Mystery of managers' masochism

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The Independent Online
WHAT every footballer should know if he is planning to take up management is that it will probably disfigure his personality, and can lead to a great deal of heartache, even a premature trip to the morgue.

One of the deeper mysteries of this sporting life is why people who otherwise appear perfectly sane are drawn to a profession that is only slightly less precarious than holding office in what used to be the Soviet Union.

Deaf to sound words of advice, oblivious to history, and doubtless prodded by ego, they display an alarming enthusiasm for putting their heads in a noose.

As managers are almost powerless during the game, and the job involves satisfying supporters, as well as directors incapable of fully understanding the factors that can turn last season's fluent winners into puzzled-looking losers, who, in their right mind, would want it?

At this point, it may have crossed your mind that I am trundling towards an issue arising out of Brian Clough's decision to retire as the manager of Nottingham Forest. It was Clough's special glory that he didn't give a damn for chains of command, and established an independence few, if any, other managers have enjoyed. Clough gave himself that reward for lifting Forest out of obscurity and bringing more success than they ever imagined. Even so, it was not to the liking of everybody at the club, and we can be sure that his successor will not be accorded similar privileges.

According to reports, this does not deter Martin O'Neill, who performed notably for Forest under Clough, and has taken Wycombe Wanderers up from the GM Vauxhall Conference. 'Managing Barcelona wouldn't frighten me,' the Ulsterman said this week. 'The advice I always got was to go and learn your trade as a manager, and I have learned mine in the last few years.'

What struck me before I was halfway through that statement was that nothing much changes. Ambition breeds boldness. On the day news of Clough's impeding retirement came in, I thought with vivid suddenness of other times and places.

Especially of the day when Sir Alf Ramsey, the feted hero of 1966, was fired six months after England failed to qualify for the 1974 World Cup finals in West Germany. 'Football managers get too much credit and too much of the blame,' he once said, and the phrase came back to haunt him.

Dave Sexton first knew that he was no longer the manager of Manchester United when he saw reporters gathering at Old Trafford. Eight victories in a row had not saved him. Believing that he had been given custody of Tottenham Hotspur's future, Bill Nicholson, the most eminent manager in their history, set about appointing a successor. He alerted Danny Blanchflower and John Giles to the possibility of working with him in tandem.

'It's a marvellous idea,' I remember Blanchflower saying on a terrace at Wentworth golf club. Then came the news that Tottenham had nudged Nicholson into retirement, and given the job to Terry Neill. In time, he too would suffer.

These are only a few examples that occur to me, among the hundreds of assassinations that have taken place in football. Of course, Clough eventually got ahead of the game, working on the principle that it was wise to play all the angles before they started playing him. Nobody seriously pretends that a football manager is ever secure, but Clough made himself as safe as it is possible to be.

It is odd, though, that the one manager who seemed to have a more accurate vision than anyone else is the one whose features came to reveal the most strain. It did not seem possible that he would be unable to keep Forest out of trouble, or that he would leave before his intended time. But, in truth, it happens to them all. 'The longer you stay in the game, the further you grow away from it,' Joe Mercer once said.

Celtic treated their greatest manager, Jock Stein, shabbily. 'There's no real gratitude,' Bill Shankly said in his coal-cutter's voice, when his days at Liverpool were over. On the day of his appointment, the manager knows who is boss. He found out when his predecessor was shown the door.