Football: In pursuit of the impossible

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POOR Brian Clough. You can't help feeling sorry for him, as all those television reporters wander up to him after the latest 4-0 defeat and ask him where things have gone wrong. Well, if he knew, he'd do something about it, wouldn't he? Still, even in defeat, Clough once again manages to confound all expectations. Normally, he'd shout and scream and yell and generally intimidate the hell out of any reporter foolish enough to come anywhere near him. But every time I see him on television these days, he's almost frighteningly reasonable. Tolerant, even. Here is a man, you feel, who has confronted the grim inevitability of fate, and realises that he has no answer to it. He is almost at the end of his tether. Even the Shredded Wheat ads now mock his misfortune. Expect an expression of complete confidence from his chairman any day now.

But it's not just the carcoat generation of football managers who are feeling the pinch this week for, as we float across to sunny Liverpool, the grim moustache of Graeme Souness looms pitifully in our sights. Trounced 2-0 by Bolton Wanderers, doomed to mid-table mediocrity, and unable to sell all those deadbeats they bought for millions of pounds over the odds, Liverpool are finally having to face up to the fact that they're no good any more. Everyone else, of course, is hugely amused to see 20 years of Merseyside triumphalism - Anfield, Goodison Park, Brookside, Cilla Black - come to nothing. It's been a long wait, but a fruitful one.

All of which proves, of course, what all sensible people know already: that being a football manager is a mug's game. Everyone thinks they can do it, and virtually no one can. Even the few who can, can't. And look at some of the people who have managed to hold down jobs over the years. Tommy Docherty. Malcolm Allison. Bobby 'Rattling Dentures' Robson. Most of the 1970-71 Leeds side (though none of them for very long). Alan Ball. Various sad ex- midfield maestros who later became Senior Sales Executives (North Lincolnshire Region) for foot-salve manufacturers and double-glazing distribution companies. Here is a job for which no candidate ever seems properly qualified. Every appointment seems like an outrageous shot in the dark, either because the person appointed has no experience, or because he has too much experience, having been fired 43 times from other clubs (three times from QPR). If someone's a brilliant coach, they say he's no good at the administrative side of things. If he's a skilled boardroom apparatchik, they say he's not much cop as a coach. If he's too young, he's too young. If he's not young, he's past it. And if he's not been a manager for a while, having worked 'outside the game' for a stretch, people start gossiping about his inability to sell foot-salve in North Lincolnshire. You simply can't win.

So what can Clough and Souness do? They have many choices. There is, for instance, the Kenny Dalglish approach - get yourself a reputation for being anguished and tormented (so that everyone feels guilty about being nasty to you), and then get a chairman who has the GNP of Portugal to spend on new players. Alternatively, if you're strapped for cash, there's nothing like a really huge pair of new cuff-links to instil a bit of respect in your team. Ron Atkinson may look a bit odd, but no one's talking about firing him - and his cuff-links are bigger than some players' cars.

In the end, though, it's still a mug's game, and I'm sure both Souness and Clough will feel relieved when the burden is finally lifted. In fact, someone should tell their teams this. After all, two or three more pathetic home defeats to second-rate opposition could well do the trick . . .