The sacrificial lamb

May 16, 2011 § 12 Comments

Baron von Greenback, in keyring form. This is a contrived and frankly tired joke at the expense of Avram Grant, a dignified man who deserves better.

So, that Avram Grant. He’s bobbins then.

Following the dismissal of the Premier League’s most wonderfully miserablist manager — a man once lampooned by Martin Kelner as “looking like he goes to work on a gondola of skulls” — it’s been open season on the poor sod. The well-connected on Twitter have been dripping stories of his organisational and operational inadequacy into the public domain, while those of us less in the loop have been reduced to making jokes about his resemblance to Baron von Greenback.

And yet, and yet. This is a manager who, you may recall, came within John Terry’s hilarious pratfall and Nicolas Anelka’s Big Dutch Psyche-Out of lifting the most coveted trophy in club football. That’s closer to the big-eared beauty than Arsène Wenger, World Coach of the Decade, has ever been. Closer too than Bill Shankly, Valeriy Lobanovskiy, Les Reed, Viktor Maslov, Sir Bobby Robson, and a host of other greats, goods and averages, all of whom would rank above Grant in a snap poll of “how good is this man at managing a football club?”.

Even Leswyn Bearnaise Reed*.

This tells us two things, both of which are really the same thing from a slightly different angle. The first is that winning a competition is not an isolated thing: comparing one European Cup win to another as though they were equivalent achievements is fallacious. This is particularly true of cup competitions; while the European Cup is certainly the most prestigious of football’s baubles, by its very nature it is a volatile beast. The best teams can often run up against each other early on, and, as with all knock-out competition, refereeing errors, momentary lapses of concentration, and sheer bad fortune are magnified. As such, looking at the winner cannot truly be said to provide an accurate representation of who the best side in the continent are; nor can it really tell us who is or isn’t the best manager in Europe. Winning is brilliant, but it’s not a measuring device. Context is everything.

The other thing it tells us — or rather, reinforces — is that being a manager at one club is not like being a manager at another club, or being a manager at the same club but in differing circumstances. This seems obvious, and yet it runs counter to one of the great principles of being a manager: that by succeeding at one level, you earn the right to have a crack at another. Some managers — Alex Ferguson being one example — have the kind of career curve that tends up and up, success begetting success, until he reaches the very top. Other managers go right in at the very top, stay there for a bit, and then either fail, or quit, or maintain their brilliance. Still others — the vast majority, I would venture, having put no effort into actually checking — do okay at one level, but poorly at another.

This is because, again, context is everything. Success, for a football club, is a game-changer: the nature of the structure and super-structure of footballing competition means that in almost all cases, one good season is rewarded with a different set of challenges for the next. Tony Pulis is a superb example of this: his second spell at Stoke began with an eighth-place finish in the Championship. Next season, his job was to improve on that, and he did so by qualifying for the Premier League, which meant that the following season, his job was to avoid relegation.

While the fundamental means of achieving promotion and avoiding relegation are the same — get points by winning football matches — the shift in context means that a manager is presented with a completely different set of circumstances. Perhaps those players that were among the best in the previous division are now regularly outclassed. Or a team that thrives on the confidence of win after win crumbles when defeat follows defeat. Maybe the club may no longer such an attractive destination for players. And so morale suffers, agents get itchy, players lose form, and on and on, and the manager is presented with a set of questions that he has no experience of answering; a set of challenges that he may not have the ability to address. (Pulis, of course, coped with the change: first surviving, then consolidating, then improving season by season until he got them into this year’s FA Cup final. Which, again, means that next season’s campaign will present a whole new complication: European football, a major disruption on and off the field.)

The point is that the job is radically different. A manager who is expert at guiding a winning and talented squad may collapse when asked to motivate a squad of depressed, talentless losers, even where they are the same players in a different context. A manager whose tactical approach is ideal for dispatching lesser teams will thrive when presented with a league to win, and collapse when asked to avoid relegation. A manager who’s a genius at loan signings and wheeler-dealing may cock up when given a kitty, or a warchest, or asked to work with a director of football. It is for this reason that Neil Warnock, having been promoted with Queen’s Park Rangers, may not be the right person to keep them up; why Sam Allardyce will never get to manage Real Madrid; and why the appointment of Roy Hodgson went so royally tits up.

