Football: Curtains for football's one-man show

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Behold the noble brow, furrowed by frustration; note the shamed tilt of the head, the sadness in the eyes and the voice struggling to retain its defiance. Another football manager has been sacked and tradition allows him a few moments of mitigating mumbling before he is removed from our sight. There remain few rituals in sport that we find more fascinating, despite the fateful regularity with which the event occurs.

Thirty years ago we used to keep a record of the rolling heads. Newspaper reports would begin: "Joe Bloggs yesterday became the 158th manager to be sacked since the war . . . ." Nobody bothers to count these days but we still stare just as curiously at the latest wretched figure to be paraded on the scaffold.

Sudden unemployment has become such a meekly accepted feature of modern life generally you would think that one man's journey into the night would not be regarded as such a staggering occurrence. But managerial dismissals have dominated recent sports news in preference to far less predictable and more intriguing events.

Undoubtedly, this is partly because of the media's captivation by the drama of a man receiving a thoroughly good sacking but the obsession is eagerly shared by sports fans, whose appetite is undiminished by the constant replaying of the scene. It is as if everyone believes that the public sacrifice of an inadequate talent takes the game another step towards perfection.

The capacity for inadequacy among the available replacements makes any such belief a nonsense and to carry this heavy casualty list like a sign of virility betrays a naivety that is by no means assisting the game's development. Perhaps we should pay more attention to the pressures of our domestic competitions and the way we run our clubs than the basic weaknesses in the men managing the teams.

While everyone concerned in running the game at club level, chairmen, directors and players, are content to invest in one man the entire accountability for the team's performances we will continue to encourage the wrong priorities.

We've been blessed with some great club managers, men who gladly accepted the full responsibility and would not have welcomed any suggestion that they should share the burden. Matt Busby, Bill Shankly, Jock Stein, Brian Clough and Bill Nicholson were outstanding but they and their like, taken as a percentage of managers since the Second World War, have formed a minority. They were exceptional men whose ability to organise and motivate players defies analysis, but because they existed every club is left with this dream that one day their prince will come.

Thus do we insist on treating managers as if they were high priests of some mystical cult. When it is discovered that a manager has an unacceptable degree of normality, he gets kicked out like a dog and is doomed to wander the netherworld until some other bright chairman thinks he spotted a divine spark in his eyes.

If only the culpability of running a struggling club could be shared around as willingly as the glory of running a successful one. Sir Alf Ramsey once said that he and his fellows received too much praise when things were going well and too much criticism when they weren't. He offered that thought even before he experienced a descent that was rare even by managerial standards - a knighthood after England won the 1966 World Cup and the Order of the Boot when they failed to qualify for the 1974 finals.

There were six sackings in the first three weeks of this season and, since chairmen become emboldened when they see bloodletting elsewhere, no doubt there are another half-a-dozen waiting to happen. Of the early victims, perhaps the least surprising was Alan Ball's at Manchester City, who had been relegated last season. When City turned in a few poor results at the start of this season, the crowd called for Ball's head. It is by no means unusual, it is probably typical, for a relegated team to take time to find its feet in the lower division but Ball decided to call it a day after a meeting with his chairman Francis Lee.

Lee was an excellent player and when he appointed Ball, a contemporary, they offered a unique partnership of experience, knowledge and an understanding based on a close friendship. It didn't work, at least not in the short time afforded it, and it is interesting to compare their respective fates. Ball is out of work and his stock obviously low. City are subject to a take-over bid that is said to be worth a profit of pounds 10m to Lee. Does that sound like a fair division of the responsibility for City's present state?

The success of the Premiership has provided us with a healthy number of clubs headed by men of proved substance and acumen. They will be run as modern and efficient businesses, we were assured. What modern and efficient business puts its future into the untrained hands of a virtual stranger?

Having got rid of George Graham for various reasons last year, Arsenal placed their faith in Bruce Rioch and hurried him out of office five days before the present season. They arranged to appoint a Frenchman, Arsene Wenger, who is contracted to a Japanese club until January and now they have lost their excellent caretaker manager, Stewart Houston, who was expected to take all the responsibility in the interim but has wisely taken a runner from Highbury's unforgivable mess. Arsenal will be an uncomfortable club today. Who's holding the buck?

One of the few times that you can feel a club embodies the real sense of that word is when a manager has just departed and the freshness of a new beginning sweeps through. Chairmen and directors are more keen to get involved, players start thinking for themselves and buzz around a little more purposefully.

Sadly, it doesn't last long. Soon a new boss will arrive to shoulder the more difficult burdens. It'll be his pigeon then. He's got the control, the free hand and the big salary. It's all down to him to make it work, pick the team, sort out the tactics and make the players play. And if he can't take us to the top where we deserve to be, we'll find someone who bloody well can.

MY local Italian restaurateur cheerfully took a fiver from me at the termination of Manchester United's beating by Juventus on Wednesday night. I bravely bet United for the same amount to beat the Italian side in their second European Cup meeting which will be at Old Trafford on 20 November and, just to prove my haughty confidence, gave him the draw as well.

Then I attempted to puncture his noisy celebrations with his friends by pointing out that all that had happened was that, on the night, Juventus's foreigners played better than United's foreigners, particularly the French and the Slavs. Then I reminded him of how Italy had slunk away disgraced from Euro 96 barely two months ago.

Why I should get drawn into these arguments when I prefer Liverpool anyway? Sporting patriotism works in peculiar ways.