27 October 2009 ~ Post-match interviews with players are mostly dull because reporters only want to talk to the goalscorers, during which we learn that the player concerned is indeed quite happy to have successfully done his job. Managers, though, are interviewed as a matter of course, regardless of the game’s outcome. Again, not so interesting when the manager’s side has won but much more compelling after a defeat or a lost lead. A glance at this past weekend’s quotations presents an instructive picture of the several different ways of talking away failure.
The country’s two longest serving and most successful managers are, of course, best able to cope with a poor result. They’ve been in the game for so long and are therefore calm, canny men carrying a wisdom hewn from experience. Indeed, Alex Ferguson said he had “no complaints” about his side’s defeat to Liverpool. Except that he did, albeit a passive-aggressive one. The referee, he wondered, may have found the atmosphere at Anfield “hard to handle. Whether he had enough experience, I don’t know.” Arsène Wenger, meanwhile, called the free-kick that lead to West Ham’s first goal in the 2-2 draw at Upton Park “a very generous decision.” The decision on the penalty that drew the scores level was “super generous”. Arsène, who may be a fan of Disney Channel, could have gone on to describe any potential third decision against his team as “like, you know, super mega-generous”.
So there was none of the overt criticism of the match officials that has lead to fines in the past. They’re just saying, that’s all. Just in case someone thinks that two men with such strong career records could possibly be somehow to blame for their teams’ inability to win. Naive managers like Sunderland’s Steve Bruce just confess that his team was “second best. Birmingham were the better team.” Blackburn’s Sam Allardyce didn’t even attempt to excuse his side’s showing. “Pretty pathetic from our point of view,” he mumbled. Clearly neither man yet possesses Ferguson or Wenger’s scapegoating savvy.
Then there are the managers who stoically shrug in the face of fate, like Tottenham’s Harry Redknapp. “We just didn’t get a break,” he said after losing at home to Stoke, in the tone of a man absolving himself of all blame. “Three or four kicked off the line… we hit the post, it just wouldn’t go in. The keeper had a great day. It was just one of those days.” Burnley’s Owen Coyle was also powerless in the face of Wigan’s “truly bizarre” equalizing goal. “There was no danger,” he recalled, while perhaps nursing a glass of rum and imagining a calm sea just before a savage squall. “The ball was played through, Brian came to collect it and he has twisted his ankle in the process. You can prepare your team all week, but that is something you just cannot legislate for."
As you move down the divisions, managers tend more to this fatalistic acceptance of events beyond their control, while there is a refreshing absence of men questioning the competence of the referee. It’s more that their best laid plans were wrecked by defenders “switching off” at the wrong moments, an occurrence cited by both Leyton Orient’s Geraint Williams (4-0 loss at Huddersfield) and MK Dons’ assistant manager Karl Robinson, whose defenders not only switched off, but did so “stupidly” while losing 3-1 at Southampton. Bristol Rovers manager Paul Trollope blamed “needless fouls at times, that led to balls going in our box”, while Hereford’s John Trewick delivered a lengthy lecture on the single Bradford City goal that downed his team: "We were well aware that [Michael] Flynn can crack one from the edge of the box and unfortunately he got on to one and it came back off the post, and our marking from the rebound was less than we would have wanted it to be.” Ah, that explains it. What can you do, eh?
Losing managers also tend towards philosophical improvisation when coping with disappointment. "Penalties will be scored and missed as long as there are football matches,” mused Doncaster manager Sean O’Driscoll after his side lost 2-1 at Newcastle. And yes, they did miss a penalty. “Peterborough is a seriously tough place to visit. You don't just turn up here and get a win," Scunthorpe’s Nigel Adkins pointed out, emerging bloody and bruised after a 3-0 defeat in Cambridgeshire. Be warned. And heed again the words of Leyton Orient’s Williams, who observed that “goals do change games.” And not only for the better.
Perhaps most poignant of all are the quotations that illustrate the inherent helplessness of the director in the dugout. All those motivational team talks, all those drills and practices and all that emotive gesticulation can lead to nothing if the players can’t follow through. "I think the difference is in that last third,” said Swindon’s Danny Wilson after his team lost 1-0 at Norwich. “We've got great positions, but we're not delivering when we should.” Rotherham’s Ronnie Moore, whose team fell 2-1 to Bury, said that at half time: “We did the talking, but when we came onto the park, we don't do the things we were supposed to do." And Brighton’s Russell Slade, following the 2-0 home defeat by Oldham, noticed that: “We need to have a more ruthless streak, we've got to do it right." You can’t help but feel the pain of the impotent manager, a figure who is ultimately peripheral to the main event, but who would be so much more successful if only his players would just, please, get it right. Ian Plenderleith