We are always told that if a football club is not moving forward, it is standing still. Title-winning sides are constantly berated if they fail to ‘freshen up’ the playing squad; managers playing long ball are eventually hounded out of the club by fans desperate to see the side ‘evolve’, regardless of how successful they have been playing the more retrograde stuff.
Yet we remain peculiarly obsessed with the past, too. When a manager has not been in situ long enough for cries of ‘evolution’ to ring out, the point is instead presented as being against the traditions of the club: It’s not the Manchester United way, it’s not the Liverpool way, it’s not the West Ham way, it’s not the Crewe Alexandra way.
Commentators and under-pressure managers alike love a bit of ‘the away team haven’t won here since 1976’, as though the squads and fortunes of each side had not gone through so many decades of criss-crossing ups and downs as to render it a meaningless coincidence.
So yes, we are obsessed with history, as Ronald Koeman has found that to his cost: the suggestion from a number of reliable sources is that his failure to buy into Everton’s history was hugely indicative of where things went wrong.
Funny, isn’t it, that a lack of deference for history is only important when things go badly? Nobody looks at what the revolutionary David Wagner is achieving – has already achieved – at Huddersfield and says “ah, well, clearly this is a man who is following the best traditions of the club…those other managers must just not have realised we once won three successive league titles!”.
Nobody has a pop at Arsene Wenger for opting not to follow in the dire but effective “1-0 to the Arsenal” tradition of George Allison and George Graham, or indeed for neglecting to change his first name to George upon his appointment.
Similarly, it is interesting that historical reverence seemingly only applies to the successful periods in a club’s history, even though the bad times are just as much a part of that history as the good. For instance, who’s to say Jurgen Klopp isn’t simply a big fan of 90s football and has painstakingly choreographed the Reds defence into performing a historical tribute to the side of the time? Perhaps Simon Mignolet’s abortive attempt to claim Kieran Trippier’s crossed free-kick in the build-up to Spurs’ fourth goal on Sunday was not a blunder, but a perfectly-executed recreation of David James’ infamous punch in the 1996 FA Cup final? It certainly makes a lot more sense than the reality.
If Koeman had Everton flying up in fourth, the issue of his red Christmas tree would never have reared its head again save perhaps in mirth. Instead, his post-Cruyffian football, as Jonathan Wilson describes it, would have been seen as a wonderful and welcome direction for the club after over a decade of David Moyes’ dire but effective football (Moyes for Arsenal!) and a few seasons of Roberto Martinez’s enterprising but shambolic fare. His refusal to invoke the past would have been regarded as refreshingly straight-talking and forward-thinking, rather than a failing.
That’s because a lack of respect for history is merely another stick to beat managers with when their jobs are already on the line. It isn’t what cost Koeman his job: you can put that down to building a squad with five viable number 10s but no decent centre-forward, or the tone-deaf tendency to speak about and to Everton’s players and supporters with a bluntness that leaned towards bleak rather than motivational.
For a manager, talking about the club’s history is great way to buy some quick and easy goodwill early in your reign – but if that line of conversation comes up again months or years later, you know the knives are out.