It’s a great feeling for a manager when you spot that in someone, when you see one of the guys on the pitch and think: “There’s someone I could throw a little responsibility to.”

Which leaders within football do you personally look up to?

Well I’ve been blessed with going to watch Manchester United since I was 10 years old so, naturally, I try and copy everything that Alex Ferguson does! 

In 1999 – prior to the Champions League final – Sir Alex said to the players: “If you don’t win this game, you’ll have to walk past the trophy and you won’t be able to touch it.” I remember in 2006 we were 1-0 down at half time of the Gay World Cup final in Chicago and I used the same line. We went on to score three goals and win that game. I know that reaction probably had nothing to do with my team talk, but I like to pretend it did.

What’s been your biggest challenge in leading Stonewall FC?

It’s probably finding the balance between where we want to be as a football club and what we want to do within the community, and that balance can be quite tricky. As a football club we are no different to any other – we want to play at the highest level possible and win as many matches as possible. Of course, we are in the unique position where we are representing a community. We want Stonewall FC to be a place that gay players can enjoy their football, regardless of ability. So for us it’s about finding the best way of being competitive, but also having a club where everyone is able to play. It’s my job to make the whole jigsaw puzzle fit.

What’s the best way to motivate your squad?

The best way is to make them appreciate the level we are playing at. We are in the Middlesex County League which is a fantastic level of football, and we’re playing against teams that are far more established then ourselves. We take motivation from our surroundings, and are always hungry to improve.

I always find it difficult when you have to tell someone that they might not be good enough to play for the first team anymore. You have got to be firm, but at the same time compassionate

What is the toughest decision that you have had to make as manager of Stonewall FC?

The toughest decisions that I have to make tend to revolve around team selection. I first joined the club in 2001 as a player and have grown up with a lot of these lads who I consider really close friends. With that in mind, I always find it difficult when you have to tell someone that they might not be good enough to play for the first team anymore. I consider myself a tough person, but I do find that aspect of the job really difficult. You have got to be firm, but at the same time compassionate.

What’s the best piece of advice that you’ve been given on leadership?

That it’s so important to make sure you have the right people around you – that’s something that I have worked hard to do over the years. Take my captain for example, he’s been leading the team on the pitch since 2009 and we’ve formed a close working relationship. When we walk into that dressing room we know what the other one is thinking, and how we need to approach the decision. If I am playing the ‘bad cop’ in the dressing room he knows to go ‘good cop’ and vice versa.

And having the right people around you isn’t restricted to the pitch either. What we’re trying to achieve as a club goes further than the manager and the players, and we’ve got a brilliant committee who put in so much work behind the scenes.

Eric Najib