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Saturday 17 February 2018

Top bosses must tread carefully in era of player and owner interference

Top bosses must tread carefully in era of player and owner interference

The cult of the big manager looks healthy enough on the opulent surface of modern football.

The 'Special One' Jose Mourinho has reason to believe he operates in a league of his own, at least until the outcome of Real Madrid's El Clasico with Barcelona, and almost every utterance of the likes of Alex Ferguson and Arsene Wenger is still deemed worthy of forensic examination.

But in a world owned by oligarchs and sheikhs and American corporations, are we really discussing the genuine power and influence of the big names or merely the illusion of it?

Because a Mourinho or a Ferguson carries so much aura -- and creates so much controversy -- it is tempting to linger with the old belief that the difference between success and failure can be defined by the brilliance and the strength of the man not in the executive suit but the manager's chair.

The latter theory, though, looks a lot less compelling in the light of the extraordinary affair of Carlo Ancelotti, with Chelsea owner Roman Abramovich's decision to impose on the great Italian coach an assistant he plainly considers so ill-qualified, he was at pains not to sit next to him on the bench during this week's Champions League tie at Stamford Bridge.

Ancelotti's pain and powerlessness at the brutal firing of his respected assistant Ray Wilkins has been so explicit, it is hard to believe that the sense of well-being created by last season's double Premier League and FA Cup double, and a superb start to the current campaign, can ever be fully re-created -- at least this side of a first Champions League triumph for the oligarch, which is suddenly looking much less likely.

The crisis of spirit, and command, at Stamford Bridge does two things.

It reminds us of the breakdown which led to the disappearance of Mourinho in the face of Abramovich's meddling tendency, his habit of bringing new faces, new yes men, some would say, into the football department to the detriment of a coach who had activated his assignment with two straight Premier League titles.


It also invites hard speculation on which managers truly have the freedom to operate without the persistent need not only to glance over their shoulders but strenuously protect their backs.

On the face of it, Ferguson is the number one untouchable. The man who turned United from a faltering institution, which came perilously close to being bought for a mere £13m just two decades ago, into a cash cow worth near a billion is, like his legendary predecessor Matt Busby, a part of the building.

But then, when the Wayne Rooney rebellion erupted so painfully, it had to be asked if Ferguson was any longer really the master of his own destiny.

One belief, certainly, is that however appalled he was by his superstar's behaviour, and the manipulations of his notoriously single-minded agent, Ferguson was ultimately tied by the need to settle the matter -- or put another way, yield to Rooney's demands -- in order to preserve the player's resale value down the road.

One fact was clear beyond all speculation. When Ferguson told the world that he was in dispute with Rooney, rather than providing him with a new set of guidelines on how he conducted his career and life, he looked more rattled than at any point in his hugely successful career.

Now, in the wake of the Ancelotti angst over the appointment of Abramovich's favoured football man, the previously obscure former Nigerian international Michael Emenalo, it is inevitable that the positions of the A-league bosses comes under new analysis.

Wenger, in some ways, has to be the best bet to maintain a front impervious to the foibles of the men with the money.

Despite failing to win a major trophy for five seasons, the Frenchman remains, perhaps uniquely, both a football and a business dream. His achievement of maintaining a brilliant level of, essentially, debt-free football, while at the same time paying off the cost of a superb new stadium, means that, for the time being at least, his only nagging worry is to satisfy his own exacting demands. In last week's defeat by fierce -- and rising -- rivals Tottenham, Wenger threw down a water bottle with quite ferocious frustration. But, demonstrably, he remained his own man.

His conqueror Harry Redknapp is also buttressed against boardroom caprice, not least by his stunning, cut-price purchase of potentially the Premier League's Player of the Year, £8m Rafael van der Vaart from Real Madrid. It also helps that the diminutive Croat Luca Modric is reminding the White Hart Lane fans of the best of the Spurs tradition for fine football and that Redknapp has unleashed the sensational young Welshman Gareth Bale with just about perfect timing.

It means if Redknapp successfully extricates himself from his dispute with the British tax authorities, he has every reason to contemplate some football years of considerable serenity, if not upward mobility.

However, the regime of Tottenham chairman Daniel Levy has been notable both for restrained spending and taking a hard look at the performance of the men in the manager's office. Redknapp may be ticking all the boxes for now, but no one needs to tell the old pro that sooner or later the eternal question will come down the line from the boss: what did you do for me today?

No doubt it is a huge relief for Roberto Mancini that for the first time in some fraught weeks, he is armed with a passable answer if his owner Sheikh Mansour just happens to make the same inquiry. The 4-1 win at Fulham on Sunday at least provided a little credence to the fact that Manchester City have already lashed out £350m on team-building.

Increasingly, though, the drawn expression of the handsome Italian probably tells us as much as we need to know about the cult of the big-time football boss.

Maybe as never before, and this is saying quite a lot, he has reason to believe he is obliged to celebrate his triumphs -- and live from day to day.

Irish Independent

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