When you examine Rafael Benitez's early managerial career it is a wonder he ever made it. But after every bad season and relegation he endured there was someone prepared to give this raw, talented young manager a chance.
Real Valladolid? Benitez didn't last the season. Osasuna? Sacked after seven games. At Extremadura, where he banned the players from chewing gum and ordered them to wear matching training kit, he was promoted, relegated and sacked. He went to Tenerife and won promotion, Valencia offered him a job and the rest is history, as immortalised on scores of banners in the Kop.
The moral of the story is not that sacking a young manager is helpful – although it did not deter Benitez – rather that one relegation, or one bad season, does not a bad manager make. English football's problem is the stigma that we attach to managers whose teams have been relegated, or managers who have been sacked. It is regarded as a form of professional bankruptcy rather than part of the learning process.
Which brings us to Gareth Southgate who, barring a rather unlikely turnaround in Middlesbrough's fortunes tonight, will find himself in the Championship in August. Southgate will be English football's litmus test for a new attitude towards our young managers. Can we forgive him? Will we, as Spanish football did for Benitez 15 years ago, invite him to get back on the horse and try again?
We should. Middlesbrough's chairman, Steve Gibson, has already promised to back him, English football needs to do the same. Too many young managers find themselves out of fashion, or bad jokes, just a few years into their careers. Walking out the Anfield reception around midnight after that momentous victory over Real Madrid in March, I passed the Benitez entourage strolling to their cars. At the back was Aidy Boothroyd, a man whose name still adorns the League Managers' Association's available list six months after his sacking by Watford.
You would wager that Boothroyd perhaps regrets some of the more David Brent-ian middle-management monologues during his one Premier League season, and has probably considered how he would do it differently next time. Unquestionably, he will be a better manager for it. There is no reason to suspect that Boothroyd is the same manager he was that season, any more than Benitez is the same man who found himself out of his depth at Real Valladolid.
Southgate's case is curious because, for many of his managerial peers, he invites resentment for landing his first job in the Premier League. His £12.7m, club record signing Afonso Alves could not be described as a success. He did not have the required Uefa Pro licence. He has benefited from the patience of who most people believe is the league's most sensible chairman.
Yet from the Middlesbrough team that contested the Uefa Cup final three years ago yesterday, Southgate has presided over a downsizing of the finances of the club. Ten of the first XI from that evening in Eindhoven, including Southgate himself, no longer play for Middlesbrough. Alves' expensive failings will always be hung around the neck of his young manager but in the Uefa Cup final, Middlesbrough had three £7m to £8m-plus players – Yakubu, Ugo Ehiogu and Massimo Maccarone – on the bench.
It would be wrong to say that Southgate has not had money at his disposal, he has just not had as much as his predecessors. His wage bill has gone from mid-table Premier League levels to one of the lowest five in the division. He has tried to follow a relatively sound principle of – where he can – buying young players cheap, such as Marvin Emnes and Didier Digard. He has encouraged academy players such as Adam Johnson, an impressive performer for the England Under-21s. It just has not worked out.
His principles have been sound, his results rather less so. This being Boro, there is only derision or worse, indifference, from the rest of English football. But what they have done with Southgate, given him the platform and time to learn the business, is a service to the game. English football does not benefit from English managers being tossed away like the cellophane on a cigarette packet, be they Alan Shearer or Southgate.
All Middlesbrough and Gibson have not been able to furnish Southgate with is the relative anonymity that benefited Benitez in his formative years. Arguably, the worst thing that happened to Benitez in those early days was that Real Valladolid, who had been relegated from Spain's top flight the season before he took over, were reinstated because of a legal dispute between the league and two of its clubs. Suddenly Benitez found himself in Spain's top league with a team he had built for the division below and, unsurprisingly, he struggled.
At times this season it has felt as if Southgate's young team have been similarly out of their depth. It would be wrong if all Southgate's experience were to be wasted because he found himself stigmatised as a failure. Gibson at least seems to be minded to stick with him whatever happens. But then the prospect of Gibson's former manager Steve McClaren getting the Ajax job this summer demonstrates that it is not just men of Benitez's calibre who are capable of bouncing back. As long as they are given the chance.
King and Bendtner club together to bring more ridicule on players
Fine work from two representatives of Arsenal and Tottenham this week in competing for the title of "most embarrassing way to leave a nightclub".
Nicklas Bendtner must have thought he had the prize in the bag when he emerged from Boujis nightclub in the early hours of Wednesday morning with his trousers around his knees.
But like all good captains, Ledley King refused to take that one lying down and by yesterday morning he had got himself arrested on suspicion of assault for an incident in Soho. It is a difficult one to call. Bendtner gets marks for sheer originality; but the testament from a nightclub bouncer on Five Live yesterday that King boasted about his wealth shows the Spurs captain relied on a classic, tried-and-tested approach.
For those of us who refuse to accept the consensus that all footballers are overpaid wasters, Bendtner and King are not helping the cause.
Barça's back-room boys prove just as bad
Popular consensus says they are everyone's second club and we're supposed to genuflect in front of Barcelona's wonderful attacking football. But sadly Wednesday night demonstrated that they have just as many irritating back-room staff – ready to brandish imaginary cards at the referee and eager to thrust themselves into the limelight from the back of the dugout – as the worst offenders.
Is Almunia English? Depends what day of the week it is
Just remind me, where are we today on Manuel Almunia? When he took his eye off Cristiano Ronaldo's free-kick on Tuesday night, Arsenal's goalkeeper was very much a Spanish goalkeeper. But by Saturday afternoon when David James was all over the place at Ewood Park, old Manuel was feeling just a bit more Yorkshire pud and roast beef again.
Surely the point is that neither of these two are quite up to it, but James has one undeniable advantage over Almunia in terms of playing international football for England: he's English. But please no lectures from north of the border. Scotland have just got clearance to pick the Peterborough winger George Boyd on the basis that his grandfather was born in Motherwell. Wouldn't it just have been fairer to pick Boyd's grandfather instead?Reuse content