James Lawton: Managerial sackings are a grotesque abandonment of decent values

Foreign ownership resembles nothing so much as arrivals in an alien planet

James Lawton
Thursday 21 March 2013 00:33

Quite some time before he became the nation's best-rewarded football broadcaster and potato crisps salesman, Gary Lineker laughed out loud when asked if he had any yearnings for one of the better upholstered managers' offices.

"Yes, for about two seconds," he said. "It's a terrible job, no security, no respect and so many who are doing it seem to be on the point of a nervous breakdown. I saw one of the strongest of them yelling and running down the touchline the other day and I thought: 'become a manager? Are you kidding?'"

Ironically enough, the agitated figure he had in mind was the future Sir Alex Ferguson, who in these days of record-breaking mayhem is uniquely fireproof.

Lineker was taking a midwinter break watching Ashes cricket in Sydney and contemplating the rest of his life after the glory days with Barcelona and Spurs and England. The manager's job has always been unyieldingly tough, of course, but nearly 20 years on Lineker's almost casual assessment of its progressive hazards has grown into front-rank prophecy.

Today, when Gary Smith of Stevenage became the latest grim statistic in the culling of 103 managers and coaches in a season, there was both dismay and outrage at the League Managers' Association and this declaration from its chief executive, Richard Bevan: "It is embarrassing for the game that all these sackings are unfair dismissals. The volatility is undermining the profession."

If only it was volatility. It isn't, of course. It is a grotesque abandonment of decent values born of an ignorance that is inevitable when you consider the backgrounds of two of the worst examples of "volatility", Blackburn Rovers and Nottingham Forest. At Blackburn, where Michael Appleton this week became the third manager to go down this season, and at Forest, where in the re-instated Billy Davies they have their third manager since last July, the foreign ownership has resembled nothing so much as arrivals in an alien planet.

One former Championship chairman and director could hardly put it more starkly, saying: "It is questionable if the owners had ever heard the names of the towns let alone the meaning of their football clubs, before they made their investments. Their treatment of managers, the whole manner of their administration, is of course an absolute disgrace but the biggest scandal of all is that such people are allowed to take over so much of the English game."

The colonisation has taken many forms, almost all of them destructive, but the hard edge of it has come in the cavalier treatment of so many working football men. At Chelsea, the indifference to the feelings of the fans was expressed most brutally in the firing of Roberto Di Matteo six months after he won the Champions League. But Roman Abramovich's Russian compatriot Anton Zingarevich, owner of Reading, and Nicola Cortese, the Italian businessman chairman of Southampton, were no less ruthless in the brusque dismissals of local heroes Brian McDermott and Nigel Adkins.

The message is quite relentless. The foreign owner comes, he sees and he snaps up his asset with only minimal knowledge, or caring, for all that feeling and tradition which has gone into the making of his or her new property.

The story of Venky's, the Indian chicken people, and the Blackburn Rovers who once were nourished by the passionate old steelman and boyhood supporter Sir Jack Walker, might serve as the supreme parable of what can happen when the most evidently fit and proper qualification for ownership of an English football club is the ability to produce the asking price.

There is another, less dramatic but in its own small way perhaps telling, story about the attitudes, and priorities, of some of the new ruling class of the English game. It is the report, which a reliable witness insists is not apocryphal, of the foreign owners of one English club occupying the front row of their directors' box while spending most of the time watching Manchester United v Real Madrid on their iPads.

How do you reverse this trend of disconnection between those who own so much of English football and the others who support it, who inherit loyalties in the cradle and have never felt so detached from the policies of those who know little and perhaps care less about the shaping of the football club? In a perfect world you have a code for ownership – and a test of it before it is empowered.

If you have authority, you examine a hundred times more vigorously the suitability of pantomime owners such as Venky's. If you are the League Managers Association you might have advised the latest Blackburn victim, Appleton, about quite what he was stepping into when he left Blackpool, who as a consequence have in Paul Ince their third manager in a year.

In the meantime – and it could be a long one – there is another extremely forlorn option. It is to accept that English football has become somebody else's increasingly unfamiliar game.

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