Glenn Moore: Method to the madness of when a manager defends the indefensible

The Boxing Day Dossier

In following his players and donning a T-shirt defending Luis Suarez, despite the Football Association finding the Uruguayan guilty of racially abusing Patrice Evra, Kenny Dalglish was adopting one of management's oldest tenets: always back your players in public. Similarly the change in philosophy of Andre Villas-Boas – in August he insisted his players should be role models. Now he declares captain John Terry is innocent of racially abusing an opponent even if proved otherwise in a court of law. "In this particular case I would support John even if he was found guilty," said the Chelsea manager.

In more mundane football matters Alex McLeish, Aston Villa's manager, blamed Robin van Persie for Alan Hutton's dismissal against Arsenal suggesting he had "conned" the defender. Instead of criticising the defender for the loss of composure prompting his ludicrous 93rd-minute tackle on Thomas Vermaelen (which earned a second yellow card) he said Hutton should have been more "streetwise". Meanwhile, at Blackburn Rovers, Steve Kean again paid tribute to the players who have garnered just 10 points for him in 17 matches.

These affirmations of support are all examples of the unspoken compact managers enter into with players. Whatever the player's offence, however poor his performance, the manager will back him – at least until the player outlives his use. There was a reminder of this in Roy Keane's recent attack on Sir Alex Ferguson. No manager in the game has been better at circling the wagons and creating a them-and-us attitude than Ferguson. At Aberdeen he even recorded how often Glasgow-based reporters made the trip to Pittodrie to underline the "bias" he said they had against the "provincial upstarts".

At Manchester United, Ferguson continually defended Keane in the wake of indiscretions on and off the pitch, and smoothed over disputes. "I remember one really bad one, a proper blazing row, something happened at a Christmas do, but he dealt with it," Keane said last week. Keane was 27 then. Seven years later, having let rip at his team-mates on MUTV's notoriously never-broadcast Play The Pundit programme, Keane had a row with Ferguson's assistant, Carlos Queiroz, and Ferguson told his captain it was over.

Two months prior, the Manchester press pack had got wind of a similar argument with Queiroz but Ferguson told them: "[Roy] cares and I care and every so often we will clash. That doesn't affect the respect I have for him and I don't think it lessens my standing as a manager in his eyes."

It was a façade. As Keane reflected this month. "People say he stood by me, but not when I was 34."

A decade earlier, in 1995 Ferguson's immediate reaction to Eric Cantona's leap into the crowd at Selhurst Park was that Cantona should leave the club. But he never said so in public at the time and instead criticised the FA after it doubled the four-month ban United ultimately imposed.

Ferguson, Dalglish, Villas-Boas, McLeish and Kean know that if they are to ask players to follow their instructions, to run that extra yard when tracking back in the final minutes, to put their limbs in where it hurts, they need their support and loyalty. Once a match starts managers' livelihoods are in the hands of their players. Terry's competitive nature is such that he would probably have made that late covering run to block Emmanuel Adebayor's shot at White Hart Lane even had Villas-Boas not backed him. Probably. There is another factor in this case, having already alienated Frank Lampard Villas-Boas can hardly afford to aggravate the most powerful figure in his dressing room.

Sometimes managers do criticise. Neil Warnock has not been slow to point out his central defenders' inadequacies in recent weeks and Owen Coyle described some of his players as "mentally fragile". In these cases, however, they are challenging the players to respond. Bolton's have and Coyle will look for a repeat against Newcastle today. Warnock hopes for a response against Swansea tomorrow.

Behind closed doors, too, truths are told. One can be sure McLeish has left Hutton in no doubt of his anger, and the potential consequences for a player whose reckless tackling appears a liability – not least the fact the full-back is suspended against Stoke today and may not get his place back.

Kean, according to reports, has been too reluctant to deliver such a tongue-lashing, even behind closed doors. Maybe he will at Anfield today, though given the spotlight on Suarez, and expectation of a home win, Rovers may be able to play with more freedom than of late.

Every club is, of course, different, just as some players need a kick up the backside and others the equally clichéd arm-round-the-shoulder. Roberto Mancini can be severe on his players because he has high-calibre reserves, the resources and authority to buy or sell almost anybody, and probably feels he needs to be strict to keep control over such big egos. That said, it is clear even Mancini is granting Mario Balotelli more leeway than most of his team-mates.

