When art doesn't imitate life in the slightest
Herculean achievements, long forgotten, make for perhaps the best stories. Here's Sam Macrory with an almost unbelievable tale...
The name of the manager wasn’t important. It wasn’t important when he was appointed. It was never a concern during his long reign in charge. And not once after he had gone did anyone take the time to rifle through an index to discover more about him. All that mattered was he had been the manager. The boss. The undisputed man in charge. The star signings, the manual-redefining formations and, of course, the endless trophies. They were halycon days. His days.
But it was strange, he occasionally wondered to himself during a calm retirement of – mostly – contented domesticity that nobody stopped to ask about his 28 unbroken years in charge of one of the most successful clubs in the history of football. He shrugged off the doubts. That's life. But there was a time where had chosen more than life. He had chosen to be a championship manager.
The story began at the start of the 1992/3 season, as the new manager, too inexperienced to know about the life-consuming world that awaited him, began a career in championship management. Straight away, eyebrows were raised. With no experience to call on, and no CV to his name, he was appointed as the new manager of Tottenham Hotspur. Terry Venables, the manager who just a season before had led the team to FA Cup glory, simply disappeared from the game, never to be heard of again.
The more downmarket papers ran vicious reports about the new appointment, suggesting that the interview for the new manager involved being presented with a picture of a football strip and being asked to recreate it on a codewheel - a practice common for so called Premier Managers.
All anyone knew about the new manager were a few pictures of a middle-aged man with greyish hair sporting a desperately unfashionable and probably highly flammable tracksuit, a football in one hand and an expression of passionate anger on his face. He thought the photo didn’t do him justice but he didn't have time to complain. There was a job to be done. And done quickly.
The early years went by in a blur, as the young prodigy demanded his games be played at a ferocious pace, so quick that the commentators struggled to keep up. Matches came thick and fast. More than one fixture per day was normal. Late kick offs – sometimes into the early hours – was a given. And not once did the manager, or his players, complain. He seemed almost addicted to the game, the only sign of his illness being a repeatedly nervous hammering of an imaginary space bar button as he sat in the dugout.
When asked to explain his management style the answer was simple: statistics. Reams of documents were read through, leaving the man in charge known for bloodshot eyes and an increasing case of repetitive strain injuries. Who was ranked 20 out of 20 for pace? Did anyone have more than 15 for dribbling? Could that be matched with 16 for flair? Only the manager knew.
And so the transfer market was endlessly visited, initially in an almost obsessive pursuit of a pair of unknown strikers called Nii Lamptey and Ibrahima Bakayoko. Time and again, bids were accepted, only for work permits to be denied. Eventually, both would sign and dominate the league, Bakayako creating the Bakayoko position as he played behind the front two. Shooting: 20, you see. Who knew? The manager knew, obviously.
In fact, he knew more than anyone. As the years wore on, a sixth sense for scouting young players would leave opponents baffled. How did he know to sign Matthew Etherington from Peterborough before he had played a game (Etherington went on to score relentlessly for England over the next decade)? Why did nobody else attempt to prise the teenage unknown Cherno Samba – and future goal-scoring record-breaker - from Millwall? Why didn’t Derby play the astonishingly gifted Tonton Zola Moukoko before calmly selling him on for a few hundred thousand pounds? How could he possibly know that the unknown Michael Duff would play so endlessly consistent at right back (or occasionally right midfield)? Who told him that a youngster called Kim Kallstrom would make the transition from Sweden to England with such ease, and not a back injury in sight? It was a remarkable run of hits, with only one transfer failure gnawing at him. Was it really worth signing Niklas Alexanderson? Yes, he would reply – who else plays D/M/A L/C/R? It made sense at the time.
On the pitch the formation rarely changed, and was hardly loved – for many years a crude tactic of man-marking the opposition goalkeeper (with a striker whose heading skills were ranked 20, naturally) seemed to beat all opponents and, somewhat surprisingly, the offside trap. Crude, certainly, but who complained when the talent kept arriving?
