Monday, March 17, 2014

When managers lose it

In case you haven't noticed, we have entered that highly entertaining stage of the footballing year which everyone likes to refer to as "the business end of the season".

This is, keen fans of this very blog might recall (Cliche Corner), when football applies itself en masse to the most copious usage of hackneyed expressions such as "we’re going to take each game as it comes", "we're going to give it [insert mathematically impossible percentage] until it's out of our hands" and "every game is a cup final", amongst many others.

The Spring thaw is when the pressure tells. This is when the previously dismissed possibility of relegation becomes all-too real for those below each league's Mason-Dixon Line. It is when managerial positions become untenable even for the caretakers brought in during November's dismissal window, and for everyone else, either the dreaded Chairman's vote of confidence.

But most entertaining or all is that this is the time of year when managers start to lose it. It was, for example, in the closing, April stages of the 1995-96 term when Kevin Keegan, then in charge of Newcastle United, let rip at Sir Alex Ferguson with his famous "I will love it!" rant:

"When you do that with footballers like he said about Leeds, and when you do things like that about a man like Stuart Pearce - I've kept really quiet, but I'll tell you something, he went down in my estimation when he said that - we have not resorted to that. But I'll tell ya - you can tell him now if you're watching it - we're still fighting for this title, and he's got to go to Middlesbrough and get something, and... and I tell you honestly, I will love it if we beat them, love it!"
Kevin Keegan, keeping it together, after Newcastle had beaten Leeds on April 27, 1996
A couple of years later, Giovanni Trapattoni went one better with what is still considered today a high watermark for a public managerial eruption, going off like Vesuvius during a post-match press conference on March 10, 1998, while manager of Bayern Munich. In demonstrably bad German, Trap went somewhat Adolf by screaming about the attitude of Thomas Strunz and then comparing Mehmet Scholl and Mario Basler to empty bottles. This was no Steve McClaren attempt to affect the local tongue - this was a full-on, Nuremberg-grade firestorm that probably wouldn't be anywhere near as effective or funny in any other language (even if locals at the time wilfully pointed out that the Italian positively mullered their vernacular.

More recently we've had another Newcastle manager - Alan Pardew - allowing his blood pressure to sky north of widely accepted NHS guidelines. Generally regarded during his playing days as a somewhat genial individual, his seemingly placid nature in interviews appears to mask an incandescent flow of molten lava beneath the surface. Firstly, in January - neither the business end or whatever is the opposite end of the season - he let fly at Manchester City manager Manuel Pellegrini, charging the exquisitely bouffant Chilean with less than collegial language involving the bombs F and C. Well, it happens. And City were leading 2-0.

Less explainable is Pardew's frankly baffling physical contretemps the other week in which he attempted to speed proceedings along in Newcastle's meeting with Hull City by using his head. And not in the intellectual sense either. Despite his team being 3-1 up, Pardew took umbrage at Hull's David Meyler apparently pushing him out of the way while trying to get the ball for a throw-in, and pushed his head into Meyler's face.
"I did not mean any damage to the guy but I have moved my head forward," Pardew attempted to explain after the match, adding, helpfully, "I tried to push him away with my head." Normally, I believe that is known as a headbutt.

Along with his industrial engagement with Pellegrini, Pardew has other previous to be taken into account, such as his shove of linesman Peter Kirkup during an early season encounter with Spurs in 2012 which Newcastle won. "It was ridiculous" he later chirruped. Notably, this wasn't March but the warmth of August, when there is a whole season ahead. Clearly the apparently affable Pardew has some issues to work out.

José Mourinho, on the other hand, has had his issues worked out already. When he reappeared at Chelsea last summer he claimed to no longer be the high-maintenance, high-strung Special One, but the "Happy One". He has spent most of this season stock-still on the touchline, barely raising a fist pump when Chelsea score, hands thrust in the pockets of his puffa coat. No histrionics or paranoid delusions about refereeing conspiracies - no, just Nice Guy José. Older, wiser, relaxed. Even attempts by the press to bait Mourinho on Chelsea's title chances have been batted away with a semi-smiling shrug and bizarre comparisons with horses.

However, Mourinho finally succumbed to the inner beast on Saturday evening by losing it at Villa Park. Admittedly he'd seen Willian and Ramires sent off by Chris Foy (though the two-footed lunging nature of the latter's offence was a justifiable red card), and then got sent off himself in the ensuing melee. And so the cork popped: "We must be very, very unlucky to have another refereeing performance like this one," growled the more familiar fuming, conspiratorial Mourinho. "This is not about one mistake from a referee. This is about a performance from minute one to minute 94."

Chelsea are, today, four points clear of Liverpool and six points clear of Manchester City, who have a couple of games to spare. You could say the pressure is telling.

But what of other managers? Why no emotional breakdown yet from Arsène Wenger? Does he ever get emotional, for that matter? Why was Tim Sherwood simply just downbeat when he described his players as lacking "guts and character" after their 4-0 heaving to Chelsea a couple of weeks ago. And what about David Moyes? Surely if anyone's going to crack, Manchester United's continuing gravitational plunge must be pushing even the big Scot to some form of vexation. Perhaps the moment of no return is approaching....

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