Sunday, 20 January 2008

The making of a manager

First published in The Grecian, 19 January 2008, Exeter City -v- Oxford United

By the time you read this the Scottish national team may have appointed new managers. Or not. Anyone attempting a firm timetable for these things is juggling jelly in the air. [The appointment of George Burley was made on 24 January 2008]

Then again, the January transfer window in the big leagues opens the floodgate for manoeuvres at all levels of the game. Depending on how you experience them, these Winter sales are either a rummage through the bargain bins, a game of musical chairs, a chance to flash a bit of cash, or an opportunity to dust down someone else’s nice, fat chequebook.

What makes for a good manager? Everyone has a view. That’s the trouble. At some Clubs the emphasis is more on motivation and (blessed phrase) ‘man management’. In others, especially those with a larger backroom team, it’s about the larger tactical picture.

At the grassroots, football management is invariably a little bit of everything, mixed in with the capacity to expect the unexpected and not develop too fine a sensitivity towards the opinions around you. Except the ones that matter – those that keep the Club funded and fortified.

You are also likely to be recruited as much on the basis of what the board and others consider to be your predecessor’s weaknesses, as you are on your own strengths.

Then there’s that unfathomable part of the mix known as ‘chemistry’. Football is about individual skills, but it’s a team game at every single level, not just on the pitch. A manager with a less shiny record and fewer headline skills may turn out to be just the man for the job if he can get people working and believing together via the gel of personality. Then again, that will be a vain hope if the team is failing for lack of nous rather than nerve.

If any of us knew the winning formula, we’d be laughing. We can’t of course. But it’s fun trying – unless you’re the poor so-and-so who’s going to be held responsible for the big decision. There’s always one, whatever the theory about collective responsibility.

In the television era, the ‘manager as superhero’ (with feet of clay hiding in the shadow of that huge ‘S’) is an established brand. Everyone yearns for a Strachan, a Ferguson, a Mourinho, a McLeish. Equally, each of us may have incredibly strong feelings against any or all of the aforementioned, besides any number of ‘ideal candidates’.

In truth, managing a football team is mostly an unglamorous affair. Ninety per cent perspiration and ten percent inspiration. Those who succeed tend to be those who can balance assets according to changing fortunes, and who are able to count on (or build) a solid base of support for the long haul. Without that, blinding flashes of genius will be lost.

The Scotland role is going to be monumental task, too. World Cup Qualification is no longer a pipe dream, and everyone wants to believe that the ‘Scottish renaissance’ can continue.

So, tough jobs in different ways. But it could be worse for both teams. England have been moaning for months that they need a manager of indisputable international reputation. (They had one in Eriksson, and look what they did to him, and what he’s achieving now).

Fabio Capello is that man. No one expects sweet FA of him, except in the positive sense. But the truth is that if the English still don’t succeed with their expensive Italian import there will not be many places to hide.

This column was adapted by Mike Blackstone, editor of The Grecian, from 'Blaming it on the boss', which appeared in Dumbarton's Sons' View on 02 January 2008 - since the column I submitted for this edition got mislaid in a transmission error.

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