Brian Viner: Time for football's infantile managers to learn from the example of gridiron

For many, 'defensive tackle' evokes Terry at the Bridge, not Perry the Fridge
Click to follow
The Independent Online

It might be stretching a point to say that Chicago woke up on Monday rather as it did on the morning of 15 February, 1929, the day after four of Al Capone's men disguised as cops murdered seven of Bugs Moran's gang in what became known as the St Valentine's Day Massacre. But there was none the less a palpable feeling of shock in the Windy City as it came to terms with Sunday's 31-13 massacre of the Chicago Bears by the Miami Dolphins.

Before arriving in Illinois, the Dolphins had endured a miserable season in the NFL: played six, lost five. The Bears, by contrast, had been unbeaten: played seven, won seven. People were beginning to draw comparisons with Mike Ditka's fabled team of 1985, the one containing the mighty quarterback Jim McMahon, the brilliant running back Walter "Sweetness" Payton, whose tragically early death at the age of 45 is in no way responsible for the widespread conviction that no better player ever lived, and William "the Fridge" Perry, the man-mountain whose celebrity penetrated even the United Kingdom, where for most people, and despite the best efforts of the youthful Channel 4, the language of gridiron remained as impenetrable as Sanskrit.

There is a valid comparison too with the St Valentine's Day Massacre in that some Chicagoans felt that the bullet-riddled gangsters had got what was coming to them. Ditto the Bears, who in the eyes of some of their more perceptive fans were not quite as good as they thought they were. In Monday's Chicago Tribune, the columnist Mike Downey gloomily predicted that with the Giants, the Jets and the Patriots next up, all away from Chicago's quaintly named Soldier Field, the 7-0 record (meaning seven wins, no defeats) might soon be 7-4. On the other hand, not even the '85 Bears went unbeaten through a season. One team beat them, and that team was the Dolphins. So for those who yearn for history to repeat itself, and for the Bears to romp into the play-offs and then the Super Bowl, the hopeful parallels remain.

Besides, by almost any standards except those of 1985, this is unquestionably a very fine outfit, with a star player in middle linebacker Brian Urlacher who is rated even by Ditka, now an irrepressibly partisan television analyst, as highly as most of his players of yore. To a British observer, however, for whom footballs are round and a defensive tackle evokes John Terry at the Bridge rather than Perry the Fridge, the most intriguing character in the Bears set-up is the coach, Lovie Smith.

A modest, even-tempered man with a passing resemblance to the comedian Lenny Henry but absolutely none of his gregariousness, Smith took Sunday's crushing defeat with his trademark quiet equanimity. And I couldn't help thinking of Arsène Wenger and Jose Mourinho, who just a few hours earlier, several thousand miles to the east, had reacted to similarly unexpected defeats with not even a faint semblance of dignity. Shoving the opposition coach? Lambasting the referee? Not Smith. And not the massively disappointed Bears fans, either. Who ever thought that gridiron, with its relentless razzmatazz, would be able to show our football some manners?

Of course, it's all about personalities. Two decades ago the incorrigible loudmouth Ditka could hardly have given a lesson in dignified reticence to Bob Paisley, for example. Indeed, there is some amusement in Chicago concerning the stark differences between Ditka - "Da Coach" as the television show Saturday Night Live famously dubbed him - and Smith. Don Pierson of the Tribune, who has been covering the Bears since the late 1960s, told me that the pair are "as different as night and day. Back then, even if we didn't have a story, we could count on Ditka to give us one. When he said, 'I'm not going to say anything about this,' it was the signal to get our notebooks out. Lovie is the total opposite, very content to let the hoopla pass over his head."

Unlike Ditka, a celebrated Bear himself in the Sixties, Smith did not play pro football. Perhaps he can't quite believe that he's sitting at the top table (on which subject, Ditka now co-owns a Chicago restaurant where on Monday lunchtime I had the $11 "Fridge" burger, removing the need to eat anything further until Wednesday afternoon). Smith was born into poverty in Big Sandy, Texas, a background which doubtless helps him to tolerate his miserable salary of $1.35m (£700,000). In NFL terms, that scarcely lifts him above the breadline, although he can count on a substantial raise soon.

He is one of six black head coaches in the NFL, led, in more ways than one, by his mentor, Tony Dungy of the high-flying Indianapolis Colts. Compared with the ratio of African-American players in the NFL, which stands at around 70 per cent, six out of 35 is nothing to boast about. But it's not too long since there were none at all. Salary-capping, meanwhile, has manifestly helped the game. While our form of football is besmirched by infantile managers, cheating players and corrupt agents, and seems to have all the decorum of the school playground, the US brand is quietly, and sometimes loudly, putting its house in order.

Who I Like This Week...

Wigan's Paul Jewell, the first Premiership manager to articulate what so many of us feel about his brethren, particularly the managers of top clubs, declaring that he is fed up with them whingeing and seeking excuses after defeats. "I've never yet heard them come out and say they deserved to lose," said Jewell. Well, amen to that. And should anyone be in the slightest doubt who the main culprits are, one is Portuguese and the other is French. In defeat, compared with Chelsea's Jose Mourinho and Arsenal's Arsène Wenger, even Manchester United's Sir Alex Ferguson comes across as the essence of graciousness. If there's any truth in rumours that Rafa Benitez might move on sooner rather than later, Jewell would surely be a shoo-in for the Liverpool job. And as an Evertonian, still basking in the glory of an emphatic derby win, I have to say that would worry me.

And Who I Don't

Did I mention Everton? As regular readers know, I try not to on this page, but just occasionally I succumb, so let me again point the finger at Wenger, and indeed at my fellow columnist Neil Warnock, for trying to influence referees before their respective team's games against the Toffees, by suggesting that AndrewJohnson (right) is a diver. I was pleased to see Johnson's former manager Iain Dowie springing to his defence this week, because Johnson struck me even when he was at Crystal Palace as a notably honest player. And I'm sure David Moyes hasn't turned him into a cheat (unlike Frank Rijkaard with Eidur Gudjohnsen, in Jose Mourinho's fetid opinion).

b.viner@independent.co.uk

Comments