John Mousinho interview: How Portsmouth’s ‘left-field’ appointment is restoring hope at Fratton Park | Football News

On the face of it, when Portsmouth appointed John Mousinho as head coach three weeks into 2023, they were taking a great risk.

Danny Cowley, his predecessor, had been sacked on January 2; Kenny Jackett and Paul Cook had occupied the hotseat before that. A trio of managers with vast experience across multiple levels of English football.

Mousinho had never taken charge of a senior game of football and had still been registered as a player at Oxford United, where he played in what turned out to be his final game – an FA Cup first-round replay win at Woking – a mere 66 days prior.

As he speaks to Sky Sports on a mild October afternoon at the club’s Hilsea training ground – after being named Sky Bet League One Manager of the Month for September – he even admits the club’s decision to bring him in was “left-field”.

But after just shy of nine months in the role – having missed out on a play-off spot by seven points last term – his Pompey side now sit top of League One, ironically one point above Oxford.

They are one of only four teams in the top four divisions to have maintained an unbeaten start to the season, along with Arsenal, Tottenham and Mansfield Town. In fact, they have not lost a single league game since March 11.

The calculated risk is starting to pay dividends.

So what did CEO Andrew Cullen and sporting director Richard Hughes see in Mousinho – who, at 37, is the third-youngest permanent manager in the EFL behind Ipswich’s Kieran McKenna (37) and Sheffield Wednesday’s Danny Rohl (34) – to influence their decision?

“I wanted to coach for a long, long time. When I was at Brentford, a couple of the senior pros dragged me along to one of the coaching badges and said it was really good for later on in my career,” he says.

“I loved it and stayed on that coaching badge path ever since then, going through my B Licence, A Licence and, most recently, my Pro Licence.

“I was really lucky towards the back end of my career at Oxford. Karl Robinson really took me under his wing and gave me the access to what went on for a head coach day in, day out: recruitment, staff meetings, team selection, managing up, managing down – all of the different aspects. By the time I took this role, I knew it was something I wanted to do because I’d seen it and lived it.

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Mousinho explains how former Oxford manager Karl Robinson showed him the management ropes during his time at the Kassam Stadium

“I hadn’t been in the hotseat and made those decisions – it is very different when you are on the other side – but I had a huge amount of exposure to that and felt like I was ready to take the role.”

When his appointment was announced, Cullen commented that Mousinho “possesses real leadership and motivational skills” – traits he had honed during his time as captain of Preston, Burton and Oxford.

These are key skills for any manager wishing to experience any kind of success and ones he says he has been able to utilise during his transition from one side of the touchline to the other.

“It was one of the things very early in my career that I looked at trying to leverage and get on top of, which was the fact that, when you are out there playing football, you’re one of only 11 people and you need to motivate, inspire, influence the other 10 to make sure that you get the results you want to get,” he adds.

“When I wasn’t captain at clubs, it was something I really did focus on. It was a big part of my game and it all fed into the way I wanted to coach. That’s the only way you can do it, I suppose, by motivating and inspiring other people to work really hard.

“You can have a very clear way you want to play and, tactically, you might be spot on, but actually getting other people to do that and execute what your vision is, is a difficult thing.

“What it takes these days in terms of the physicality at this level is much more than it was when I started playing. The lads have to be at it every week and in order to do that, they have to be inspired.”

Having last played less than a year ago, Mousinho understands the mindset of a player more so than most of his peers. “The transition has been interesting. It’s something I don’t think anyone can properly prepare you for,” he says.

Mousinho started his career at Brentford in 2005

He has used that leg-up to his advantage.

“What I’ve tried to stick to is to try and remember what it was like when I was a player. Probably my biggest advantage and disadvantage when I took the role was that I had no experience of taking any games whatsoever, but I’d also stepped directly from the dressing room onto the other side.

“I knew what it was like to play games in the league, I know what it’s like raising a young family while playing and everything in between. My main focus was to try and make things as player-centric as possible. If we get happy players playing football, we’re half the way there.

