Chewed off in Europe

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The Independent Online
IT COULD be worse; we could all be Belgians. Imagine seeing one of your best teams yield 10 goals to an Arsenal attack that is usually as good at scoring as the All Blacks are at apologising.

But if Standard Liege wore the reddest of faces after Wednesday's European football ties, English cheeks were not far behind on the blushing front. Having one's champions turned over by a Turkish team bearing the name of a distant planet brings no comfort; neither does the shooting down of another of your high-fliers by a team from a town on the wrong side of Spain.

We are not overlooking the brilliant performances of Norwich or Arsenal. It is just that our clubs used to be able to rely on almost total subjugation of the foreigners until at least after Christmas. It is, as some have pointed out, an extra humiliation coming so soon after England were pushed to the brink of World Cup annihilation.

As Manchester United's downfall might have owed much to a decision by a Scottish manager to leave out a formidable Welshman in favour of a fickle- footed Frenchman, one has to ask what the hell England have got to do with it. We're all tarred with the same brush, unfortunately, but there are consolations if you look hard enough.

As varied and confusing as Wednesday's results were, there was a measure of consistency about the new fascination being aroused by our managers. I had thought that the cult of the manager might have died off with the departure of Brian Clough. But the present lot are obviously not willing to be ignored, which is evident from the speed with which many have developed the habit - begun, I believe, by Franz Beckenbauer - of taking up a stance on the touchlines rather like orchestral conductors.

Unlike orchestras, football teams are usually facing in another direction and a sensible player does not look towards the manager in case he receives a bollocking or, worse, an incomprehensible instruction. Managers need not be upset at this because those in control of the television cameras take great care to ensure that the rest of us don't avoid them, filling the screen with every managerial twitch even while play is going on.

Why watch the match when you can watch a man watching the match? Even the fact that his job may depend on the outcome does not condone this fixation with the face of management. Indeed, one of the consolations of United's exit is that there will be a welcome reduction in the number of times we shall be called upon to witness Alex Ferguson's determined assault on the world chewing record.

Ron Atkinson's facial muscles will be similarly denied excess exposure following Aston Villa's defeat by Deportivo La Coruna. Atkinson shared with Ferguson and with Bayern Munich's Lothar Matthaus one unusual reaction. It was once customary, as well as politic, to explain away an unexpected defeat by crediting the opposition with superior powers, whether they possessed them or not.

All three rubbished the opposition, which was not only unfair on three worthy winners but thereby increased the damnation of their own teams. For Matthaus to dismiss Norwich as a 'very, very average side' puts him on the end of a long list of those who have underestimated the quality of the Canaries, whose manager Mike Walker stays in the dug-out during matches and goes about his excellent work with a modest air and a wallet thinner than those of any of his rivals.

Any talk of wallets, of course, brings us to Kenny Dalglish of Blackburn Rovers. His signing of the Southampton goalkeeper Tim Flowers for a record pounds 2.5m on Thursday following his acquisition of David Batty from Leeds for a similar amount a week previously means that he has probably spent more on defence than Britain has during the same period.

ONE manager who must envy Dalglish's opportunity is Steve Coppell, who is showing tremendous form as a football writer in the meantime. 'Who would want to be manager?' he asked in the Independent last week. 'People like me who are too old to be a player, too poor to be a director and too much in love with the game to be an agent.' Coppell's experiences of agents will be valuable when he joins the Premiership chief executive, Rick Parry, and Robert Reid QC on a three-man commission set up by the League to investigate transfer dealings.

Prompted by allegations that backhanders have been received by managers, the commission will examine the system, conduct interviews and recommend if stricter regulations are needed. While they are at it, they could look at other aspects of football management. Last week, for instance, Coventry City's caretaker manager, Phil Neal, complained of the pressures: 'I feel like I'm in the trenches fighting the Argies all on my own.'

It would take only a quick call to the Foreign Office to find out who are our present enemies and it would save much confusion during team talks.

REJOICE as we do at Sally Gunnell's election as the women's International Athlete of the Year, there is sadness in the suggestion that China's amazing record-breaker Wang Junxia, who was second in the voting, lost out because of scepticism about the recent performances of Chinese women runners.

Athletics is high on hypocrisy but this attitude betrays even worse qualities in a sport that allows suspicion to dominate so much. Perhaps they should bring in a rule that anyone breaking a world record is automatically disqualified unless they can prove they haven't taken drugs.

The suspicions, by the way, may cast a cloud but they don't prevent event organisers from scurrying to sign competitors up for next year's big races.