Superstar managers

Once upon a time football managers sat quietly on the bench with a blanket on their laps. These days they pace the touchline in flash suits — and everything they say or do makes the papers. Barney Ronay on the rise of the celebrity gaffer.

Jose Mourinho wears Armani and drives a Mercedes. Sven-Goran Eriksson is still single but has been romantically linked with a Swedish PR executive and a well-known Romanian cabaret singer. Sir Alex Ferguson, aged 65, had to be protected from excitable teenage girls on a tour of the far east in July. Even Rafael Benitez, with his PowerPoint presentations and sensible suits, made the news over the summer with his decision to grow a small goatee beard.

The English Premiership this season roared into life like a Bentley Continental GT. And, as has increasingly been the case, the middle-aged men on the touchline have already been attracting more attention than the players on the pitch.

Making a living as a football manager has traditionally demanded little more than the ability to shout convincingly, a certain dogged charisma, and ownership of an overcoat. In hindsight, however, it seems only natural that the forces at play in the Premiership — the stardust, the money-glaze, the 24-hour public relations — should have worked their terrible voodoo on the dugout. Premiership management has now become something of a fast-track to membership of the celebrity mainstream.

Certainly the change has been dramatic. The former Liverpool manager Bob Paisley is still the most successful in English history. Despite this, right up to his retirement in 1983, Paisley retained both the mannerisms and dress sense of a man who had just popped out to the shop for a newspaper and needed to get home sharpish to catch the snooker.

Mark Lawrenson, now a BBC TV soccer pundit, has described their first meeting after Lawrenson signed for Liverpool in 1981: “When I got in the car I saw Bob was wearing slippers and a cardigan. They’d just won the European Cup and there’s this fellow, who everyone in football thought was an absolute god, driving me to the ground in his slippers and cardigan.”

Paisley wasn’t just unglamorous; he had a sort of anti-glamour. Originally the team physiotherapist, for a while he appeared on the edge of Liverpool team photos dressed in a long white coat — not really something you would ever catch Jose doing.

It’s hard to imagine the likes of Paisley mixing it on the touchline with the current breed of gesticulating showmen. For a start, you wouldn’t have been able to see him. The past few years have seen an ascent-of-man-style rise among football managers. The tartan blanket and nice sit-down have been cast aside in favour of a strutting, telegenic presence stalking the fringes of the action.

Standing up was once considered a solecism. At the end of the 1966 World Cup final the England trainer Harold Shepherdson leaped up to celebrate the finest moment in his nation’s footballing history, only to be told, “Sit down and behave yourself, man,” by his — seated — manager, Alf Ramsey. Management has since become a kind of performance. Miked up and with his windmilling arms and peeled-eyeball displays of emotion, the modern gaffer is a magnetic figure.

Like most new things in football, this is mainly to do with money. Prior to the Bosman ruling in 1995 (which allowed professional football players in the European Union to move freely to another club at the end of their contract), clubs had an unusually draconian relationship with their players, in effect being able to deny them the right to work elsewhere, even after the contract between them had expired. Post-Bosman, the hyperinflation in wages, plus the freedom to come and go without restraint, led to a rise in something called “player power”. This, it was widely agreed, was a bad thing.

English football has always been run along deeply hierarchical lines. In moments of unrest managers are usually described, darkly, as “losing” the dressing room, bringing to mind a barrack-room mutiny or gulag insurgency.

The new breed of footballers seems unbowed by the traditional bonds of authority. The problem of how to command the requisite respect when wearing slippers and a flat cap presented a fresh kind of challenge.

Some managers responded by trying to make friends with their players. A new atmosphere of chumminess prevailed, most notably in the trophy-less false dawn of Kevin Keegan’s Newcastle. Others set out to command by being the toughest kid in the playground. Footballers have always had a weakness for this kind of thing. Keane himself wrote in his autobiography about his manager Brian Clough’s reaction to a mistake he had made: “When I walked into the dressing room after the game, Clough punched me straight in the face. ‘Don’t pass the ball back to the goalkeeper,’ he screamed as I lay on the floor, him standing over me.”

Unfortunately, punching people will only get you so far. Faced with a wildly over-remunerated generation of players, our most recent batch of managers have attempted to out-flash, or at least outmanoeuvre, their pampered stars.

Mourinho remains the most striking example. The first real superstar manager, he looks and dresses like one of his players’ more intelligent, better-looking older brothers. He drives a cooler car, he dresses just as expensively, he’s probably a little bit more famous. This is the nature of the job now. Mourinho has claimed he keeps such a high profile to deflect attention, and therefore pressure, from his players. This might be right; but he also likes it. Hence the style magazine interviews, the theatrical appearances at the side of the pitch, the headline-grabbing public pronouncements.

