In defense of football managers

Mourinho Pochettino

Last night was one of those glorious Spurs nights which, under Pochettino’s reign, rank alongside last season’s win at Stamford Bridge in terms of “announcement”. Therefore I would love to dwell on it – but I will not. Instead I want to make a different point in support of Jose Mourinho, a manager I have not much liked over time but who I perceive to be somewhat victimized.

A lot is leveled against the Manchester United manager these days: bullying of his players, attention seeking, shortness with the media, finding excuses about the talent in his team and directing criticism onto the Board. Yet amongst all this analysis, I often find that there is a disjuncture between commentators and fans, with commentators – the typical “chattering classes” as it were – frequently focusing on the coach a lot more than supporters.

Take last night. I woke up to the news that Mourinho had walked over to the Stretford End stand in what appeared like a valedictory farewell with a few hardcore fans. This turned out to be fake news – as Gary Neville pointed out on Monday Night Football in listening to Mourinho’s post-match interview, one can tell he simply wanted to applaud some fans who had remained to the end. Of course, to media commentators, who have been aiming for Mourinho for some months now, it seemed obvious that the fans should be fed-up. After all, who else is there to blame, when the manager has spent more than £300 million net on transfers since his arrival? In their view, those in the stands must be onboard with the media agenda too, of laying the blame squarely at the feet of The Special One.

But football fans are much more likely to blame the players, who they sometimes see as not pulling their weight or trying hard enough to bleed for the team, and always see as overpaid; or direct their ire to the club ownership who they feel are not investing enough or only there for the profits. Yes, there are certain managers who get up the nose of their own support, such as the way Alan Pardew consistently did. Sometimes this is because of “playing style” such as during Sam Allardyce’s short-lived sojourn at Everton; other times there are much overt clashes such as Mick McCarthy’s fiery relationship with the terraces at Ipswich. But as witnessed with Arsenal fans for the last two seasons or with Moyes’ brief stint in charge of Man Utd, tolerance for managers is actually quite high. They are not paid as much as players usually, and are reckoned as having a bit of a tough job treading between preening athletes and cynical club executives.

So why this disjuncture? As usual, the blame lies in with the media being limited, insular and lazy. First, they rarely think outside the box – listening to Henry Winter, the much-lauded Times football correspondent (five times Football Journalist of the Year, no less) offering up his analysis was painful – “he has lost his touch” was the stumbling insight offered on Radio 5Live. Secondly, they are being played as part of a game they seem to have no idea about. These days few players and even fewer owners speak to the press freely. Post-match player interviews are generic and pointless, to the extent that even I have to laugh at the BBC’s Dead Ringers when the mimic my beloved Harry Kane. From an early age, professionals have been coached to say as little as the public announcements of a listed company. Meanwhile, getting words from clubs owners is rarer than seeing ketchup in canteen of a Premier League training facility – when David Sullivan gave an interview in 2017 on the back of poor results for West Ham, journalists did not seem to know what to make of it.

Managers, by contrast, are the only figures who are both obligated to speak to the outside world (Premier League post match press conferences are obligatory at the risk of fining), and often have something interesting to say. Therefore football commentators focus incessantly on the managers of clubs and to an extent allow managers to define club identities in a way that real fans do not see it. Media talking mainly about managers is nothing short of navel-gazing. For the outside observer, it is actually players who embody a club, and who have the agency to change a team’s fortunes. This may not actually be true in this age of advanced tactics and hyper preparation, but it is what is felt. Since journalists are lazy though, they rely on these moments of managerial interaction for almost every reading of the tea-leaves.

Consequently when the media, in their one-dimensional world, get the bit between their teeth about a manager, they are often surprised to see – and then usually ignore outright the fact – that fans do not follow suit. When Moyes was at his nadir, a banner flown from a plane was met with at best mixed reaction from fans, much to the media’s bemusement since they assumed all supporters must agree with them. Even Wenger for years had higher levels of support and trust from those in the ground than he did from outside, even until the bitter end.

Last night as the numbers at the Stretford End began to be revised upwards, it seems like maybe a couple of thousand Manchester United supporters stayed to the end to support and chant for Mourinho. The manager, in turn, recognized this. Supposedly, around the director’s box, a good sliding tackle from Spurs defender Toby Alderweireld in the first half caused fans around them to look up to Woodward and make the point that a lack of these signings were the cause of problems – in stark contrast to the coach. In the end, the planned (and once again inept) plane banner for next week is targeted at Woodward, not at Mourinho. When Mourinho failed in his second stint at Chelsea, the fans directed their anger at those perceived as not trying hard, such as Hazard, Diego Costa and Fabregas. The fans do not like prima donnas.

