By Paul Tomkins.
As any parent will tell you, it’s important to have a young British driver behind the wheel of the school bus. Rather than trust our kids to foreign drivers with experience and qualifications, perhaps even those used to steering a vehicle of a similar size, it’s far better to put our little ‘uns in the hands of someone who may never have driven before, but has a lot of experience of sitting at the back; someone who has spent a lot of time in and around buses, showing the right attitude (i.e. shouting a lot, clenching his fists, flicking a good ‘V’).
Driving with calmness and intelligence is not required; what’s needed is passion. These men have to be prepared to headbutt anyone who gets in their way.
Perhaps I owe Brendan Rodgers an apology. It seems that there are some British coaches making their way on merit. However, such has been the overhyping of British bosses – certainly since the mid-‘90s when the landscape changed, as English football became more cosmopolitan – I remain wary of what they can offer, when I’m told it’s in my interests.
I certainly wasn’t against the appointment of Rodgers, with his arrival accompanied by many fine articles on his nascent talent, but after a few months I started to wonder if he was out of his depth, over-talked like so many of his peers. It turns out he wasn’t drowning, merely trying out new strokes.
The second half of last season provided real encouragement; if a manager offers nothing but chaos and desperation throughout his first full season, he’s probably not going to turn it around with time. Time is only likely to further eradicate any credibility the players saw in him, if they saw any to start with. Benefit of the doubt will be afforded on past achievements; unless, of course, the manager is particularly convincing – nay inspiring – with his words. The better the players, the less leeway they will give to someone who isn’t up to the task.
My only issue with the turnaround under Rodgers that began last January, coinciding with the arrival of Daniel Sturridge and Philippe Coutinho, was that it came when Liverpool were in a kind of low-pressure no-man’s land, safely around 7th spot; the kind of position the club was getting used to. The hardest thing in football is to be brave, and to play your game, when the pressure is really on. Often home games against ‘weak’ opposition are the hardest, particularly if they’re up for a fight, as 0-0 after 10 minutes already doesn’t feel good enough.
And as I’ve noted several times, Liverpool have flitted between styles under Rodgers, making it hard, until the last few months at least, to get a handle on what he wanted: his notions on possession appear to have gone about a full 180º turn. There were mixed messages, but in fairness, never talk from the boss that suggested he was overawed, or that he had set low sights for his team. There were some Brentisms, but no nonsense about lowering standards.
Head back a decade, to 2004, and many in the media wanted Liverpool to appoint Alan Curbishley or Martin O’Neill, whereas in truth the choice came down to Rafa Benítez, who was chosen, or Jose Mourinho, who lost out. Once you take nationality out of the equation you needn’t be blinded to the difference between true winners and also-rans. Two have won pretty much everything going – managers who are perennials in the Champions League at various different clubs; the other two are British.
The problem becomes one of British bosses “deserving” jobs, according to their allies. A month or two ago on Sky, Gordon Strachan said that British managers getting good jobs is “what we want to see”. But who wants to see that? Other British managers? Of course, it’s in their interests. The British media? Again, of course, with patriotism still a blinding light in a lot of football coverage, and the friendships some in the media engender with managers who’ll take them out for a drink.
Only last week I highlighted Clive Tyldesley and Andy Townsend talking about how they’d like to see Tim Sherwood remain at Spurs, based on little evidence of his talents as a manager. He deserves it, he has the right character, and so on. It’s hard to imagine anyone saying that about a foreign boss, as we expect so much more than the basics of being a good football bloke. This week Roy Keane said David Moyes “deserves time”. On what grounds? To what end?
And there’s also the issue of the mainly British media (there are some foreigners in their midst, too, but not many) wanting to see their own do well, when fans, paying a small fortune to watch the clubs they love, surely just want someone who is up to the task? Seriously, he (or she) could be from Mars if they have what it takes.
I’m not anti British managers, but I did seriously dislike when it was seen as a key characteristic when appointing Roy Hodgson four years ago. In 2010 I said quite clearly that my preference would have been Manuel Pellegrini, but what do I know about football?
This is supposed to be the best league in the world; certainly if you listen to those who pay so much to broadcast it. With Alex Ferguson now retired, how many great British managers are there around? Why limit yourself to one small, infamously insular island, when there’s nothing in the rules to force such an approach?
Even if dozens of top British managers were working right now, you’re still choosing from a nation of 60m, when the rest of the world comprises seven billion.
Ah, but ‘English managers understand our football’. But really, do they? This isn’t the era of Wimbledon and Watford. There are twice as many foreign players as Brits in the Premier League (the split is roughly two-thirds to one-third), and multiculturalism is surely the way forward? Did Robin Van Persie yearn to play for someone like David Moyes?
As for speaking the language, well, it’s not like English is some obscure tribal tongue. And anyway, half the English managers can’t even ‘speak it proper’.
