This article first appeared in Football.com
Nobody can accuse Mike Petke of being a stoic man.
Throughout the season, Petke has delivered some memorable press conferences that have demonstrated every emotion between absolute petulance and pure exuberance.
Last Sunday, Petke was positively buoyant as he addressed reporters about his franchise’s first piece of silverware. “As a player and a coach, this is by far the best moment because of what it means to this organization, these supporters, and us.”
For anyone unfamiliar with Petke, statements like that one sound as humdrum as the many others that get spewed ad nauseam in the sporting world. However, despite the fact that Petke does have a penchant for the occasional platitude, his sincerity is acutely obvious to those of us who have documented his first year at the helm of the league’s most volatile club.
Thus, when he added that he kept telling his wife that he “didn’t want to let down the fan base,” and “the organization after so many years of heartache,” one could understand just how much pressure Petke was really under, and understandably so.
For the Long Island native, the Red Bulls job was never just a job. After representing the club as a player, and then deputizing for Hans Backe, Petke became a rookie coach who was given the keys to his beloved, and underperforming franchise. Failure wouldn’t just mean a career hiccup. It would mean letting down an organization he revered, and could potentially end the reciprocal love affair between himself and a fan base that idolized him as a player.
Hiring a coach that is also a fan is always a risky proposition. There is the danger that objectivity will be lost, and zealotry will take over. Skeptics were quick to point out that Petke’s passion for the club could be his undoing; particularly since the Red Bulls appointment was his first.
However, as it turned out, Petke’s intensity and love for the organization were arguably the things that allowed him to succeed.
From the very beginning of his tenure, Petke was myopic about ingraining his passion in his players. A fact that Dax McCarty expressed after the game: “He really put his imprint on this team. At the end of the day we are going to be up for a scrap, and that is up to Mike.” Of course, it helps when you have players like McCarty, who will – excuse the cliché – play every game like it’s the last. But that tendency to do whatever is necessary to win is a major part of the Red Bulls’ identity under Petke, and he is aware of that.
In an entertaining exchange with veteran writer, Paul Gardner, during the post-game press conference, Petke conceded that sometimes his team won the ugly way. Gardner’s point had been that at times the Red Bulls looked disjointed, and that inability to establish a rhythm could hurt them against a good team in the playoffs.
Still, fluidity is not a particularly pronounced trait in any one of the playoff teams, and unlike most of them, the Red Bulls have the personnel to turn a game around. That was what happened against Chicago, after all. After going down early to a Mike Magee goal, it was Thierry Henry magic (a goal reminiscent of his Arsenal days) that propelled the team forward, and energized a sold out Red Bull Arena.
The capricious Henry may also have played an inadvertent role in firing up his team a few months ago, when he and Petke got into their much-publicized altercation in August. In the classic coach versus star player quarrel, the coach came out on top. A rarity in football, but a clear indication that Petke’s vision for the team was not going to be hijacked by the Frenchman. Henry’s consequent absence from the first eleven was a clear message to everyone in the organization: If they were to win, they would win his way.
Interestingly, a smiling Lloyd Sam suggested that that altercation might have been the catalyst for better performances because Petke had leveled the playing field at practice. All his players were the same, and at the club for the same reason. And if there was any doubt, Tim Cahill cleared it up. “This is a team, time and time again we’ve needed the essence of every single player to put their heart and soul on the line and it’s proved for this league.”
That newborn unity has fostered the kind of team spirit that may just carry the Red Bulls all the way through the playoffs.
There is certainly a sense that the Supporters Shield was only the first achievement in what is already an historic season. Perhaps, that is why celebrations were kept to a minimum in the Red Bulls locker room. The journalists who awkwardly awaited the showering players were making most of the noise, along with a jovial Jonny Steele, who was talking about his goal with the team’s Sporting Director, Andy Roxburgh.
Back in the press conference room, Petke was already talking about the Supporters Shield as if it were a thing of the past: “it’s a wonderful memory come twelve midnight tonight, because we still have five games left and we’re going to be refocused and we’re going to be ready for the playoffs.”
Given everything he’s accomplished so far, no one should question that.