Superman and a job that defies description

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The Independent Online
ANOTHER decent man and half-decent manager bit the dust last week. No journalist who has come across Frank Clark would react to his inevitable departure from Maine Road with anything other than a shake of the head. It will be of little consolation that Ruud Gullit will be in the same dole queue or that the Dutchman was another victim of the smoke-and-blanket method of communication so beloved of professional football. Clark heard of his dismissal on the radio; Gullit through Teletext. Who will be the first manager fired by pigeon post? Clark can at least match his more illustrious managerial casualty for gongs: two European Cup winner's medals apiece, Gullit with Milan, Clark with Nottingham Forest. Clark is a better guitar player too.

It was telling that in his impassioned defence on the morning after his sacking, Gullit consistently referred to himself as the "coach". (At one point, he said "I am the coach", which brought a typically acerbic response from an Italian journalist, "you mean you were the coach".) In all communications from Chelsea, Gullit was termed the "player- manager", which suggests that, not for the first time in the history of English football, the job description was less than crystal clear. Yet Gullit was reputedly taking home (nett not gross) the piffling wage of pounds 40,000 a week. For what? As a player when he didn't play; as a manager when he didn't manage or a coach when he refused to stay on after training to work with individual players and often showered, changed and left the dressing-room after a match without saying a word.

The confusion, so eloquently voiced by Colin Hutchinson, the Chelsea chief executive, one day and Gullit the next reflected the woeful absence of a proper management structure inside an organisation still operating in a twilight zone between city institution and football club. For that, Chelsea should shoulder as much of the blame as Gullit. Behind the mock- Tudor facade of Premiership clubs lies the same old two-up two-down.

At the root of the problem is the blurred distinction between manager and coach and the reluctance of English clubs to relinquish the notion of the omnipotent manager. Jim Smith, Ron Atkinson and Howard Kendall have all found a new lease of life in a world supposedly going continental. For all the foreign influence, Premiership clubs have come no closer to adopting the Italian and Dutch system of demarcation any more than the Chelsea players had been trained to cope with the rotation system Gullit transferred from Italy. At Internazionale, Roy Hodgson had to do most of his paper work inside the dressing-room. He never had an office. What would a coach want with an office when all his work was done outside on the training ground?

From their base in the distinctly non-footballing territory of Leamington Spa, the League Managers' Association have been preaching the virtues of the split-role for years. This is a job description of a football manager taken from a circular, The time may have come to revise the manager's responsibilities, sent to club chairmen in March 1995. "Responsibility for method of play, team selection, appointment of ancillary staff, the coaching of reserve and junior teams, scouting, transfer negotiations, dealing with agents, players' salaries and contracts, the recruitment and development of youngsters, answering fans and other letters and, last but not least, dealing with the media." The circular comments: "Even Superman might shake his head in disbelief."

Old-fashioned despots such as Brian Clough, Bill Shankly and Jock Stein, of whom Alex Ferguson is the most noted contemporary disciple, would not have their clubs run any other way. But as the FA "bung" inquiry has highlighted, accountancy and accountability were hardly the twin towers of football in the Seventies, particularly in those kingdoms run by managerial dictators. Absolute power could corrupt absolutely, and frequently did. Unfortunately, the LMA's cause has been consistently undermined by the fact that successive chief executives - Jim Smith, Steve Coppell and Gordon Milne - have been lured back to the very job they seemed to find so uncomfortable. Once a Superman...

The LMA paper concluded that "the administrative structures of English clubs are decades behind their counterparts in European and American sport generally". Gullit might say "amen" to that, but a brief look at the chaotic press arrangements of most Premiership clubs would be enough to confirm how little has changed nearly three years on. Few have decent press boxes; even fewer a glimmer of understanding about how to service the press. The Freemasons are positively communicative in comparison.

So, please welcome the latest recruit - Joe Royle has to be discounted on the grounds that a week when Manchester City did not change their manager would be more newsworthy - to the ranks of the Supermen, Gianluca Vialli. His start has been eye-catching. How many other managers have led their team to Wembley after one match? The appointment of Vialli was likened by Fabio Capello, the wise old fox of Italian football, to a non-driver being given a Formula One car. That is a true reflection of Vialli's experience of management and a very flattering reference to Chelsea, whose history suggests more of a souped-up Escort: lots of noise, not much action.

In Italy, news of Vialli's swift promotion was greeted with incomprehension and fits of giggles, proof, if any was needed, that English football has still not found the exit to Jurassic Park. Even a player of his stature would be sent off to a Serie B side to learn his trade and earn his coaching certificate before he would be allowed anywhere near the precious limbs and delicate psyches of a Serie A player. When Hutchinson canvassed staff at Juventus on Vialli's coaching potential, the response was favourable. In the long-term, the Italians presumed, not now. But Chelsea have set their hat at the idea of a high-profile player-manager and, whatever the obvious pitfalls, you have to admire their perseverance. Hoddle and Gullit are tough, but not uniformly successful, acts to follow.

This week, the drums will roll elsewhere. Roy Evans' watery blue eyes will be focused on tomorrow night's local derby against Everton, a red- light match for any manager on the edge and one which precipitated the end of Kenny Dalglish at Anfield. Defeat by Middlesbrough was compounded by confused tactics. Evans switched from 4-4-2 to 3-5-2 and Liverpool conceded two goals in the first three minutes as his defenders found their bearings. Another defeat by Everton would surely signal the end and, if the persistent rumours are right, Steve McManaman and Robbie Fowler will be the first ones out of the door at the end of the season. In Dalglish, Liverpool turned to a player-manager; in Souness to another old favourite. Evans' appointment, though widely welcomed, was a case of back to basics. For what it's worth, William Hill, those skilled readers of the runes, have installed the former French coach Gerard Houllier as the 4-1 favourite with John Toshack, Kevin Keegan and Dalglish at 9-2. I fancy a flutter on the 8-1 shot. Gullit for Liverpool? I wonder if he has heard of Bill Shankly.

Peter Corrigan is on holiday