1 November ~ I spent some time last week watching the manager of the St Louis Cardinals, Tony La Russa. Like most Major League Baseball managers, La Russa is inscrutable. No matter what happens on the field, his expression remains the same. Like most MLB managers, he’s in his 60s. He’s serious, he’s wrinkled, he chews gum. He takes notes, and when he takes action he is supremely calm. When something dramatic happens, there’s a camera focused on his face, just in case the unthinkable should transpire. In case he betrays emotion. How I’d love to see just one manager like him in modern football.
During the sixth game of the Cardinals’ World Series face-off with the Texas Rangers – widely held to be one of the most dramatic games of baseball in the game’s history – two Cardinals fielders collided in farcical fashion, and consequently one of them spooned an easy catch. It was the sort of amateur mistake John Terry made when he slipped over to let Robin van Persie in to score for Arsenal towards the end of Saturday’s goal-swap slapstick free-for-all. As usual, the camera looked at La Russa. Surely there would be some sort of a reaction to such a crass, schoolboy mistake. And indeed, he grimaced. For maybe one quarter of a second. In fact, it was more of a twitch, only visible to the naked eye in slow motion.
One aspect of football I abhor more than any other is the behaviour of the managers who ape fans and players alike. I understand that the stakes are high, and that they are just as emotionally involved as the rest of us. But I want the manager to be better than that. I want him to be above the game’s transient whoops of joy and groans of frustration and despair. I want him to be cool and concentrated.
If his team scores, I wish that instead of celebrating and doing a stupid little dance up and down the touchline, he would already be focused on how to defend that goal, or on how to score the next one. When his team concedes, I want him to be mentally reconstructing the errors in his head that caused it, so that he can correct them on the training ground on Monday morning. It’s hard to respect The Boss when he’s holding his head in his hands or up close and shouting in the face of the fourth official.
I want my perfect manager to be sage and balanced when he’s interviewed after the match. He never, ever talks about the referees. He gives credit to opponents where it’s due, otherwise he doesn’t mention them at all. He never slags off his own players, but neither will he fabricate excuses for their poor performance. So what’s he going to talk about? Maybe, just maybe, he can provide us with some insight into the game. He’s the manager of a professional football team, after all.
Sit down, Boss, and stay in your seat. Stop stalking around your technical area and gesticulating. Get your assistant to shout out instructions, if you must. But really, those well-paid athletes out there should know what they’re doing. You should have given them firm, clear instructions. Now you should be storing up wisdom that you’re learning from the game in front of you, not performing for the cameras like a boorish, beered-up super-fan.
Be studious and steely. Be dour and mysterious. Don’t let us know what’s on your mind. Don’t flinch from criticism in the media and catcalling from ignorant loudmouths hidden by the crowd. You don’t even register it. Your only sensibility should be towards the game, your players, and what happens on the field.
La Russa finally let loose, but only at the end of game seven of the World Series, when his team had become champions. Now there was time to celebrate and smile and jump into somebody’s arms. When it was deserved. When all the work was done, and only then. Ian Plenderleith