Waiting game

wsc300 Managers who do badly nearly always get the sack, so why is such a drama made out of it? Jeffrey Prest explains

I was in two minds whether to write this because the chances are that you’ll see Steve Kean’s name in the opening paragraph and promptly turn the page. That’s if he is Blackburn Rovers’ former manager by the time you read this. Should his team have built on that bolt-from-the-blue at Old Trafford to keep him in a job until this issue of WSC hits the shops, I may be able to count on your attention for a little longer.

After all, such a stay of execution would maintain his “under threat” status. As Rovers’ last game before Christmas amply demonstrated, the gory fascination with managers on the brink shows no sign of abating. Not that I’m looking down my nose at anyone here. I tuned in to hear Blackburn v Bolton on Radio 5 Live for equally ignoble motives. Let me see now, basement six-pointer at that make-or-break midway point of the season: good for at least two fights, eight cards and a commentator foaming at the mouth for a game gone rotten, surely?

Instead, I found myself listening with increasing disbelief as the commentary team sought to breathe new life into football’s most hackneyed sideshow – the pending managerial dismissal. Such were their efforts, that I began to wonder if this tediously over-hyped aspect of football is entering a new phase – the empathetic pending dismissal.

So many times did Alan Green declare how sorry he felt for Kean, it was almost as if the rottweiler of the commentary booth was under specific orders to wind down the acidity. And then there was Bannergate. When Rovers went a goal down, Green informed us, with the air of a Radio 4 man announcing the death of the monarch, that fans in the stadium had unfurled a banner expressing sentiments towards the Blackburn manager that were not entirely positive.

Eager not to be left out, the touchline reporter solemnly chipped in that several other banners around the ground were also making an appearance. This is the new hate crime, it would seem – being so unspeakably heartless that you actually articulate your wrath on a bed sheet.

Lest we feared that such bigotry might go unchecked, Green was quick to point out that stewards were moving in to ensure the banner was furled at the earliest opportunity. On the question of suppressing free speech from the paying customer, interestingly, he had no comment. He and his colleagues were too busy with breaking news. Do badly enough as a football manager and not only is your job on the line but people also say uncharitable things about you.

In the five minutes after Bolton’s second goal went in, fans behind Blackburn’s dugout ignored the game and had eyes only for Kean. So we were told by the touchline reporter who, since Bolton’s second goal went in, had presumably ignored the game and had eyes only for Kean. “I just feel so sorry for him,” said Green. Just in case any doubt remained.

All this cant might be bearable if I thought that four weeks after Kean’s dismissal – whenever it might occur – that same radio team would be knocking on his door, just to make sure he is bearing up. They won’t, of course. They will have moved on to fret over the next “under-threat boss”. Because in football, the fact of dismissal is the clock striking midnight, when all the sham drama that the media injects into the likely timing of the falling axe fades away to reveal the same tired old pumpkin. Struggling Manager Loses Job Non-Shocker.

At the time, I reserved much of my scorn for a former England manager on Radio 5. “Ultimately,” Graham Taylor explained at Ewood Park, “the manager must take responsibility for results.” That was mild, mind you, alongside the gem of elucidation he provided at a game the week before – “Football… [pause for dramatic effect] is a results-orientated business.” Well, blow me down.

Yet Taylor, on reflection, was only doing what analysts are supposed to do, even if it was unintentional. Coming from a man who is normally one of the more informative pundits, his empty inanities exposed what is football’s true pantomime. Every year, if managers lose enough games, they walk. At the premium end of the game, they walk with a cheque that affords them ample breathing space ahead of their next post. In many cases, the game’s huge network assures them of a job elsewhere that will at least keep the wolves from the door.

But walk they do. They always have, they always will. And as much as we all know the storyline, still the media insist on tarting it up with a drum roll and thunderclaps. He will be gone by Monday; oh no he won’t…They have their reasons, of course, but that doesn’t make the charade any less grating. When you have followed the game long enough, not only is there nothing to see here but there is nothing much left to say, either. Although Graham Taylor will probably give it his best shot.

From WSC 300 February 2012