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Growing pains

Cameron Carter digests the latest verbal jousts between Rafa and Alex and co and detects more childish bickering than cunning mind-games

A significant proportion of advertisements these days, particularly the daytime ones, depict attractive, long-suffering women coping with a man who, though apparently the husband, could also be her idiot child. This is so that the female consumers being targeted can laugh knowingly to themselves about how childlike men are before nipping out to spend good money on Buttercup Eyelid Cleanser and dog insurance.

Today’s top football managers, although displaying the outward sign of maturity – silvering temples, spectacles, a nice suit and tie – are unfortunately perpetuating the marketing myth that all men are little boys inside. It’s easy to lose track of all the episodes of petty squabbling and back-biting, but at the time of writing it would be accurate to say that Rafael doesn’t like Alex because he’s a moaner and the FA’s pet and Alex doesn’t like Rafael because he’s arrogant and a tell-tale but he likes Arsène again now because he knew Arsène ages before Rafael was around. Arsène doesn’t like Phil (and that’s mutual) because Phil’s a time-waster and Big Sam doesn’t like Rafael either and although Steve and Mark used to play nicely together they aren’t friends anymore because of the Robbie Savage thing ages ago, but everyone likes Gareth because he’s really no trouble.

The year’s high point of this type of behaviour, Rafael Benítez’s famous list, carefully read out to an increasingly delighted group of journalists, must have seemed at the time to be the mature way to air one’s grievances in public. What it actually looked like was a schoolboy who can’t fight squeaking back at the school bully from between two ­teachers.

We can assume Sir Alex was rubbing his hands at this stylised outburst, but Ferguson himself hasn’t always appeared to be in control this season. He virtually accused David Moyes, or “The Ref Whisperer” as we must now call him, of influencing a referee’s decision-making through his comments before the FA Cup semi-final. Although Moyes was only responding to a muck-raking journalist’s question, his reply to supplementary questioning on the subject is straight from the Beginner’s Book of Inflammatory Equivocation: “A member of the press asked me if Mike Riley is a Manchester United supporter – I think that is something you would need to bring up with the FA. It is something that one or two managers would have something to say about.”

Moyes has a bit of a history of hinting, the only half-dignified way to have a pop at another manager. Before Everton’s fourth round game with Liverpool in January and amid growing uncertainty surrounding Benítez’s future at Anfield, he deadpanned to the press: “The chairman would never do anything without my agreement. It’s important for managers to have control. It is something you earn by how you work within the club and how you deal with people.” Moyes clearly had at the back of his mind Benítez’s previous dismissal of Everton as “a small club” and this illustrates a characteristic pattern of inter-managerial sniping: that the “No I’m Not” response to the opposition’s “Yes You Are” may take days, weeks or even months to come back, but, with the media always on hand to fan the flames, it certainly will come back.

The big winners in all this – apart from us – are the newspapers. Moyes’ comments on Mike Riley were in reply to a loaded question from a journalist. Phil Brown’s mini-feud with Ricky Sbragia originated in a fairly innocuous remark that was made-over into the belligerent battle-cry headline of “Sunderland are a spent force”, which Sbragia pinned to the dressing-room walls when the teams met in the league. On cosy old Match of the Day recently, Harry Redknapp was asked if Manchester United’s controversial penalty would have been given if the game was not at Old Trafford. It is extremely difficult to respond to this without saying something that sounds petulant and Redknapp quickly gave up and criticised the referee.

While the media like to run it as sophisticated psychological warfare, much of the verbal tussling between managers is merely the frothy bickering of bad losers. Wenger and Benítez seem perpetually surprised and outraged that smaller teams come to their place looking for a draw. Ferguson is often held up as the Napoleon of mind games but his labelling of Benítez as “arrogant” and “beyond the pale” was not his subtlest moment. Especially when you consider it took place during a press conference before the semi-final with Everton that should have had nothing to do with Liverpool, but was clearly just too tempting an opportunity to lay into his new worst enemy in the guise of defending an honest servant of the game like Sam Allardyce. Ferguson may have wisely chosen not to bother retaliating to the Benítez List at the time but it is obvious he has been simmering ever since, waiting for his chance to tell- tale back on him. And that’s the trouble with the most experienced managers at the top of the richest league in the world – it’s always tears before bedtime.

From WSC 268 June 2009


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