Football management


Yesterday I read an interview with ex-pro Tony Adams in the Independent. I think it was his way of putting himself in the shop window but unwittingly I think it underlined why no chairman has thought it worth offering him a managerial job in the English football system more significant than boss of Wycombe Wanderers and a short spell at Portsmouth when they were on the slide. He spent some time criticising the salary policy at Arsenal arguing that their parsimony over wages (this in the week that Theo Walcott has been awarded a new contract worth around £20m over 3.5 years) has led to the exodus of key players. His key thought was that all the money that Arsenal received from their run in the Champions League last year, around £25m, should have been paid to Robin van Persie to encourage him  to stay at the club. You’ve gotta think that club Chairmen might look at that and think ah here we have an intelligent and forthright man of the game whose first instinct is to channel all of a club’s revenue into the pockets of already overpaid current footballers. Hey let’s give Tony a call and see if he fancies managing our club. It’s not going to happen is it?

That’s one of the main problems I have with football, the game I love; too much bearing is given to the opinions of ex and current pro’s and managers, too few of whom have anything insightful to say. Listening to say Garth Crooks on Saturday afternoon’s Final Score or Alan Shearer on Match of the Day or almost all of the ex-pro pundits on Talksport is sufferable. They are witless, talk in cliches, shoot from the hip without any sense of reflection and can only see things from a player’s point of view. Most of them speak incoherent English – ‘Rooney done brilliant there, ‘specially as it was ‘im what got lamped’ – is a typical bit of Bobby Gould phraseology.

Nor am I saying all the intelligence sits in the Boardroom either; anyone like me who can recall the late Peter Swales as Chairman of Manchester City sacking the then manger because ‘he had no repartee with the fans’ will know that smartness and power aren’t always easy bedfellows.  And don’t get me started on football administrators whose brains are usually locked away in their Swiss bank accounts.

Just once in a while though something happens in football that bucks the trend. A standout moment that reminds you that there are football people out there who are able to make balanced judgements, who are attracted by values like respect and decency rather than the amount of filthy lucre on offer. I think we had one this week with the announcement that Pep Guardiola, perhaps the most sought-after young manager in the game, was to end his sabbatical by becoming the next manager of Bayern Munich at the end of the season.

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Typically he wasn’t agitating behind the scenes to get a fellow manager sacked so he could usurp his role; he’d begun conversations with the club’s officials only once it had been made clear by the respected current coach Jupp Heynckes that he would be retiring at season’s end. You’d never get Sven doing that. Even Mourinho’s advisors are well-known for sounding out potential new employers, allowing the ‘special one’ to proclaim that he’d never undermine a fellow manager’s position.

But what caused some teeth-sucking at his decision among the footballing punditry ranks here was that that day before the announcement Guardiola had publicly expressed his admiration for the English game and the Premiership in particular. Talking about his sadness at never having achieved his aim of playing in this country, he humbly talked about his great desire to manage one of the top sides one day. Now most nitwits at Talksport immediately assumed this to mean that he’d committed to one of either Chelsea or Man City. It was obvious wasn’t it? Chelsea were Champions League winners and had been openly courting him since the sacking of Di Matteo (if not before, given their track record) and were dangling sign-your-own-pay-cheque/transfer budget inducements in front of Pep, whilst referring to the current holder, Rafa Benitez, as their ‘interim’ manager. Such class and so motivating I’d imagine for Rafa to be a dead man walking appointee.

Ah but, others suggested, Man City would surely be his managerial destination given that they were the new very rich kids on the block and the Premiership Champions. More importantly the good Sheik had already kicked out the old regime at Board level and installed Guardiola’s former executive colleagues at Barcelona, Ferran Sorriano and Txiki Begiristain, as the club’s new Chief Executive and Director of Football. Surely everything was ready to put the final piece of the Holy Trinity jigsaw in place with the appointment of Guardiola and to re-create the much admired Barcelona system from top to bottom in Gorton, East Manchester.  What could possibly go wrong?

Well Man City already have a very fine manager in Roberto Mancini of course who doesn’t seem overly-eager to walk away from a £10m contract and it’s not Guardiola’s style, as mentioned above, to engineer a fellow manager’s departure. Let’s face it he doesn’t need to.

Those kind words about the English game were no doubt honest but of course he was addressing an invited audience at the FA’s 150th anniversary bash and what’s he going to say – that the FA were a bunch of fat knobheads and that the whole of English football with its vast wealth and resources couldn’t produce a single home-grown player to make it into this year’s World XI? Of course he wasn’t, even though he’d personally overseen the development of 7 them at Barcelona. He was never going to show disrespect and Trevor Brooking isn’t fat anyway.

