Blackburn Rovers certainly know how to make a new manager feel welcome, don't they? First they tell him he will be sacked at the end of the season if promotion is not achieved, then they attempt to replace his back-room staff, then they humiliate him at the dreaded Christmas party where Henning Berg objected, not unreasonably, to being made to dance on stage with a festive stocking on his head.
Given that Berg's Blackburn have recorded only one win in nine games since he arrived as manager it is tempting to conclude that Rovers might have been better advised to shelve the Christmas party this year and wait until a jollier holiday. Several teams have already done so, Newcastle, Queens Park Rangers and Oxford among them, and Alan Pardew specifically stated that with Newcastle's recent results being so bad, going out partying would send entirely the wrong message to fans frustrated by the team's poor form. There are times for celebrating and times for not celebrating, and when you have lost six of your last seven league games you automatically fall into the latter category.
Footballers' Christmas parties contain all the ingredients that can and do end up in lurid headlines around this time every year – booze, girls, fancy dress, misunderstandings with members of the public – though Blackburn possibly deserve some sort of award for allowing everything to go wrong in a private function suite at their own stadium. Even Manchester United have had trouble with Christmas parties in the past, though not insignificantly they seem to have kept things quietly in-house since that spot of bother five years ago in a city centre hotel. For in-house read Rio Ferdinand's restaurant, where most of the United team turned up for an evening of quiet celebration on Saturday evening following the league defeat of Sunderland. Pasta and a few glasses of wine, where's the harm in that?
If one can sense the strong hand of Sir Alex Ferguson behind United's fairly recent conversion to coming over all sensible at Christmas, it is also possible to consider his recent observations on half-time team talks – as told to academics at Harvard Business School – and apply the same logic to Christmas bashes. Team talks are never a problem if you are winning at half-time, Ferguson said, it is when you are losing you have to concentrate and make sure you say the right thing. When it comes to players letting their hair down at the halfway stage of the season, most excesses can be forgiven (assuming they do not involve the local constabulary) if the team is riding high in the league, whereas there is much less tolerance for misbehaviour if relegation threatens or recent results have been dreadful.
Obvious, really, like quite a lot of the other stuff Fergie told his American audience. He is extremely good at getting the best out of his players and is a management phenomenon quite unparalleled in British sport, so the United manager will always be worth listening to, but behind the arresting headlines was not a lot we didn't already know. Did he really open up about the agony of losing the title on the last day of the season to Manchester City? What do you think?
"I've still got a wee bit of anger in me thinking of how we threw the league away last season," he said. "It was another day in the history of Manchester United, that's all. It created the drama that only United can produce. Who would have thought that bottom-of-the-league Blackburn would beat us 3-2 at Old Trafford? Or that Everton would draw with us when we were up 4-2 with seven minutes to go?"
That's not opening up, that's repainting blue and white history in red and white colours. No mention of Manchester City coming back from eight points behind. Nothing to do with being beaten home and away by the eventual champions, or the fact that City came to Old Trafford and scored six. All that apparently happened last season was that United got a bit careless on a few occasions and let the title slip, which is a selective reading of history but one that Ferguson is perfectly entitled to promote. Who knows? He could even be trying to gee up Reading, currently bottom of the table and due to visit Manchester City on Saturday, though on the basis of their display against Arsenal on Monday Fergie might be wasting his time hoping for a Royals revival.
Other not altogether surprising dressing-room secrets included the fact that Ferguson is ruthless about getting rid of players he cannot control, that he fines players but prefers to keep the matter indoors, and that he finds praise more effective than criticism. The best bit, probably, referred to the aforementioned half-time team talks, and was actually something we could all see for ourselves. Fergie never takes notes. He prefers to keep his eyes on the game and, depending on whether his team are winning or losing, will spend the last few minutes of the first half mentally rehearsing what he will say in the dressing room.
The half-time team talk is a pretty much disregarded football tradition these days, it lives on more as a commentary cliche rather than a genuine source of inspiration, as modern professionals are supposed to be much too well-prepared to need motivation or instruction on the hoof. Yet Fergie obviously believes in it and, given that United are famous the world over for what they can produce in the second half, perhaps we should too.
Although it is probably not what a manager says in the eight or so minutes available, but the way he says it. That is why Fergie doesn't take notes. "I see other coaches do it, but I don't want to miss any part of the game," he explained. "And I cannot imagine going into the dressing room, looking at my notes, and saying: 'Oh, in the 30th minute, that pass you took.' I don't think it's going to impress the players."
Exactly. Henning Berg must have been thinking something similar as he declined to wear a Michael Jackson wig and strode off the Ewood party stage. Let's make two early New Year predictions then. Berg will not rival his former Manchester United manager for longevity, not at his present club anyway. And scribbling notes in the technical area is about to go out of fashion.