Tuesday, September 19, 2006


Another day, another P45 for Bryan Robson. Paul Stump laments the cult of the superstar-turned-manager

*this computer is crap. It's been pasting in wrong slabs of text. All should be well now. This is a rewrite of a putative Sunday story

Being a fan of Charlton Athletic Football Club is never easy; but then again neither is being a fan of 97% of all football clubs. This season has been more arduous than most. Now in the charge of Sgt-Maj Dowie, whose shaved cranium and barky syntax lend him the air of a cross between a failed Droog, an unpopular games teacher and Rob Halford out of Judas Priest, four out of five games have finished in defeat. Sainted Curbs, the thinking man's whelk-stallholder, had 'taken the club as far as he could'. Dowie obviously thinks that this was too far and is quick-marching his players back down the hill as fast as they can go.

It's a fair bet that Dowie is mopping his lumpy brow this morning, as a manager boasting a far less calamitous start to 2006-7 clears his desk. But then again, ID has never been quite so much of a serial failure as Bryan Robson, with whom West Bromwich have parted company with all the alacrity of the firing of a human cannonball.

Robson, as it was pointed out - albeit too obliquely - in this morning's press is an archetype in British football. Former international heroes have always struggled to translate onfield skills into managerial nous. For every Brian Clough there are forty Bobby Charltons/Moores or , heaven forfend, Alan Balls. But since the 1990s there has been a slight change of emphasis. Charlton and Moore saw their dreams founder in football's wilderness at Preston and Southend respectively. That repeat relegation offender, Alan Ball, only made a fool of himself when he stepped up into the top flight.

Robson, on the other hand, was parachuted, as if by magic, into Middlesbrough in 1995 despite having shown no aptitude for management whatsoever. John Barnes sashayed from nowhere into the Celtic hotseat a few years later. How? Why? Tony Adams caesuraed Wycombe Wanderers' meteoric rise in its prime. The abject failures of the likes of Merson or Gascoigne even in the boondocks is more redolent of bygone days; yet even when Charlton and Moore took up reins, they were never afforded the same degree of publicity that the Adams, Merson, Robson, Barnes appointments received. Despite the fact that back in the 1950s, 60s, 70s, there were so many hardbitten Scotsmen and Irishmen swilling around the coaching courses that an ex-international getting a job was news. The appointments were for little more than publicity, for appointer and appointee; part gullibility, part Learishly raging against the dying of the light, part ego-massage.

I doubt that Southend or Preston fans expected the two Bobbys to arrest the decline of their clubs. Yet when Robson took over at Boro, a good friend of mine, a staunch fan of the club and for the most part an accomplished ironist, was almost beside himself with excitement. The publicity machine has moved on since the time of Ball and the Bobs, and if it's said loud enough and long enough ('this man is a winner', typically) people will believe it. Until they realise, as they must surely now with Robson, that he isn't. It was chilling to think that the man was once offered the England job.

This is not to place to pontificate on what makes a good football manager. In the last 20 years, the role has changed considerably in any case. But something identifiably different is the machine of hero-worship. Robson, Barnes, Merson, Gascoigne and others were the first megastar generation of British footballers. Not only did they have to work like billyo to make the grade and stay there (always the hardest, yawn), the publicity bubble they inhabited would not have helped foster an identification with the nuances and niceties of player management, of study peripheral to a public persona (can you see Gazza sitting up to 3am poring over Red Star Belgrade videos?), juggling tasks and time. Shit on the boots, in the bootroom? Filling in forms? We've left that behind, cock. Which might explain why Stuart Pearce seems to be coping reasonably well.

Hardly surprising then that a random handful of successful Brit-based managers (Ferguson, Mourinho, Mee, Nicholson, Wenger the Magnificent, Shankly, Stein, Paisley, Saunders) were average players but were journeymen who faded into the nuts-and-bolts conducting of a club and XI so much they came to know it and to master it like few others. Only the remorselessly enigmatic Dalglish defies this logic. O'Neill, Clough's protégé and clearly an intelligent and observant man, may yet. Will Keane prosper at Sunderland and treble the numbers? I suspect not. Abroad, it's different; Capello, Ancelotti and of course, the ne plus ultra of the whole phenomenon, the regal Beckenbauer, were globally renowned as much then as now.

Clough's career was over too soon to tell if he would truly have been a star. Billy Wright's tenure at the helm of Arsenal was drab and unsuccessful, but he was maybe the first true international star to make a fist of management. George Graham was peripheral to Scotland's international XI and Bobby Robson a stop-start workhorse in England's.

But these crumbs are what prompts to sensation-mongers to banner the former stardom of a has-been to conjure the future stardom of the genius rejuvenated. Hope springs in the breast of few more readily than that of a football fan. Great deeds once done... Kevin Keegan and Graeme Souness were the first to milk this misplaced adulation in the 1980s, for precious little long-term gain. Since then the atavism has spiralled out of control.

It is of a whole, really, with the British capacity for self-delusion in the face of the publicly notable. How else do we explain the willingness of Brits great and small, rich and poor, mad and sane, to suspend disbelief and so trust that the likes of Jonathan Aitken, Richard Branson, Jeffrey Archer, Mohammed al-Fayed, yes and Tony Blair, are not shysters of the deepest dye to whom one would not trust across the pub to the bar?

Interestingly, the old warriors the chairmen charge with new glories - Keane, Robson, Adams, Merson, Gascoigne, are all representatives of an age for which the vast majority of fans now feel nostalgic. Before the takeover by the foreigners, the flick-artists and fancy dans, when a player was judged as much by the number of pints he could consume and by the studmark scars on his legs as by his ability to chest-trap. This, of course, is itself a delusion; not one of the aforementioned won an international medal.

Which of the current crop of deceiving flatterers will get fast-tracked to hotseat humiliation or humdrumness first? Given that insulation from the rougher edges of the real world and the football industry for highly-paid footballers is even greater than in the early 1990s, Ashley Cole or Frank Lampard do not spring to mind as ideal management types. But given their remuneration at present, and the amount of hunger for the game they showed in Germany (akin to Kate Moss's hunger for industrial waste lard, one could say), why should they bother? Some of them will, though; the WAG will be gone, the hamstring or cruciate with her, and down to the last 700 grand it's too much for a footballer's ego to take. Yes, they'll 'throw their hat in the ring'.

And right now there's a shiny-suited little prick on his mobile, drink-driving his way round the M25, and who, in a decade's time, and after having shredded 40 applications from qualified and competent and experienced men, will whisk this hapless washout into the boardroom of his newly-acquired club to announce that 'x is a winner'. Anyone with a memory who saw the way British footballers played in 2006 - not to mention Robson, Barnes, Merson, Adams, Keegan - might beg to differ, and wonder just what 'winning' is going to mean for the club henceforward.

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