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Monday, 20 December 2010

A Few Good (Football) Men

"I BET my stock can fall further than yours in three years"

So the Premier League is getting a winter break after all. Well, almost. While the snow goes about clearing the traditional and ludicrously busy Christmas fixture list quicker than we can clear a table at an awards ceremony, a couple of the weekend’s top-flight matches were at least salvaged. Unfortunately, they were both rubbish, which only served to suggest that if there is to be a seasonal break on these shores, it shouldn’t necessarily be from furiously practising football.

The poorer relation of the salvaged fixtures was West Ham’s trip to Blackburn, which yielded a game as bitterly disappointing as expecting a shiny apple in your stocking on Christmas morning only to find yourself pulling out a smelly onion. That aside, while the week’s build up to the game was dominated by Sam Allardyce’s idiotic sacking, the days proceeding it have brought murmurs of his appointment as Avram Grant’s replacement in two matches’ time.

Grant divides opinion – he always has. Moderately successful in Israel, he enjoyed glorious defeat with Chelsea. In his current incarnation, he strikes me as a manager from whom the only guarantee you get is dignified relegation (while playing mainly crap football) and an odds-defying, but ultimately meaningless cup run. You might wonder, as I did, why on earth he even got the West Ham job. Part of it might be his widely perceived ability to make friends with very important people. The other part of it, perhaps more prevalently, is that he has now acquired all the hallmarks of a ‘usual suspect’ when it comes to filling vacant managerial roles.

And with the start of this season’s managerial swings and roundabouts, all the usual suspects are rearing their ugly heads. Curbs, Pards, Big Sam and the rest. Managers famed for the mid-lower table Premier League rescue jobs that they seem destined forever to swap with gay abandon until Allardyce has managed every team in the league beginning with ‘B’ and finally moves on to the San Siro (though watch this space for the next couple of weeks).

Buzzwords like ‘limited resources’ and ‘survival specialist’ abound. However, Grant took over as director of football at Portsmouth on October 7th 2009 and as manager on November 26th. Neither team he has managed since then has once been outside the relegation zone. A survival specialist he is not, but he mustered such blameless eloquence in the face of an ‘impossible job’ that his role as a ‘usual suspect’ was cemented. He is also well on the way to being the first foreign manager to join an even more elite group.

Almost interchangeable with the term ‘usual suspect’ is this other no-brainer as far as managerial recruitment is concerned: the ‘footballing man’. The Newcastle job crops up and who is in the frame? It’s Alan Curbishley and Alan Pardew. If ‘The Premier League: A Play in Two Parts’ was ever written, odds are that both would get a half as ‘Footballing Man Number 1’, fighting off the close attentions of Sam Allardyce, Dave Bassett, Tony Pulis et al in the bargain. They inspire unquestioning loyalty from their players, a la Grant, Mark Hughes and Chris Hughton.

Almost perversely, though, it seems that to be a real footballing man you need at least one spell of gardening leave every year, or a typically acrimonious sacking, in order to see your name linked with every job under the sun. In short, a ‘footballing man’ is seldom any good as a manager for more than a season. They’re not empire builders. Not even ‘Arry, a real footballing man who will leave Tottenham for England or when Spurs don’t qualify for the Champions League, whichever comes soonest.

And because of the insular nature of the Premier League, insofar as Iain Dowie – despite the fact he is a shit manager – is a quintessential ‘footballing man’, a foreign manager could never before be a ‘footballing man’. Arsene Wenger isn’t a footballing man even after 14 years at the helm of Arsenal. Carlo Ancelotti and ‘footballing man’ are not transposable terms despite the Italian having won Serie A, the Premier League and the Champions League twice. But Grant, with his experiences in the faces of hardship, his tireless, selfless, humility-laden but unsuccessful toil on the coal face of relegation, is making a good case. This, we suspect, is why the West Ham job went his way. This, moreover, is why he will continue to be linked with jobs following his eventual sacking from the Hammers. He is a manager people seem to like, which is fine, but a ‘good man’, a ‘good football man’ nonetheless, is rarely destined for anything other than the heavy swinging of the boardroom axe.

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