Saturday 25 February 2017

Dion Fanning: A chronicle of suffering that lifts veil on obsession

Dion Fanning

Liverpool manager Brendan Rodgers
Liverpool manager Brendan Rodgers

Jose Mourinho's press gathering at Chelsea's training ground in Surrey a few weeks ago was winding slowly to a close . Before it finished, Mourinho mentioned that he believed he was improving as a manager and, in fact, he was a better manager than he was ten years ago.

We dutifully reported it as if this was news, even if it was almost exactly the opposite (news would have been if he had said he wasn't as good as he was ten years ago). This was an ominous warning to his rivals when it was probably an ominous warning that the things we dress up as news aren't always news.

Mourinho said experience had made him a better manager and while nobody would dispute the importance of experience, it's arguable that other factors have made Mourinho less effective than he was in 2005. He has experience but he also has experience, the slow accumulation of events that have made him feel more persecuted.

Is Arsene Wenger as good a manager as he was ten years ago? Is Brendan Rodgers young enough to learn from his mistakes? What other questions are there which we can never answer satisfactorily?

There are more profound questions asked in Michael Calvin's latest book, Living on the Volcano: The Secrets of Surviving as a Football Manager. Wenger and Rodgers both feature and they will meet tomorrow, aware that, in the words of another man interviewed in the book, Brian McDermott, "there is no past, no future, only the now."

Wenger and Rodgers are the longest-serving managers in the Premier League, even if they were appointed 16 years apart, which says something about the increased hysteria surrounding the job.

Humanity underpins Calvin's book, which is a chronicle of human suffering, a reminder that managers have never been more exposed at a time when they are increasingly considered unimportant.

Calvin gets close to the men featured and it shows why managers are usually the most interesting people to hear from in football. The best manage to retain their own humanity, their empathy for the players on whom their careers depend, even when those players care very little about anything.

"There are a lot of players whose desire has gone by the time they're 21," Sean Dyche tells Calvin.

Money, we easily assume, is the reason for this. Shaun Derry tells a story about a day's training at QPR when he happened to mention that he got stuck in traffic on the way to training. Julio Cesar, his new team-mate, has a solution. "Why don't you get a helicopter?".

Derry liked Julio Cesar - and who wouldn't admire a man so willing to think outside the box or, indeed, in the sky? - but he found his final years at QPR "my worst". Yet when he went to Notts County he encountered players with the same attitude, so maybe the problem, if it is a problem, is deeper than money.

Understandably, perhaps, many express a wistfulness for the past when players were tougher or at least shared the same values as the managers who played the game in those days.

Some managers have always found ways round the empathy. Jim McClean would have been considered too ferocious for Amazon, while Micky Adams recalls the methods of Chris Nicholl at Southampton. "He used to go round us individually in the dressing room after a game: 'Shit, shit, not bad, wanker'. If you got a 'shit' you were quite happy, a 'wanker' meant you were struggling."

Managers like McDermott, Dyche, Joe Dunne, Chris Hughton and Derry are as fascinating as you'd expect. Alan Pardew's contribution demonstrates that his image, or one aspect of his personality, has masked his insight into the game.

All the men interviewed in the book have learned from their experiences, or at least they can recall them and insist they have developed because of them.

Liverpool visit the Emirates tomorrow evening modelling a new-look side which could outmuscle Arsenal or could discover the limitations of a midfield with Jordan Henderson and James Milner.

Rodgers is just a little older than Mourinho was when he won the European Cup for the first time but young enough to believe he can learn from his mistakes. Will he be a better manager in ten years? Not everybody is but everyone in Calvin's book is a different manager because of their experiences.

Many expected Rodgers to lose his job last summer. Instead, his assistant and coach lost theirs, which was either a sign of the ruthlessness required in a top-class manager or evidence of the weakness which prevents some remaining at the top.

With Steven Gerrard gone, Rodgers now has a dressing room which looks primarily to him but which may also find a professional like Milner a positive influence.

Calvin's book illustrates how little we know most of the time, how meaningless the press conference and mixed zones can be and how much we are guided by superficial impressions, which may explain why so many managers feel the superficial is important.

Many of the managers are hoping to uncover something more profound but sometimes it isn't there. Dyche believes he could judge a dressing room within a morning. "You'd know the leaders, the followers, the alpha males. You'd know the fraud, because you always get the fraud, the one who thinks he's the alpha male but if you scratch the surface he's got nothing."

This hasn't changed. Eamon Dunphy dealt with the same realities in Only a Game?, the same search for the 'good pro', the same suspicion about those who might not be all they seem.

"People can sit in the stand," Dunphy wrote, "and say 'They were better, they were more aesthetically pleasing. They are doing what the game is all about'. But they aren't. They are doing part of it. But the game is about competition, about conflict, about character."

For managers, the game is about suffering too. Calvin's book is a catalogue of their misery but one which makes you understand the obsession. If life is tragedy full of joy, football management could be a metaphor for life with the joy taken out, while the secret of survival may involve not playing the game at all.

dfanning@independent.ie

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