Football: Herr today but who will be gone tomorrow?

Click to follow
The Independent Online
Most of us have enough worries about our own teams to spare more than a curious glance when a leading club performs the public laundering that seems a necessary adjunct to a change of management these days. But any chance we had of creeping quietly by on the other side when Tottenham Hotspur were hanging up their washing last week disappeared when Alan Sugar proceeded to wring out the last rites over the reign of Gerry Francis.

Normally, the tears of a distressed chairman on these occasions are as appealing as crocodile droppings but the Spurs chairman scattered a few profound thoughts among the platitudes. In the six years or so since Sugar arrived at White Hart Lane he has rarely been troubled by dull moments - at least, not off the pitch - and his reactions have decorated the game with many fascinating if raucous diversions.

His battles with Terry Venables, in particular, indicated that of all the pugnacious tycoonery that has invaded football his brand was particularly fierce. But although he might not have endeared himself to the game at large he has firmly re-established Spurs as a going concern financially. The direction in which their football team has been going, however, did not create a parallel and Francis surrendered to that familiar fate more prematurely than many of us would have liked.

Sugar, too, says that he wanted him to stay and I believe the Tottenham chairman was prepared to invest his famed stubbornness in a side-by-side battle with his manager. Some of these wealthy entrepreneurs that football has attracted do genuinely love it for the drama.

But Francis recognised the hurtful truth that he had nothing left with which to motivate his team. It is not an uncommon realisation in football management and often reflects more on the infantile nature of the players than it does on the manager.

What Sugar did that was so impressive was to identify the syndrome. He said: "I have told Gerry that if he put a mask on and called himself Francisco Geraldo and came back here tomorrow things would turn around immediately."

I take it that Sugar was not aiming a dig at the questionable aura that surrounds foreign coaches since he has just appointed a Swiss, Christian Gross, to replace Francis. His target was much nearer home and he summed up his point by saying: "It is a matter of psychology and pressure and not of managerial skills." In other words, the manager takes the rap for faults outside his control. It is an astute observation that spotlights the farce of the managerial merry-go-round that dominates British football. Players are too free, and too willing, to dump their inadequacies outside the manager's door and trust that the next one will be better equipped to carry their burdens.

The process gets the game nowhere. Most of our managers are recycled. Even the failures pop up elsewhere, often to find success at the second or third time of asking. Experience appears to be the most desirable of all the attributes. The fact that you've been through the furnace is more important than how singed you are.

How much easier if an ailing club could send its manager for a make-over. A bit of cosmetic surgery, a silicone implant here and there, a change of accent, a new hairstyle... and the players would be freshly stimulated; albeit by the same philosophy.

Sheffield Wednesday might well benefit more from the arrival of the famous Russian Pleatsky Davikoff, than the silver-haired Latino Atticus Ronaldo. We'll never know, although we might always suspect that David Pleat was bombed out too soon.

The use of the manager as a scapegoat has become a boring and potentially destructive ritual. Players, officials, directors and even supporters load all their frustrations on one man and drive him away in the expectation that they will be enriched by his departure. It is almost pagan in its principles.

But clubs had better be careful that their scapegoat remains identifiable. The tendency is for them to become awash with more meaningless titles than the BBC. We complain at the monstrous wage bill for players but the number of administrators drawing fat salaries has probably led to the game's greatest increase in outgoings.

Among the names mentioned in the negotiations to bring Herr Gross to Spurs was that of Alan Sugar's son, Daniel, whose title at the club is Director of Operations - I didn't realise their injury crisis was that serious. Now Sugar wants to appoint a Director of Football to take the management burdens off Gross's shoulders. Pleat has been mentioned as a possibility but, whoever is appointed, I question the wisdom of saddling the manager with an invigilator.

A partnership can run a club successfully but the only true amalgam is that of chairman and manager, and the less the chairman admits he knows about football the better. Sugar fills that role admirably so why doesn't he favour his new man with the feeling he had for his predecessor?

What we have is a situation that drags in your curiosity like a magnet. But that is what football has become these days; a sequence of soap operas. Can Christian Gross and his fitness fanatic side-kick Fritz Schmid knock Spurs into shape...can Big Ron save Sheffield Wednesday...can Kevin Keegan give Mohamed Al Fayed the Fulham of a thousand dreams...can Micky Adams turn Brentford into a weapon of vengeance... can Kenny Dalglish re-create the championship potential of Newcastle...can Arsene Wenger maintain Arsenal's transformation into an instrument of torture for Alex Ferguson...can Roy Hodgson get Blackburn back to the top...can Roy Evans get the red army marching again...will Paul Gascoigne grow up in time for the World Cup?

Everywhere you look, the game gleams with a fascination that has nothing to do with the quality of football being produced. However much we think these affairs drag the game down, the appeal thrives. We don't appreciate how marketable these soccer soaps have become.

Racing is bracing itself for the final farewell to the BBC TV commentator Sir Peter O'Sullevan. The legend will be on race-reading duty for us for the last time at Newbury on Saturday.

Before he became a television icon, O'Sullevan wrote for the Daily Express - the old broadsheet, not its stunted successor - and was a cut above your average tipster. Like my old Dad, I followed him avidly in my young days and although he didn't guide us out of poverty we enjoyed the experience. It takes class to tip a loser and still leave you convinced you had backed the right one.

For most of the year he has been cantering round the racecourses on a gradual goodbye circuit. But he'll call his last big winner home in the Hennessy Cognac Gold Cup on Saturday. To commemorate the occasion, Newbury will broadcast the 79-year-old's commentary over the public address system. After more than 50 years at the microphone, it will be a historic and poignant moment for the best-known voice in racing.

It will be also extremely ironic - it'll be the first time the horses have heard him.

Comments