Five hardworking managers clowning around
by Robert O’Connor
The public eye is littered with examples of greatness. Some are born great, some achieve greatness and some, of course, have greatness thrust upon them. Then there are the others. Those who clamour after disaster, become skilled in seeking it out and spend entire careers writhing under its fitful influence. Football, littered though it is with charm, grace and skill, is populated overwhelmingly by the latter.
In fact a major factor in our enjoyment of the game is to revel in the pitfalls of the meek, the lame and the unfortunate. Peter Schmeichel re-defined the art of goalkeeping in this country yet none of his saves has been played back so often as Massimo Taibi’s blunder in ushering Matt LeTissier’s pea-roller straight through his body against Southampton in 1999, and none enjoyed with such relish by so many.
Kanu provided us with some impossible feats of engineering with a ball at his feet, but it’s the moment he defied physics to sweep over the bar from barely an inch out that brings the widest smiles. And who can forget the immortal tableaux of the treble winning Manchester United side celebrating victory in Barcelona – one of the finest sides in British football history, caught in rapture at the height of its achievements, and yet Beckham, Giggs and Scholes are totally overshadowed by David May beaming away at the top of the picture like a barely polished turd planted proudly on top of a wedding cake.
The world loves a loser and 20 years of the Premier League has provided us with some gloriously chaotic characters to keep our hearts warm and full, nowhere more so than in the dugout. Perhaps it’s because when a team’s season goes down the toilet it’s the man in the hot seat that comes in for the flack, but managers make a disproportionately healthy contribution to the annals of high calamity. Here are five that worked harder than most to put a smile on the face of anyone tickled by a good pratfall.
Christian Gross – Tottenham Hotspur | 1997-1998
Arriving late to his first press conference as Spurs manager in November 1997, waving a tube ticket and declaring in something formerly English: “I want this to become my ticket to the dreams,” keenly attentive observers could probably already see the stitching coming loose on Christian Gross’s career in England. Looking back Gross must have wished it had been his ticket straight back to Heathrow he’d been clutching, which would have spared him his front-row seat at a catastrophic Autumn spell for Spurs as they were beaten at home by relegation favourites Crystal Palace and then stuffed 6-1 at White Hart Lane by Chelsea.
Even if Ruud Gullit’s men had managed 10 that day it still wouldn’t be the football for which the Swiss is remembered in north London however. Spurs survived reasonably comfortably, which once upon a time was all that was really demanded at the Lane, but with Gross as its rather confused and confusing spokesperson for all of 10 months the club’s reputation took a battering.
“We took in no goals against a strong team and scored twice. That’s very positive.” You can see where he’s going with this, kind of, but the way he’s got himself there is the verbal equivalent of standing on one leg in Trafalgar Square with no trousers on and a saucepan taped to one’s head. Alan Sugar cited the media’s fun-poking for having destroyed Gross’s reputation when dismissing him in September 1998. Sad though it was to see him go, especially with so much still to teach us about this peculiarly distant cousin of the English language, he’d had his one way ticket to the funny farm from the start.
Alan Shearer – Newcastle United | March – May 2009
It should have all been so perfect. Tyneside’s favourite son summoned from the comfort of the Match of the Day sofa to take his beloved Toon in his strong arms and deliver them safely from the cliff-edge of relegation.
Eight games and no wins later Alan Shearer trudged from the Villa Park pitch and back into the welcoming hearth of Gary Linekar and the rest of the MOTD family, and the BBC’s idiot savant could continue his thoughtful quest for something to be savant about. At time of writing that quest continues. “Good old Gary” you can almost see tick across the vidi-printer of Al’s mind as his media mentor interrogates him about another week’s Premier League instalment from the safe distance of the studio. “He never makes me think about tactics or players or football or anything.”
Enough time has probably passed now since Newcastle clambered back to the top-flight to pass the flippant judgement that they probably deserved their fate for placing their future in the hands of a man whose soul qualification for the job seems to have been that he carried the native accent. Shearer’s record still counts amongst the worst in top-flight history for a manager, but for the short two months that he spent away from the pundit’s couch the whole thing can only be counted as a glorious, if fleeting success.
Mick McCarthy – Sunderland | 2003 – 2006
In 2005 Mick McCarthy came within a win of taking Sunderland to what would have been a record points tally for the second division, en route to waltzing back into the top flight two years after relegation. The seeds of that relegation were sewn by predecessor Howard Wilkinson but McCarthy couldn’t add a win to the meagre tally of 19 points accrued before he took charge in March that season.
Fast forward two years, and the best part of an entire season of Premier League fixtures, and Mick had chalked up a tally of two victories in the top league from close to 38 games. Wins over West Brom and Middlesbrough on the way to amassing a whopping 10 points wasn’t exactly all the Sunderland board had dreamed of as spring rolled by and McCarthy was given the chop just weeks before a second relegation in four years was confirmed, not before recording a third and final victory at home to Fulham.
His record of three victories from 36 matches over two seasons remains a testament to what happens when a good manager suffers from chronic under-investment from his board, but it won’t stop us having a good laugh at Mick’s expense.
Paul Jewell – Derby County | 2007 – 2008
Phil Brown may have built the team that saw Derby relegated with one win and 11 points, but it was Jewell who was at the helm from November onwards after Brown left the club under a cloud citing under-investment from the top. He may have had a point. Derby broke the record for both points and victories in 2007-08 but it was Jewell who bears the record of taking the club down without a single victory in seven months in charge.
In fact it was to be 10 months before a first league victory came, in the second division at Sheffield United. It’s a record that deserves the attention it received at the time and since. The dust had long settled on Arsenal’s unbeaten year, but what Jewell’s Derby side did is no less worthy of remark. They say even a blind pig finds an acorn every once in a while but that County lurched through an entire season stumbling across a solitary victory – one can only assume by sheer accident after Kenny Miller’s speculative effort in November exploded past Shay Given like a Jack-in-the-box waking up and realising it’s late for work – leaves one wondering how a club who had earned their place in the league through a meritocracy, could avoid the fall of good fortune’s blade again, and again, and again, no matter how badly Jewell had them playing.
Even McCarthy’s Black Cats burped and farted their way to three successes over a season. Jewell has been conspicuous in his absence from the management circuit of late after a tediously fruitless spell at Ipswich came to an end. Some wounds it seems were never meant to heal.
Chris Hutchings | Bradford City 2000 and Wigan Athletic 2007
Remember, remember, the fifth of November. Chris Hutchings would do well to keep this handy little ditty in mind before considering his next career move. On this day in 2007 he was coming to terms with being freshly fired from Wigan Athletic.
Seven years earlier he was shown the door by Bradford. On each occasion he had taken up the manager’s job having replaced the ferociously successful Paul Jewell, off the back of the best spell either club had know for generations. In retrospect Hutchings inherited an almost impossible mantle, not once but twice, but it’s the tragic symmetry of the thing that makes one’s lip curl, either in mirth or embarrassment (six years down the line it’s difficult to tell).
That we haven’t seen Hutchings back on the managerial scene since isn’t much of a surprise. The headspace of a man who’s been given the sack twice in the same 48 hour spell, when that time of year rolls around for a third time, is not a place I wish to visit, however hypothetically. Having been the Robin to Jewell’s Batman for so many years it’s a safe bet that the two are still close. When CV’s are laid on the table, they share a bond that can never be broken.Alan Shearer, Championship, Newcastle United, Premier League, Tottenham Hotspur
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