The Premier League is increasingly a game about managers, who have taken centre stage in recent times
Paul Wilson (The Guardian)
December 2, 2007 12:54 AM
Bill Shankly could be said to have originated the cult of the modern manager - elevating an important but essentially backroom role into one of club figurehead and focal point for the fans' affections - so it would have been interesting to hear what he had to say about Liverpool supporters parading a portrait of Rafa Benitez through the streets in conscious imitation of religious iconography.
One wonders, too, what George Gillett and Tom Hicks, at whom this gesture was aimed, made of the pictures on the other side of the Atlantic. Are they the owners of a modern club or a medieval one? Have two Champions League finals in three seasons turned Benitez into a saint? What might Liverpool fans organise by way of a protest should Benitez ever be sacked? The Crucifixion scene from Ben-Hur? Or perhaps the indignant mob from Life of Brian. 'He's not the Messiah, he's a very naughty boy!'
It is not just Liverpool either, willing though Scouse fundamentalists usually are to put their feelings on display. Chelsea fans were just as fed up about the treatment of Jose Mourinho and Bolton supporters initially took the appointment of Gary Megson as a personal insult. Premier League football is increasingly a game about managers. This is a sport that requires a human face and, now that players have become insulated and isolated through their giant salaries and unimaginable lifestyles, managers are the only personalities left.
Just look at the past few days. Admittedly they might not be typical, in that it is not every week that the England job becomes vacant and one of the front-runners is arrested for questioning by police (and released on police bail), but the overall impression is clear. Think of a club, any club, and what comes immediately to mind will not be the prowess of the centre-forward or the excellence of the defence, but the position of the manager.
Don't believe me? Take Newcastle v Liverpool last Saturday. An impressive away win dominated by two managerial stories: Benitez chipping away at his relationship with his American employers and Sam Allardyce being made uncomfortably aware that Newcastle supporters are not on his side. Bolton v Manchester United on the same day? Miracle result stuns Megson doubters as Sir Alex Ferguson is sent to the stand. The saintly Arsene Wenger was also sent off in Europe on Tuesday, while in the Premier League a day later Aston Villa's terrific 4-0 win at Blackburn was mostly interpreted, thanks to the news about Harry Redknapp, as a sign that Martin O'Neill is clear favourite for Steve McClaren's old job.
The Premier League also welcomed three new managers between the international break and the resumption of domestic fixtures, or at least three managers in new jobs, taking the number of clubs who have changed leaders in the first half of the season to six. Steve Bruce's arrival at Wigan was delayed by an argument with Birmingham about money and image rights, Alex McLeish abandoned Scotland on Fergie's advice to take Bruce's old job, while Paul Jewell turned up at Derby insisting reports of him losing his marbles had been greatly exaggerated. 'I was never ill, I was not in a straitjacket.'
Other managerial stories bubbling under the present chart-toppers include Sven-Goran Eriksson's success at Manchester City, Gareth Southgate's future or lack of it at Middlesbrough, Roy Keane's reaction to shipping seven goals at Everton, Avram Grant making a priority of the European Cup at Chelsea and Juande Ramos adopting a wait-and-see approach to both the Uefa Cup and the January transfer window.
That leaves just five managers - David Moyes, Steve Coppell, Alan Curbishley, Lawrie Sanchez and Mark Hughes - keeping their heads down and quietly getting on with the job, although even the last must now be regretting his uncharacteristic bullishness in suggesting this might be Blackburn's season for cracking the top four. It still might, but it is never a good idea to be caught saying so the day before you go down 4-0 at home.
This is not exactly a moan since, entertainment-wise, Premier League managers are particularly good value. Ferguson and Keane are always good for a laugh, Wenger and O'Neill have a way with words and between them Allardyce, Coppell and Redknapp do lugubrious almost as well as Les Dawson did. Yet manager-watching is no more a sport than pigeon-fancying. One hopes football will make a comeback now the international dates are out of the way and the European competitions are about to go into recess. On the whole, it would be preferable to see Liverpool supporters rallying behind Fernando Torres or Peter Crouch.
They might need both of them to beat Bolton today, because, whisper it quietly, Megson has been one of the managerial successes of the season. He stopped the rot from day one and, apart from going out of the Carling Cup, Bolton have been unbeaten since their new manager arrived to a less than rapturous welcome. That includes a creditable draw away to Bayern Munich as well as all three points last weekend against Manchester United. Should Bolton get anything at all from Anfield this afternoon, then Megson will deserve nothing less than a procession in his honour, with portrait and votary candles, all the way back along the East Lancashire Road. And never mind the image rights.