The arrivals of Jose Mourinho and Rafael Benítez in England demonstrate that now it is managers, rather than players, who are the focus of the Premiership's hype machine, writes Jon Spurling
Bill Shankly’s prophecy – “One day, football managers will be as famous and as well paid as their players” – appears to be coming true. Thirty years after the Scot retired from the Liverpool job, the profiles of several Premiership managers, not to mention their wage demands, have never been higher. Players’ wage increases, according to a recent Deloitte & Touche report, are slowing considerably, increasing by an average of only eight per cent last season, as opposed to 25 per cent over each of the last three years. A select band of coaches seem set to close the financial gap on their young stars. Rafael Benítez will earn around £25,000 a week at Liverpool. Jose Mourinho is to be paid four times that amount at Chelsea.
Clearly neither coach will endure the financial hardship exprienced by title-winning managers Bill Nicholson or Bertie Mee in their retirement. The ailing Nicholson, who has lived in the same modest semi-detached house near White Hart Lane for 40 years, was granted a belated testimonial in 2001, having never been awarded a pension by Tottenham. Former Arsenal manager Mee died in the same year, after spending a decade caring for his frail wife. During the 1960s and early 1970s, a clutch of identikit trenchcoat-clad bosses travelled to work by public transport. Shankly and Clough aside, they shunned publicity and worked phenomenally long hours for (comparatively) pitiful wages. Media savvy, sharp-talking foreign coaches, on the other hand, are acutely aware of their market value. With a £1.25 billion turnover last season, the Premiership offers untold riches for those who thrive on non-stop pressure. Leading chairmen have decided that continental is best. Carlos Queiroz’s return to Old Trafford from Madrid appears to be a sign of things to come at Manchester United, and both Benítez and Mourinho were strongly linked with Sir Bobby Robson’s Newcastle job last season. Financial rewards aside, the new breed of boss can also expect to dominate media attention. The tabloids aren’t interested in hearing about coaching techniques, either.
Managers are now football journalists’ best friends. Wary players are unlikely to respond to questions about rivalries and dislikes within the game, much less factions and cliques at their clubs. Such impertinent enquiries are likely to be met by quizzical looks, uneasy glances at ubiquitous “advisers”, and a spin-ridden response on the merits of pasta/water diets, and/or Adidas boots. Their bosses are far less guarded.
After Mourinho boasted, “we now have a top manager” and “I’m special”, the Sun likened him to abrasive TV chef Gordon Ramsay. Mourinho said a great deal at his first press conference, but the non-newsworthy comments simply ended up on the cutting room floor. It is another example of the tabloids’ habit of “mediating”. In much the same way that the Sun dubbed Big Brother contestants Victor “Mr Aggressive” and Emma “Miss Thick”, so Mourinho has officially been labelled “Mr Arrogant”. Media analyst Steve Hart comments: “Tabloids create simple stereotypes which people can relate to. These in turn lead to manufactured personality clashes which sell newspapers. Big Brother, warring glamour models, rival football managers – the same rules apply.”
The main protagonists in the Premiership sphere – Sir Alex Ferguson (“Mr Angry”) and Arsène Wenger (“Mr Intelligent”) – are about to get a serious run for their eurochange. Chelsea’s new manager will add another intriguing dimension to the war of words which has raged between the pair over the last few years. Throw in the unexpected arrival of Jacques Santini (“Mr Disloyal”, according to L’Equipe) at Tottenham and Benítez (dubbed “the Phoenix” by sections of the Spanish media after he recovered from early managerial setbacks at Osasuna and Valladolid) and the scene is set. Benítez’s verbal dexterity is already legion. After discovering that the Valencia board had voted to sign Nestor Canobbio last September, he commented cryptically: “I asked for a sofa and instead they bought me a lamp.” It is all a far cry from the “no comment” era of Kenny Dalglish and George Graham.
Cultivating Mourinho’s image remains a favoured pastime of tabloid journalists. Deploying terms such as “Portuguese jackboot” and “day [sic] of the long knives”, the News of the World conjured disturbing images of fascist autocracy. References in the Daily Star to his “expensive black leather coat” and “polished boots” did likewise. Ironically, the images of a smiling Roman Abramovich at Chelsea’s final home match of the season do little to contradict the inevitable Stalinist comparisons. While “sportingly” applauding Claudio Ranieri off the pitch, Abramovich had long since been in the process of purging him. Doubtless, the Chelsea grapevine will be quivering at the faintest sign of discord between owner and new manager. Reports suggesting that the Russian is keen to land the Premiership title within two years, as opposed to the five-year plan drawn up by Mourinho, are sure to give the red tops the chance to fan the flames of conflict.
Macho posturing is now an integral part of the Premiership package. On billboards, glossy magazine covers and TV adverts, silent stars Roy Keane and Patrick Vieira glare menacingly into the camera. Goal round-ups are invariably backed by music from Gladiator, Troy or other testosterone-fuelled movies. It is the managers who provide the gritty dialogue. And the sniping has already begun. Mourinho promises “war” with Arsenal. Benítez vows to “give Manchester United a run for their money”. Fergie warns of a “United backlash”, and Wenger reckons “we can get even better”. The real business of playing Premiership football doesn’t even begin for another month.
Since Ranieri’s dismissal by Chelsea, their new manager has made it abundantly clear that gentle, self-deprecating humour will be absent from Stamford Bridge next season. It’s hard to picture the strutting, self-possessed new arrival bidding a tearful farewell to Chelsea fans in a few years. Ironically, Mourinho, who sneered “What did Ranieri ever win at Chelsea?”, claims to be unhappy with the “cocky” jibe. Media labels, once affixed, are nigh on impossible to remove. And as Ranieri can testify, it’s better to be called “Mr Arrogant” than “Mr Nearly”.
From WSC 210 August 2004. What was happening this month