Football: Venables both coach and cult

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The Independent Online
THIS should be the time when we all go over the top and talk of FA Cup Final and championship 'heroes', knowing, of course, that anyone who merely kicks a ball over a line is no such thing.

Instead, we have had to endure the all-consuming antics of three clubs, Liverpool, Nottingham Forest and Tottenham Hotspur, who this season have achieved nothing.

We have had our attention diverted from where it should have been (on the pitch) to the embarrassing going-and-staying contortions of Brian Clough, Graeme Souness and finally Terry Venables, the man who was going to change the management mould and run a club from top to bottom.

The role of the manager is more complicated now than it was before 'player power' and often he is judged as much on the ability to balance books as teams.

Venables, however, a capable though not faultless businessman, but a Europe-wide respected football coach, seems to have over- stretched himself in his ambition. Football needs managers who keep a lower profile and spend more time coaching.

After all, the Spurs fans and players who on Friday demonstrated in his favour talked only of Venables the football man. Better, it seems, to aim for total football than total control.

Moreover,the three incidents have emphasised the absurdity of a situation in which managers, and those who manage but have lofty titles, have become unsurpassed when it comes to attracting the best and worst of headlines.

More often than not, managers arefirst to win the credit and first to lose their jobs. What they do and say overwhelms all sense of proportion. That is not something most of them necessarily want, but is thrust upon them by the media.

Not much can be done about that, but when chairmen and directors ignore what the fans themselves have to say about managers, the time comes to ask questions. At Forest, Liverpool and Spurs the fans knew best.

The situation at Nottingham was much different to that at Anfield. It was always unlikely that more than a handful of Liverpool supporters would stage a demonstration in favour of Souness. Even if he does remain to see out his contract, and manages to bring back some success, the fans will not warm to him, and they would be right to be cynical about his remark that it would take the purchase of only two or three more players to make Liverpool a formidable side again. His record in the transfer market hardly inspires confidence.

At Nottingham, outwardly it could not have been more different. Yet in the kindest possible way, the Forest fans got what their Liverpool counterparts were denied. The majority thought that the removal of Clough was a sad necessity. To all intents and purposes, Clough seemed to be adored and the fans responded to his eventual demise with genuine affection. But what if he had actually carried out his threat to stay on? What if like the Liverpool board, Forest decided that, in spite of it all Clough would stay?

It had taken the Forest directors a long time to pluck up enough courage to induce Clough into retirement and perhaps it would not have happened if one person had not started to leak stories. It was noticeable, though, that when Clough did announce his retirement, the fans did not rise up in protest. The choice between losing the great character and halting Forest's decline was no contest.

The fans needed little persuading that the era of Clough should have been brought to a respectable close much earlier, when there was still time to avoid relegation. Belatedly, the directors did what most fans felt was inevitable. Liverpool and Tottenham, however, seem to think that the strength of opinion coming from a multitude of small voices is of little consequence.

The news of the retaining of Souness, the retirement of Clough and the sacking of Venables so eclipsed all else that three failed teams gathered more attention than Manchester United and yesterday's FA Cup finalists.

Such is the extraordinary cult of the manager, and it will remain so, even though it produced an imbalance between the performance of these managers' teams and the publicity they personally received, because sometimes managers do indeed achieve enough to perpetuate the notion that they really matter. Stories abound of managers who fail at one club immediately being successful elsewhere, and even more often the arrival of a new manager will spark an ailing team into fresh vitality.

Playing credentials were not essential then and are not now. Caps and medals, coaching badges, the gift of the gab, persuasion, bullying. Who knows what gifts amount to the right background? Moore was 'too nice'. Sir Alf may not have been everyone's favourite uncle and he offended people because of his honesty and occasional lack of diplomacy, but nastiness was not something he needed to employ.

The success of Kevin Keegan at Newcastle United this season is indicative of why the cult of the manager will continue to spiral. He came back from early retirement in Spain admitting that he was totally out of touch with English football. He virtually had to set up a help- line to old friends who had remained in the game.

He had no managerial experience and was financially so secure that work was not necessary. Yet he succeeded quite brilliantly and those of us who doubted the wisdom of his decision, and that of Newcastle, were totally wrong. We should have known better.

There is no obvious logic to the business of football management except that the best in the profession seem to instigate uncomplicated, accurate passing football and the worst fulfill the maxim that 'football is a simple game made unecessarily complicated by managers'. The complications these days are compounded by commercial pressures and private lives lived in a different world from the simple one enjoyed by Bill and Nessie Shankly.