Friday 20 April 2018

Stephen Hunt: The last thing players need is a boss who tries to be their friend

Sunderland manager Sam Allardyce can be more flexible about his team's style of play than is generally assumed
Sunderland manager Sam Allardyce can be more flexible about his team's style of play than is generally assumed
Stephen Hunt

Stephen Hunt

When Steve Coppell needed to make a point, I knew he would come looking for me. If things had been going badly or if the manager wasn't happy, I knew I would get it in the dressing room.

But I knew I'd get it because the manager knew I could take it. "Shut up, Hunty," he might say as he walked in even if I hadn't been talking, although I usually had been talking.

He'd take it from there. He'd use me as an example and as a scapegoat and I never cared at all. I saw it as evidence of my mental strength and I also knew that the manager would always pick me. That was the only opinion that really mattered.

From what I understand, Sam Allardyce had a similar kind of relationship with Kevin Nolan, so it didn't surprise me when he was talking about signing him when he took over at Sunderland. Sam would use Nolan to make a point in the dressing room, but he also knew he could be trusted, which is why he has taken him from Bolton to Newcastle to West Ham.

Allardyce gets a hard time in the press, but I think he's a manager who gets a lot out of players. I know people who have worked with him, and they say he's not as rigid as some people say. In general play, he is happy for his side to play football but if you get a set-piece in your own half and take it short, Sam won't be happy. He wants those free-kicks to be direct, and his team will absorb that message.

I have some sympathy for Allardyce when he feels he hasn't been appreciated enough. I think if he had pushed a different message, he could have gone higher in the game. Instead he stubbornly took pleasure in the physical attributes his teams possessed, especially when they would dominate somebody like Arsenal.

But his side at Bolton could play football, even if they would only play in certain areas, and he was undone at West Ham by the desire from their supporters for a particular type of football. And even if Sam was playing that football, they wouldn't have felt Sam was the man because he's not the right brand.

Perception matters so much in management. I liked what I saw from Jürgen Klopp at Liverpool when he came in. He didn't pretend to be something he's not, although he also has a great public image. When I look at the manager facing Sam this afternoon, I'm not sure who he is or what Steve McClaren stands for. When he was England manager, he ended up being ridiculed as the wally with the brolly, but before that he was seen as a man who was too chummy with the players as he talked about 'JT' and 'Stevie G'.

This is not the same as good man-management. In fact, in certain instances, it can make things worse, as the last thing you need is a manager who you think is your friend. As a player, all you want is a manager you can be sure of. If you do certain things, you know he'll be pleased, and if you don't, he won't.

Players will take advantage of managers who go easy on them, and then they'll feel betrayed if he decided belatedly to get tough. I'm not saying that's what McClaren does, but that spell of trying to be the players' friend didn't work. With him, you never know who he is trying to be. Last week, he described today's derby against Sunderland as "just another game". I see what he's trying to do, but that's not the right attitude for a match of this importance. It's also not true. Lose this and McClaren is under real pressure.

Maybe he wanted to take the pressure off his players, but I think those moves are always transparent. He is at his best as a coach, I think, and that's very different to management. He might have told his players that it was just another game, but you've also got to talk to the fans, and the Newcastle supporters need to hear a more defiant message.

I think that Sam will say the right things in the dressing room, and I would fancy the manager who has been derided as Mike Bassett ahead of the coach who, nearly 10 years after he became England manager, is still trying to figure out what kind of boss he is.

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