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Old 21st September 2017, 15:19   #1
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Default ‘Football manager excuses’ are for the supercoaches and the blustergaffers

‘Football manager excuses’ are for the supercoaches and the blustergaffers

Arguably the most admirable characters in modern football are the managers who embrace the basic unfairness of the sport and offer realism amid the Premier League’s inequalities

Paul Wilson
The Guardian
20 September 2017 17.30 BST

It is always appreciated when sport manages to offer colourful additions to the national lexicon – “squeaky bum time”, “I never said them things”, “do I not like that” etc – so it was pleasing to note that in criticising Ryanair’s handling of its self-made fiasco over flight cancellations this week the RBC investment bank accused the company of coming up with “football manager excuses”.

Blaming everyone but themselves, in other words. It is an expression that deserves to stick, because just about every manager has been guilty of it at some point and there have been several noteworthy examples even this early in the present season. The otherwise admirable Marco Silva was aggrieved about a couple of marginal offsides at the weekend when neither would have made a scrap of difference to the outcome of Watford’s match against Manchester City, while Ronald Koeman ludicrously tried to blame José Mourinho for increasing the pressure on Everton after watching his side ship 12 goals without reply in their last four games. For the record, Arsène Wenger was not whingeing when he pondered whether the colour of Alexander Lacazette’s boots might have alerted the referee’s assistant to the fact that his toe was in an offside position before his disallowed goal at Stoke, he was merely passing on the views of a supporter who had pointed out the possibility.

Of course football managers are caught between a rock and a hard place when results go against them. They are contractually obliged to speak to the cameras and press and perfectly aware that ill-chosen words – such as criticism of their own players or the club’s transfer business – would most likely make the situation worse. The safest option, saying nothing, is not generally available, so they can hardly be blamed for latching on to whatever positives they can grasp or pointing out a few bits of bad luck that might have turned a defeat into a thrashing.

Yet this is precisely the deal managers accept when they take the jobs and for the most part they are paid very well for it. Even if the arrangement only lasts a few months it can be enormously rewarding. Harry Redknapp received a £250,000 bonus for keeping Birmingham up at the end of last season, and £1.75m in compensation eight games later after supervising just a single victory. Redknapp is 70, and is now letting it be known that the Birmingham gig may be his last in a managerial capacity. Perhaps he might have shared that information with his employers over summer, although really the club should have worked it out for themselves. No one actually imagines Redknapp will be offered another top‑line opportunity after the way his latest short-term pension booster worked out, though equally no one expects the manager to turn a position down should anyone be desperate enough to ask a few months on from now.

Yet just because some managers have turned themselves into caricatures does not mean they are all figures of fun, and while everyone knows what is meant by “football manager excuses” it would be a mistake to view everyone in the profession as hapless hostages to fortune. Somewhere between the supercoaches at the major clubs and the blustergaffers operating several levels below is a collection of individuals offering fresh ideas, sound principles and solid application.

Arguably the most admirable characters in modern football are the managers who embrace the basic unfairness of the sport, the sloping playing field caused by the huge financial disparities, and stoically set about obtaining results and points against theoretically superior sides. Don’t worry, this is not a plea for the return of Sam Allardyce, though he does tick most of the boxes for courage and competence and tends not to blame others for his shortcomings. The former Bolton Wanderers and briefly England manager, probably the best firefighter in the business, is far from the only underdog to have overachieved in the past 25 years of the Premier League. Others would certainly include Tony Pulis, Dave Bassett, Neil Warnock and Paul Jewell, with the baton being carried at the moment by the likes of Sean Dyche, Eddie Howe and David Wagner.

Bassett said in the very early years of the Premier League that he had no respect for Alan Hansen’s opinions on Match of the Day, because however trenchant a critic the former Liverpool player had never tried his hand at management and therefore had no appreciation of how hard it might be to send out teams to obtain results against much stronger and wealthier opponents. That may be an extreme position but the inequalities within the Premier League have only increased in the past couple of decades.

Football did not begin in 1992, though the hitherto alien notion of leagues within a league and an unbreakable elite at the top of the division certainly received a kickstart with the advent of the Premier League and the reformatting of the European Cup into a de facto European super league. Add to the mix the immense wealth and unbridled spending of clubs such as Chelsea and Manchester City over the past few years and there is now a top-end situation where teams of the stature of Arsenal, Liverpool and Manchester United have begun to feel the squeeze. It feels surreal at times that clubs the size of Bournemouth, Burnley and Huddersfield have to fight for enough points to survive among these behemoths, but Messrs Howe, Dyche and Wagner generally do so with a smile on their faces and so far this season Burnley and Huddersfield at least are giving a good account of themselves.

So while “football manager excuses” might be a welcome addition to the language, it should be noted that relatively few team bosses are the sort of muppets who actually believe that referees, weather conditions or freak occurrences of some other kind are conspiring against their sides. Nor is it even true that underdog managers always have to be dour, defensive types, out to gain a point through stifling opponents and spoiling the game. Burnley and Huddersfield have been playing bright, attacking football, Pulis at Crystal Palace was nothing like Pulis at Stoke, and some of the performances Wigan produced under Roberto Martínez were excellent.

“You don’t want to harp on, but the playing field is completely not level; that’s the madness of it,” Dyche said after taking a point from Anfield at the weekend. Despite having to defend for most of the game, Burnley nevertheless managed to score first. “Liverpool made seven changes today, for guys they have brought here for absolute fortunes,” the Burnley manager pointed out. “They’re bringing players off the bench at £30m a time. We can’t do that, but I actually believe in my players no matter how much they cost. Our job was to find a way of getting a point, and that’s what we did.”

There you are, no excuses, just a realistic appraisal of what might be termed difficult trading conditions. Dyche has already been suggested as a possible future England manager, so if Ryanair wants a straight-talking problem-solver to sort out their current operational and communications woes, they could do a lot worse than putting FME behind them and making a bid for an FEM.
Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter. Martin Luther King
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