A good man in a crisis

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The Independent Online
AT A time when television persuades everyone to believe that they know pretty well what a typical football manager is like, an interview granted to the BBC last week by Arthur Cox of Derby County must have come as a crushing blow to any viewer's preconception.

When I got to it, which was a little before the first of my fancies went off at Newbury races, Cox was being required to address the difficult circumstances that appear to have arisen for him because ofDerby's persistent inability to play as well at home as they do on their travels.

From the bitter experiences of Cox's clan it has long been common knowledge that there are ways of making a football manager's position insupportable and his life unendurable. With that in mind it would have been an odd oversight if the interviewer had not concentrated on the notion of a crisis.

Cox quickly made it clear that he is not a man without perspective. Allowing a small hint of exasperation to cross one of those faces some of us will always associate with the drill square, he then pointed up the foolishness of thinking about sport in the context of awful reality. Cox said something like, 'We aren't talking about human tragedy, a war, an air disaster'.

This doesn't set Cox apart from all the other brethren, but rarely today do you come across people in sport who are not given to introspection. With that in mind it has been possible recently to learn some useful things.

Speaking of a talented football coach who fell seriously ill, one of his former charges said: 'It didn't come as a great surprise to me because in giving so much of his life to the game he put himself under enormous pressure. Perhaps he does get enjoyment from other things but that wasn't the impression we were left with.'

In most cases today, the non-playing people on the outside, commonly known as the public, see sport through the interests of television and popular prints which dramatise it as a conflict in the most emotive terms imaginable. If they are pitched in at international level the performers and their educators are left in no doubt about the responsibilities of a patriot. 'The public are constantly fed the idea that defeats are disasters,' Sir Alf Ramsey said when managing the England team.

Presumably because it would be bad for their images, some managers are not esteemed as highly for their intellectual qualities as their growling tempers and demanding standards. There are plenty who are stern disciplinarians and physical fitness maniacs and they are only imitations of a good manager. Where the best of them succeed is in the brains department.

Many never fully realise the extent to which they are disfigured by total immersion in the game and the hazards of ambition. A short while ago I raised this with a manager of considerable repute who underwent transformation in retirement, becoming jokey and fascinating company where he had been cheerless and withdrawn, a meagre spirit. Aghast at the thought, he said, 'What, me a miserable bastard? Never.' But that was the way he came over, especially to players who otherwise had a great deal of respect for him.

Bill Nicholson, the most successful manager in Tottenham's history, wept at his daughter's wedding upon realising that he had missed so many of her growing up days.

That experience is no more peculiar to football than it is to numerous other professions. Neither can you safely bet that a narrow-minded team will emerge from a tunnel mind.

When Dave Sexton managed Manchester United all too few people in my trade took the trouble to discover that he is an immensely decent and imaginative man, not the uncommunicative figure some peripheral influences at Old Trafford wickedly made him out to be. In failing to do that they contributed to his downfall.

Later, Sexton, who went on to work for the Football Association, and now imparts his knowledge to Aston Villa's players, graduated from the Open University with a degree in philosophy. Recently, speaking about this and that, he said how important it is to have interests outside our chosen professions.

I don't know enough about Arthur Cox to tell you whether he is into books, or painting or simply papering walls. But listening to him last week brought a line that usually is associated with Walter Hagen, the great American golfer. Encouragingly, Cox sounded like a man who takes time to stop and smell the roses.