Tuesday 28 February 2017

Coyle's loyalty card dog-eared beyond use

James Lawton

James Lawton

Whatever Owen Coyle achieves in the ferociously partisan neighbourhood he has chosen for himself, he surely knows now what is beyond attainment in the new climate of the game.

He cannot be everybody's idea of an admirable football man. He has to face up to the odd bitter truth and consequence of picking up and putting down loyalty as it suits him best. He cannot ignore the fact that football has an increasingly visible cardinal rule. It is to hate thy neighbour.

He cannot put himself at the head of one neighbouring tribe, as he did when he walked from Burnley to Bolton, and still expect to be treated like any other member of the workforce who aspires to better wages -- and prospects.

He was disabused of this naivety when he attempted this week some kind of reconciliation with the people among whom he was so recently revered after guiding Bolton to the victory which plunged Burnley into the relegation zone -- and confirmed suspicions that despite a promising start, the club he brought back into the top flight with such fanfare is simply not equipped for more than a fleeting re-appearance at a level they believed, in a different age and a different world, was their right.

Coyle embraced his former players and waved to the old fans. The reply from the terraces was bitter and equivocal. "Judas," was the cry, and all that was remarkable about this was that the Scot appeared surprised.

Hatred

Certainly his reaction came from a world separate from the one which in recent years has seen the hatred of rival fans incubate at a rate faster than the spiralling wages of both players and managers.

It was a statement drawn from the belief that modern football fans may on occasion be willing to apply the values and judgements of the real world when someone weighs the chance to improve themselves.

At the Reebok Stadium it was a notion left with the credence of a piece of rubbish blowing in the cold wind off the neighbouring hills.

Coyle said: "It sounds like they want to get biblical -- I was Judas tonight but last year I was God. I should be Moses because I led them from the wilderness to the promised land.

"But I can't complain if the passion and the commitment I asked for is now turned on me." Coyle had offered the Burnley fans the thumbs-up sign. Five thousand supporters howled and thrust downward their own thumbs. If Coyle had been a gladiator he would have perished on the spot, yet he is dogged in looking only at his picture of reality.

"I genuinely went over to thank them for the support they gave me. They are terrific fans and nothing will change my feelings for Burnley."

Nothing, that is, except a superior contract and a much better budget.

It may have been asking too much of the Burnley zealots to see his decision to leave as something quite fundamental to the ambitions of all who operate beyond the barricades of football, but Coyle would probably have been much better off squaring earlier with the fans he believes he motivated so strongly. He could have done this when his former club Bolton, where he was so popular as a player, first came calling. Instead of that he sent his assistant out to face a national tv audience as the story of Bolton's overture began to boil. No, Coyle wasn't avoiding any issues, he was rushing to catch a train home for New Year celebrations.

We may say that the modern fan is many things, including rabidly one-eyed, but he is not a fool. He cannot be mollified by platitudes. If you are with him, if you are at the head of his cause, and his prejudices, you are a hero. The moment you are not you are, well, Judas.

Coyle had a little preview of his recent turmoil back in 2007, when after doing a fine job at St Johnstone, and winning a new contract, he left to join Burnley. Who could question such upward mobility? Only, perhaps, the fans and players of St Johnstone who had responded, as passionately as would the fans of Burnley, and now Bolton, who had responded to both his passion and his obvious knack of building the solid foundations of a team.

Engaging the passions of the fans is of course one of the basic football arts. Bill Shankly, Jock Stein, Matt Busby, Don Revie, Brian Clough, Joe Mercer and Malcolm Allison, Arsene Wenger and Alex Ferguson, as we saw this week in the emotional battering of Manchester City, all saw it as a key to their success. For Jose Mourinho, who is increasingly seen as the likeliest successor to Ferguson at Old Trafford, it is also a stock in trade. Yet one of the keys is that you have to transmit the idea that your commitment is real rather than the confection of the moment.

No one did it better than Shankly, with whom the 43-year-old Coyle has been rather casually compared. After Liverpool won the FA Cup for the first time, the messiah of Anfield addressed a crowd from the balcony of Liverpool city hall. The throng was estimated at a quarter of a million. Shankly waved a red handkerchief and told the fans that they made him feel as strong as Chairman Mao. Peter Robinson, the club secretary, commented at the time: "If he had told them to pour through the Mersey tunnel and take Birkenhead it's pretty certain they would have done so."

Most of the impetus would have come from the belief that Shankly had made his commitment and that it would not easily break. And nor would it. When he left the club, everyone agreed, he became something of a shell and when he died, the cause, many believed, was a broken heart.

We have different times, of course -- different values and different men.

Owen Coyle has proved himself a fine football manager but perhaps the greatest lesson of his week is that today the loyalty card is more than a little dog-eared. You play it only at your own peril. A man like Shankly had no need for such misgivings because he always believed it was his ace in the pack.

Irish Independent

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