It was said of Clough that he played all the angles before they started playing him, which meant never allowing his word to be questioned

Click to follow
The Independent Online
One of the bets you can strike today relates to what the future holds for some Premier League managers. If history is anything to go by at least two or three, maybe more, will be seeking employment elsewhere before the coming season is completed.

The Premier League is rich and its image makers are skilful. Word is current that managers now are a cut above those who were appointed on the flimsy basis of playing prowess, but that does not make them more secure or less likely to have their sanity questioned.

Last season saw the departure, for one reason or another, of Bruce Rioch (Arsenal), Frank Clark (Nottingham Forest), Ray Harford (Blackburn), Joe Royle (Everton), Ron Atkinson (Coventry) and Kevin Keegan (Newcastle). If you think things will be different this time around, then fancy has turned your mind to butter.

Without lusting to find out personally, I suppose that a football manager's eventual lot is sapped endurance, uncertain sleep and shredded patience. In time they are sure to be instructed on their unimportance. One manager of my acquaintance came under so much pressure that he could not bear to read the Sunday sports pages. "They're at it again," his wife would call from the foot of the stairs.

Many have suffered similarly without souring although it often takes retirement to mellow them. The very best acquired a PhD in self-education and were pragmatists.

Now, as always, managers are required to win or come close. A dreary team loses games and money. The game has never been more fashionable but there is still a need to sell tickets. The components of victory, that prerequisite to football salesmanship, remain complex. A manager formulates the game plan. He selects the team and had better ignore criticism from the stands otherwise he will end up sitting in them.

I was recently talking about all this with some other fellows from the old school. It was generally agreed that while financial trends have made football management more difficult there are reasons to suppose that great figures from the past would have got on top of the problems. "Players today have a lot more independence," one of my companions said, "but if men like Jock Stein, Bill Shankly and Brian Clough were in the game today I can't imagine they would stand for the antics we hear and read about."

They and others established a line that players crossed at their peril. They worked on the basis that football is neither simple nor scholarly and it was unwise to place too much trust in their charges. It was said of Clough that he played all the angles before they started playing him, which meant never allowing his word to be questioned.

Famously, many years ago, Stan Cullis of Wolverhampton Wanderers learned from a reporter that his entire first team were planning transfer requests. There was some substance to this, but the Wolves players, fearing Cullis's wrath, denied it when he confronted them.

It is tempting to conclude that football's changing audience make the manager's job more demanding than Cullis or any of his contemporaries could possibly have imagined. Many of today's judgements are so shrill, impulsive, and often inaccurate that whatever serious message lies within is cancelled. Alf Ramsey's message, "Managers get too much praise and therefore too much blame", is forgotten.

Players win and lose matches but players, for reasons that the game's marketeeers can supply without a moment's hesitation, are seldom called to account across the airwaves and in mass circulation newspapers.

The singular reality of football management is that it leads usually to conflict; if not with supporters then with players or directors. Without any great effort you can list the negatives. Alex Ferguson knew them the day he took up the job, but has proved the power of his persuasion and what an asset hardness can be. Ferguson didn't get to where he is by yielding to a star system and the quite ludicrous idea that allowances are now necessary in matters of discipline.

In many respects Ferguson represents virtues that are being chased out of the game to its detriment. The important thing for his profession is that his management style is one only people of unsound mind would bet against.