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You can dislike the punditry, but Merse is an impossible man to loathe. 'It'd be like hating a shaggy dog that runs up to you and wants you to throw it a stick,' say the boys...
It's said that football is a results business, but we have often noticed how some managers are judged more harshly than others by the media and the less enlightened fan. The example ne plus ultra would have to be Harry Redknapp, whose managerial shortcomings have often been downplayed or even simply ignored because of his charm and skill with the media. We firmly believe that a good relationship with press and TV can, if not save the job of a poor manager, at least offer a more sympathetic hearing and a stay of execution. Furthermore, a good presence on television keeps an out-of-work manager in the minds of the public and chairmen. We would go so far as to say that being telegenic or at least competent in front of the camera is an important part of the manager's job description these days.
There's more than one way to win the media and the public over, however. Your English manager has enjoyed a lot of success with the chummy approach. Take Sam Allardyce. Here comes Big Sam, he's a Big Man. A man's man. It's all red wine for him, none of those wussy whites or metrosexual rose. He presents as a bluff, no-bulls**t chap. His preferred style is to refer to everything positive as being inspired by his work. Everything bad however, is always nailed firmly to someone else's mast. Failures were not failures: they were merely time of non-success. Defeats are really victories because without loss there can be no gain. You can come away from a Big Sam interview and sometimes feel as though, were it not for him, the world would have ended. Some managers can't get away quick enough but not Sam. He'd be there all night talking about Kevin Nolan.
The deflection technique was also used by Redknapp for many years. Good signings were all down to him, bad ones were made by the chairman. Discontented with his work? That's typically ungrateful. Don't you know where you were before he took over? If you are a Southampton fan, the answer to this is "yes, in a league higher" but of course, this has now been wiped from the media's History Of Harry. One of the advantages of schmoozing the media for years is that rigorous analysis is viewed as similar to kicking your own granddad in the bollocks. So it's never done and thus all manner of contradiction and hypocrisy can be delivered free from analysis.
As ever, many of the Scotsmen deploy the "are you looking at me, pal?" defensive attitude so favoured by shop doorway dwellers the land over. David Moyes has the wild, staring eyes to pull it off and has now ascended into "he's doing a great job" untouchable status. Even when he makes a bollocks of something, no-one would dare say so. Steve Clarke is more obviously the softer Scotsman who stops his lunatic pal from giving you a hiding on Leith Walk. Paul Lambert attempts to be inscrutable but it comes across as if he is irked by every question. We always feel he wishes he had a greater armoury of linguistic fireworks available to him and covers it up with a quiet man gig.
He may well have learned some of this from his old boss Martin O'Neill of whom we do not speak for fear of lawyerly missives.
If you want defensive, then go to Tony Pulis. Forever dressed in a track suit like a competitive dad, we feel he takes every question to be a criticism of Stoke and their playing style, indeed that every inquiry is a personal attack. The siege mentality may well be useful in forging a successful football team, particularly one that plays in the Stoke way, but a siege mentality is not a TV friendly vibe. If results were to tank for an extended period of time, Pulis will have little goodwill upon which to call.
Mark Hughes, who used to be so confident, now stands in front of a camera like a man arrested for stealing washing powder. His attitude suggests he never stole that box of Daz and even if he did: so what, it's only washing powder. Someone said that Hughes seems like a naughty schoolboy and an annoyed dad all at once. It's a wonder he doesn't resign from himself for lacking ambition.
Chris Hughton, on the other hand, can't hide his thoroughly decent nature but sometimes seems a bit too timid when interviewed. Lesser men make more of themselves than Chris.
Alan Pardew is more aggressive in interviews, as his goal-punching celebrations attest. The "careful, I'm easily narked" attitude is a good defensive one which keeps all but brave interviewers at arms length. The master of this, of course, is Sir Alex Ferguson, of whom pretty much everybody in the football media is clearly effing terrified. His aura of invincibility seems to protect him from even basic scrutiny despite dropping several bollocks such as playing a clearly past-it Ryan Giggs in midfield. Try telling him though, and he'll go a funny colour. So looking mean and moody works.
Unless you're foreign.
The foreign manager has little capital with the English media. Roberto Mancini doesn't care how many questions Geoff Shreeves asks about his tactics and it shows. There is a look of "we both hate this so let's just get it over with" about the Italian. Similarly, Andre Villas-Boas - a man with dark magic in his eyes - emits a feeling that all of this interviewing business is beneath him. He seems intense and approaches interviews as though they are examinations that he must pass, and when he does try to be friendly, it looks a little odd and feels forced, like the school nerd is trying to be mates with the sports jock.
We have no shame in our man love for Rafa Benitez, who is charismatic, smart and articulate. It will be fascinating to see how he gets on at Chelsea, where he is going to be under enormous scrutiny. His countryman Roberto Martinez has enjoyed a lot of good press by his studious accessibility and insistence on his team passing the ball a lot while getting humped every week. Also speaking English well gets you good marks in the media.
Martin Jol, with his bloke in the pub demeanour, gives good lens and seems about as open and honest as anyone in such a position is ever going to be. He relies on charm and bonhomie and the fact that all Brits like to do a Dutch accent.
Even the likes of Jol and Martinez though, are accorded a bit less leeway than an British manager would get in an identical situation. This may well be because the press and TV realise that the likes of say, Allardyce and Pardew are going to be around, managing one club or another, for 15 or 20 years or whatever. The boot cannot be stuck in too much if you're going to have to interview these fellows in another posting within a month or two. Your foreigner might well leave the country, and thus can be treated with more savagery.
The one man who has managed to achieve legendary status in the British media is, of course, Jose Mourinho, who is more or less universally loved by journos of all persuasions because he makes for good story, and a charismatic TV interview. The media were beside themselves with excitement this week when he dropped a few lines about Mancini and City. Quite clearly he is an excellent football manager, but we feel that the huge esteem in which he is held is in no small part due to his media skills.
Some managers seem to have a need to be thought of as smarter than the average bear. Brendan Rodgers is your go-to man for middle management jargon and self improvement one-liner, which could become easily ridiculed if the results went terribly badly. Some managers lack any purchase in the public imagination whatsoever: Nigel Adkins looks like man for whom a great day out is looking round his local Renault dealership. And what does Brian McDermott even look like? We're not sure. This is a potentially damaging problem for a manager's career. It really isn't just a results business.
John Nicholson and Alan Tyers
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