England's curse on the bearded football manager
1 March ~ If Roman Abramovich had really done his homework, it would have been clear to him that André Villas-Boas was never going to be the right man to lead Chelsea. Despite what you might think, this has nothing to do with playing a high defensive line or the former Porto manager’s personal mission to make Jamie Redknapp explode on live television at his cousin being left out of the side. No, Abramovich should have taken a good look at what was growing on Villas-Boas’s face and run a mile. The evidence suggests that – in English football at least – bearded managers cannot compete with those who regularly reach for the razor.
Since Christmas, the pressure has mounted on the beleaguered Chelsea coach and he has become more fidgety with each game. While the media has turned up the heat, Villas-Boas has tugged and twisted his strawberry-blonde facial growth while his tactical hand signals have conveyed an air of desperation. The shaggy beard stands in stark contrast to his groomed, José Mourinho-esque hair and designer coat.
Villas-Boas is not the first manager to fall foul of English football's apparent beard curse. Another coach, Rafael Benítez, came from the Iberian peninsula to the Premier League and, for a time, things were good. The Benítez who lifted the Champions League in Istanbul and paraded the FA Cup around Cardiff's Millennium Stadium was a clean-shaven, suave, tactical genius from the continent.
Then he grew a goatee and, despite leading better sides than those that won trophies in 2005 and 2006, it was the bearded Benítez that caved in to Alex Ferguson's mind games in 2009 and led Liverpool to a crippling seventh place in the 2009-10 season. One can only conclude that his beard brought about such a dramatic reversal in fortune.
Managers from these islands should also be weary of forgetting where they left their Mach 3. Take the case of Roy Keane, who led Sunderland to a comfortable Championship title in 2007 as a smooth-cheeked young manager, albeit one with a penchant for questioning the professionalism of much of his squad in the national media. Fast-forward to late 2008, though, and life in the Premier League was not going so well. Keane ensconced himself in a thick beard, resembling a recently divorced trawlerman who is seriously questioning the point of carrying on at all. Needless to say, Keane's adoption of the Captain Haddock look was swiftly followed by a parting of the ways with Sunderland.
Then we come to Phil Brown. It seems impossible to suggest now, but there was a time when the former Hull City manager wasn't the textbook example of Premier League managerial hubris. He lead his side to an unlikely play-off final win in 2008 and won admirers as Hull beat some of the big boys that autumn. By May, however, a heavily-goateed Brown was on the pitch at the KC Stadium singing Sloop John B into the tannoy after Hull had escaped relegation by losing to Manchester United's reserves. The bearded buffoon would relegate Hull the following season.
In fact, no bearded manager has won a major trophy in England since Gianluca Vialli led Chelsea to the League Cup in 1998 (he had removed his sixth-form fuzz by the time they beat Aston Villa in the 2000 FA Cup final). This begs the question: can anyone break English football's beard curse? Well, there is a man in charge of the current world and European champions who might just be the chosen one. If Pep Guardiola ever gets bored of claiming the credit for Xavi and Iniesta tika-taka-ing all comers into submission, his next and greatest challenge could be to put the bearded coach back on English football's honours list.
Barcelona's ability to do it on a wet Wednesday night in Stoke is not important. More pertinent is whether, if Guardiola came to work in the Premier League, the stylish, attractive face of modern management would be reduced to tugging at his chin like the soon-to-be-removed Villas-Boas. Come on Pep, take on the biggest job in football: breaking the English game's beard curse. James de Mellow
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