And over the years, a glut of phenomenal players were tempted to White Hart Lane: Del Piero quit table-topping Juventus, Zidane gave up on Real Madrid to became the Lilywhites’ new number 5, even Ronaldo – the original one – was enticed to line up alongside a veteran Robbie Keane. It seemed implausible.
Suspicious opponents pointed out a pattern which preceded each transfer: a new manager had been appointed at the Bernebeau, Nou Camp or wherever and would fall out with the star player after administering a series of hard to justify fines. A transfer request would follow, and finally a sale at a suspiciously knock down price would be agreed with Tottenham's shell-suited guru. Soon after the deal had gone through the volatile new manger – who had, like our hero, arrived from nowhere – vanished into retirement, occasionally after securing an equally bizarre signing in the other direction. A 32-year-old Justin Edinburgh signing for AC Milan for £9m? It really happened. It was almost as if one man, a mysterious puppet master above the fray, was appointing managers across Europe to help move players around for the benefit of his favourite club. It was, if you think about it, cheating, but questions were, strangely, never asked.
However, the stench of sleaze was beginning to hang heavily over the game, and as the seasons wore on, the manager’s image began to fade. He would now arrive at games with a beer in hand, making no effort to hide the canned lager – or its three super-value accomplices – as the game unfolded. Those bloodshot eyes and a now unshaven face – had he even been shaving when he began his career – were no longer attributed to a ruthless commitment to the job but to a worrying state of mind.
Morning press conferences, inevitably conduced to a room of none, would be conducted in clothes worn the night before. Curtains were rarely opened in the manager's office. His pile of stats was uploaded into a handheld device, which kept him scouting at all times for the next Taribo West (a free transfer from Milan, astonishingly). It spoke of an imagination out of control, a grip on reality lost long ago, began to spread.
A long-term girlfriend, her name long forgotten, walked out on this slave to championship management as night after night was spent pursuing transfer targets and scouting the world from the safety of his office, which was also his bedroom. Other work commitments were fulfilled with little focus. He didn’t care in the slightest.
But towards the end of his career the stories turned a little darker. Time and again, matches were replayed if they were lost, the defeats never saved for posterity. Cup finals to start with, then crucial league matches then any game that wasn't won. No reason was ever needed. The game was played until it a victory was registered, the losses erased, without guilt or question, from the record books. It seemed, well, slightly pointless, which is of course the exact opposite of what his record-breaking team was now achieving.
He began to outlast the great players that he had built his success on, and yet familiar names were emerging all around him. Wes Gascoigne. Jermain Anderton. Gianfranco Shearer. They sparked distant memories in the manager. Who were these strange, gifted, and yet seemingly generated out of nowhere players, he would ask, before signing them all anyway and dumping them in a squad in which only a 39-year-old Freddy Adu had been a part of since the start of the manager's career.
A re-branding of the league saw our man now known as a Football Manager, but something else had changed. Some said it was his personal life. Now married, with a child on the way, his focus had inevitably drifted. He had also managed for the best part of three decades. And then there was the new fangled focus on training. Training! What about the stats, the endless stats? That's what counted. He couldn't be bothered to set training. And who wants to watch the whole game when you can watch the live commentary at home while hammering a space bar into pieces? He was losing interest, but retirement didn't come easy. Heroin addicts, he thought, must have it easier than this, but in the end, he did it, splintering his famous discs – store of so much information about so many players – to pieces.
Finally, perhaps, he had chosen life. It was healthier, he thought, more balanced. But was it more fulfilling? The answer was one he would never dare reveal to wife or child, or colleagues in a work place very different to a buzzing White Hart Lane at 4am on a Monday night. Or Tuesday night. Every night in fact. Every day too. Privately, deep down, he knew, and would know forever. He could never, ever recreate the buzz that came with being perhaps the greatest ever Championship Manager.