“Every time I speak to the players, every time I put on a session or do something tactically, I try and look at it as a senior pro and think what I would have thought. We don’t want to go too far over the top and pander to players, but the group we have at the moment are excellent – I’ve got no trouble from them whatsoever.”

John Mousinho’s playing career

Brentford 2005 – 2008
Woking, Slough Town Yeading (all loans) 2005/06
Wycombe Wanderers 2008 – 2010
Stevenage 2010 – 2012
Preston North End 2012 – 2014
Gillingham (loan) 2013
Stevenage (loan) 2014
Burton Albion 2014 – 2017
Oxford United 2017 – 2023

It will come as no real surprise that this approach is working wonders. Mousinho even says there is “ecstatic” feeling in the camp, which is understandable given they have won six on the spin in all competitions.

But as an experienced man – a veteran of the game – he knows an element of caution must be exercised.

The Portsmouth fans know this, too. In 2018/19, they were top from September to January, but fell away and lost to Sunderland in the play-off semi-finals; in 2020/21, they occupied a play-off spot for much of the season, but missed out on the final day.

“Every time we win a game, we want to enjoy the success, but we also want to make sure we don’t get too carried away with things,” the level-headed Mousinho says.

“There’s a fine balance between enjoying the wins, taking a lot of confidence from what the lads have managed to achieve, but also knowing that we’re straight back on it. A lot of the time, especially through September, it’s been Saturday-Tuesday and there’s no time for rest.

Pompey have won eight of their opening 12 League One fixtures this term
Pompey have won eight of their opening 12 League One fixtures this term

“Thankfully now we’ve had a bit of a rest because of the international break, but having played 12 games in such a short space of time, plus the four cup games, it’s been relentless and that keeps you on your toes.

“You don’t actually have time to sit down and celebrate too much, which, I think, is a really good thing. On the same token, it’s really nice to reflect on some of those wins and think we’ve done some really good things, so we need to enjoy them and take momentum into the next game.”

It goes without saying the job at Fratton Park comes with pressure, particularly given the fact Pompey have been exiled from the Championship for a decade and the Premier League for 13-and-a-half years.

Mousinho says he is aware of the expectation, but “welcomes and embraces it”.

Portsmouth’s next five League One fixtures

  • Carlisle (h) – October 21, 3pm
  • Cambridge (a) – October 24, 7.45pm
  • Reading (a) – October 28, 3pm
  • Charlton (h) – November 11, 3pm
  • Oxford (a) – November 18, 3pm

“The minute you step foot in the city, the training ground, Fratton Park, you do feel the weight of expectation and that was a big part of taking the role; it’s not about hiding behind it and thinking any mediocrity at this level is going to be good enough because the fans let you know very quickly, which is absolutely fine.

“We’ve all taken that on board and when we have conversations with the CEO Andy Cullen, with Rich the sporting director, we all know what we’re trying to achieve here. We’re obviously going to try and achieve it quickly, but if we don’t, we’re trying to make sure we do it the right way.

“There was a bit of a backlash towards the end of last season when we didn’t manage to get into the play-offs, which was absolutely fine. It just cemented our belief that we knew what we had to try and achieve this year, which was to at least try and be competitive at the top end of the league.”

Does it ever cross his mind what it might feel like to be the man to take this sleeping giant back up?

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Watch highlights of the Sky Bet League One match between Portsmouth and Port Vale

“You definitely have to have that in the back of your mind because it motivates you in terms of the long-term goal and the long-term vision. Any psychologist will tell you it’s worth having a long-term goal that’s really vivid and you use that as motivation day-to-day.

“Once you have that, it can inspire you to work hard, but it is very much one game at a time for us at the moment because every single game in this league has been incredibly tough for us and it’s not just a cliche that we roll out.

“We’ve had no easy games this year whatsoever and sides are always there willing and ready to bite you and we’ve got another tough one coming up against Carlisle at the weekend. You do have to take each game as it comes, but I always think it’s worth having in the back of your mind what the ultimate motivation is.”

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