Shackled With The Fear Of Ignominy

As this young season trickles into gear, it is the unknown that spawns opinion; the hope and expectation that befalls each team and each manager. These are the players and teams which have started well and will continue to thrive. These are the players and teams we have already discarded and are branded as thorough failures. And so on and so on. The game early doors and riotous speculation make for frequent bedfellows.

Consequently, the August and September chatter almost always lands at the feet of the men pacing the sideline in oversized training gear (I’m looking at you Maurizio Sarri) and designer name-team approved snug sweaters (ahoy, Pep Guardiola). And maybe that is fair because of their reputations and salaries and the positions with these responsibilites that they voluntarily signed up for. But often times, it is not.

Which leads all of us football fans to today: the first set of matches after the first set of international fixtures that many look upon as the genuine beginning of the long slog towards chasing silverware. And what do we find? The usual: fiery talk about managers and what they should or should not be doing to succeed in the audience’s viewpoint.

You can’t pick up a paper around Britain that isn’t opining about who is going to win the league and why (good managing by Jürgen Klopp and Pep the deciders) and who should be banned from the joys of life for eternity because winning 1 nil doesn’t make for good gifs on Twitter (José Mourinho the culprit here). It makes for easy writing and these men making the decisions make for easy targets.

And it, unfortunately, has an immense effect on how managers go about their business. The absurd pressure to succeed right now changes the mentality of the manager and could alter any overarching strategies. There is no luxury of time and so every manager is essentially pulling off a rush job. A club isn’t getting the person they had been scouting and interviewing. They just aren’t. They are getting someone trying to make it work just enough so as to not get sent home. Someone yearning to buy time, a comodity that should in reality be mandatorily provided. In the modern day game, we simply don’t love managers. And when we do, it’s truly fleeting (see Claudio Ranieri winning the Premier League with Leicester City as part of one of the greatest underdog stories in sports history to only then be shunned soon after and Antonio Conte revitalizing the new back 3 phenomenon for his Chelsea side to lift the title and then falling foul of the Board, players and fans alike just the next season). This ‘what have you done for me lately?’ pressure takes its toll on even the most brilliant of warriors. There’s no room for a plan or a structure. There’s no opportunity to construct a system that can last and be successful perhaps not today, but in a few seasons down the road. Orchestrating a legacy is simply not an option.

When the football begins to veer into the territory most would deem awry, it usually isn’t the players taking the flak. And in some circumstances that may be fair. And in all circumstances the manager is inevitably responsible. That is part of the job description. But matters aren’t so cut and dry. Managing is not so black and white. When the club is on a downward spiral, forcing the manager out is not such a certain resolution.

To be the best you need trust. To be even just competent at your position, you need trust. You need support. The media fuels the fans and when no one can think of anything constructive to say, there are calls for the manager’s head because saying so makes it appear as if you’re in tune with the climate of your club. That you know what you’re talking about. But here’s a newsflash: the manager, in general, doesn’t need to go. I’m not referencing individuals emphatically unqualified for the job or genuinely lacking big club experience (David Moyes at Manchester United rings a bell), but managers whom have a prosperous CV and have a track record of success. Simply put: stick with your guy and give him time.

Let’s take a quick look at Roy Hodgson appointed to take the reins at Liverpool in the summer of 2010 to illustrate my point: Hodgson was coming off taking a middling Fulham to their first European final in their 130 year history. It was a dream season that one in 2009-10. The Cottagers defeated holders Shakhtar Donetsk in the knockouts followed by Juventus (after being down 4-1 on aggregate during the second leg), Wolfsburg and Hamburg before falling 2-1 in the finale to Atlético Madrid. And that wasn’t all! Whilst balancing this magical European run, Hodgson also led Fulham in that same season to the quarter finals of the FA Cup. Roy Hodgson would go on to win the LMA Manager of the Year award (voted on by managers of the top four leagues in England) in one of the biggest landslides in the trophy’s history. He was the chosen one. And Liverpool agreed. Hodgson signed a 3 year contract in early July 2010 with the ballyhooed Anfield club and before January 2011 had even begun to sprout he was gone. Liverpool were in the relegation zone after his first 8 games and the guillotine was being prepared. The team would rattle off 3 straight Premier League wins, and 16 points in the next eight matches, which earned Roy the backing of the club’s new American owners. Apparently, in good favor again, the axe came down after a sputtering festive season that saw Liverpool lose 3 of Hodgson’s last four games. What a ride!

In the end, Roy was never given a proper chance. He was never allowed to settle or even form the team into a unit of his design. He barely even got to know the names of his players before the firing squad showed their face. The fans wanted Kenny Dalglish in from the get go and John Henry and his fellow Boston based owners met their first official crisis with a response known only too well in this league: a sacking. Such a farcical turn of events. Was it deserved? Possibly. The team was definitely struggling. Did anyone take a look at the players themselves? Probably not. That’s not where we turn when we think we know how to change a team’s course with our supposedly expert knowledge. Would Liverpool have found the similar slightly above average league placement and non trophy haul that they did without him had Roy Hodgson been given more space, freedom and time? The crucial takeaway being that we will never know.

