Soc­cer man­agers have be­come ir­rel­e­vant – it’s my time to shine

The Irish Times - Monday - Sport - - Sports - Brian O’Con­nor

Arsene Wenger is leav­ing Ar­se­nal and my CV is al­ready at the Emi­rates. I fig­ure what the hell: prowl­ing the side­line is a side­lined job any­way. Wenger’s exit sim­ply ac­cel­er­ates it fur­ther to­wards ir­rel­e­vance.

It’s not like I don’t fit a lot of the tra­di­tional man­age­ment cri­te­ria: a mid­dle-aged, male, white blowhard jug­gling a thin-skin with a hide like a de­hy­drated rhino. Okay, be­ing crap at soc­cer is a prob­lem – sorry, a chal­lenge. But that didn’t stop the Ital­ian shoe sales­man Ar­rigo Sac­chi from cre­at­ing a great AC Mi­lan side. He also had the per­fect put­down to his cre­den­tials be­ing ques­tioned: “I never re­alised that in or­der to be­come a jockey you have to have been a horse first.”

Sac­chi took Italy to the 1994 World Cup fi­nal, where they lost to a Brazil man­aged by Car­los Par­reira. He never played ei­ther. His only link to sport was as a fit­ness coach. So be­ing in the bull­shit game, sorry, me­dia in­dus­try, might rate as a sim­i­lar qual­i­fi­ca­tion for soc­cer cred­i­bil­ity these days.

The role of soc­cer man­ager is mostly PR any­way, a brand­ing hook putting a “morkot­ing” face to a fran­chise, a sym­bol for spon­sor­ship deals that put the cherry on top of all that TV money. Just look at spec­u­la­tion about the em­i­nently un­der­qual­i­fied Steven Gerrard go­ing to Rangers. It’s show­biz.

It’s why most man­agers have be­come lit­tle more than light­ning rods, car­toon blame fig­ures prowl­ing their tech­ni­cal ar­eas in a “look-at-me-look-at-me” Punch and Judy show.

There has to be a fall-guy and who’s more con­ve­nient than the patsy in the suit. That in sub­stan­tive terms it’s lit­tle more than a ges­ture makes it even more con­ve­nient. Be­cause in terms of soc­cer per­for­mance, if play­ers are the orches­tra then most man­agers are glo­ri­fied con­duc­tors, wav­ing their arms for ef­fect. After all, it’s a poor mu­si­cian who can’t keep time on their own.

Vast prepa­ra­tions

As for soc­cer Stokowskis sup­pos­edly putting in vast prepa­ra­tions be­hind the scenes, an en­vi­ron­ment where the av­er­age length of time in a Premier League job is a sin­gle year means any in­put is usu­ally of the fire­fight­ing va­ri­ety.

No, this is a show where ev­ery­one knows their lines: ini­tially talk­ing the talk about a club’s great po­ten­tial and/or his­tory, then plead­ing for time; jump­ing up and down with “pas­sion” a few times, and then pock­et­ing the fall-guy sev­er­ance cheque. I could do that. Any­one could.

There’s a rea­son Alex Fer­gu­son’s pri­or­ity through­out his ca­reer was con­trol: be­ing in charge but with no author­ity is the worst of both worlds. It’s the man­ager’s lot now. Wenger’s fate proves it once again.

When there’s a can to be car­ried it isn’t go­ing to be own­ers, share­hold­ers and their as­sorted ex­ec­u­tive ap­pa­ratchiks who carry it. Nei­ther will it be the play­ers. They’re as­sets too valu­able to be up­set.

Man­age­rial author­ity once rested on with­hold­ing team selec­tion. Such a threat is a thing of the past for hugely paid play­ers who sim­ply gen­er­ate a re­mu­ner­a­tive move else­where if not tak­ing a shine to the gaffer’s face. That sort of as­set de­pre­ci­a­tion pro­vokes the ul­ti­mate own-goal of up­set­ting club own­ers, which in turn cre­ates a com­mer­cial reality whereby man­age­ment has mostly be­come an ex­er­cise in shout­ing into the wind.

And it’s ac­tu­ally no bad thing, be­cause the fact that this con­cept of soc­cer shaman is a grotesquely in­flated three-card-trick piece of huck­ster­ism has stayed hid­den in plain sight for too long.

In the his­tory of the game, there have been rare ex­cep­tional man­agers who have briefly made the dif­fer­ence be­tween glory and de­feat through ei­ther in­no­va­tion, spot­ting a gap in the mar­ket or man­ag­ing to drown out the wind.

But in their wake have come count­less self-serv­ing spoof-mer­chants. Masters of their own hard-sell, they spout tac­ti­cal jar­gon and cod-psy­cho­log­i­cal balls which help pump a “lead­er­ship” in­dus­try that by now soc­cer re­ally should have out grown.

Mun­dane reality

Be­cause the mun­dane reality has al­ways been that soc­cer is about play­ers. And the best play­ers cost the most. It’s that sim­ple. It doesn’t sound great in a Pow­erPoint job in­ter­view but the rich­est club gets the best play­ers and wins the most. Not ac­knowl­edg­ing it per­mits a nar­cis­sist like Jose Mour­inho to flog him­self as a guru. Or en­cour­ages Pep Guardi­ola to be por­trayed as some as­cetic Gaudi of the game, al­though to his credit Guardi­ola has never pre­tended to do any­thing bar tweak Jo­han Cruyff’s orig­i­nal vi­sion.

But he’s play­ing his beau­ti­ful game at Barcelona, Bay­ern Mu­nich and Manch­ester City, with the world’s best play­ers: try pulling off 85 per cent pos­ses­sion with tiki-taka in Port Vale and the more pud­dling eu­lo­gies to his sup­posed third-eye might be mer­ited.

The ta­ble re­ally doesn’t lie. The rich­est club in Eng­land has won the ti­tle, fol­lowed by the next rich­est. They are top be­cause they can pay the best play­ers the most money. Can any­one be­lieve that’s just co­in­ci­dence? Fi­nance trumps phi­los­o­phy.

Of course, Le­ices­ter’s glo­ri­ous as­cent to Premier League glory in 2016 is in­vari­ably given as a ri­poste. Ex­cept in many ways that’s sim­ply the ex­cep­tion that proves the rule. And it cer­tainly points to prov­ing the rule about how su­per­flu­ous so much man­age­ment ac­tu­ally is.

Clau­dio Ranieri’s sub­se­quent fall from grace only seemed to con­firm how he best served ti­tle suc­cess by in­ter­fer­ing as lit­tle as pos­si­ble. When he tried to “man­age” the fol­low­ing sea­son he quickly found out where the real power lies – with the play­ers and those who pay them.

Ul­ti­mately it comes down to no one ever hav­ing paid through the gate to watch a suit jump up and down. So it’s about time this tired con­ceit of pour­ing faith, hope and money into some totemic side­line Gen­er­alis­simo is binned.

It was a ques­tion­able idea in the past. Now it’s just be­come a pan­tomime.

An en­vi­ron­ment where the av­er­age length of time in a Premier League job is a sin­gle year means any in­put is usu­ally of the fire­fight­ing va­ri­ety

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