Monday 20 November 2017

Under pressure: Who would be a sports manager?

It's another bumper weekend for the armchair fan. But for top coaches, the heat can become unbearable. Do we expect too much from them

Pitch battles: Axed Liverpool boss Brendan Rodgers, England rugby manager Stuart Lancaster, departed Mayo management team Pat Holmes and Noel Connolly and Chelsea boss Jose Mourinho.
Pitch battles: Axed Liverpool boss Brendan Rodgers, England rugby manager Stuart Lancaster, departed Mayo management team Pat Holmes and Noel Connolly and Chelsea boss Jose Mourinho.
John Meagher

John Meagher

The phone call came one hour after the final whistle on Sunday afternoon which saw Liverpool share the spoils with city rivals Everton. It was from Mike Gordon, the president of Fenway Sports Limited, the American owners of Liverpool FC, and he was calling manager Brendan Rodgers to relieve him of his duty.

A few hours later, on this side of the Irish Sea, another manager was being put through the ringer. Just weeks after leading Galway's senior hurlers to their second All Ireland Final appearance in four years, Anthony Cunningham was having to justify why he should stay on as manager as a number of players had reportedly moved against him.

On the face of it, there's little in common between the highly paid millionaire who almost led the Merseyside club to the Premier League title in 2014 and the former Galway hurler who enjoyed All-Ireland success as a manager at under-age level. But scratch below the surface, and you will find two men under intense pressure to deliver silverware for sporting institutions that might be justly called sleeping giants.

Liverpool fans last saw their club win the league in 1990 - after a period of a dozen or so years in which they were the pre-eminent force in English football. Galway supporters got to savour three All-Ireland titles in the 1980s, but haven't won one since 1988. Liverpool finished a disappointing sixth in last season's title race; Galway reached the All-Ireland final but were comprehensively out-gunned by Kilkenny.

Rodgers' dream of making Liverpool champions again is over, while Cunningham won't need to be reminded that the knives will be out again if Galway fail to lift the Liam MacCarthy Cup next year.

The pressures of being a manager in sport were writ large last weekend, and not just in Liverpool and Galway.

The self-titled 'Chosen One', José Mourinho, felt compelled to plea to keep his job live on television after his league champions Chelsea suffered yet another defeat in what's turning out to be a horrendous start to the season. Just hours later, on Saturday night, England rugby manager Stuart Lancaster seemed to wear the weight of his world on his shoulders as his side slumped to a humiliating defeat at the hands of Australia. Lancaster will have to live with the ignominy of being the first host nation to be turfed out of the World Cup at the pool stages.

A couple of days earlier, Mayo football's joint-management team of Noel Connelly and Pat Holmes announced that they were stepping down as a result of player-power. Mayo have come close many times to winning their first All-Ireland since 1951; this year they were well beaten by eventual champions Dublin in a semi-final replay after blowing a four-point lead in the second half.

It was all so different for Alex Ferguson, a man hailed as one of the greatest managers seen in any sport. He was at the helm of Manchester United for 26 trophy-laden years. His just-published new book, Leading, looks at the pivotal leadership decisions he made throughout his career, both on and off the pitch. And yet, as every fan of the Old Trafford club knows, his first few years in charge were disappointing and gave no sense of the glittering era that was just around the corner. In today's climate, he would have been fired in his second or third year in charge.

Sports broadcaster Michael McMullan says the life-span of managers from one code to the next is shortening all the time.

"It's instant-gratification: supporters, club owners and so on want success and they want it now," he says. "Managers are expected to be miracle workers and if they don't deliver to often highly unreasonable expectations, they are moved on and someone else comes in and the cycle keeps repeating itself."

As the former host of Today FM's Premier League Live, McMullan pays particular interest to top-flight English football, where the cull of managers has almost become a sport in its own right.

"Alex Ferguson retired in 2013," he says. "Do you know how many Premier League managers then are still managing the same club? Just one: Arsene Wenger [Arsenal's manager]. And he's not immune from all this: they were calling for his head after losing to Olympiacos [in the Champions League] but a few days later they were saying he was a genius when Arsenal beat Man United 3-0. If they're beaten by Watford next week, the calls will come for him to be sacked again. It's ridiculous."

McMullan says the fate of Rodgers exemplifies the hire-and-fire-them culture in English football.

"Liverpool came incredibly close to winning the league two seasons ago. If [Steven] Gerrard hadn't slipped [to let Chelsea in for a goal] the likelihood is they would have gone on to be champions. And one of the main reasons why they almost won the league was because [Luis] Suarez was scoring so many goals. The next season, they have to cope without him [after his sale to Barcelona] and yet Rodgers gets the blame. It's become so easy to blame the manager when things go wrong: there was so much talk about his summer signings playing badly, but we're only eight league games into the season and people forget that many top players, including Thierry Henry, had a poor first season before going on to be the best player in Arsenal's history."

