Management speak

Fergie and Rafa entered into a war of words and unsurprisingly the Scot comes out on top

Given that the national press is chock full of inane pop psychology, it’s a surprise that none of the pseudo-scientists who get paid for stating the obvious has yet written a book about the “mind games” of football managers. Whenever one of Manchester United’s title rivals stumble, Sir Alex Ferguson is credited with crafty psychological manipulation of his managerial counterparts. For a few weeks in January, Rafa Benítez was decreed to have gone mad, firstly for holding a press conference in which he read out some prepared statements listing the ways in which the United manager escapes censure from the authorities – “the most vicious attack ever on Sir Alex”, said the Sun – then for making a series of supposedly unintelligible comments about Liverpool’s dip in form that saw them fall away from the top of the table.

Some of the confusion caused by Benítez’s interviews stems from the rarely mentioned fact that his English has not improved noticeably over the past four years – although he does at least have a broader vocabulary than a couple of the BBC’s football pundits. This means that there are often assumed to be nuances in his comments that aren’t actually intended. Benítez’s views on Sir Alex were duly pored over for signs of mental incapacity but were mostly uncontroversial. Ferguson has indeed successfully intimidated officials and administrators, something he can take pride in as he’s exceptionally good at it. Most people, even Man Utd fans, could agree with Benítez on that, while savouring the irony of a Liverpool manager complaining about another team getting breaks from referees.

Sir Alex reacted calmly to Benítez’s criticisms –“hopefully he’ll reflect and see what he said was ridiculous” – but he also came up with the most unhinged comment of the month, in suggesting that United should send an observer to “monitor” the Premier League’s fixture computer when it arranges next season’s games. The cause of his ire was that in the first half of this season, United were given away matches against nine of the ten teams who finished directly below them in 2007-08: “They tell me it’s not planned – bloody hell! I just don’t understand how you can get the fixtures like that.” This was widely held to be a “shocking outburst” but the press will have been grateful that Ferguson had given them something to work with for once. The United manager rarely speaks to football reporters now beyond cursory briefings and does not give post-match interviews, which is against Premier League rules although it’s possible that no one has dared to tell him. Almost all his comments are given to the club’s official mouthpiece MUTV who will usually filter out anything of remote interest. Indeed they have taken care to be as bland as possible since broadcasting Roy Keane’s stinging criticism of his team-mates in 2005 – which led to Sir Alex refusing to speak to them.

While praising David Moyes’s achievement in getting a patched-up Everton side into sixth, many observers continue to express puzzlement that he has not yet been given a chance at a “bigger club”.

But who are these prospective employers? The perennial Champions League qualifiers are concerned primarily with staying on the gravy train in Europe, which is where they will look for experienced managers once the current incumbents have departed. Manchester City, even though they may be as deluded as a mad monarch from a cautionary folk tale, will also want to bring a big name boss to improve their chances of luring the “marquee” players of whom their now legendary chief executive Garry Cook has spoken with such enthusiasm.

Moyes’s supposed options are narrowed to a club of similar stature to Everton but with more spending power, which means essentially Tottenham, or Newcastle should the latter succeed in finding a buyer. But it took Moyes at least a couple of years to reshape the squad he inherited from Walter Smith and he has made the occasional misjudgment in the transfer market since, although the overall balance is positive. Every manager who goes into a club where there has been a rapid turnover of staff has to work with players he doesn’t want, simultaneously trying to get the best out of them while complaining to his board that they’re not good enough and must be moved on. Indeed, the current managers of Newcastle and Spurs have recently moaned, at length, about the players they inherited, with Redknapp chiding Juande Ramos for his “badly balanced, badly put together squad” while Kinnear sounded off in the Mail: “Our biggest problem is a lack of strength in depth. Why wasn’t it addressed by the last manager or the manager before him? I’ve inherited this and I’m carrying the can.”

If Moyes does move on he won’t get anything like the time he’s been given at Everton, not least because he will be going to a club who are some way below what they perceive to be their rightful position. Perhaps that’s the sort of challenge he would want to take on. Alternatively he might feel that his best chance of working at a club that wins things is making Everton into one.

From WSC 265 March 2009