Managers just don't know

IT'S just a playful theory but I sometimes really do feel that managers don't understand football!


Former England manager Alf Ramsey was inclined to treat football as a kind of a sacred trust, impenetrable to outsiders, though he was warned that such an attitude risked taking the game away from the public. — Pic. TONY DUFFY/GETTY IMAGES-

IT'S just a playful theory but I sometimes really do feel that managers don't understand football! Sacrilege I know in an era when the coach and the manager for better or for worse have become more and more important. But the other day, after Fulham had drawn 0-0 at home to Wolves, my subversive theory seemed relevant again. Chris Coleman, a young Welshman whose playing career was sadly ended by a bad motor smash, is the promising manager of Fulham, whom he saved from relegation last season and has done well within the present Premiership. Yet, in this particular instance I did doubt his tactics.

In the absence of one of his key strikers, the left sided Portuguese international Luis Boa Morte, he bizarrely decided to play his Japanese international, the accomplished central midfielder, Junichi Inamoto, on the right flank. It was never going to work and it didn't. Inamoto is a clever ball player, a shrewd passer, sometimes a strong right-footed shooter, but no winger, as alas, we saw.

We were over an hour into the game when Coleman, belatedly, decided to take him off, put on the powerful black striker Barry Hayles, and radically alter his strategy. Now there were two strikers up, the other being the gifted but somewhat profligate Frenchman, Louis Saha. Hayles was causing Wolves trouble from the start. First, with a piece of ball play which was worthy of any genuine winger, he somehow conjured his way through from the left to give Steed Malbranque, a force all afternoon, the chance of a fierce shot which brought from the Wolves 'keeper, Oakes, a spectacular save.

Hayles wasn't finished. When a high ball came over from the left, he showed his versatility by outjumping Butler, the Wolves centre back, and heading on to Malbranque who elegantly stepped round his marker, only to shoot against the bar.

At the subsequent Press Conference, I asked Chris Coleman whether he felt he might have brought Hayles on earlier. He gave me a look. "You mean you think I should have done," he said. "Yes," I answered to general laughter. "But you are the manager, I'm just a journalist, I'm nobody!"

In the loftier realms of pro football, journalists aren't really meant to understand the game; it's a kind of sacred secret shared only by the initiated, the pros who play, coach and manager. All nonsense of course but something which evokes Bernard Shaw's shrewd dictum that all professions and I suppose you could call football that, are conspiracies against the laity.

Far more serious, shortly before the Fulham-Wolves game, were the bizarre blunders of Chelsea's Italian manager Claudio Ranieri when his team played at home in the European Cup to Besiktas of Turkey. Ranieri is known as Tinkerman for the compulsive way he is forever fiddling with his teams and their personnel and tactics, but he truly surpassed himself that evening.

Not only did he suddenly decide, after playing with a four-man defence all season, suddenly to go over to 3-5-2, which not only confused and unbalanced his own defence but also gave Geremi, that talented right flanker, a wing back role which he was clearly unable to master. Moreover, with his team 2-0 down by half-time against a Besiktas side reduced to 10 by the sending off of a recklessly foolish star striker, Ranieri decided to withdraw his enormously expensive front pair, Argentina's Hernan Crespo and Romania's Adrian Mutu. True this did at least enable him belatedly to bring on his very clever Irish winger Damien Duff, who at once began to trouble the Turkish defence, but this simply made you wonder why on earth Duff, who has complained of such treatment before, was not on from the start.

Fulham manager Chris Coleman is promising, but he employed strange tactics in his team's drawn match against the Wolves. — Pic. PHIL COLE/GETTY IMAGES-

Alf Ramsey, more than almost any other manager, was inclined to treat football as a kind of a sacred trust, impenetrable to outsiders, though he was warned that such an attitude risked taking the game away from the public. Defiantly doing without wingers and relying heavily on work rate, he did win the World Cup at Wembley in 1966, but in later years, he made one error after another.

One remembers especially the quarter-final home leg against West Germany, the team England beat in the '66 World Cup Final, in 1972. Arriving at Wembley, I was astonished to say that Ramsey had picked a team without a single natural, tackling halfback, going against his usual instincts to fill his midfield with such men. It was the perfect scenario for Gunter Netzer, the blond, big-booted German inside-forward, to flourish and so he did, largely without let or hindrance. The Germans won easily, 3-1.

What happened, then, in the return in Berlin, a game England had to win by a two-goal margin at least to qualify? Why, for once Ramsey simply lost his nerve. He put out a team full of hard men such as Peter Storey, Norman Hunter and Nobby Stiles, making no attempt to do anything but save face. So he got a wholly useless 0-0 draw, England were eliminated, and Netzer came off the field remarking bitterly, "The whole England team has autographed my leg."

Go forward to the summer of 1973 when England played a vital qualifier for the '74 World Cup in Katowice against Poland. Bewilderingly, left out was Mike Channon of Southampton, England's fastest, most penetrative flanker, who would have been a thorn in the side of the Polish defence. Nor did Alf ever bring him on. England lost 2-0. But perhaps his largest errors came when England played West Germany — yes, again — in the World Cup 1970 quarter-finals in Leon.

England began splendidly in the severe heat and at the exhausting height, going into a 2-0 lead. But it grew increasingly clear that the two vigorously overlapping full backs, Keith Newton, who had set up two goals, and Terry Cooper were wilting in the heat and should surely be substituted. Neither was taken off. Instead, with the score now at 2-1, Ramsey pulled off Bobby Charlton, thus giving Franz Beckenbauer freedom to attack. The Germans scored three times and England were out.

The trouble is, perhaps, that coaches and managers get so deeply and obsessively involved in the game that they cannot see the wood for the trees. Notionally, they should know far better than mere journalists, not to say fans. Sometimes they don't. What Chelsea fan in his right mind would have fielded that team against Besiktas? And what England fan would have condemned poor Cooper to be run ragged by the fresh German sub, Jurgen Grebowski?