One of my acquaintances confined himself, hilariously, to unintelligibl e grunts and gestures
Thursday 02 October 1997
The impression grows that if some football coaches had their way players would be wired up to receive information. I can think of some whose eyes would light up if the facility were made available to them.
In fact Arsenal experimented with this many years ago at their training ground. The Welsh international Mel Charles, the younger brother of John Charles, found the experience utterly baffling. After 10 minutes Charles, an instinctive player, tore out his earpiece and stamped on it. "I'm so fucking confused," he said, "that I don't even know which way I'm supposed to be kicking."
One of the reasons why football has become so fashionable is because spectators can be zany and creative in their enthusiasm. Unfortunately for coaches when their teams have not been winning enough, which usually is the case, the crowd can get sullen and mutinous. In his efforts to avoid this, the coach advises against spontaneity.
The immediate visible result is that coaches come more and more into the picture, often exhibiting quite violent excitement. Such behaviour figures so often in the televising of football that a monthly award for touchline animation would come as no surprise personally.
It is not that long ago since touchline instruction was frowned on by the authorities. Coaches were required to remain seated and comport themselves in a manner that did not provoke the audience. Now they are allowed within a yard of play to issue orders and admonishment.
Until recently, rugby union teams remained on the field at half-time, beyond the reach of their coaches. The interval is now spent in the dressing- room and the captain's influence has consequently diminished.
A gift for humourless, non-stop overstatement of the obvious turns some coaches into parodies of themselves. One of my acquaintances confined himself, hilariously, to unintelligible grunts and gestures.
Joe Mercer once admitted that his gifts in management had little bearing on the transformation that saw Aston Villa come from a 4-0 interval deficit to draw 5-5. "I was so mad that I kicked over the tea urn and left them to it," he said.
In the recorded history of sport, players are seldom disappointed by a change in management. A new coach is a new hope, a chance to show that the old coach did not know what he was doing when he failed to recognise their extraordinary ability. It means they won't have to listen to the same old spiel, the same threats and pleas - they'll get exciting new ones.
The idea Brian Clough conveyed to his championship teams at Derby County and Nottingham Forest was that they were nothing without him. No player was safe from his scalding tongue.
One of the things we have to remember is that team players are often so occupied by their small piece of the action and so preoccupied with themselves and their fears, that they rarely have a conception of the big picture of the team or the game. That is why modern coaches take more and more upon themselves.
This has the paradoxical effect of creating problems in initiative that the coach is trying to alleviate. After Liverpool edged nervously past Celtic in the Uefa Cup this week, the BBC pundit Alan Hansen touched on the difficulties confronting their manager, Roy Evans. In Hansen's view the players should be accepting a lot more responsibility for Liverpool's patchy performances.
The trouble with the procedure that keeps coaching staffs occupied, alert and off the streets at night, is that it contains the seeds of its own destruction. In time players become conditioned to the notion that there will always be someone to do their thinking.
Encouraging more initiative than the game plan normally allows may seem like a sign of weakness to a coach, of losing control, of defeat, a reflection on his genius. What they should bear in mind is that sport was meant to be unrehearsed entertainment.
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