The Nick Townsend Column: A game for the players? Not if those demons of the dug-out can help it

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The Independent Online

It was like the onset of the rutting season. All it lacked was Sir David Attenborough's descriptive powers as Arsenal's Arsène Wenger and West Ham's Alan Pardew locked antlers at Upton Park on Sunday and the technical areas became more like testosterone-charged enclaves. "There they are, two alpha males," the veteran nature presenter's breathless tones might have pronounced. "Exhilaration; that primal ritual, the clenched fist as the conqueror is raised aloft by his pack; the movement towards each other, then hostility, followed ultimately by rejection."

Except this was a pair of football managers indulging in a playground-like spat, with that element of "hold me back, lads". It was, of course, inexcusable and absurd, and despite some members of the brotherhood's support for the duo who had embarrassed the entire profession, the Football Association's forensic officers really did not have to dust the evidence too microscopically to level a charge of "improper conduct".

It was shocking, principally because Wenger was the prime provocateur; a man whose name is synonymous with sang-froid. Yet, that moment and more and more like it serve to illustrate the changing mores of management, in which the boss has undergone a metamorphosis from learned assessorin the stand to an active, significant and often malevolent participant.

Do they ever watch themselves? Listen to themselves? Probably not. If they could peer around their egos for a minute, and glance in the mirror of truths, they would confront an unattractive spectacle. A moral vacuum is developing when it comes to responsibility in the national game; from the top downwards.

Chairmen countenance crazy talk, and occasionally idiotic acts, from managers. "A brief little piece of passion" was how the Arsenal chairman Peter Hill-Wood excused Wenger, who has offered no explanation or apology. It would be nice to believe it is because he is mortified by his own behaviour.

Meanwhile Wenger and others too frequently continue to indulge players' ill-discipline and intemperate observations. Across London, will Chelsea's Ashley Cole and John Terry have been reminded, after their comments regarding Graham Poll's refereeing in their defeat by Tottenham, that their responsibilities extend beyond another title and a possible Champions' League crown? Not when their manager is Jose Mourinho, master of forming circles with wagon trains of defiance against arrows of admonishment.

On the subject of which, one is entitled to ask: what is the referees' chief Keith Hackett doing agreeing to meet Mourinho, apparently to discuss Chelsea's complaints arising from that Tottenham game? It is further evidence of managers seeking to influence in a wholly insidious manner those appointed to officiate future matches.

It is pertinent to ask, incidentally, whether Poll's authority has been undermined by his World Cup aberration. Is there a suggestion that players and managers detect a vulnerability they can exploit? If Hackett believes that the Hertfordshire official remains England's best, he should back him resolutely, not consort with a manager who primarily seeks any advantage for his own team.

Sir Alex Ferguson asks: "Now that Keith Hackett is meeting Jose Mourinho, what is going on in this world?" Frankly, it may be a bit rich for the Scot to protest, given his own history, but on this occasion he does have a valid point when he suggests: "It seems absolutely ludicrous."

Mr Hackett could do worse than consult The Laws. Section 5 begins: "Each match is controlled by a referee who has full authority to enforce the Laws of the game..." Does he any longer? One wonders. Shouldn't that wording continue with "... under the duress of the managers' pre-match comments, and taking into regard their possible post-match responses."

To borrow from that old Pepsi ad slogan, Mourinho and his ilk have become a gum-chewing, fist-clenching, referee-baiting, mind-game playing, turf-sliding collective. And all of them lip-serving in their insistence that the game is "all about the players" when palpably it is no longer. It is too often about the managers, and the enemy beyond: the match officials.

That is what is most troubling about recent events. Unusually, the contretemps at Upton Park did not directly involve a referee, though it did indirectly. Wenger was presumably as much irked by Rob Styles's failure to award his team a penalty as by Pardew's ridiculous histrionics when West Ham scored.

Managers at the élite level are failing to recognise just where and how their actions and words are taking and shaping the game. But hold on, they will protest. You don't understand the euphoria of winning a match after eight successive defeats. You don't comprehend the frustration of a certain penalty claim being rejected.

We must not sanitise the game, they implore us. It's all about passion - that catch-all word of mitigation - and you must not destroy that. If only it was true of these demons of the dug-outs; if only we could dismiss their presence as merely a piece of theatre in the same sense that old ladies used to hurl abuse and metaphorical handbags at Giant Haystacks and Big Daddy in the heyday of TV wrestling. But ever since the genie was released from the bottle to inflict merry hell, there has been no going back.

Place managers and coaches adjacent to the action and it is inevitable they will become part of it - and all will be captured by all-seeing TV lenses which leave no act of malevolence or petulance concealed. Prior to the match, there are dire warnings of what an official must expect from a team's opponents; recall Mourinho's comments about Eidur Gudjohnsen's alleged diving since leaving Chelsea.

It was not always thus. As hard as you rattle the cells of your imagination, it is impossible to conceive of Bill Shankly, Bob Paisley, Matt Busby or Alf Ramsey being submerged under players or backroom staff, or sliding on their knees to acclaim a goal Mourinho-style (below). Or indulging in sparring with one of their counterparts. Or intimidating officials, by word or deed.

But that is to evoke an era when managers traded pleasantries, not insults, and that in the boardroom afterwards. There was a time when the laws forbade touchline coaching and when the "bench" was just that; a wooden device for a fellow called the trainer, equipped with a bucket, sponge and smelling salts, to park his backside.

By the late Sixties, substitutes began to swell the numbers on the bench. Now a basic piece of furniture has become a plush-seated area accommodating a body of men approaching the size of a Welsh male-voice choir. In front of them, the conductor. Far from it being illegal to coach from the touchline it has become almost mandatory for managers to issue instructions from the so-called technical area.

Only it has become more a play-pen of dissent, as toys are hurled between managers and coaches and, more disturbingly, lobbed at officials. It's ironic that, on Sunday, Mourinho accused Poll of wanting to be the star of the show. Perhaps on occasions, the whistler from Tring does like to ham it up. But not half as much as the psychological warrior from Stamford Bridge and a certain petulantProfesseur.

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