Sympathy for the plight of Gérard Houllier, author of one of the most remarkable recoveries of a major club in English football, will run deeply in anyone even vaguely aware of the pressures which descend on managers at every level of the game. Civilised but deeply ambitious and intense, Houllier has operated under a heavier weight of expectation than most in his brief but dramatically successful tenure at Anfield.
It is also entirely understandable that his close friend and rival David O'Leary, of Leeds United, should react so emotionally to Houllier's removal from their closely fought match on Saturday for an emergency heart operation.
However, O'Leary's endorsement of Houllier's pre-match identification of players – and their union – as the prime causes of managerial discomfort seems to me to be a generalisation that, even in such fraught circumstances, cannot go without challenge. If the bed of a football manager is filled with nails, not all of them are placed there by prima donna players. If Houllier has had his problems with Robbie Fowler, and Fowler might say he has had some of his own, has any manager ever enjoyed such brilliant service as that provided by Michael Owen?
O'Leary quotes the Liverpool manager as saying: "Dave, it's so hard to deal with the players now – the union, their power, the money they earn." At any time Houllier's opinions would be contentious. In a week when the Professional Footballers' Association is issuing ballots for possible strike action in its dispute with the Premiership over the distribution of television money, it is explosive rhetoric indeed.
Explosive certainly, and also heavily subjective. The Houllier-O'Leary position was summarised by the argument that life has changed and respect has gone. There was also the reflection that the successful managers of the past ruled by fear. But, of course, life has changed and can anyone, even from the perspective of a manager's chair in one of the big clubs, wish back the days that gave great artists of the national game less employment rights than the average tradesman?
The truth is that pressures on managers are fairly evenly distributed at source. The manager is responsible to the players, the boardroom, the fans and the media, and, at any one time, at least three of those elements can be in pretty active alliance against his peace of mind. Sometimes it is all four. Certainly one would be in sharper agreement that the players are the source of all managerial woes if the years were not so littered with evidence that points the finger not at the dressing-room but the boardroom.
In the last decade or so Sir Alex Ferguson's astonishing success at Old Trafford has involved relatively little conflict between the manager's office and the dressing-room. Of course there have been eruptions. Dwight Yorke and Jaap Stam and even David Beckham have felt the force of Fergie's disapproval, but where were the big battles fought? In the boardroom, of course, in the endless wrangling for the money that would maintain United's position at the top of the game. Just a few months ago we saw how hard the nation's most successful manager had to fight for a reward that would have been granted automatically to some failed executive of a major corporation.
In recent years there have been relatively few examples of "player power" bringing down a manager. Gianluca Vialli may have suffered a critical lack of player support at Stamford Bridge and no doubt Ruud Gullit, perhaps inevitably considering his approach to the job, ran into serious problems at Newcastle. Some would also argue that Stan Collymore might claim at least part of the scalps of Roy Evans at Liverpool and Brian Little at Aston Villa.
But those who know the game to any degree can give dozens of examples of managers and coaches being undermined, and under- rewarded, from above. Certainly it is hard to forget the expression of disappointment that came to Malcolm Allison's face when he looked at the cheque that had been tucked into his top pocket as reward for the brilliant campaign which took Manchester City instantly into the First Division. It was for £500. But that was 35 years ago. There is not space here to list all the intervening betrayals.
But maybe we could mention a few. We could tell how it was in the old Baseball Ground at Derby when Brian Clough was sacked by the club he had transformed so astonishingly and one player got hold of an axe with which he hoped to cut down the boardroom door by way of protest. Of how Wilf McGuinness's hair turned white under the pressure of succeeding Sir Matt Busby.
Of how Bill Shankly died early, of an undiagnosed but plainly visible broken heart. Of how Celtic thought they were rewarding Jock Stein with a job in the pools development office. How Tottenham rejected the advice offered by Bill Nicholson on the subject of his succession at White Hart Lane.
Nor do we have to trawl back so far. What of the treatment of George Graham at Tottenham and David Jones at Southampton and, if we want to go down a division or two, John Rudge at Port Vale, a club that benefited for so long from that great football man's deep understanding of operating among the have-nots of the game?
This is not to mention that pressure point supplied by the terraces as evident in the booing last Saturday of Peter Reid, the man who so quickly installed Sunderland in the top flight after all those years of miserable failure. Or how, before his fall at Coventry, Gordon Strachan might have had to endure a callow schoolboy invited to discuss his professional qualities on a BBC phone-in show.
Yes, there are prima donnas in the dressing-room. But, relatively speaking, there are quite as many in the boardroom, and their power to damage the health of a manager is written all over the history of the game. This shouldn't be forgotten in the rush to apportion blame for the plight of a Gérard Houllier.Reuse content