Revealed: The Insane Reality of Managing a Football Team

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Which manager gives the best team talk?

When Brian Clough was at Nottingham Forest, he had a few tricks to inspire his players. Normally, just before kick-off, the dressing room is an emotionally charged place, with players pacing around, getting pumped up, and there’s music going at a million decibels. But Cloughie told everyone to be quiet, then he got down on his hands and knees and crawled slowly and silently across the floor. He laid a towel out and carefully put a football on top of it. Everyone was spellbound, they thought he’d gone mad. But then he pointed at the ball and whispered just three words: “Look after her.” That was his entire team talk, but that simplicity got the message across – look after the ball and the result will look after itself.

What other methods do managers use to inspire their players?

The age of furiously throwing teacups has gone. Managers today have to be emotionally intelligent, not least because dressing rooms are far more multi-cultural. There are certain cultures, like the South American, the Spanish, the far Eastern, where you cannot criticise and humiliate someone in public because they lose face and they will never forgive you.

So what do the managers do instead?

Swansea boss Gary Monk says it’s all about balance. If he went mental and spent five of the ten minutes he’s got at half-time just bollocking someone, it wouldn’t help the player or the group. It’s better to calmly get three bite-sized points across. The tone and feel of your words are as vital as what you actually say – that’s why Stoke manager Mark Hughes watches TED talks on his day off, or study neuro-linguistic programming. Monk is miked up at every training session he gives, so he can play his words back afterwards and see whether his points were made with clarity.

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It all sounds very gentle compared to Fergie’s “hairdryer”…

Karl Robinson, manager of MK Dons, goes to a behavioural expert. He cited one example where he’d tried to make eyeball contact with a player who was performing badly and called him a prick – he wouldn’t return his gaze. The expert told him to be careful, because you don’t know what’s happened to this lad in his upbringing. He might come from an abusive background – your anger might impact and damage him. Anyway, what’s the point of screaming and shouting? If you don’t believe me, try this at home: think about a really important decision you need to make, one that could affect your job or family – and scream your lungs out at the same time. It doesn’t work, it’s a distraction.

Is being a manager easier these days?

The opposite. Last season, there were no fewer than 62 managerial changes out of 92 clubs. 47 were sacked, 15 resigned. The average tenure of a manager is less than 15 months. Shaun Derry, who was manager of Notts County for 18 months, told me about his sixth game in charge. He’d had a tough start to the season and he looked behind him at the club chairman’s “guest” seats and saw 17 unemployed managers sitting there, all willing him to fail so they could have his job. It was like a row of vultures. The pressure is mental.

Who copes with it best?

Paul Tisdale, the manager at Exeter City, is very strong. He’s actually the second-longest serving manager in the English league, after Arsène Wenger. He told me what it’s like when you’re 1-0 down and there’s only ten minutes to go. The crowd are bellowing at the players to get stuck in, but you have to block them out and make decisions that you know will get you booed. You have to take off the bloke who’s hurling himself into tackles but not actually doing much positive. His feeling is that the crowd think about football for two hours a week, but he thinks about it for 16 hours a day.

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Have you seen managers crack?

Sometimes it’s the reverse. There’s a famous story about Jimmy Sirrel, who was a taciturn Scottish coach of Notts County in the 1980s. His wife Cathy died late on a Friday night, but he came into work as usual on Saturday morning, said nothing to anyone, gave his team talk, and won the game. Afterwards he went to the club bar and someone asked how Cathy was. He said, “Oh, she died about 12 hours ago.”

That can’t be healthy…

Brendan Rodgers told me that managers have to separate their private and professional lives. At the time he’d just had the most successful four years of his life as a manager, with Swansea and Liverpool, but personally, he was in tatters. His mum and dad had died, he’d divorced from his wife of 23 years, and his son was on trial at the Old Bailey for sexual assault.

So fans should be more sympathetic to managers rather than shouting for them to be sacked?

It would be nice if they at least recognised that managers were people, not supermen. Take Ian Holloway, here’s a guy whose parents told him he was a “mistake”, whose own three daughters were born deaf, and whose wife was told she would die of cancer. On top of that, his career means he’s had to move house 33 times. The fans have no idea of the mental anguish.

Are any managers good at losing?

They all hate it. Even a cerebral man like Wenger turns into Basil Fawlty. If he could find a stick to beat his car with, he would.

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Michael Calvin’s new book Living on the Volcano: The Secrets of Surviving as a Football Manager is out now, RRP £16.99.

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Coach Staff

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