The relationship between managers and media is always a fraught one, but Arsène Wenger and Roberto Mancini have had it easy compared to some
It is easy sometimes, even sitting on the other side of the fence, to understand why a football manager's outrage-reflex may occasionally be triggered in press conferences and why, as we have seen over the past week, there will always be moments when the relationship with the journalists who hang on their coat-tails can be stretched.
Newspaper writers, by nature, can be terribly two-faced. We smile sometimes, we stab sometimes. We clink wine glasses and then, the following week, we may have to take a deep breath and ask Roberto Mancini what he makes of the stories coming out of Spain that Manchester City are trying to replace him with Manuel Pellegrini. It's always going to be difficult, in those circumstances, to avoid the occasional blow-out.
Mancini's response was a belter even if, unlike Arsène Wenger, he was smiling as he let us know that, first things first, he is finding all the scrutiny incredibly wearing and, second, that he has picked up a few swear words in England. Wenger, in stark contrast, was on the brink of full-on fury at Arsenal's press conference before they played Bayern Munich, although the two of them still have some way to go before they can re-enact the days when Sir Alex Ferguson held separate briefings at Manchester United away from the television cameras so there was no footage of those rages when he was up from his seat, leaning across his table, staring you down with little black puffs of toxic smoke coming out of his ears. Trust me, those are the moments when your mouth goes dry and there isn't a great deal of choice other than to wait until the flares behind his eyes burn themselves out.
Other managers tend to use different methods. When Aston Villa lost at Millwall in the FA Cup last month their manager, Paul Lambert, had taken umbrage with the Birmingham Mail and was happy to let everybody know. Five times the newspaper's correspondent asked a question and Lambert blanked him on each occasion. Think of that episode of Father Ted when Father Stone fills the living room with excruciating silence. Lambert, with great expertise, said nothing and stared into the distance. "Well, this is all very awkward," the man from The Times eventually piped up.
It is an uneasy relationship sometimes. One red top splashed one day with a series of pictures when Sven-Goran Eriksson was managing City and living in the Radisson's presidential suite. The photographs showed him slow-dancing in the hotel bar with a younger lady, his hand gradually appearing to wander further down her back. The "mystery girl" turned out to be his daughter. Eriksson, God knows how, was still smiling at his press conference the next day.
In Ferguson's case perhaps the most unnerving part is how quickly he can switch from fury to humour. The most innocuous remark can have him empurpled, releasing everything two or three inches from his victim's face, but then the torrent will be done, he will be asking if there are any more questions and it's as if nothing has happened. It can be disconcerting, to say the least.
Ferguson marched over to a reporter on one foreign excursion with Manchester United and, after the usual hot blast of invective, told him point-blank to find alternative arrangements to get back to England (he relented, in fairness). As for the mother of all eruptions, that was probably the time he was asked about the FA charging Wayne Rooney for slapping Tal Ben Haim, then at Bolton Wanderers. Ferguson worked himself into such a state he ended up swinging his arm at the tape recorders on his desk and sent them flying into a wall 10 feet away. One belonging to his press officer smashed open, with batteries and various bits scattering across the floor. "Marvellous," he yelled. "You've got me to lose my temper."
Another time, when his temper went off like a car alarm again, it was at the end, after more swear words than you might hear in an entire game at Old Trafford, that he realised there was a work-experience girl, no older than 14, sitting at the back of the press room. "Sorry about that," he said on his way out.
The irony is that, of all the big-club managers, Wenger probably gets more favourable press than anyone. He may not see it that way, of course, but the tone of questioning after the Bayern defeat was undeniably sympathetic – certainly compared with the abuse he is having to endure from growing factions of supporters, the "Wenger Out" stickers that have appeared at the Emirates and the increasingly vindictive way certain former players are ganging up on him when, in truth, their combined knowledge amounts to a few molehills compared with his mountains of expertise and achievement.
Stewart Robson, in particular, is such a prolific Wenger-basher these days anyone may possibly forget that his own coaching career amounts to a few little spells here and there at Rushden & Diamonds, Southend and Wimbledon.
As for Mancini, the questions about his future are clearly wearing him down. "I don't understand it," he says. "Since we started to win, in May 2011, Manchester City are the best team in England, are they not? We won three trophies, Manchester United two, Chelsea two, Liverpool one. No other team has won more than us."
It is never a good thing when a manager brings up the Community Shield but Mancini is probably entitled to be frustrated when the questions used to be about José Mourinho, then Pep Guardiola, now Pellegrini and, you can bet your bottom dollar, pretty soon back to Mourinho again. Equally, my bet is that someone as streetwise as the Italian will be acutely aware what can happen when a club with City's ambitions are sitting out Champions League weeks and, still in February, languishing 15 points behind United at the top of the league, with the title seemingly gone.
At this stage last season City had scored 67 goals compared with 48 now and had 63 points opposed to 53. However it is dressed up, it has been an undistinguished season at a time, whether we like it or not, when there is a manager leaving his job, on average, every five and a bit days.
Thirty seven have gone so far – 40% of the entire number – compared with 23 throughout last season and 31, 30, 33 and 29 in the previous campaigns.
Mancini, like Wenger, is well liked by the journalists on the patch but ultimately it doesn't matter a great deal. If the question is whether he will still be here next season it would be naive in the extreme to say, categorically, yes.
What can be said with certainty is that the media coverage City get now is a long way removed from those days when Alan Ball would come to the press room clutching a can of cider (Ball, incidentally, once rang a colleague late one night to complain about a match report and suggested they sort it "the old-fashioned way, man to man") or all the other times, pre‑Sheikh Mansour, they were patronised and poked.
It is not easy picking out the lowest moment in a club's history but, for City, try Tuesday 8 December 1998 and a 2-1 home defeat to Mansfield Town in the Auto Windscreen Shield. The attendance was 3,007, the lowest for a competitive game in the club's history. Joe Royle described the performance as "worse than poor" and the Daily Mirror's back page had a photograph of a near-empty stadium and the headline: "Manchester United will play in front of 55,000 screaming fans at Old Trafford tonight. Meanwhile, at Maine Road … " United were about to face Bayern in the Champions League and it is fair to say City's supporters did not appreciate the comparison. At the next match, a 0-0 draw against Bristol Rovers, they invaded the press box, a mob laid siege to the press room at half‑time and a freelance reporter for the Mirror needed a police escort to his car. Four people were ejected.
That was the same week when on Have I Got News For You one of the guests, George Melly, commented on a Turner Prize-winner famous for making art from elephant droppings. "There isn't much elephant shit to be found in Manchester," he said. Paul Merton butted in: "Haven't you seen Man City lately?" What's happening now may get under Mancini's skin sometimes but his predecessors probably had it worse.