Football: Lunatics running asylum

The big advantage footballers possess over management is a curious reluctance on the part of the public and popular newspapers to hold them equally responsible for collective shortcomings.

Doubtless the Sheffield United manager, Dave Bassett, had this in mind last Saturday when responding to the displeasure a section of his club's supporters vehemently expressed following a home loss to Luton. 'It's easy to blame the directors and me but the players are accountable too,' is more or less what he went around protesting.

Echoing a sentiment Brian Clough privately observed as an important means of long-term survival in football management, Bassett was reported to have also said: 'What I must do is screw some of my players before they screw me.'

If, for reasons of philosophy and style, it has not always been possible to see eye to eye with Bassett, a personal inclination in this matter is to support him completely.

A suspicion may have crossed your mind that has certainly crossed the mind of many a troubled manager, but unfortunately gets too little attention in newspapers and on television.

It is that some footballers cannot be relied upon to always fulfill their obligations. This does not prevent them, often at the manager's expense, from exploiting to the full any favourable reviews that accrue in the course of a season.

For example, there is a player, locally popular in the Premiership, who gets by on occasional feats of stunning virtuosity that blind the public to his idleness. It comes as no surprise to learn that he regularly complains of ailments that defy diagnosis.

Going back to when management shamefully held all the cards, it was not unusual for players to be addressed in stentorian tones and frequently threatened with a spell of unemployment.

Once, when laying into his team, the legendary Wolverhampton Wanderers manager, Stan Cullis, noted a smirk on the face of the 12th man, an England international, Norman Deeley. 'As for you,' he snapped, 'you're not good enough to get a rollicking.'

A problem for managers today is that even half-decent players are so thin on the ground that generally they are immune to embarrassment and can afford to be choosy. No matter how dedicated the management, there is no guarantee that they will always pull together. 'Those who can play a bit know that if things don't work out here they'll get big money somewhere else,' a manager recently said to me.

Managers gain the confidence and respect of players by proving themselves superior in knowledge and alert to trickery. The most successful practitioners are those who play all the angles before the angles start playing them.

Publicly, Matt Busby was perceived to be an avuncular, easy-going figure, but there wasn't a stroke he hadn't come across or an excuse he hadn't heard before. This applied equally to Cullis, Jock Stein, Alf Ramsey, Bill Shankly, Bill Nicholson and Don Revie. Nobody took liberties with them.

The job has been made more difficult by escalating wages, a dearth of talent and the commercial attention football receives.

Hence, a great deal of sympathy can be held out for those managers whose prospects appear bleak. Unquestionably they have made mistakes. But who is going to do better?

For purposes of morale, they refrain from castigating players in public, but this may be loose thinking on their part. Better, perhaps, to follow Bassett's example and bring an irrefutable truth into the open. It is that players should not be allowed to hedge their responsibility at the customer's discretion.

The policy of some critics is to lean heavily on managers and coaches as a form of public service, holding them entirely responsible for failure.

The opinion held here is that it would be doing the game a considerable service if they swapped bullets for buckshot.

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