British players seem keen to work with British managers, perhaps because they feel more understood. I understand that, but it doesn’t make it right. Again, going back to 2010, the added English flavour – so essential, apparently – was Joe Cole and Paul Konchesky. Cole was perhaps not a typically English type, although at that stage his lungs appeared to be size of roasted almonds, but Konchesky was your old-fashioned English yard-dog.
Rodgers is not your typical British manager, and that’s the highest compliment I can pay him.
Despite his desire to foster home-grown talents, he hasn’t populated his team with typical English players. Stewart Downing and Andy Carroll were anglo archetypes, and they didn’t last long. Charlie Adam has a sweet left-foot, which should have marked him out as potentially special for these shores, but somehow he used it in a depressingly British way; he could at times pass like Alonso, but he didn’t think like Alonso.
That left Steven Gerrard, Glen Johnson and Jordan Henderson as English first-teamers, with rookie full-back Jon Flanagan an unlikely graduate to regular football, and Raheem Sterling a poker-hot prospect ready and waiting to be thrust through buttery defences. (There are less pleasant metaphors for a red-hot poker, it has to be said.)
Gerrard is in many ways typically British – certainly in his early days he resembled Roy of the Rovers – but has spent most of his time working under Europeans like Houllier, Benítez, Eriksson and Capello. Though never a tactical genius like Xavi or Andrea Pirlo, Gerrard has always been far more than just a hard-running box-to-boxer. He had a continental’s vision and technique, perhaps just not the same level of patience. Maybe it’s coming, finally, with age.
He’s particularly unlike the English stereotype in that he’s rather good at high-pressure penalties; I noted some weeks ago that his conversion rate over the past dozen attempts involved just one miss, and although a week later he struck the post with his third attempt at Old Trafford, he was mere inches from where he was aiming – just inside the post, as he had done with his first two penalties. (As that wise football pundit Meatloaf said, two out of three ain’t bad.)
When Rodgers arrived, Glen Johnson was a top-class quasi-winger from full-back, and Jordan Henderson had wowed people in training wherever he went – it’s just that he struggled to translate it into games.
It’s fair to say that on first impressions Henderson looked another archetypal Brit, but Rodgers has helped his inner aesthete to blossom. And while Jon “Jonathan” Flanagan will never be the most gifted of players, he has shown an incredible calmness on the ball; his refusal to panic under pressure allows him to find a team-mate, where more talented players (or Flanagan under a different manager) might be too hurried or nervous. After all, he doesn’t have Roy Hodgson on the sidelines shouting “just fucking launch it!”.
The one big English signing made during the Rodgers/transfer committee era is Daniel Sturridge: quite simply the most skilful English goalscoring centre-forward I can ever recall seeing. He has the pace and skill of a winger, but with the finishing (and greediness) of a master marksman. His touch is sublime, his feet a blur of swift movement as he glides past defenders. Meanwhile, his goalscoring record bears comparison with Ian Rush at his best, albeit over a much shorter period of time.
(Meanwhile, Victor Moses has been a big disappointment, although the former England under-21 was born in Nigeria, and now represents that country, so he’s someone who merely could have been considered English.)
I’m pretty sure we’ll see in the World Cup that Roy Hodgson is incapable of getting similar displays from these very players, simply because he lacks the vision and ambition, and prefers straight lines, no fannying about, getting it up to the big man and playing from there.
Rodgers, with his broader horizons, is proving that British managers should not be ignored, and that English players can play an exciting, technical game; although my issue has always been that they should never be chosen because of the strange notion that British is automatically better. There may be quotas to meet with players, but otherwise, go for the best. If you listed the top 30 managers working in football today, nearly all would be foreigners. The best thing Brendan Rodgers has done this season is put himself into that category.
Ship Steadiers Vs Boat Rockers
What no fan should ever ask for is someone to steady the ship. Ship-steadiers are often officious types accustomed to sailing dinghies on calm waters, not steering ocean liners across choppy seas. For people supposedly good at steadying ships, they have a pretty alarming record of sinking them.
Mourinho, Klopp, Van Gaal, Wenger, Mancini, Benítez, Heynckes, Ancelotti, Hiddink, Capello, Guardiola, et al; no-one asks these guys to steady a ship. They’re asked to win things, to challenge, to compete. Did Pep Guardiola struggle with the pressure at Bayern this season after their historic treble, which seemed impossible to match? No, he got them playing even better. And it wasn’t with two banks of four, endless crosses and punts into the mixer.
Take Roy Hodgson, a man whose footballing vision still gives me nightmares. Like David Moyes, he apparently “deserved” a big job after a spell with mid-table ‘dinghy’ Fulham (which, in fairness, he’d steered pretty well along the Thames). Never mind that his previous big job in English football was one where, once inflation is taken into account at then-recent champions Blackburn, he relegated what remains the most expensive side in the Premier League era to suffer that fate; albeit getting out before the maths was finalised (his replacement achieved a much better points-per-game ratio, but Brian Kidd, as the man at the helm at the moment it hit the iceberg, collared the blame; by which time Hodgson was probably glad-handing at some UEFA conference). Hodgson spent the best part of £100m in today’s money on a load of old toss for that side.
