The theory behind having a fan of the club as a manager is a nice one. There’s not a lot for the modern fan to cling to in terms of feeling any kind of connection to what football has become, so at least having someone in charge to whom this means more than professional pride/how long’s left before their inevitable sacking and pay-off, is comforting.
In theory, that theory is even stronger at Newcastle, a city whose emotions are inextricably linked with the shell of a Sports Direct jumbotron that used to be a football club, but who are now not a great deal more than a contractual obligation. The club has become a collection of half-willing players shoved out onto the field with little more instruction than to be just about competent enough to stay in the Premier League and keep those billboards in sight of the TV cameras.
It should be great, therefore, having John Carver in charge at St James’s Park. Carver has been in the background at Newcastle for some time, first as assistant to Bobby Robson and latterly, of course, as Alan Pardew’s right-hand man. His return to the club under Pardew felt a bit like when American presidential candidates appoint a running mate not because they like or respect them, but as a sop to whichever half of the country their personality or politics supposedly alienates. You can bet that Hillary Clinton’s vice-presidential nominee will be an earthy, white, southern man in order to ‘balance’ the ticket, for fear that it’s not too ‘demographically-symbolic’, as the head of the NRA so charmingly put it recently.
Carver was the token Geordie hired, at least partly, to try and placate those cross about the ‘cockney mafia’, but the idea that just having someone from nearby involved was as insulting to the intelligence of the average Newcastle fan as the concept of American voters not able to compute more than one ‘minority’. And while he may well be a perfectly decent coach, recent weeks have shown that Carver is not especially suitable for the top job.
The primary problem with having a fan in the dugout is that most fans think they can do a better job than the manager, regardless of ability or qualification. Actually, slight amendment: The sort of fan who calls up a radio phone-in to bluster about passion and heart thinks that. And if there was ever someone in football who looks like he’d call a radio phone-in, it’s John Carver. You can picture him, during the darker days of Alan Pardew’s tenure, putting on a fake voice and dialling up 6-0-6 to demand the dismissal of this smooth spoofer who always had a fridge well-stocked with pineapple juice, for some reason.
(As a small aside, among the most memorable of these souls unbound by the restrictions of reality was the Rangers fan who, years ago, called 6-0-6 to blame their inability to finish above Celtic one year on ‘all these Italian Catholics’ in the team. One assumes that a) he must have been gutted every time Lorenzo Amoruso lifted assorted trophies and b) he’s a in a bad way these days.)
Carver, having been a coach for some time and this not being his first spell in temporary charge of Newcastle, is more qualified than the average punter, but his attitude remains that of the textbook phone-in caller, believing that gumpton and pride are the most important qualities a manager can imbue in his side. Carver neatly aligned himself with that Rangers fan this week, after he declared the foreigners in the Newcastle side were ‘an issue’ and that “within their DNA, when it comes to a derby game, there’s something not right.”
Before the defeat to Sunderland, Carver declared that no Newcastle team under his control would slack, or play at anything less than 100%. Ninety minutes and one utterly abject, disinterested, embarrassing performance later, he appeared in the post-match press conference with the glazed expression of a man who didn’t know what had just happened. More pertinently, he didn’t know how to make it better, either.
Simultaneously, as well as being a chest-beating fan, Carver most definitely falls into the category of the ‘Football Man’. The concept of that phrase is curious, largely because it’s so ill-defined that when used by most it just means ‘he’s a mate of mine and the drive to the Sky Sports News studios is becoming soul-crushing so he could do with a job.’
Indeed, the designation of Football Man status allows one to get away with all sorts of ghastly stuff, as was shown by the response from some to Malky Mackay after that whole unpleasant text messaging caper. “Malky Mackay is a fantastic lad, a great fella. A family man, a real football man,” said Harry Redknapp, and Dave Whelan agreed, giving this particular Football Man a job, no questions asked. Of course, as the subsequent few months of defeats and impending relegation showed, being a Football Man doesn’t necessarily mean you’re any good as a Football Manager.
As it is with Carver. And yet, despite all of this, it’s also impossible not to feel sorry for him as well, firstly because he’s been given a virtually impossible job, not least thanks to the number of injuries and suspensions currently in his squad, but also because his emotions and loyalties are being taken advantage of. After Pardew’s departure and a lack of anyone else suitable around at the time, Carver was asked to take over until the end of the season. Although one can easily underestimate the ego/confidence of people in football on these matters, he surely knew, deep down, that there was no chance of him getting the gig for any longer.
Any neutral with any concept of their own dignity would surely have told Mike Ashley to do one in no uncertain terms but, at least partly because of his allegiances, Carver probably believed it was his ‘duty’ or similar to offer some help to his ailing club. In fact, he is being taken as a willing and exploitable fool, a pliant puppet for the owners that have stripped the club of anything special or individual to hide behind. And we all thought Ashley couldn’t take the p**s out of or patronise the Newcastle support any further.
In Carver’s mind, as it might well be for any supporter, any time that he spends as manager of his club is worthwhile, even if it is as a stooge for someone like Ashley. Nobody, particularly Carver, will emerge from this with any dignity. Given what Newcastle have become that seems strangely, sadly appropriate.