Wise words from “The Gaffer”

The football manager.

In my youth, a man occasionally seen on “Match of the Day” after his team had played. Usually he would be perched high on a TV gantry at the Goldstone Ground or Bramall Lane. It was often cold and dark and everyone wanted to get home. The game had ended goalless, but as the cameras were there (in itself something of a rarity) he’d do a minute or so of “pleased with the point” (when you only got two for a win) and “yes, Colin Suggett was injured today” (why are there no footballers called Colin Suggett these days?). And John Motson, embedded in his sheepskin coat rather than wearing it, would thank him for his time. And that was that. Back to Jimmy Hill in the studio.

Fast forward three decades or more and what do we have? A man who picks eleven players to go out and win a football match? No, no, no.

A collection of men who are vaunted or despised, oft-quoted or abused, semi-beatified or threatened with death, based on their ability to get their team to a position where even the most potty, one-eyed, utterly deluded supporter will declare himself “satisfied” when he rings his local radio station’s post-match phone-in. Some managers are in sharp suits, some are in tracksuits, but they share one thing: the ability to tell you that night is day, that black is white, that the other team’s equaliser was offside, and that their centre-half was harshly treated for what would be viewed as a common assault anywhere else in society other than on a football pitch.

In the early 1990s when Kevin Keegan returned to Newcastle United as manager, having played for them in the 1980s, for the first time I heard the word “Messiah” in connection with football. Keegan would not only deliver them from evil, or the Third Division as it was called in those days, but also protect them against trespasses and sign Paul Bracewell from Sunderland. In January 1995 he went from “Messiah” to “very naughty boy” when he sold Andy Cole to Manchester Utd, but it was another two years before the wheels finally waved a tear-filled goodbye to the bandwagon. Five years for a “Messiah”? Doesn’t sound like much does it? Well, it’s a lot longer than they get given these days. The modern demi-God, even with friends in the media, even with a lovely line in Armani suits and “banter” (as we are obliged to call it), rarely gets more than two years to turn his five loaves and two fishes into a team capable of winning the league by eleven points and handing Barcelona a 6-1 thrashing in the Nou Camp.

The modern manager is “under pressure” from the off, and he knows it. So perhaps with that in mind, we shouldn’t judge him too harshly, should we? He’s bound to be worried about paying off the mortgage, a mortgage (based on his salary) that would pay the national debts of a number of the smaller African countries. And he’s bound to spout his fair share of nonsense, given the constant media need for sound-bites, quotes and platitudes, which means he has to hold a press conference at least once a week and answer daft questions from journalists. In the back of his mind, I suspect, he’s aware that if he can be a “bit of a character” then punditry work will beckon once the chairman has seen the light and booted him out of the door after a 2-0 home defeat to Northampton Town in the League Cup. So it’s a fine line – be a human being, but don’t say anything too silly; be humorous, but don’t overdo it in case Dave from Enfield thinks you regard failure to qualify for the Europa League as a laughing matter; and ALWAYS, regardless of the latest result, say you “can’t fault the effort” of a group of players with an average weekly salary of £70,000.

Which kind of brings me onto Samuel Allardyce, manager of Hoofball United (formerly West Ham United). “Big” Sam (as you must call him if you wish to be taken seriously by those who know their “footie”) has an opinion on everything. Here is a man who once mused, on the subject of foreign managers, that had he been christened “Samuel Allardicio” he would have probably got the England job. No, Samuel, you would also have had to have been born at least sixty years before you actually were, when your Stone Age brand of “in yer face” football would have worked to more effect at international level than it does today. And, as one wag on one message board put it, had you been born in Italy rather than England, you’d be working on a farm rather than inflicting your “philosophy” on a football team.

The gum-chewing sage has lately offered his opinion on the ritual handshake before Premier League games, which was brought into focus most recently at the QPR-Chelsea match when Anton Ferdinand avoided shaking hands with both John “Boys Done Good” Terry and Ashley “Choc Ice” Cole. The handshake, concluded one of the game’s great thinkers (a man sure to be mentioned in years to come alongside Rinus Michels or the 1970 Brazil team), is “just a bit of political correctness”. That’s right, a bit of political correctness. How many of you realised that, the last time you shook someone’s hand as a gesture of good will or friendship, you were infact engaging in nothing more than a bit of “PC”? No, me neither.

Anyway, there we have it, the wise man has spoken. And how many in our craven football media sought to take him up on this piece of nonsense? None at all, I gather. Heads nodded in agreement. Plain-speaking “Big” Sam and his home-spun brand of “common sense” both went unquestioned. Best not to rock the boat, the toadies concluded, or we might not get invited to the next instalment of Pumpkin Head’s views on life and the universe. Come on journos, you’ll always have Twitter, and that’s where you get most of your stories from these days anyway. Show some spine for once.

At West Ham’s next fixture (home to Sunderland) keep your eye on the bloke whose head would look more at home on Easter Island. The one in the suit and claret & blue tie. Make sure he doesn’t go over to Sunderland manager Martin O’Neill and offer a handshake, either before or after the game. To do so would of course be the height of hypocrisy. I just can’t imagine him doing it, can you?

Nice one, “Gaffer”.

 “Launch it lads, that’s what they pay me for”

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