Sport Soccer

Thursday 14 December 2017

Skinny-tied saviour AVB faces fight to retain his fashionable status

Dion Fanning

People have short memories. It is not so long ago that Tottenham Hotspur were Kings of the summer, the dominant players in the transfer window as they moved to replace Gareth Bale with seven players. This stunning act of daring handed them the title of champions in the window, a fact even José Mourinho acknowledged.

On those long summer evenings, Spurs knew all about the glory game and we were told that their impressive performance underlined everything that was good about their manager André Villas-Boas and their director of football model which represented the future.

Their subsequent advances have been hindered by the dawning realisation that, at any time, only one man could replace Gareth Bale as football remained hidebound to hideous conservative values by remaining an 11-a-side game.

The discussion about André Villas-Boas is now a winter perennial and it is possible to figure out so much about somebody from where they stand on the manager. He is football's Roe v Wade, a man and a symbol for how you perceive football and life.

There was a time last year when AVB looked like he was morphing into an old-school football man. He described penalties as a lottery, dismissed statistics including Prozone and sent out his side to play 4-4-2, the equivalent of Richard Dawkins declaring that on mature reflection God had created the world in six days.

Yet he will never have certain people on his side, even when he tries to be like them. AVB is Willem Dafoe in Mississippi Burning, a college boy riding into Jessup County with high ideals but no notion of how the world works. Villas-Boas is constantly fighting two battles: one which is the battle to prove himself as a manager; the other to demonstrate essentially that, like Dafoe, he shaves every morning and can go to the bathroom by himself.

His youth rankles with those who think he is uppity and too sure of himself but his youth might also hide from some the possibility that he is uppity and too sure of himself.

There are times when this cultural split benefits AVB and there are times when it doesn't but at all times it leads to a distortion of the debate, much as it did with Harry Redknapp himself.

Redknapp was the good ol' boy, Gene Hackman to AVB's Dafoe, a man with a past and a gut instinct.

When AVB arrived at Spurs, he had changed. There have been no stories that he sleeps in a pod at the training ground or stands over the balcony looking at his watch while players arrive late.

He can be difficult, but being difficult is a good thing in a manager, especially if the difficulty involves trying to sign Joao Moutinho and being upset when you don't.

AVB, it was said, was happy to work with the director of football and Tottenham's transfer committee, although he was also said to have had problems with Tim Sherwood.

While some managers would accept working as part of a committee, there are few who would believe that the committee knows better than they do. Perhaps this is the creative tension necessary for a club to function but Spurs' replacements for Bale do resemble the joke about a camel being a horse designed by committee.

These players may yet come good and be hailed as a triumph for AVB or another member of the committee yet he will always be defined by what he represents even if right now, AVB doesn't appear to represent anything except his own desperate need for survival.

During the game against Tromso on Thursday night, he reportedly had a fan ejected for chanting 'You're getting sacked in the morning'. In these moments, he looks more like Gordon Brown complaining about being caught in an argument with a pensioner than any skinny-tied advance man for Camelot.

"I know he is under a lot of pressure so I think my words hit him, even though I am only a little guy in little Tromso. He was being a bit petulant," said Reidar Stenersen, a 29-year-old hairdresser who joined AVB's list of critics.

It was said that Gordon Brown had to take smiling lessons as he tried to become a modern politician. He would have preferred to spend the night reading the eagerly awaited seven-volume biography of Pitt the Younger than appearing on any show with Phillip Schofield or indeed having smiling lessons.

Brown was a football man and AVB is too. In these tough times, the image he has tried to project at Spurs of the quintessentially English manager looks strained. Last season, he spoke less of low blocks and high blocks, less of the need to "incentivate choice-making". Last season, he had Gareth Bale and there were times when AVB was criticised for relying on his best player as if there was some better way.

Last season, Bale ran to him on the touchline, a symbolic gesture which might have meant so much to a man who was ridiculed when he was reported to have asked his Chelsea players to celebrate with him. But he is not that back-slapping man. He may have something to learn about man-management but then again anybody who sleeps in a pod at the training ground could be said to require a lot of work in the field of what we might call emotional intelligence.

Of course he didn't say that the players should be ashamed of themselves after the Manchester City game but there appears to be a few who think he did, perhaps wondering at his failure to appreciate their human qualities, craving, as they all seem to in the end, an arm around the shoulder.

AVB is thinking a different way and the problem seems to be that nobody knows exactly how different he really is. He should remind them of who he is because, either way, they'll get him in the end.

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