At least Hodgson had a passport. Perhaps the fact that he’d travelled allowed his allies to overhype his abilities, although fair play to him for going overseas. Schteve McClaren rehabilitated his reputation abroad, and again, I respect that.
Still, whilst foreign managers were getting high win percentages in charge of the English national team, McClaren, at that stage over-promoted, was the turd in the sandwich.
Everyone can be proudly patriotic that Hodgson has won 56% of his games for the Three Lions, whereas nasty foreigner Fabio Capello could only manage 67%, and even silly Swede Sven racked up 60%. Indeed, since the cultured (but disabled-damning) Glenn Hoddle was sacked with a 61% win rate in the late ‘90s, the three successive English managers average out at a dismal 49%; the two overseas bosses, clearly not understanding what the job means, come in at 64%. (Sven also came elsewhere, but let’s not go there.)
If these seem like relatively small margins, remember that even an idiot should be able to post better than 40% with England, given that most of the time they will have better players than the opposition, so a difference of 15%, between the expected target area of 40%-70%, is huge.
Brendan Rodgers travelled too, albeit not actually managing abroad; but at least he has multicultural ideas, studying Spanish football, which is somewhat more advanced than that of Scandinavia, where Hodgson thrived, and where, you sense, Moyes would succeed. Still, you can’t help get the impression that most British managers get no further than the beach at Marbella.
In 1991, Graeme Souness found himself in a similar situation to Moyes. After a 2-0 away defeat in Europe his side turned it round 3-0 at Anfield – against French side Auxerre – but by then his team had fallen from title-challengers to the 6th-best side in the land. We all know that all he needed was time – hell, he deserved it – which he was given … to finish 6th again, and then 8th.
Souness was given a relative fortune to spend, and much of it went on Dean Saunders, Paul Stewart, Mark Wright, Nigel Clough and Neil Ruddock; fees for individual players that correlate closely, after TPI football inflation, with the £27m spent on Marouane Fellaini. (The average Premier League transfer fee is roughly ten times higher than it was in 1992; in other words, that’s over £100m on five players there. A £2.5m player then is a £25m player now.)
Souness achieved enough success elsewhere as a manager to be taken relatively seriously, but not enough to wipe out the memory of his catastrophic reign at Anfield. Still, that was over 20 years ago. That said, it’s a bit like Man United appointed him in 2013.
Last season Liverpool also weren’t very good against the clubs above them in the table, although at least they played well in many of those games. You could see something evolving, even if it wasn’t clicking enough to get wins. At United you only see a side regressing, unable to even put in a decent display. According to a tweet from James Ducker of The Times this week, “#mufc have taken 7pts from 13 games vs present top 9 & scored 1 goal, from a corner, v #cfc #mcfc #lfc #afc & #efc at OT. Embarrassing.”
Of course, the more United’s hierarchy back Moyes, the happier I am. Yes, it was a tough job replacing Ferguson, in that he’s a hard act to follow (as well as having refs and opponents running scared), and yes, the squad had holes, but what was Moyes’ experience of dealing with world-class players? His approach seems to be to tell them to play more like Phil Jagielka and and Victor Anichebe. And let’s not forget, this is a title-winning side who, beyond the manager, only lost the re-retired Paul Scholes, and who gained Fellaini, Mata and Zaha for £80m. You can moan about the quality of United’s wingers, but Nani, Valencia and Young did well enough for Ferguson, with Nani the most prolific assist-maker in Premier League history. United get the ball wide so much under Moyes, but it’s all about an artless cross into the box. He has creative, inventive, defence-splitting players, but he’s not able to get anything out of them. Therefore, they look like his Everton side, while Martinez has Everton playing with ambition and skill.
(While we’re at it, if Chelsea fail to win the title due to a lack of strikers, will any of those currently making excuses for Mourinho mention Lukaku, with 29 Premier League goals since the start of 2012/13 – goals scored when playing in sides not as dominant as Chelsea? For all his talents, Mourinho seems to rarely trust youngsters, and no-one forced him to offload his best forward for the season. Equally, Demba Ba wasn’t so bad at other clubs, was he? Anyway, I digress.)
Manuel Pellegrini took charge of a fractured dressing room at City, with under-performing players. Okay, so it hasn’t been a perfect season for City, with some slip-ups along the way, but he spent a similar amount of money to Moyes (albeit all in the summer) to much better effect. He has improved their football, with a blend of good signings and good coaching, not regressed it back to bland basics. He understands about playing between the lines, not in straight lines. You know for certain that he wouldn’t take Mata or Kagawa and stick ‘em out wide to make up the numbers. Did he need time?
Please, for the sake of English football, no more ship-steadiers (unless they’re at Manchester United). They might be more explosive, and trickier to handle, but boat-rockers are the ones who win things.