The Last Word: Player power can work but not KP's way

Modern man-management involves tricky balance of pandering to massive egos while retaining authority
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The Independent Online

The headline said it all: "Pietersen must bury differences with coach Moores". This, however, was not from a recent newspaper. It was on the back page of The Independent on 5 August, the day after Kevin Pietersen succeeded Michael Vaughan as the England cricket captain.

Last week's events, culminating in the departures of England's two pivotal figures, were an accident waiting to happen. The combination of an ego as big as Pietersen's and the intensity of Peter Moores' coaching style was a gunpowder mix of which Guy Fawkes would have approved.

Captaincy and management can be tricky at any level – ask anyone who has run a sporting team – but when conducted under forensic analysis by the media, they can become Herculean tasks. The chairman of a Lancashire League cricket club might have had time to bang heads together if his coach and captain had fallen out, but that is a much tougher proposition at England level.

The very nature of international competition in any sport puts extra pressure on relationships between players, captains, coaches and management. The players, by definition, are the best but bring egos as well as talent to the party. While central contracts should have strengthened team spirit in cricket, in that the national side spend more time together than in the past, international players in all sports still have intense periods playing and living alongside each other before going their separate ways for weeks on end and then starting the cycle again.

Friction, disagreements, blazing rows and even physical confrontations are inevitable. What matters is not whether they happen, but how you deal with them. Although there are important differences with our two other major team sports – a cricket captain, for example, has major decisions to make throughout a match – football and rugby union offer useful comparisons.

The emergence of influential coaches, as opposed to chairmen of selection panels, is a comparatively recent development in cricket and it has taken time to define their roles. In football, the job is more clearly under-stood after years of trial and error. Modern man-management frequently stems from the question of how to handle "player power". Freed from the ball and chain of old-style playing contracts and empowered by their vast wages, today's top footballers know they can seek a new deal elsewhere if they fall out with employers.

Only the strongest of managers survive, though strength should not be confused with the power to shout or bully. Arsène Wenger prefers dialogue to diatribe, choosing to consult rather than confront players, but Arsenal's manager retains complete authority.

When does consultation become player power? Bobby Robson and Brian Ashton both took England teams to World Cups and listened, mid-tournament, to their players. Robson denied that a players' deputation had persuaded him to change his line-up after England's first two matches yielded only one point in 1986, but the introduction of Peter Beardsley, Trevor Steven and Peter Reid in the next match, against Poland, did the trick.

Four years later a switch to a sweeper helped England to the semi-finals of Italia 90. Robson said he had planned the change all along, so was it a coincidence that it followed a meeting with senior players? Similarly, Sven Goran Eriksson dropped his "diamond" midfield formation at the 2004 European Championships after representations from senior England players. The change worked, England beating Switzerland 3-0, but Eriksson always denied that his hand had been forced.

Ashton believes in giving players the freedom to make their own decisions on the rugby pitch. Such a philosophy involves listening to players' views. Two years ago, after England had been thrashed by South Africa at the World Cup, Ashton was reported to have been told by one senior figureat a players' meeting to "pull his fucking finger out of his arse and put some work in". Changes were made and England reached the final.

The previous year, however, rugby saw another side of player power. Mike Ruddock led Wales to the 2005 Grand Slam, but two matches into the following Six Nations' Championship he was gone, having reportedly lost the confidence of some of his senior men.

Finding the balance between allowing powerful personalities to express themselves and retaining your authority is at the heart of management. When Jack Rowell became England rugby coach in 1994 he inherited Will Carling and had an uneasy relationship with him. Nevertheless, Carling led the team for nearly two more years until announcing, in similar fashion to Pietersen, that he was quitting.

It is perhaps a reflection of modern trends that, last week, the coach was unable to survive such a situation. The same was not true when Tommy Docherty, the Chelsea manager, grew tired of Terry Venables' growing influence as a player in the 1960s.

Docherty felt that Venables' contribution to team tactics was undermining his position. After Chelsea had beaten Roma 4-1 in the first leg of an Inter-Cities Fairs Cup tie at Stamford Bridge, with Venables scoring a hat-trick, Docherty decided to stay with a positive approach for the away leg. Venables, however, in consultation with other players, thought they should be more cautious and told Marvin Hinton to play as sweeper. A goalless draw sent Chelsea through.

Docherty later went to his chairman with a "him or me" ultimatum. When Chelsea signed Charlie Cooke, Venables knew the verdict. He was soon on his way to Tottenham, with the deal signed between the two legs of Chelsea's Fairs Cup semi-final against Barcelona.

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