Liverpool, being Liverpool, thrive under a manager that responds to the club on an emotional level, that nurtures and fosters the club’s own notions of superiority. Hodgson’s greatest crime wasn’t the negative tactics or the kowtowing to Alex Ferguson; it was to treat Liverpool as just another club, to be honest and frank about the inadequacies of the team, and to ask players who were used to being lionised as princes to muck in like serfs. They refused, electing to pander to their own egos rather than the needs of the club, and he was doomed. Dalglish, on the other hand, enjoys the same relationship with Liverpool that Michael Heseltine did with the Conservative party: he knows where the clitoris is. Being manager of Liverpool is partly about being a good manager, and partly about being a high priest, constantly reassuring the faithful of their own fundamental sanctity, reassuring them of a place in heaven.

Back to Grant. His near-success with Chelsea is often ascribed to inertia: he was placed in charge of a talented team that had an effective way of playing and so was able to work without any particular managerial guidance; he was gifted with a captain that loved the sound of his own Henry V impressions; and he wasn’t expected to contribute in the slightest toward player acquisition. But what is often overlooked is that doing nothing — especially in a world as consumed with ego and status as football — can be difficult. And it can be right.

Football managers are obsessed with making their mark on a team, with reshaping a club in their image. The reason for this is clear from Grant’s time at Chelsea: if you don’t, you don’t get any credit. It’s your predecessor’s team, or it’s the players managing themselves. If a team looks like you, and wins, then you win; if it looks like José Mourinho, or John Terry, then they win. You get mocked, or ignored. Yet, logically, if you’re presented with a team that doesn’t need any tinkering, the best thing to do is leave well alone. Make sure everyone’s fit and cheerful, and let them get on with it. After all, effective management, rather like effective football, doesn’t consist of being seen to be busy, whatever Steve Claridge might say. It consists of doing whatever best enables the team to win. If that means doing nothing, then that’s the best option. Looked at sympathetically, there’s a profound and quiet modesty to Grant’s time at Chelsea; an almost wilful abstraction of himself from the limelight that not many managers could ever hope to achieve. And it nearly worked; it nearly made him a better manager, by at least one criterion, than Bill Shankly. What it didn’t do, by any stretch of even the most elastic of imaginations, is make him the right man for West Ham.

There are two different kinds of bad management. There’s failing to carry out a job for which you are equipped, which is negligence on your part, and then there is failing to carry out a job for which you not equipped, which is negligence on the part of those who appointed you. So, looking at West Ham, the apportionment of blame between Grant and those above him depends entirely on how suited he was for the role. And I think it’s fair to say that — in terms of what West Ham needed — that those who appointed him could not have found a more inappropriate man for the job if they’d actively been trying. Unbalanced squad, demotivated players, no money to speak of … best appoint a withdrawn, lugubrious man, whose greatest achievement came while he was intensely sitting on his hands.

It is hard to really blame Grant, in the same way that it’s hard to blame an aubergine for having a weak grasp of Lacanian psycho-analysis; it’s not really a fair expectation. Perhaps we might demand that he have possessed the self-awareness to say “look, I don’t think this is for me”, either when the job was offered or when it started to go wrong, and yet I can say with hand on heart that if I was offered the West Ham job tomorrow I’d take it, and I’m probably even less well-suited than Grant. He’s a football man who was offered a decent job for a fair chunk of money. Blaming the man who takes the offer is counter-intuitive; blame the men who made it. For too long, football administration has been dominated by stupid appointments made by stupid people who don’t think their decisions through, and are then able, when it all goes the Way of the Pear, to point to the sacking of the man they mistakenly appointed and say “look, we’re taking action”.

Any decent kind of corporate structure — let’s say, perhaps, one overseen by the fans — would ensure that those who had made the disastrous appointment were held just as responsible as the poor patsy with the knife in his back. But football is a collection of personal fiefdoms run by self-aggrandising and self-regarding idiots, insulated by their money from any notion of accountability. Not for football the carefully set-out succession plan, or the patient and considered appointment process, or the wide-ranging and imaginative search. Look at the last four blokes who got sacked, give it whichever of them chews gum the fastest. Or spent a season in our reserves. Or hasn’t said anything racist or sexist for a week. That’ll be fine. If and when they fuck it all up, we can just fire them.



* Apologies. This is a joke with an audience of one. Hi John!


