Thursday 22 March 2018

Dion Fanning: Perception is everything – even when the facts speak otherwise

Nigel Pearson, manager of Leicester City exchanges words with Crystal Palace's James McArthur
Nigel Pearson, manager of Leicester City exchanges words with Crystal Palace's James McArthur

Dion Fanning

Football was on the brink last week. For a time, it looked like we wouldn’t have Nigel Pearson to kick around anymore. Pearson seemed destined to be lost to our industry, as I’m sure he calls it.

Happily, Leicester City decided that being in charge of the team at the bottom of the league and wrestling with an opposition player on the touchline didn’t merit dismissal or, if it did, it also merited reversing that dismissal.

There are those who will question this approach to corporate governance and wonder if it is the best way to promote stability going forward, which is why stability may yet be promoted through Pearson’s dismissal. Clearly we should savour Pearson while we can. He is one of those beguiling Premier League managers who has the potential to be more than just a man standing bleakly on the sideline wondering what will become of him.

Men like Pearson and Newcastle United’s John Carver are determined that we should glimpse their interior lives, following in the finest tradition, that is the tradition of Phil Brown.

Pearson for a long time seemed destined to be lost to the world of rugby union as he sat behind a laptop in the stand, managing to look above the fray and anti-intellectual at the same time as if he had taken his seat and found this pc in front of him.

Of course, like many people who spend long periods in front of a laptop, Pearson is clearly becoming increasingly frazzled and irritable with a diminishing attention span. So he wrestled with James McArthur on the sideline on Saturday, a player he had tried to sign previously, before attacking the BBC’s coverage of the incident, which included a barb about paying his tax. 

As the world waited for Tim Sherwood to accept an invitation to return to management with a level of anticipation not felt by many since the Stone Roses went to work on their second album, Pearson and Carver are prepared to offer more than the anodyne as they struggle with the business of football management.

They are very different. Carver seems like the kind of man who would recount his life story if you found yourself sitting beside him on a train. As he ate a cheese sandwich, he would gleefully tell you of all the critical moments in his life, re-enacting whole conversations between characters (whose roles would be unclear but whom he had mentioned earlier) before forgetting to get off at his station, lost as he would be in a story about a road rage incident on a petrol station’s forecourt off the M56 in 1986.

Under pressure: Nigel Pearson gets his hands round the throat of James McArthur
Under pressure: Nigel Pearson gets his hands round the throat of James McArthur

Carver takes this love of detail into the Newcastle job, happily recounting conversations with a range of characters like Remy Cabella — “I had him in the office, and said, ‘Look, you’ve been great since I’ve taken over — you need to continue that, but be careful with your reaction’.” and Alan Pardew — “I said, ‘Well done, you deserved a point’.” Despite the many cameras at the stadium, often we know little about life on the sidelines and even less about what goes on in the manager’s office, so Carver’s decision to catalogue all this, even the most banal, during his time as Newcastle’s manager is to be welcomed.

Carver has lived too, something that is becoming more unusual as managers become careerist, setting out like politicians on an ambitious path from an early age. He was baffled by Jermain Defoe’s failure to settle in Toronto as it was a “great party city” and yet there is a lot more to learn about his time in the great party city and I’m sure Carver would be able to tell more.

Sherwood became more like Pep Guardiola during his year-long sabattical as he became favourite for every vacant position while it remained unclear if he was any good as a manager.

This is, of course, irrelevant in many ways as what matters in English football is whether you are perceived as being good at the job.

Sherwood has perception on his side while simultaneously being perceived as an eejit and, while Aston Villa had little choice but to dismiss Paul Lambert, he was a man who had achieved something in management before things became becalmed at Villa Park.

Sherwood creates noise and ignores it at the same time and, if there is something of Guardiola in how he has managed to make himself wanted during his exile (unlike Guardiola he is not sustained by a couple of Champions League titles but merely by the knowledge of his genius), by taking the Villa job he has avoided comparisons with Alan Shearer.

Nobody wanted to lose Sherwood to the TV studio and football will be a more glorious place with Tim on the front line again, a sentiment he would surely agree with.

The perception of Louis van Gaal is altering and last week he was said to have made a mistake when he produced his four pages of statistics and graphs. This was said to have unfortunate echoes of Rafa Benitez’s demonstration of the “facts”, widely believed to have been a catastrophic error, a view enhanced by the shots of United’s press officer grimacing as she handed them out.

There was something comforting about that grimace in a world destroyed by pr. At least it was the truth as the press officer saw it and that is unusual if not unprecedented in the world of media management.

In reality, Liverpool’s form improved marginally after Benitez’s press conference so it can probably be said to have had no impact at all. If things go wrong for Van Gaal, it will have little to do with his dossier but because United increasingly favour the most boring ball ahead of an incisive long or short ball.

Van Gaal is providing all the entertainment which is not how things were supposed to be. He is a man of substance, a giant trying to inhabit a world of pettiness. Like all great men, he remains teachable, even if right now he appears to be learning from Nigel Pearson and Tim Sherwood.

Nigel Pearson remains in charge of Leicester
Nigel Pearson remains in charge of Leicester

Online Editors

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