Richard Williams on the changing role of football's denizens of the dugout
At five o'clock on a Saturday afternoon in the middle of last month, Arsène Wenger was officially an idiot, an imbecile, an impotent shell of a once mighty figure.
In their first match of the new Premier League season, his Arsenal team had been badly beaten on their home ground by a young and generally unrated Aston Villa side. Boos were heard around the ground, the phone-ins and chatrooms seethed with anger, and the next morning's back pages blazed with headlines reflecting the profound dissatisfaction felt by the club's most ardent supporters.
The following Wednesday, the same squad and their manager travelled to Istanbul, where they played Fenerbahce in a qualifying match for the Champions League, the high table of European football, an immensely lucrative competition to which the top four English clubs are admitted each season, and in which Wenger's Arsenal have an unbroken record of participation over the last 16 seasons. They won easily. Back in the league the next weekend, they went to Fulham, and won again. Three days later, they completed the elimination of Fenerbahce, and last Sunday they held on to win a fiercely contested North London derby against Tottenham Hotspur in front of their own supporters.
On Tuesday, only hours away from the closing of the summer transfer window, Wenger snatched the headlines away from his rivals by spending more than £40m on the acquisition of a German international midfield player, Mesut Özil, from Real Madrid. Supporters who had been pleading with him to strengthen the team were finally mollified. In the space of two and a half weeks, the 63-year-old Frenchman had regained the standing earned during his early years at the club.
Such is the volatility of modern football, and such is the prominence now accorded to managers. The players, with their colossal salaries, are still idolised, but the praise and blame for their performance is now routinely directed towards the man who sits by the touchline, often springing from the dugout to pace his technical area, whistling and gesticulating his instructions in an attempt to influence the course of the match.
Now that the players live in gated compounds, take their holidays in Dubai, cover the few exposed yards from the team coach to the players' entrance with huge headphones clamped to their ears, and communicate with the outside world only as an obligation to broadcasters and sponsors, the manager has become the media's principal point of access. In The Manager, Sir Alex Ferguson claims that this is because journalists, knowing that bad results can lead to a managerial sacking, are constantly on the lookout for a scalp. The real reason is that players, wary of the damage an isolated quote can do, choose to talk only in bland platitudes, so the manager is licensed to speak freely, not just to explain decisions of selection and tactics but to play a leading role in the soap-opera spats and feuds that keep Sky Sports News and the back pages humming.
Among previous generations, a select few, including Matt Busby, Bill Shankly, Brian Clough and Don Revie, enjoyed a high public profile, their sayings quoted and their foibles examined, but the creation of the Premier League ensured that every manager is now a star of the show. In the technical area, their presence draws the TV cameras, alert to every nuance of appearance and behaviour: the pacing, the bawling, the monstering of the blameless fourth official, the goal celebration, the reaction to the chanting fans, the post-match handshake.
A video game called Football Manager has been in existence for 20 years, updated each season, with such popular success that it is said to have been cited as a contributor to marital breakdown in 35 divorce cases. Some of its devotees will be among the readers of The Manager, a kind of real-life instruction manual compiled from interviews with some of the profession's leading figures by Mike Carson, a management consultant. Produced at the behest of the League Managers Association, Barclays Bank (which sponsors the Premier League) and Deloitte, which keeps a sharp eye on football's financial affairs, it is neither disinterested nor objective. But it does contain an amount of interesting material, despite a few irritating errors and, more serious but less surprising, a disinclination to examine failure as closely as success.
There is, very clearly, no single formula for success in the job. The two most successful managers in English football history, Ferguson and Liverpool's Bob Paisley, could hardly have been more different in style and temperament. In the recent past, as Carson points out, Sam Allardyce succeeded at Bolton Wanderers by discovering the value of a scientific approach to recruitment and preparation, while Newcastle United turned the corner after Kevin Keegan, newly installed in his first managerial post, lifted his squad's spirits and saw an immediate improvement in their results after ordering an overnight redecoration of the dingy, dirty buildings at their training ground.
Rustic methods coexist with the sophistication expected of coaches imported from France, Spain, Italy and Portugal. Howard Wilkinson, the last Englishman to win the league championship, tells of curing a certain player's reluctance to pass to his teammates by giving him a ball with his name painted on it and telling him to go off and train with it by himself. Whereas some managers prefer to keep a distance from their players, José Mourinho goes out of his way to make friends with them.
Among the foreigners, national stereotypes are sometimes confounded.It is Martin Jol, a Dutchman from a football culture based on free expression, who stresses the importance of unquestioning obedience to his tactical commands. Carlo Ancelotti, the most phlegmatic of Italians, speaks of losing his temper occasionally while at Chelsea but being careful to do so in Italian so that he would not be understood.
According to Carson, the average tenure of a manager in English professional football is 16 months. Two of the leading figures in his book, Roberto Mancini and Hope Powell, were sacked this summer, removed from their posts with Manchester City and the England women's team. "There is something inspirational about Mancini," he writes. "He is a commander in turnaround, a leader with conviction." But having guided City to their first championship in 44 years and earned the fans' undying affection, Mancini departed because many of his players detested him. Powell, too, had transformed her team's fortunes before relationships with some of the players deteriorated, and disastrous results followed.
Harry Redknapp epitomises the traditional English manager, a linear descendant of Private Eye's much-missed Ron Knee. Had he been appointed England's manager in the spring of 2012, as nearly everyone inside and outside football expected, then Harry's Games would have been essential reading; as things stand, the urgency of John Crace's survey of Redknapp's eventful career is somewhat undermined by his present role as manager of Queens Park Rangers, whom he failed to save from relegation at the end of last season.
Crace's previous football book, Vertigo, dealt with his experiences as a Tottenham Hotspur fan, and his new work is unashamedly coloured by his view of Redknapp's four seasons in charge at White Hart Lane, when Spurs made it to the Champions League before the manager was removed to make way for a younger man more attuned to the scientific approach. There are no revelations, but the lengthy description of last year's case at Southwark crown court, in which Redknapp was found not guilty of tax irregularities, is full of entertaining observation.
Football is changing as the world around it changes, and perhaps Wenger should be allowed the final word, reflecting in The Manager on the impact of social media: "We have gone from a vertical society to a horizontal society where everybody has an opinion about every decision you make, everybody has an opinion on the internet straight away … one of the most important qualities of a good leader now is massive resistance to stress."
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