I would make the cheap and obvious political point here about how the chattering classes miss what people are really thinking and arrogantly assume that the view being disseminated are the ones which encapsulated public opinion. But with Tottenham having won a magnificent victory last night, no need for that at this point …

John McCain’s passing poses more questions than answers

McCain Feingold

I am not usually interested in talking about “current events” but the death of John McCain is worthy of consideration in terms of all the questions it poses for the long trajectory of politics in the US and elsewhere.

First, cards on the table: I was for many years a card-carrying member of the McCain fan club. I met the man twice, once when I was interning on the Hill in 2001 when he and Joe Leiberman were the Statler and Waldorf of American politics, and again three years later when he came to the Oxford Union; somewhere in the back of my desk drawer is a grainy first-generation camera phone video of the standing ovation he received from all as he left that hall. To my mind, in his 2000 incarnation he was perhaps the greatest President the US never had, combining nobility and grace with a far-reaching sense of mission and destiny for his country. On top of this, he was a patriot and in his own way, had a strong sense of America’s purpose in the world. His defeat at the hands of Karl Rove’s borderline racist campaign in the 2000 Republican primaries was a tragedy all round.

McCain sponsored the only substantial campaign finance reform bill of recent years, and was one of the few sources of bipartisanship in an era of increasing polarisation. He also attempted, being a Western conservative rather than a Southern one, to find a way to reform immigration in such a way that America could still be sensitively preserved before the difficulties set in. He failed, but not before dragging Bush along with him and not before cementing that alternative Republican approach towards success in states that were not whiter than white – including Arizona and Texas. In party terms it might be said that he was the future, once.

Yet by 2008, McCain was a sad shadow of his former self. For the previous few years he had begun to cravenly solicit the support of the GOP machinery by supporting an extension of the Bush tax cuts and in the end turning to Karl Rove, of all people, for advice in the Presidential campaign. For my own part, I struggled to support McCain during that election and only did so in the end as a counter to the vapidity that would prove to characterise Barack Obama; in fact my preferred candidate in early 2008 was Hillary Clinton. Where in 2000 I was so deeply upset at McCain’s failure, by 2008 I could only shrug as his team decided to invite Sarah Palin onto his ticket.

This stark decline was not just a measure of his political choices; it was indicative of the declining relevance of McCain and his whole faction, well-meaning but ultimately anachronistic as they were. For a start, his ideological hawkishness over Iraq showed an antiquated notion of how to manage international relations. Elsewhere, I have written about the idea that greatness can only be achieved through a judicious mixture of both nobility and ruthlessness, not through ideological optimism alone. For a country like the US, some countries may be won over, but others need to be kept down with all the skullduggery in one’s arsenal. McCain was blindly wedded only to the former; his worldview was effectively one of nobility alone – the idea that sheer “rightness” would be enough to win America’s conflicts.

McCain, even in 2000, embodied all too much that post-Cold War complacency which first failed to foresee the emerging threat of militant Islam and then also dealt with it so clumsily and inconclusively. Leaving aside Iraq, it is also difficult to imagine what McCain’s reaction to China would have been in recent decades. The likelihood is that in dealing with what has become the single largest threat to American hegemony, he would have undertaken the same combination of sabre-rattling and indecision which was to inform the Bush and Obama administrations. McCain would also have had nothing to say on China’s post-WTO gamesmanship, because trade, commerce and business were not his strength. He would have been just as distracted by pointless sideshows against Russia and just as obtuse, I am sad to say, about the key issues of wage growth and trade.

McCain young

It is incredibly sad to think of how irrelevant many of the things we put McCain on a pedestal for ten years ago, are today. Yet he does bequeath some traits which remain important, of bipartisanship, integrity and patriotism which are so obviously lacking throughout the ranks of both political parties today. McCain would have taken us into perhaps ten wars and back; but he would always have done so on first principles. Nonetheless his passing closes the chapter on an era when America could still afford to think in clean cut terms about its role in the world; and highlights the fact that his naivety on occasionally doing the cynical thing, is also passed. For McCain, I believe the world was always the world of 2000. I adored the man, but it is time to move onto a new reality.