One of the masters at man-management is Harry Redknapp and his careful positioning during the Luka Modric-for-Chelsea saga is paying off. At the time his suggestion that it was hard to stand in Modric's way seemed an attempt to ramp up the price with a view to spending the proceeds, now it becomes clear that by backing Modric's cause, against his chairman, Daniel Levy, he won the loyalty of the player. Modric is now playing superbly and Tottenham looking as likely as Chelsea to reach the Champions League.

The need to keep onside with players and their agents is one reason why most managers long ago ceded contract negotiations to chairmen and chief executives. As one pointed out, "You don't want to spend an hour arguing with a player about wages, then have to take him for training."

Chairmen make easy bogeymen, as do the FA, referees and the media. Circle the wagons, pull on the T-shirt, then go and win three points.

Chelsea V Fulham
Odds Home 30-100; Draw 4-1, Away 11-1.
Kick-off Today, 1pm (Highlights BBC 1, 10.45pm)

Team news David Luiz (knee) could return to partner John Terry in Chelsea's defence, but Branislav Ivanovic and John Obi Mikel (both hamstring) are doubts, while Frank Lampard could replace the suspended Ramires. Steve Sidwell (hernia) remains out for Fulham but has returned to training. Mark Schwarzer (spine) and Simon Davies (back) also miss out.

Bolton V Newcastle
Odds Home 6-4; Draw 12-5, Away 9-5.
Kick-off Today, 3pm (Highlights BBC 1, 10.45pm)

Team news Bolton are without Marcos Alonso, who misses six weeks with a foot injury, although David Wheater returns from suspension. Newcastle have Yohan Cabaye back from a ban but Dan Gosling is suspended. Alan Pardew will give late fitness tests to Davide Santon (knee) and Danny Guthrie (groin).

Liverpool V Blackburn
Odds Home 1-4; Draw 9-2, Away 12-1.
Kick-off Today, 3pm (Highlights BBC 1, 10.45pm)

Team news Jay Spearing returns to the Liverpool squad after serving a three-match suspension, while Craig Bellamy could be recalled after missing last week's draw at Wigan. Blackburn have worries over Paul Robinson (calf), with Martin Olsson (hamstring) and Ryan Nelsen (knee) still out. Gaël Givet (heart) is moving closer to a return.

Manchester United V Wigan
Odds Home 1-7; Draw 13-2, Away 20-1.
Kick-off Today, 3pm (Highlights BBC 1, 10.45pm)

Team news Sir Alex Ferguson hopes to have Phil Jones available after positive news from a check on the cheek injury he suffered at Fulham last week. Ashley Young (knee) is out, however. Wigan await updates on Steve Gohouri (flu) and Hugo Rodallega, while James McCarthy is expected to be fit for selection after suffering a knock against Liverpool.

Sunderland v Everton
Odds Home 6-4; Draw 9-4, Away 15-8.
Kick-off Today, 3pm (Highlights BBC 1, 10.45pm)

Team news Connor Wickham (knee) sits out the visit of Everton, while Fraizer Campbell (knee) remains short of fitness, along with Craig Gordon (knee). Seamus Coleman could be out for two weeks for Everton after picking up a groin injury against Swansea last week, while Jack Rodwell and Conor McAleny (both hamstring) are doubtful.

West Bromwich Albion v Manchester City
Odds Home 13-2; Draw 15-4, Away 2-5.
Kick-off Today, 3pm (Highlights BBC 1, 10.45pm)

Team news Roy Hodgson hopes to welcome back James Morrison (hamstring) after the midfielder missed last week's win at Newcastle, but Youssouf Mulumbu (groin) and Jerome Thomas (ankle) are doubts and Steven Reid (ankle) is out for a month. Edin Dzeko (ankle) is a doubt for Manchester City, along with defender Micah Richards (calf).

Stoke City v Aston Villa
Odds Home 10-11; Draw 5-2, Away 3-1.
Kick-off Today, 7.45pm (Sky Sports 1; Highlights BBC 1, 10.45pm)

Team news Ryan Shawcross (suspension) and Peter Crouch (illness) return for Stoke and Matthew Etherington could be involved, but Glenn Whelan (calf) is a doubt. The visitors are hopeful of having Darren Bent (thigh) back, but Alan Hutton is suspended after his red card against Arsenal.

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