McMullan believes it was in the 1994/95 Premier League season that the game changed for football managers.

"That year four teams rather than the usual three were relegated to bring the number of top-flight teams down to 20 and clubs took drastic action to avoid the drop. There were a lot of firings that season and it has continued every since."

The fate of Noel Connelly and Pat Holmes in Mayo demonstrates that patience is a virtue that's sometimes lacking in the stronger GAA counties, too. The pair were just one year into a three-year 'project'.

Mark Duncan, a sports historian with a strong interest in the GAA, says the 'cult of the manager' has taken hold in hurling and Gaelic football, and not just at inter-county level. "It's happening at club-level, too, this idea that a manager can be drafted in and turn everything around. Even the language has changed: all the talk now is such-and-such getting the 'job' and meeting 'targets'."

With no transfer system to utilise, GAA managers have to use the talent at their disposal and, Duncan says, even when the playing pool isn't up to scratch, it's invariably the manager who gets the blame at the end of a disappointing campaign. "As GAA managers are so much more visible now than they used to be and sometimes transcend the sport in their own right, maybe it's to be expected that they will be scapegoated."

Duncan, who co-wrote the exhaustive The GAA: A People's History, says the term 'manager' is a comparatively recent development in Gaelic Games.

"It's really only since Kevin Heffernan [Dublin football manager] and Mick O'Dwyer [Kerry] in the 1970s that people started talking about managers. Before that there were 'trainers', people who did the coaching, but they tended to have a low-profile in the public's consciousness." Furthermore, squads tended to be picked by committee.

Heffernan and O'Dwyer ushered in a new breed of manager. Writing in his book The Managers, Daire Whelan notes: "From that point, the philosophy of the team was linked to the manager's personality; training, tactics and team selections all became the responsibilities of one man, and in many ways, the team was a mirror image of his traits and approach to the game.

"Until then, the manager/trainer was very much in the background, Kerry's Dr Eamonn O'Sullivan being a case in point. Here was a man who trained Kerry to nine All-Irelands between 1924 and 1964, winning eight, and yet he was only called upon when Kerry were struggling... Outside of Kerry, however, to the ordinary fan, the name Dr Eamonn O'Sullivan would not have meant very much."

Today, even those with the most superficial knowledge of the GAA are likely to have heard of Jim McGuinness, the charismatic Donegal manager who led his county to All-Ireland football glory in 2012 before stepping down last year. Few people have embodied the 'cult of the manager' as much as McGuinness, whose hard-line approach to the game spawned a popular song, 'Jimmy's Winning Matches'.

"And yet," Duncan notes, "not everyone in Donegal was enamoured by his methods or the manner in which he dropped [star player] Kevin Cassidy from the squad."

Even the successful managers have their critics, too.

And Liverpool's incoming manager, Jurgen Kloop, was certainly a success in his native Germany: he was credited with reviving the fortunes of Borussia Dortmund in a period in which they landed two Bundesliga titles and appeared in a Champions League final. And yet, as the Guardian pointed out on Wednesday, the difficulties Rodgers faced will not go away.

"For all Klopp's undoubted qualities he is not going to bring Luis Suárez back, is he?" wrote Paul Wilson. "He is unlikely to persuade the Fenway Sports Group to spend the sort of money that Chelsea and Manchester City have been spending either, or convince Barcelona and Real Madrid cast-offs that Liverpool have Champions League potential to match Arsenal and Manchester United.

"There is a reason why Liverpool keep finishing just outside the Champions League and that is because - when nostalgia and tradition have been stripped away - there are four better-resourced clubs ahead of them."

And that, McMullan says, is the inconvenient truth so many supporters are happy to forget.

"The manager is just one of several factors that determines the success of a team," he says. "Just one."

Pithy put-downs

Great leaders inspire but Steve McClaren will be sacked today and remembered as a wally with a brolly."

The Daily Mail on the dismal end to the reign of another England football manager.

"A drunken gambler in the casino throwing chips on the table."

RTÉ's Eamon Dunphy on former Irish manager Giovanni Trapattoni.

"In six months he destroyed the best team in Europe."

Chelsea boss José Mourinho on the Real Madrid manager Rafa Benitez, who took over his Inter Milan side after winning Champions League.

"England's failure lies with Stuart Lancaster - his survival is now an impossibility."

The Daily Mirror on English rugby's latest disappointment.

"F*** off and play behind closed doors if you're not in the business of entertainment."

RTÉ pundit Joe Brolly offers advice to Tyrone's Mickey Harte.

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