Eriksson has also been influential here. As England manager, his was a style-setting administration. For all the creepy and embarrassing detail attached to revelations about his sex life, Eriksson was always very popular with the players. They admired his fame. They liked his fancy suits. They chased the same women. Eriksson may not actually have been a player, but he was the next best thing. Like pretty much everyone else their age, footballers are in awe of celebrity and a manager without a certain foxiness in the public eye just isn’t going to cut it.

Herbert Chapman is credited with pioneering the modern notion of a manager as the dominant personality within a football club, first at Huddersfield and then at Arsenal in the 1920s and 1930s. An avuncular, silk-hatted figure, Chapman also pretty much invented the idea of tactics, floodlights and marketing and public relations, having successfully lobbied to have Gillespie Road tube station renamed Arsenal in 1932.

Change came slowly, however. In 1953, England suffered the most devastating defeat in their international history, the 6-3 Wembley thrashing by Hungary’s Marvellous Magyars. The following day not a single mention was made in any of the shell-shocked newspaper reports of the team manager, Walter Winterbottom, a man who should by rights have found his head morphed into a paprika potato salad on at least on one back page.

Liverpool manager Bill Shankly was the first to make an impression as a “personality” outside of the narrow confines of football. Shankly’s success in the 1960s and early 70s was soundtracked by his own apparently endless repertoire of quips and wisecracks, as the hitherto rather stilted and secretive world of football management acquired a public voice for the first time. A dapper, sharp-suited Scot, Shankly took his inspiration from American entertainers. His delivery was a cross between James Cagney and Groucho Marx, and he borrowed his defining epigram — the one about football not being a matter of life and death, but actually something much more important than that — from the gridiron coach, Vince Lombardi.

The 1970s saw the advent of the outspoken, charismatic showman football manager, a breed whose lasting influence in popular culture far outweighs its actual numbers. Malcolm “Big Mal” Allison had the look: the champagne and cigars, the medallion, the Chicago gangster fedora hat. He had the talk: “We will take football to the moon,” he told reporters prior to defeat in the first round of the European Cup. He had the eccentricities: City players would run laps of the training pitch while the manager shouted, “How do you feel?”, to which they were instructed to reply “Sharp!”

Allison’s crossover appeal was cemented as a member of ITV’s groundbreaking 1970s World Cup panel, the first time anything similar involving football people had been attempted. Under Jimmy Hill, the channel assembled a now legendary line-up of outspoken, kipper-tied and occasionally woozy controversialists.

Also behind the cardboard desk was Brian Clough, the Derby County and Nottingham Forest manager who, for a while in the late 1970s — the Mike Yarwood years — became one of the most imitated men in Britain. In an era before blanket television coverage of football, Clough somehow managed to infiltrate the national consciousness to a degree never achieved before and rarely since.

Between them, Allison and Clough created a fairly narrow set of conventions for the extrovert, media-friendly football manager, a torch carried almost single-handedly through the bleak years of the 1980s by the terrible Ron “Big Ron” Atkinson. Reputed to conduct contract negotiations with players at Manchester United while lying beneath his office sunbed wearing goggles and a tiny pair of trunks, for a while Atkinson appeared to be single-handedly perverting the template of the “personality” football manager. The notion of the boorish, perma-tanned, sheepskin-wearing loudmouth had established itself in the national consciousness, something it would take the Premiership, with its sharp tailoring, media-handlers and handsome foreign gentlemen — fluent in six languages — to junk once and for all.

In fact, the European influence has been a powerful factor in the rise of the celebrity manager. Wenger started the process at Arsenal. Mired in its barrack-room notions of hierarchy, riven by a class-based status quo, football had never been comfortable with the idea of people getting above themselves. There was a time and a place for clever talk, and it certainly wasn’t in the dressing room. For some reason, however, the same rules didn’t seem to apply if you spoke in a foreign accent.

The years following Wenger’s arrival at Arsenal brought a flowering of progressive thought, sports science and dressing slightly better, an undercurrent that has eventually swelled into a late-blooming, football-management renaissance.

There may also be sense of the tail wagging the dog. If it is true that you can change something just by observing it, it is hardly surprising that when you point 12 TV cameras, a dedicated cable channel, a travelling army of photographers — not to mention an entire global media machine — at someone, they start to act a little differently.

Perhaps it is hardly surprising that a new set of behavioural conventions has emerged, of visual tics that tell us a manager is doing his very public job, literally “managing” before our very eyes: wrestling the fourth official, looking pensive and solitary on the touchline, firing off one-liners at a press conference, telling GQ about his favourite restaurant. Football management is, after all, a precarious profession. One way to guarantee your future employment is to work on your profile, to feed the fire of your celebrity, to embrace the front-page splash and high-profile feud.

© Guardian Newspapers Limited 2007