And the Roy Hodgson case is just one retold season after season. Eddie Howe of Bournemouth, David Wagner of Huddersfield Town and Sean Dyche of Burnley all last season flirted with the inevitable ruin of being anointed and sent to clubs which would have no qualms with disposing of them in short order. More importantly, they were instead given more backing to continue their journeys at their clubs. Those teams have since cooled somewhat and the fickle nature of rating managers now leads to their names not being present in the conversations for the “bigger” jobs. People are over them. Moved on. But don’t worry! Alas, this Premier League season already has it’s new version of Howe/Wagner/Dyche in Watford’s Javi Gracia (#notypo). The extremely early results have Watford flying (undefeated and joint top of the league) and the world cannot overemphasize how flawless Gracia has been. Again, there’s no problem with that and I am certain he has steadied this squad and has them playing in his style (he was appointed mid season last season so has had a small amount of time to adjust). But my issue stems from when Watford do eventually begin to stall, then do we all still have Gracia’s back? Do we all still believe he is the future of managing if Watford lose their next 3 and, say, get knocked out of a cup competition? In a fortnight if Watford have the same point total as the time of this post being published do we all still think Gracia is elite? The answer to all of these questions is a resounding “no“. And that is profoundly laughable. And the pit of the disease that is enrapturing football in the modern era. A man is a god right up until the next moment when he isn’t.

Let’s touch on Mauricio Pochettino briefly: a manager who has been afforded time and support and has subsequently shone at a Tottenham side outperforming many of their free spending rivals. Spurs are playing to his style. Harry Kane calls Mauricio a friend. They are absolutely churning and have been. And because of these triumphs, Pochettino finds himself being the first name touted whenever a high profile vacancy appears. He is loved now, but trust that after a few losses for a Barcelona or Bayern Munich, he would be snipered by all dissidents however closely or remotely associated with the team. It is sink or swim on a constant basis.

Managing a club is a process. And we need to put more faith into the people in charge of the players that they do in fact have a plan and are skilled enough to eventually execute it. I understand it’s a results based business, but any manager worth their salt will most often get you results if weaponized with the requisite tools (time and support). The other end of the spectrum is what we see week in and week out with the negativity pouring into the football played on the pitch. The executives, the coaches themselves, the players and the fans feel the tension. It is palpable. And it violently alters the mood, the play and the ensuing point totals. It matters. I have seen it. You have seen it. There is no benefit to decapitating managers at a killer’s clip in order to solve the greater issue of finding victories. It is statistically ineffective. Look at the current and recent states of West Ham, Everton and Southampton for further evidence.

And if the tender loving care of the higher ups at the club doesn’t work then offload the manager. I am not advocating for turning any old Joe Bloggs into an Arsene Wenger. I am, mind you, petitioning to believe in a system and trust that there are capable individuals with the best interests of the club and its fanbase competently making decisions. I am aware it may not seem like it at times. I am also fully aware that that is not always the case (Newcastle United, anyone?) I know it is frustrating to watch your team slide and slump. I know you think you know better. But let’s just let the season unfold. #respecttheprocess

The players should be enjoying more of the responsibility for results. In this era of arrogance and nonchalance, quick and easy money, popularity and marketability, the ones doing the kicking of the ball need to fall in line. Their egos and fragile souls only add to the pressures of managing a top tier club. A manager becomes a babysitter on top of his or her duties to formulate short term and long term goals as well as individual game strategy. We have to hold the footballers accountable. The true leaders and icons of the past never wavered. They owned up to their shortcomings. They maintained a sense of loyalty. And they dictated the tone of the lockerrom and then carried on their shoulders the team on the pitch. That breed, if not dead already, is on its last legs gasping for one more final crisp breath. And that’s a shame. Division is rampant. Hurt feelings king.

So, where does that leave us? Well, for starters, the Premier League managers this go round are already fretting (ahem, Manuel Pellegrini on the precipice), which will be a plot line to keep a sharp eye on. There are new managers trying to immediately assert themselves and their style (most notably, Arsenal’s Unai Emery). And there are managers digging in and attempting to leave a lasting impression in the long annals of their club’s histories (Mourinho at United and Claude Puel at Leicester, for instance). The confines of “tenure” have changed dramatically and any reign over 2-3 years is frankly impressive. And that is what you will see this year. People trying to establish themselves as a long term manager of their team. It is a simple objective but the most difficult to attain. It is overlooked but just staying in your job is the ambition — the major hurdle. And that can be reality if every single person not managing a club allows the patrollers of sidelines and lurkers of dugouts to breathe.

Just breathe.

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