Friday 24 November 2017

Tommy Conlon: America remains a frontier too far in globalised world across the water

Bob Bradley's US accent stirred up a few insular reflexes and helped make him a figure of ridicule

Former Swansea City manager Bob Bradley. Photo: PA
Former Swansea City manager Bob Bradley. Photo: PA

Tommy Conlon

Oh how we laughed when we heard what the Swansea footballers had nicknamed their new American manager. They called him 'Ronald Reagan', according to a piece of mischief that had latterly turned up in the tabloids during Bob Bradley's 85 days in charge. It was to do with his allegedly old-style training methods.

It appeared to fit, not because we knew anything about Bradley or how he operated, but because it seemed exactly like something a bunch of typical dressing-room messers would come up with when sniggering about the manager behind his back.

In fact, given the generally juvenile standard of football humour, it showed a level of sophistication that made it a decidedly superior example of the genre.

Unfortunately, it may only have been a rumour, a newspaper's sneering invention. When Bradley denied last week that he'd ever been nicknamed after the ham-actor-turned-US-president, it could've been seen as an exercise in damage limitation from an already embarrassed man. But he backed up his denial with an explanation that was so resounding in its logic, it had the fundamental force of a biblical truth. "Trust me," he told reporter Oliver Kay, "not one of those players knows who Ronald Reagan is."

Bingo. As soon as we read it, we found ourselves believing him. For how could they possibly know who 'The Gipper' was, when most of them wouldn't even know who the hell Donald Trump is?

To nobody's surprise, Bradley did not last long in English football. He was a redundancy waiting to happen. His team played 11, lost 7, won 2. Known at one time in America as 'Bunker Bob' for his defensive formations, Swansea conceded 29 goals on his watch. Bob was all at sea. He fielded six different back-four combinations. The 4-1 home defeat to West Ham on Stephen's Day was the final straw. The first American to manage in the Premier League was gone.

He'd been appointed by the club's American owners; it was a patriotic gesture too far. Bradley has been coaching for 35 years, mainly in the domestic American game. He managed the USA national team and guided them to the round of 16 at the 2010 World Cup. He also managed the Egypt national team and modest professional clubs in Norway and France. He clearly didn't have the pedigree or big-time experience to find his bearings on the runaway train that is the Premier League. He was duly chewed up and spat out like a mouthful of cowboy's tobacco in a Hollywood western.

He is not the first innocent abroad to have found himself out of his depth in this particular circus. But his manifold problems were compounded by the unique complication of being a Yank in a country where they don't call the game 'soccer'.

He was obviously conscious of this issue from day one. "I'm not an American manager, I'm a football manager," he declared at a press conference after his appointment in October. But as soon as he opened his mouth on the training ground, in the dressing room and on television, everyone was reminded of his transatlantic origins. There was no hiding it, no matter how conscientiously he referred to his sport as "football". His accent led straight away to a credibility problem.

And I must admit it jarred with me too the first time I heard him doing an interview on Match of the Day.

The game in Britain has been opened up like never before over the last 20 years. When foreign players were no longer a novelty, indigenous pundits gradually stopped making jokes about surnames they couldn't pronounce. The great influx from Europe was in time supplemented by fresh tributaries from Africa, Asia and South America.

But Bradley stirred up a few old insular reflexes. America has the richest and most advanced sporting culture on the planet but his chosen game has never thrived in that culture.

In England he needed an early winning streak to quash the scepticism. If he lost the dressing room in the end, it looks and sounds as if he never really won it in the first place. He was therefore open to scornful barbs when he started referring to penalties as "PKs" and away games as "road games".

These verbal deviations would seem too insignificant for comment. But any wounded manager in the Premier League is always fair game for further wounding through ridicule.

In a podcast with Sports Illustrated last week, their soccer correspondent Grant Wahl reminded him that his "American-ness" had been a subject in Britain. Other managers from other countries didn't have to deal with this.

Bradley still didn't want to acknowledge it as an issue. It was mainly, he said, certain sections of the media looking for "scuttlebutt" - which is another Americanism, meaning gossip. He also talked Wahl through the 5-0 hammering against Tottenham in early December. First it was "one-zero", then "two-zero" and finally "five-zero", after which, "I took a lot of heat". He would've probably taken a bit less heat if he'd called it "one-nil", "two-nil" and "five-nil".

When Alex Ferguson was master of all he surveyed, his ironclad managerial reign was sometimes compared with that of Reagan's great UK ally, Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. Ferguson governed with Thatcherite brutality.

Unfortunately for Bradley, the American in a cold climate, he bore comparison with the wrong political legend.

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