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§ 12 Responses to The sacrificial lamb

  • nick says:

    “football is a collection of personal fiefdoms run by self-aggrandising and self-regarding idiots, insulated by their money from any notion of accountability”

    nail -> head interface

    as ever, a pretty dead-on piece, and probably likely to be backed up by Grant returning to Chelsea “in some capacity” over the summer

  • I feel sorry for Grant but not enough to object to your usage of that wonderful adjective “bobbins”.

  • Presto West End says:

    Good article. I thought of something similar when reading this article:-


    “Any decent kind of corporate structure — let’s say, perhaps, one overseen by the fans…”

    suggests that the fans would do a better job than the self-aggrandising/regarding idiots. A quick check of many message boards suggests that there is rarely a general accord between fans of the same club, let alone a common understanding of good business sense.

    Ebbsfleet United F.C?

    • twistedblood says:

      Ebbsfleet is a bit of an odd example though. As I think I’ve written somewhere else on here, it’s not really the model of fan ownership that anyone really aspires to, but more of an experiment in the wisdom of crowds.

      Whether or not fans-centred governance would be better is debatable, certainly, and isn’t really the thrust of the piece. What I would say is that having a certain amount of the responsibility delegated to fans, or to fan groups, or whatever, weakens the traditional power of backroom connections. Grant’s career, viewed from one angle, is a triumph for the power of networking and flesh-pressing; this would be negated or diminished where power is centred away from the traditional dictator-chairman.

      • Presto West End says:

        It may be a tangential point but I do feel that whilst it is cetainly credible to highlight the problem of the autocratic idiot owner, across English football little thought has been put into the structure to which we should aspire.

        Perhaps a better case study is that of my own club, Sheffield Wednesday. A supporters society owned just over 10% shares in the club’s corporate entity and theortically wielded some influence. However, mistakes were made and the majority shareholder was never really brought to account. The club now has an owner with full control and there appears to be little appetite amongst the fans for that to change.

      • twistedblood says:

        I don’t mean to suggest that fan ownership is a panacea, or indeed that all single-person ownerships are bad. What I would say is that fan involvement can, if structured correctly, perhaps work against some of the tendencies of poor single-(or double-, in this case) person ownership.

        And I think that a genuinely involved fan body would seek to hold not only the failed manager but also the failed directors to account, were a situation like Grant at West Ham to occur, where a manifestly inappropriate appointment was made and then persisted with.

  • OK, the thought of Tarzan titillating the Conservative party’s clitoris has made me slightly nauseous, but I’ll press on.

    The point about Grant’s achievements at Chelsea is absolutely spot on. The guy worked well in a situation where he was expected to keep the inertia going. After the micro-management of Mourinho he allowed the players to express themselves and get within a whisker of winning the European Cup.

    The perfect analogy is Kovacs taking over from Michels at Ajax. It was, without question, Michels’ work, but Kovacs kept things ticking over. Was it an achievement to win two European Cups for Kovacs? Yes. Does that make him, absolutely, a “good” manager? Maybe not. His career after that was less than stellar.

    This idea shouldn’t be so revolutionary to people, yet it seems to be – just because you can do a job in one set of circumstances doesn’t mean you can do it elsewhere.

    You wouldn’t play Lionel Messi at centre half.

  • Giles Barrett says:

    Another excellent article. However, please let this be the last sentence on this blog to combine the words ‘Heseltine’ and ‘clitoris’. Please.

    P.S. It’s not really that much closer than Wenger, now, is it? No, it’s not. Not that that affects your point in any way, just that past glories are really all we have at the moment. Do carry on.

    • twistedblood says:

      Well, two missed penalties is closer that losing in real time, no? Not by much, true, but still.

      (It’ll be okay. You’ve just picked up a young Argentinian kid on a free. He’s a tough-tackling all-action box-to-box hard … oh, no, hang on. He’s a tricky attacking midfielder. Right.)

  • Thomas Levin says:

    Only in football would Gold explaining that West Ham will look for a quick appointment be seen as a good thing.

    Surely they should have been looking at possible candidates weeks ago and take a few weeks to help get the right person, rushing into these things means that you assign people like Grant. Would Apple, when Jobs, explain to their investors that they will want have started looking for a replacement for Jobs and it we look to get it done within a month.

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