James Lawton: West Ham fiasco puts achievements of Ferguson and Wenger into perspective

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The Independent Football

Whatever happens to Alan Pardew in the shambles that West Ham United have become, and however hard he reflects on the bleak sequel to his brilliant first season in the Premiership, the chances are he will re-emerge stronger at the broken place. Certainly he is young and able and ambitious enough to come back punching, and perhaps more effectively if, in the roll-call of disaster, he does not forget to examine the possibility that he may have made the odd contribution himself.

One was, maybe, a failure to point out strongly enough to likely lads such as Nigel Reo-Coker and Anton Ferdinand that far from being finished products they had merely made a decent downpayment on significant careers in the big time.

In retrospect, given the weight of his hard-won reputation and desirability to other clubs, Pardew might have been wise to have walked out of West Ham the moment Mr Kia Joorabchian came leading two extremely talented but obviously completely dislocated young Argentines by their noses.

Now Joorabchian is rumoured to be on the point of delivering another disaffected South American, the Brazilian Carlos Alberto, as part of a meandering, and thoroughly destabilising, takeover plan, a possibility that is surely guaranteed to remind everybody at Upton Park that it is not only gifts borne by Greeks which demand the most intense and urgent scrutiny.

The West Ham story is at one level a simple failure by the club's hierarchy to understand the basic dynamics of a successful football club. On another it tells us once again that the kind of achievement enjoyed over 20 years by Sir Alex Ferguson at Manchester United and for a decade by Arsène Wenger at Arsenal is little short of miraculous.

Pardew's experience tells of the terrible vulnerability of even the most striking managerial success. That of Ferguson and Wenger speaks of astonishing commitment, even obsession, and competitive hides resistant to everything short of an elephant gun.

Consider how narrow have been the lines between glory and failure walked by Ferguson and Wenger. Both have been near the abyss on so many occasions, some publicised, others not. They have had their boardroom fights, their tribulations with ego-ridden, under-motivated dressing-rooms, and inevitable points of crisis.

If Roy Keane for Ferguson and Patrick Vieira for Wenger were lieutenants of immense, dynasty- shaping force, they also came to represent challenges of will and self-belief when it was time to move them on. Ferguson became a national pariah when he banished David Beckham to Madrid - albeit after patient negotiations and the offer of a remarkable contract - but he made it clear that he had made a stand he would never regret. Wenger, when so many questions were being asked about how well his touch was enduring - including cries for his head when an unremarkable Bayern Munich banished his team from Europe two seasons ago - was similarly resolute. He had seen enough in Cesc Fabregas and other youngsters to believe in his future.

No doubt, Manchester United and Arsenal were in vastly stronger positions than West Ham when they resisted suggestions that they too might become transit camps for putative world stars, but part of the reason was that Ferguson and Wenger, unlike Pardew, had the muscle and the knowledge and the established achievement to make it clear that their authority in football matters could never be challenged if they were to remain at their posts.

If these seem like rare and excessively loaded examples of omnipotent managerial style, they are not completely isolated. Martin O'Neill and, now, Gordon Strachan braved the tinder box of expectation at Celtic Park both as successful coaches but also men with an absolute conviction that they would do the job on their terms. The greatest stories of success in British football have one invariable theme ... it is of strong football men being given the chance to do their work and beat the odds. Busby, Shankly, Stein, Nicholson and Revie, like Ferguson and Wenger today, were joined at the hip in their belief that the moment they surrendered any element of their control the job was impossible.

You may say that such independence is no longer possible in modern conditions. You can point to the fact that just a few months after putting together a stunning season's work, Pardew's potential successor is now being widely discussed, all the way from the inevitable nomination of former West Ham favourite Alan Curbishley to the bizarre idea that Sven Goran Eriksson might appear at a club which, among its other attainments, can lay claim to providing vital foundations for England's one and only World Cup win. But however we cut it, we are left with one unassailable fact. Great football clubs are not made by the wisdom of a committee. They are forged by the will of single football men who are given the freedom to do their jobs.

Whatever his own subsequent mistakes, Alan Pardew was denied membership of that club the moment Carlos Tevez and Javier Mascherano were brought, blinking, out of the long shadows of football commerce. In such a fragile business, only fools could not hear the breaking glass.

Tears, knickers and a glass of wine

When future historians come to analyse the eruption - and possibly the decline - of the weird phenomenon known as celebrity culture, they will not want for material. However, imagine their gold-prospector's delight should they happen upon a copy of The Sun dated 25 October 2006.

Most of the front page is decorated by a picture of Victoria Beckham, clad in a bra, black knickers and suspender belt, drinking red wine. In a modestly sized location around the middle of the paper, while promoting her "style icon" book That Extra Half an Inch, the fabulously wealthy mother-of-three says she hates flashing her body in public, adding, "I'm quite prudish about things like that". On the back page a headline cries forlornly "Becks on the Cheap" over a story that Real Madrid would be prepared to accept as little as £5m for his services - a £20m drop on his transfer cost from Manchester United three years ago.

When the historians have dusted down the old pages, they might conclude that the Beckhams provided a telling postcript to much of their own epic contribution to the celebrity age... tears, knickers, and a half-empty glass of red wine.

Wise words an insult to the past

Dennis Wise, grotesquely but no doubt predictably, thinks that his Leeds United will be successful if they get to be as "horrible" as Don Revie's team.

This, in its way, is as insulting as the decision of the former Leeds manager Howard Wilkinson to turn the photographs of a great team to the wall and the assessment of Brian Clough, upon taking over players who had just virtually walked their way to the League title, that their medals should be thrown into the nearest dustbin.

Revie made a poignant confession near the end of his life. He said that his greatest regret was that he had not realised how good his team was; he should have let them off the leash long before he did; he should have encouraged the expression of vast and varied ability rather than a siege mentality.

Still, the fact is that whatever the gamesmanship and cynicism which for a while obscured the growing brilliance of Revie's team, the basis of Leeds' extraordinary decade or so of superb consistency was not ugly tactics but beautiful talent. Wise's exhortations are shrill and hopelessly superficial. They also insult a team who inhabited a planet he is rather unlikely ever to know.

Team building is a one-man job

Steve McClaren has engaged his England players in a "frank" discussion about their shortcoming in the recent games against Macedonia and Croatia. Is this helpful communication with the workers, a commendable searching out of a new way forward? No, it's another meaningless spin of the public relations wheel.

Players play and coaches coach. It's a fairly simple formula. The coach picks the team and settles on what is in his view the best formation. In between games the coach analyses performance, identifies problems, and attempts to reach a solution when he next picks his team. The rest is window dressing, moonshine, call it what you like.

McClaren is paid several million pounds a year to make a team. His team, his tactics, his leadership. England's only winning coach, Sir Alf Ramsey, was not big on team democracy. One concession was that he allowed the players to choose the film they would watch after training. Westerns, musicals, adventure and romance were all on the menu. Invariably, the choice was a western. Why? Ramsey liked westerns and he, after all, was the boss. It also helped hugely that he plainly knew what he was doing.

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