Dumb directors

"HISTORY repeats itself," wrote Karl Marx, "the first time as tragedy, the second as farce."


"HISTORY repeats itself," wrote Karl Marx, "the first time as tragedy, the second as farce." Farcical indeed has been the situation at Sunderland, where just five months into a three-year contract, which should never have been signed, Howard Wilkinson has been sacked as Sunderland's manager. It is close to 50 years ago that Sunderland's most brilliant player of the time, in his autobiography Clown Prince of Soccer, devoted a so-called chapter to the average director's knowledge of football. It consisted of a blank page. The player was Len Shackleton, an inside forward of dazzling gifts though capped for England only a handful of times. There was outrage among directors at the time but "Shack" unquestionably had a point and were he still alive today, he would no doubt be contemplating the present scene at Sunderland with grim satisfaction.

Manchester City's manager Kevin Keegan (right) with Robbie Fowler. Keegan, both tactically and in the transfer market, does tend to alternate adventure with caution. This season, for example, he had sometimes deployed a three-man defence, behind a midfield full of clever playmakers. — Pic. REUTERS-

Frankly there was no excuse for the Sunderland Chairman Bob Murray making such a daft appointment. He had sacked Peter Reid, the former Everton and England midfielder who had managed the club for seven years but had run into choppy seas. Reportedly he then turned to Wilkinson, ensconced as Director of Coaching and manager of the Under-21 England teams, at the Football Association, for advice. In all modesty, Wilko then advised... himself!

Warning bells should have jangled. True, some years ago Wilkinson had a successful period in charge of Leeds United with whom he had won the English Championship. But he'd eventually lost his job there, and when taken on at the FA, had made a dog's dinner of running the Under-21s. The way he elbowed aside the highly successful manager, Peter Taylor, in his own interests, seemed scandalous at the time: all the more so when under Wilko a previously buoyant team failed abysmally. But when Kevin Keegan suddenly and pitifully resigned immediately after England's defeat in that World Cup eliminator against Germany at Wembley, it was Wilkinson who was appointed to stand in as manager.

Disaster ensued. Fielding in Helsinki in the next World Cup eliminator an England team in which the most dangerous striker Michael Owen never even got on the field, England could only manage a 0-0 draw, even if a shot by Ray Parlour, which hit the underside of the bar, clearly crossed the goal-line. A deeply gloomy and defeatist Wilko then threw in the towel, announcing that there was no chance now of qualifying for the 2002 World Cup and that eyes must now be fixed on the tournament in 2006. Whereupon Sven Goran Eriksson was appointed as his successor, won 5-1 against Germany in Munich, and eventually took England to the World Cup finals in the Far East.

Ah, directors! They have always been controversial figures. Go far back to the inter-War years when Jimmy Hogan, the brilliant little English coach of Austria's so-called Wonder Team and Hungary's was made manager of Aston Villa: and tried to inculcate the rational, attractive, technical style he'd always encouraged. "Get the ball in the bloody net!" said the Chairman of that famous Birmingham club, "that's what I want!"

But there are some rational directors: though much good it tends to do them. Shortly before Wilkinson was sacked, Manchester City's Chairman, David Bernstein, resigned, citing crucial differences on policy with the rest of his board. Bernstein, though he had indeed spent very heavily on new players during last summer, had by general agreement run the club well, bringing it back to the Premiership, and keeping it reasonably solvent. The implication was that he would not spend still more money at the behest of his volatile manager — yes, Kevin Keegan again! — though this has been denied by the now acting Chairman, John Wardle.

"People," says Wardle, "are asking about finance, and nothing has changed. We are going to continue with a steady ship. Everyone thinks Kevin Keegan is about spend, spend, spend but he is an excellent businessman, prudent and realistic."

Eh? I've known Kevin for many years, admire particularly his ability to charm and entertain a large audience from a stage, and the way he made himself, with limited natural talent, into a player capable of winning the European Footballer of The Year award twice. But both tactically and in the transfer market he does tend to alternate adventure with caution. This season, for example, he had, sometimes with City, deployed a three-man defence, behind a midfield full of clever playmakers. When Arsenal some weeks ago came to Main Road this bewilderingly was the formation he favoured against a team notable for the pace and brilliance of its attackers. Given more space than they could ever have hoped for, Arsenal romped home, 5-1.

By extreme contrast, Kevin seemed to lose his nerve before that England-Germany game at Wembley, ludicrously outing the one-paced centre back Gareth Southgate into central midfield. When manager of Newcastle United, for whom he had played with great distinction, he was in sight of winning the Championship, only for his too open and audacious methods to throw away vital games and the title with them.

Manchester City in fact "have form" as the police say. I'll not easily forget investigating the bizarre situation there in 1970 when a group of devoted fans, terrified that Malcolm Allison, then City's outstanding coach, would leave the club, bought up shares from a greedy director, took over the club and the board of directors, made Allison manager, and condemned City to free fall.

Cut across the Pennines to Leeds United, and we find the Chairman Peter Ridsdale under withering fire. His financial policies have been lamentable and above all there is still no explanation of why he paid the notorious Ruge Hauge, the notorious Norwegian agent, 10 per cent of the �17 million Leeds paid West Ham for the centre-back Rio Ferdinand. Double what Hauge was originally going to get for having it seems done nothing official or crucial in the deal at all. Hauge being the man whose �400,000 bug to the then Arsenal Manager George Graham cost Graham a year's suspension. Hauge was suspended too for a time as an agent but he is back with a vengeance and major English clubs and their directors seem to have no qualms about dealing with him. True, the fact that the clubs are now PLCs, companies respondent to their shareholders, makes things harder for directors. But don't they make it hard for themselves?