In any case he might yet be back to manage in this country perhaps when his 3 year Bayern contract is up. But it won’t be at Chelsea. If nothing else by choosing Bayern he’s making a statement I believe. In Spain he’d done his time learning the Barca method both as a player and a manger of the junior sides and once in control of the first team he appreciated that it was his duty to continue to develop a certain style of play that was distinctive, attractive  and, above all, effective. And everything was done to support him in this task from the academy structure to the recruitment policy. He was one element in the process but the key component and the club trusted him to deliver and gave him the authority and the controls over team matters to ensure the right pattern was established. It’s back to that respect thing.

Word is that Guardiola was pretty shocked that a young manager with considerable integrity and awareness in Roberto di Matteo who, when handed the poisoned chalice of an opportunity to manage a Chelsea team in open rebelllion, seized it and transformed the team into a coherent unit capable of winning the FA Cup and then the ultimate prize, the Champions League, but who was rewarded with the sack just a few months later. That of course was the one trophy craved by Chairman Abramovich  and the one which 7 earlier managers, including the almost sanctified Mourinho, had all failed to deliver. It showed that Abramovich was never satisfied and couldn’t be trusted, if that’s the right word, to allow the manager the time and scope to create something sustainable, enduring and successful in the long run. Nor can Abramovich be relied upon to let the manager manage without questionable interference in team selection and player recruitment. Does anybody believe that the eye-wateringly expensive signings of Schevchenko and Torres were anything other than vanity purchases by the Chairman? Of course not.

I think Man City’s problem and perhaps that of PSG too who were also a potential destination for PG, was the thought that despite putting management platforms in place to ease his concerns, the clubs remain dependent upon the vast wealth of their Abu Dhabi owners. You’ve got to wonder if these investments are anything more than vanity projects by rich oligarchs/oil sultans to match the competition in the size of their yachts and the glamorousness of their trophy wives.  With restrictive EUFA rules on FFP drawing ever nearer limiting their power to recruit the best talent on a whim, it’s possible that they could just tire and get bored of their football playthings and decide to move on. Where that would leave the likes of Chelsea, Man City and PSG is anybody’s guess.

So for me the really smart move for Guardiola was to Bayern Munich; an iconic club with an ownership structure (as with all clubs in the Bundesliga) protected from individual ownership by crazy meglomaniacs through fan membership investment of at least 50%. It’s not dissimilar to the situation at Barca of course. Bayern are massively supported with a huge revenue base and they have very strong connections in the corridors of power within EUFA. They own a fantastic stadium and have a very strong squad of players. They have a gloriously successful history but, and here’s the clincher for me, they are ready to invest in a new set of thinking to get them back to being the very best in Europe, having missed out on the top trophy in recent years. Hitherto used to a rolling one year deal, Pep has been given a 3 year contract to deliver something different. If that doesn’t signify trust I don’t know what does.  By working in Germany he’s also virtually guaranteed that he doesn’t have to face up to his nemesis Mourinho in anything other than the very occasional last stages match in the Champs League too. Apparently he cannot stand the guy.

So there it is – a gifted manager taking time out to make a considered choice for himself and his family. Cool smart thinking. Will we see him in the Premiership? Well there’s a lot of money being taken on him succeeding SAF at Old Trafford at the end of that 3 year deal. He’s clearly given himself the freedom to move to Man U now, which couldn’t have happened if he’d plumped for Man City or Chelsea first. I’m not sure if he actually fancies living in Manchester to be honest. And let’s face it there’s still a problematic ownership and debt issue hanging over the club.

If he had doubts about whether he should have plumped for a Premiership club now with all the dangers posed by irrational quirky owners, surely they would have been put to bed by the announcement yesterday that Southampton’s Chairman had sacked the popular manager Nigel Adkins and replaced him with the Argentinian Mauricio Pochettino who was himself sacked 3 months ago by the bottom club in La Liga and who has no experience whatsoever in English football and doesn’t even speak English. You can imagine the outrage voiced at Talksport. I’m no big fan of Adklns, he never struck me as the sharpest knife in the box, witness that primary school-level message to the players when he left:

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You can’t imagine SAF leaving smiley face messages can you? But he was doing a decent job, certainly better than Mark Hughes achieved and currently better than more celebrated managers like Pardew, Hughton, Martinez, Lambert etc and the players seemed to be doing it for him and the fans apparently loved him. If Redknapp had guided QPR to 15th place he’d be hailed as the messiah. So why change? Actually Pochettino has a decent track record and may be a good prospect managerially but is it a smart move? Time will tell but you sense that it could have a disastrous effect short term. I just sense the Chairman pulled the trigger simply because he could. And for Guardiola it must demonstrate that his smartest course is to steer clear of the Madmen Chairmen. And that, sadly, is the Premiership’s loss, at least for now.

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