THE HALF DECENT FOOTBALL MAGAZINE

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

Comments (14)
Comment by Lincoln 2011-11-01 14:19:06

Good article. However in England an ex England manager was widely derided for watching a game emotionless, and has a mocking sobriquet that comes from using an umbrella during a period of heavy rain. Another one was mocked for sitting down too much and not shouting and being too like William Hague. Not shouting = no passion = no pride = doesn't care = not a good manager. At our own team, Lincoln City, Chris Sutton was lambasted for being a bit dreary and not reacting enough by waving arms about when it wasn't going well, the same for Steve Tilson who doubley offended by having a London accent.

Comment by Victor 2011-11-01 14:35:32

Good article but you might have picked a less prickly and thorny personality than Tony LaRussa to make your point. Tony LaRussa ha been thrown out of 79 baseball games in his career for arguing calls made by umpires, baseball's equivalent of a red card.

Tony LaRussa can also be quite condescending at times when questioned about strategy, and has a reputation for trying to outsmart and reinvent the game.

His Oakland team was also "ground zero" for steroid use in baseball but seemed to know nothing about it as his players took to looking like Paul Bunyon and Mr. Clean.

Comment by Bootleg Mark Chapman 2011-11-01 15:05:33

Rafa Benitez was often criticised by the likes of Andy Gray for not celebrating when Liverpool scored important goals during his time as manager. He was asked about this "lack of passion" and he replied saying something like "when you are emotional, you are not thinking clearly".

Comment by ian.64 2011-11-01 15:10:10

Martin O'Neill was lauded for jumping about as if he had a cattle prod trapped in his undies. That commentators would shower praise on him for doing a Tazmanian Devil act almost continuously got on my tits enormously.

Comment by Reed John 2011-11-01 17:52:48

A baseball manager getting run by the umpire is not the baseball equivalent of a Red Card. It rarely has an impact on the outcome of the game. The team still gets to field nine players the rest of the game and there are 162 games in the season so getting thrown out of one doesn't matter much. Arguments in baseball are like PM question time or Kabuki theater. Everyone knows their role and just plays it.

Comment by MoeTheBarman 2011-11-01 18:18:02

"No matter what happens on the field, his expression remains the same."

...answered by...

"Tony LaRussa ha been thrown out of 79 baseball games in his career for arguing calls made by umpires"

Well that article made sense then.

Comment by djw 2011-11-01 18:54:00

Good article Ian. Couldn't be more topical too, after Alan Pardew's screaming, grimacing 'celebration' when Toon were awarded that penalty at Stoke. A bit more dignity all round would be nice.

Comment by gradgrecian 2011-11-01 19:17:55

For a football manager who is everything you describe as the perfect manager, you need look no further than Exeter's Paul Tisdale.

Comment by quoththeraven 2011-11-01 19:35:48

While someone who has won as many games as La Russa should always be respected, he has also just demonstrated one of the other less admirable traits of managers, in that he has decided to leave the Cardinals straight after winning the title, and with their best player (Albert Pujols) most likely leaving too. While at 67 La Russa wouldn't be around forever, it does seem that he has put safeguarding his legacy over protecting the future of the team, and meaning whoever takes over in St Louis is set up for failure.

If you want to look for an example of a great manager and coach from across the pond, might I suggest the hockey legend Scotty Bowman

Comment by jasoñ voorhees 2011-11-01 20:44:48

As a coach, it's something I think about a lot. What Lincoln said in his equation was incredibly perceptive, and a huge weight on managers and fans and the media and the expectations of all.

When the media has a "responsibility" to "create news" that will "capture the interest of eyeballs," they will talk about shit that isn't news. This lack-of-news then gets perceived as news, then you get thousands of very dumb people who start to dumb shit about the coach (see Wolves supporters, the perpetual genius brigade of modern football, treating Mick McCarthy to a "you don't know what you're doing" chant until his substitution paid off. I guarantee there was not a "actually, we were projecting" chant afterwards.) This leads to pressure and expectations until it just gets easier to jump and down on the sideline like Mick Jagger getting told to dance by the bad guy in an Old West saloon.

The flip side of La Russa would be the handshake debacle between the Detroit Lions and the San Francisco 49ers last week, when the Lions coach Jim Schwartz (firey personality) did not like how hard Jim Harbaugh (more firey personality) shook his hand, causing one to chase the other across the field. Most of the talking heads were saying "As a player, I would love to have a coach fight like that," while the minority were saying "leave the violence to the players, you're supposed to be the brains of the operation."

For more maths, La Russa was thrown out of 79 games over the course of 5097 managed (each season is 162 games, and he was a manager for 33 years.) That's getting thrown out of 0.015 of the games in his career. That point is unassailable, as you can get thrown out for arguing a call and come back the next game. It's not nearly the same as a red card.

The most emotion he showed was the grabbing his head with both hands after the pitcher that he called for on the phone was not the one that took the field, who promptly gave up a game-losing pitch. However, for the game Mr. P is talking about, they were one pitch from losing twice, down 2 runs twice, and had many schoolboy errors as referenced in the article.

Finally, a coaching friend of mine saw Tauichi of Bolivia play St. Benedicts Prep (Claudio Reyna's and Tab Ramos's alma mater.) The coaches all sat on the bench, all with their sweatsuits zipped up to their chin, for the entire match. One was completely unable to discern who the head manager was. My friend aspired to this.

Comment by ooh aah 2011-11-02 16:40:47

It's easier to remain calm in a slow game like baseball though. It's like cricket in that respect. Football is so much faster that emotions build very quickly, and in that situation people are less likely to react in a manner that they would necessarilty aspire to. Nontheless I never understand why managers berate the 4th official, I find that absolutley mystifying

Comment by jameswba 2011-11-03 08:59:16

I don't know anything about baseball and hadn't heard of La Russa till this article. But suddenly he's all over the place. For example, I've just been reading a piece about his role in steroid use in baseball. He might be expressionless on the sidelines but there's obviously considerable disagreement about his virtues otherwise.

That apart, I agreed with much of this article and often think football managers/coaches would be better off up in the stand, from where you can see the game much much better.

On the other hand, a more 'active' coach might have a role to play when his team is a bunch of underdogs up against a stronger side. The best players generally do know where to be/what to do in nearly all given situations, lesser ones need telling time and time again. This is another of the many revealing insights in Gary Nelson's Left Foot in the Grave.

Comment by geobra 2011-11-03 13:52:25

Would we see better matches if the coach's match day input was limited to the half time team talk in the dressing room? Sometimes I'm not sure whether I'm watching a group of players displaying their talents more or less spontaneously or a bunch of puppets at the end of a string.

One coach who could benefit from advice to calm down is Juventus's Antonio Conte. If he goes on as he's started, he'll have a heart attack or a nervous breakdown before he's 50, not to mention that he'll need a vocal chord transplant.

Comment by PRB 2011-11-06 16:55:02

I'm the opposite. I prefer to see some emotion in sport since the whole thing is meant to be fun and entertaining. I prefer a manager to celebrate a goal. It looks bizarre to see them look all serious after they've just scored a big goal.

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