In football as in life we have heroes and villains. The perfect example of a football hero is someone who has sweated blood and guts for a club as player; scoring 48 goals, and helping them to promotion to the English First division. This hero will further endure himself to the masses, by managing the same club that they once played for (imagine Gianfranco Zola managing Chelsea in the not to near distant future), and instilling a belief that winning a league title is achievable for a club not as glamorous as Manchester United, but who have the same quantity of passionate and loyal fans; even in the end they fail to match hope with reality. After the hero has gone on to bigger things, (like managing the national team), he will say he will never return to football management again. But the offer of a second managerial stint, where he is affectionately known as the messiah? It would be an offer he could not refuse. This is where the story should end, with me saying “and they all lived happy ever after”. However any person(s) who will clash against the hero will feel the wrath of the people, and serious implications will ensue.
Hiring Kevin Keegan at the time seemed like a stroke of genius, a PR masterstroke for both club and owner, whose image had suffered from the Sam Allardyce imposed brand of football imported to Tyneside. You do not like ugly football? No one does, but ugly football is effective football! Well not so when with the run up to Christmas we can only gain one point from a possible six from the bottom of the table Wigan and Derby? No Mr Mike Ashley we want swashbuckling football! Ashley did not hire Allardyce but it was up to him to fix the problem if he was going to continue to sit amongst the “friendliest fans in the premiership”. Hiring Keegan was thus going to break down the barrier between the working class fan and the wealthy owner.
The problem though that has been prevalent recently in the domestic English league, is the dimension of power contested between manager and owner, and hostility between manager and the vague role of the director of football. Keegan’s fallout with Mike Ashley is due in part to his role as manager being somewhat undermined. James Milner’s sale to Aston Villa for £12 million was reportedly against Keegan’s wishes, but necessary for a business man like Ashley to balance the financial situation of his ‘beloved’ club. Keegan said before his departure that: “It’s my opinion that a manager must have the right to manage and that clubs should not impose upon any manager any player that he does not want.” Kevin Keegan.”
Alan Curbishley who resigned from West Ham in parallel circumstances, echoed the concerns of Keegan:
“The selection of players is critical to the job of the manager and I had an agreement with the club that I alone would determine the composition of the squad,” Curbishley said. “However, the club continued to make significant player decisions without involving me. In the end such a breach of trust and confidence meant that I had no option but to leave. Nevertheless, I wish the club and the players every success in the future.”
Indeed, we have been here before. Jose Mourinho left Chelsea football club on mutual grounds with Roman Abramovich, after contesting the hands on approach to the team he was supposed to manage. In this case, a ‘director of football’ (Avram Grant) was heavily involved in the conflict. The alleged unhappiness of the inclusion of Adri Shevchenko, a player Mourinho was said to not have wanted, would have been an important catalyst within this clash and Mourinho’s exit. Both Martin Jol’s and Juade Ramos’ departures from Tottenham, involved disagreements with Sporting Director Damien Comolli.
In the case of Ramos, the initial joy of winning a trophy in his first season was soon deflated through relegation battles the following season. In Chelsea’s and Tottenham’s cases, both Directors of football have subsequently been sacked from their positions. At Newcastle, Dennis Wise; who seemed to be a promising young manager before he was swept away from Leeds, Tony Jimenez, and Jeff Vetere.
To be fair to Ashley, he did make efforts to bring Keegan back, but his failure to tempt the Geordie Messiah means that he was not going to compromise his position on Wise and Jimenez. His treatment by Newcastle fans and their resentment of the so called ‘Cockney Mafia’ instilling a North/South war, seems somewhat overblown. They have a right to be angry but Hammers fans are not acting the same way. Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da, life goes on. Their actions are not helping anyone including themselves, and their wish for Ashley to go, will be even more difficult where a prospective buyer would not want to take over a club who has rowdy fans.
So what is to be done now? Modern football is moving on, and football managers from the old school, such as Keegan and Curbishley will always fall out with this supposedly new found ideology of managing clubs. Or should the clubs owners retort back to the methods of “if it aint broke, don’t fix it”. After all, recent examples such as those mentioned, have proved to be far from satisfactory. Is Chelsea the same after Avram Grant? Is Felipe Scolari going to manage his club the way he sees fit without interference? I doubt Gianfranco Zola at West Ham will have such freedom, but then again I don’t think he cares much, as Upton Park is only a stopping point for Stamford Bridge. What about Mark Hughes at Manchester City? It does not take Albert Einstein to figure out that Robinho was not his decision, but in truth I think he is happy with the acquisition. With Newcastle United, under the management of Joe Kinnear, it’s up to the heroes on the pitch to get everyone in Tyneside out of this depression.