Our European guru educates and enlightens
When I first saw Steve Kean patrolling the touchline as Blackburn Rovers manager, I feared for him.
New managers, especially those filling a void as large as that created by the legend of Big Sam, must exude competence. And Kean didn’t. Truth be told, he had the slightly bewildered, moderately resentful air of a man who had arrived, slightly later than he’d hoped, at the bus stop, suspected his bus had already departed but was too embarrassed to ask anyone if that was the case.
Luckily for Kean, he has since acquired or discovered an inner calm. But his initial confusion set me thinking – increasingly rare these days – that one of the crucial choices facing any coach today is the persona they adopt on the touchline.
Jig, fists and rejigs
In the old days, when very few cameras covered matches, we barely noticed managers during a game. They might do an occasional jig (like David Pleat), or punch a fan (Brian Clough) but most of the time they were content to sit on the bench and make coded gestures to their players suggesting they were playing too far up or down the pitch (a technique perfected by the great Bob Paisley). Even a coach as demonstrative as Cloughie was usually happy just to shout a bit.
At some point this changed. Helpfully I have no idea when. Maybe when FIFA introduced the technical area in 1993. But while watching Aston Villa on TV a few years ago, with the camera constantly panning towards Martin O’Neill’s sturm und drang on the touchline, I realised how melodramatic coaches’ behaviour had become.
"No, I said hoof long balls to Heskey for 90 minutes, dammit!"
O’Neill ran through more emotions during a routine 1-1 draw against a middle of the road team such as Middlesbrough than Richard Burton displayed in a virile, passionate and sardonic take on Hamlet which enthralled Broadway in 1964.
I wasn’t sure what subliminal message O’Neill hoped to convey. Was he trying to prove he cared as deeply as the supporters? Was he conscious of the need to provide the kind of entertainment his team might not have been delivering? Did he think his antics would unsettle the other manager or influence the officials? Or was that just Martin being his loveable, passionate self?
To get ahead, get a coat
As a touchline performance artist, O’Neill has been surpassed by Jose Mourinho, who is just as emotional, but much better tailored. I mention tailoring because I am increasingly convinced that clothes maketh the manager. On a very basic level, the stylishness of a coach’s schmutter may do more to impress his players than the quality of his tactical insight.
Serie A coaches have long understood that one of the prerequisites for success is having a really nice coat. The best have aspired to the unflappably mysterious existentialist aura exuded by goalkeeper and raincoat connoisseur Albert Camus.
Like Camus’s idol Bogart, this type of coach rarely moves a facial muscle unnecessarily. (Carlo Ancelotti, the most minimalist Method actor on the touchline, signifies his moods largely through the manipulation of his left eyebrow – Roger Moore must be so proud.) The subtle implication is that these managers do not see the game as we do but are wrestling with some higher level of wisdom which will manifest itself in their next substitution.
Whether he's won the league or lost at Wolves, Carlo is understated
The trouble with this style is that existential mystery can easily be mistaken for hapless ineffectuality. Towards the end of Sven’s England reign, the calm that had once seemed such a reassuring contrast to Graham Taylor’s gibbering seemed, instead, to suggest that, like us, the Swede was an impotent bystander, with no more influence over the game’s outcome than the self-appointed tactical genius three rows behind you.
Something similar has happened to Capello. The passionate sergeant major shtick was initially more impressive than Steve McClaren’s wally with the brolly but when things fell apart in South Africa – and the centre of England’s defence couldn’t hold – the camera panned to reveal Don Fabio staring at his players with the same kind of enraged, stupefied disbelief as millions of fans at home.
Did we not loathe that?
There is no right or wrong way for a coach to behave in the dugout.
Actually, there is a wrong way – just watch the Channel 4 documentary Do I Not Like That. Lawrie McMenemy’s pained reaction to Taylor’s behaviour is almost as hilarious as the antics themselves.
Or, more recently, think of Cluj coach Soren Cartu kicking the glass out of the dugout in disgust after his side lost to Basel. (Cartu’s loss of the plot was swiftly followed by the loss of his job.)
Each coach must choose their own style but they must be convincing – otherwise it’s a bit like watching Jude Law playing Alfie instead of Michael Caine. And no manager’s style – even Mourinho's – will suit all seasons.
The statesmanlike gravitas Roy Hodgson exuded at Fulham seemed, in the cauldron of Anfield, more like anachronistic irrelevance. Under extreme duress, Hodgson indulged in manic face rubbing or reverted to a kind of bemused, fatalistic “Oh dearie dearie" reminiscent of Taylor’s immortal cry as England boss: “What sort of thing is happening here?”
Roy can be thankful he didn't get the root vegetable treatment...
Roberto Baggio, who gives a remarkably candid interview in the next issue of Champions, would probably suggest that “narcissistic coaches” indulge in all this sturm und drang because they can’t bear the spotlight to be on players.
We don’t need coaches to act as an emotional mirror to reflect what is happening on the pitch – we know how we feel when we’re losing – and we would, all things being equal, like managers to get on with the job they are paid to do and coach.
But if coaches feel obliged to perform, they could take their cue from Cloughie, whose occasional theatrics were often leavened with humour.
Once when Arsenal faced Nottingham Forest at Highbury, the linesman warned Cloughie to be quiet. Clough pointed at Terry Neill and Don Howe on the Arsenal bench and said: “They’re making just as much noise at me why aren’t you telling them to shut up?”
The linesman didn’t reply so Clough added: “Perhaps I should go over there and sit with them.”
“Come over and sit on my knee,” Neill chipped in.
Cloughie proceeded to do just that, nestling on Neill’s knee and asking the linesman: “Am I all right now?”
The linesman just flashed Cloughie a bewildered smile and ran off up touchline.
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