Ken Jones: Beware the manager with a 'springtime quote'

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The Independent Football

Spring is a time of the year when the days grow longer, trees bud, the budget draws nigh – and troubled football managers know the meaning of pressure. In that sense, spring and football are perfect for each other.

Spring is a time of the year when the days grow longer, trees bud, the budget draws nigh – and troubled football managers know the meaning of pressure. In that sense, spring and football are perfect for each other.

A fever seizes supporters whose eyes are drawn to the relegation places, blood pressure gets high, and perfect strangers come up to you and ask whatever happened to all the promise.

But nowhere is the union between the game and the season better exemplified than in the troubled manager's springtime quote. This is a bit of nonsense that rolls around as regularly as April Fool's and is about as credible, the real voice of the turtle. Anyone who falls for the troubled manager's springtime quote earns a lifetime of free lottery tickets and a card that entitles him to play the stock market without incurring losses.

It is not the manager's intent to deceive himself or his edgy employers. It is the customers he is trying to get to chase a bad pass. In his heart, he knows down to the last yard, the last trick, what his team are capable of. The idea is to keep the fans and the press from knowing it. The watchword must be unbridled optimism, even if it spoils your appetite just to talk about the team. Of several handy euphemisms which can be called into service to conceal technical bankruptcy, here is the most common, followed by its real meaning.

"As long as it's mathematically possible for us to survive we'll be in there fighting. The lads are giving everything. All we need is a bit of luck." No chance.

At this time of the year, even the most placid of troubled football managers convey the disposition of a drill sergeant whose shoes are too tight. No wonder. If it's not the press on his back, it is supporters clearly unacquainted with Alf Ramsey's contention that managers and coaches get too much credit and too much blame. Nobody knew that better than the hero of 1966 when he was booted out after failing to qualify England for the 1974 World Cup finals.

For months, week in and week out, disgruntled Sunderland supporters have ranted on radio and television about Peter Reid, conveniently forgetting that he got them where they are and has made a pretty good job of keeping them there. "Lost the plot," they argue. "Doesn't like flair players. Been here too long. We're a big club and should be doing better." Big club? It's 31 years since they won the FA Cup, more than 60 since their last League championship.

After West Ham comfortably secured their place in the Premiership last weekend, Glenn Roeder was entitled to stick up two fingers. At the start of the season, with only seven games played, the knives were out for him. Upset by a knee-jerk reaction in newspapers and across the airwaves, as he was entitled to be, Roeder turned things around. Now the message trickling out to West Ham's supporters is that the man they scorned knows what he is doing.

What makes a good manager, anyway? Towards the turn of the year plenty of people gleefully considered the possibility that what was thought to be Sir Alex Ferguson's last season in management would dribble away into failure. Predictably, Ferguson steadied the ship, launched a fresh assault on the Premiership title and came back from Spain this week with the European Cup in his sights. So much for critics who felt that Ferguson had lost his zest for the game.

Presumably because it does not fit the bill, Ferguson has not been esteemed as highly for his intellectual qualities as for his growling temper and demanding standards. There are hundreds of coaches who growl; growling has not made Ferguson a great coach. There are plenty of coaches who are disciplinarians and they are pale imitations of him. Where Ferguson beats most of them is in the brains department.

The brains department is where Sven Goran Eriksson comes in, but is he putting too much faith in the traditional strengths of English football. Since that surreal victory in Germany last year, England have been outpassed in most of their matches. As shown against Italy last week, clean reception and retention of the ball remains a problem. So far given an easy ride in newspapers and across the airwaves, Eriksson says little for public consumption.

In management the late Johnny Carey watched matches in silence, puffing on his pipe. "He must know something because he doesn't say anything," somebody once said.