Football: Threats alone are unlikely to improve the attitude of players

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THIS IS the time of the year when football managers found it beneficial to suggest that some men in their charge should be thinking seriously about alternative employment.

The old retain-and-transfer and annual contracts enabled managers to employ fear as a factor in motivation because many players lived with the threat of being dumped when the season was over.

It was a rotten system (ruled illegal in 1961), one that the players had every right to challenge with all the media and political support their union could muster.

The pendulum has since swung so far in the direction of even just half- decent players that threats alone are unlikely to improve their attitude. We are presently hearing and reading about the Aston Villa manager, Brian Little, who resigned on Tuesday after a brief encounter with the club's chairman, Doug Ellis.

Little is not the bullying kind, but it was a big mistake to suppose that his most difficult players would respond to decent behaviour and perform for him accordingly.

If one player more than any other brought Little down, it was Stan Collymore, whose pounds 7m transfer from Liverpool last summer caused people to wonder about Little's judgement.

Collymore's pathetic grumbling, his attempt to put the arm on Nottingham Forest after moving to Anfield, and then his refusal to take up residence on Merseyside suggested that Little was buying trouble.

A few weeks ago Collymore turned out for Villa in the FA Cup at Portsmouth. Said to be feeling unwell, he was substituted shortly after half-time.

An old pro said in reference to Little's method of dealing with Collymore: "A cuddle? What he needs is a kick up the arse."

Plenty of managers would have resorted to that remedy, but they all worked in a much different time. "Today you have to be more subtle, cunning and tricky," a Premiership manager said this week.

"Talent is so thin on the ground that good players won't stand for you getting into their faces. Now we're stuck with the Bosman thing. If things aren't working out to their satisfaction, they're off."

Brian Clough's success in football management was attributed in part to his understanding that very few players could be relied upon to always put in maximum effort. He played all the angles before they played him, keeping his players in a state of nervousness.

I don't know how much reading Clough does but there is a passage in Robert Graves's I, Claudius that is appropriate to the style he employed in management. The gladiators are assembled for a pep talk by Livia, the wife of Augustus and as wily as any football manager could be.

She spent a great deal on the Games, and at this point in the story she feels she is not getting value for money. At the end of her firm lecture, she says: "These Games are being degraded by more and more professional tricks to stay alive. I won't have it. So put on a good show, and there'll be plenty of money for the living, and a decent burial for the dead. If you let me down, I'll break this guild, and I'll send the lot of you to the mines... That's all I've got to say to you."

Alan Brown, who managed Burnley, Sunderland and Sheffield Wednesday, never let his players forget who was boss, no matter what their distinction. "If I give them enough rope, they're sure to hang me," I remember him saying.

There is something of the great Celtic manager Jock Stein in Alex Ferguson. Taking a leaf from Stein's hard book, Ferguson does not permit liberties. One of Ferguson's advantages is that he was involved in the development of players who remain wary of him.

A big problem for managers today is that players who have risen up to earn prodigious salaries are admiringly interviewed by sycophants in the employ of television and popular newspapers, receiving the same attention as rock stars.

One of John Gregory's first tasks as the new manager of Aston Villa will be to persuade Steve Staunton and Gareth Southgate that it makes sense to stay put. Another will be to seek a means of motivating Collymore. But that is another story...