The Necessary Skills To Be A Great Gaffer
by Musa Okwonga
Serpent's Tail, £9.99
Reviewed by Pete Green
From WSC 284 October 2010
We've all questioned whether football management is really the arcane practice it's made out to be. And we know those simulations, however "authentic" they become, must be a million miles from reality. But there isn't a Football Manager addict alive who hasn't indulged themselves just a little by wondering idly, as they've steered Huddersfield Town to a ninth consecutive Champions League title, whether they could be the new Clough or Shankly given a pop at the real thing.
Could they? Or is the job truly the insider's preserve? Musa Okwonga purports to explore this question in Will You Manage? And he goes about the job with admirable gusto, researching, travelling and interviewing widely to uncover the elements that maketh the manager. He analyses the mind games thing well and draws some cheerful, unexpected parallels, referencing Frank Sinatra, Jesus Christ, Donald Rumsfeld and a rubbish sci-fi film called Reign of Fire. He takes us through Marc Overmars' 2001 Champions League goal for Barcelona at Anfield quite exquisitely. And he gets an interesting direct perspective from being coached by Aidy Boothroyd while playing for the England writers' team.
While Okwonga's work is impressively global in scope, it's not as deep as it is wide. The focus is predominantly on high-profile, top-flight and international football, with José Mourinho and Rinus Michels aplenty, but the author is a Man Utd fan, so there's no Dario Gradi. This is a shame – there'd have been a good case study in the Big Ron Manager TV farce at Peterborough, or at least a colourful anecdote in John Sitton's infamous sweary rant at his Leyton Orient team.
And it doesn't hurt much when Okwonga refers to "open source" instead of open cast mining, or to "the Football League's four divisions" in 2009. But at length you might wonder whether he's writing for you and me, or for the people he's met while working as a London lawyer, who are curious about this football everyone's talking about and decided they'd give this Chelsea a try.
You and I know what a director of football does, and why cup finals are cagey and tedious. The author's tone assumes we don't. Here's a small but telling detail: Don Revie, says Okwonga, allegedly offered cash to Bob Stokoe "to ‘throw' a match in Leeds' favour". You and I understand what "throw" means here, without needing inverted commas to imply something figurative. This punctuation is an aid for the nouveau fan.
It's clear why broadsheet reviewers have praised Will You Manage? It's intelligent, fluent and cosmopolitan. By the end you're very aware of what a clever and able writer Okwonga is. Go into it for entertainment rather than enlightenment, and it's a nice read; you just won't necessarily learn much about football management. Long-standing supporters will gain a little knowledge. But the readers who need those inverted commas will store away a whole stack of invaluable facts for bluffing their way through a discussion of the weekend's Premier League action over a glass of Pinot Grigio and a prawn sandwich.