Honesty in football management

Blackburn Rovers are stopping supporters from displaying banners which call for manager Steve Kean to be sacked. Rovers have taken this action in the name of health and safety.

Honesty in football is a strange thing. It helps football and footballers that lies exist. In his excellent book Bounce Matthew Syed argues that the very core of a champion sportsperson is the ability to hold the view that they are the best at their sport in the world and thus unbeatable while at the same time knowing that they need to look around them and learn from what they can see.

The Liverpool Boot Room used to invite opposition managers in for a quick ale after every game with the other gaffer being awestruck to be in the inner-sanctum of the greatest club in the world not realising that he was being pumped for information as he sipped a bottle of beer with Bob Paisley. Liverpool stayed on top by learning from those underneath them, but maintained the front of needing nothing.

It is not honest, but it is football and it is successful.

Every club in football talks about having great fans, special fans, and it is obviously not always true and rarely honestly said. Steve Kean talks about a minority of the great Ewood Park crowd being against him perhaps in the hope that he will create a loop of belief. He believes them, they believe him.

Not that that would worry the Blackburn Rovers fans who talk about Steve Kean – or any City fans who are against our managers (and there have been a few) – because without the success then the belief that you are unbeatable is hard to maintain. Football is a game played largely in the space between the ears and convincing the players that they are able to win is most of the battle. Give the players an excuse to lose and they will take it, as the Blackburn players often seem to do.

Counter-intuitively though giving the players a reason they lost can often improve performance. It is trick that Sir Alex Ferguson perfected in his first decade at Old Trafford. Manchester United lost because of The Ref, because of England injuring Bryan Robson, because the people on Match of the Day supported Liverpool and so on. The players built up a siege mentality with Ferguson making them believe that everyone else was at the root of their failings. They bought it too, and the rest is history.

Blackburn supporters may think that there is an honesty to their protests and may indeed be aware that that honesty is counter-productive and believe that what they are doing is for the benefit of the club in the longer term. Kean counters with his talk of minorities.

Once I would like a manager to reply in honest kind. To take the microphone and tell these who criticise him that he will be in work at some early hour working hard to try put right what is wrong while they are still in bed. That the failure that they feel on a Saturday or a Tuesday is the all consuming force in his mind. That they support the club a few days a week and he works every day, constantly, trying to improve the club.

And then the other truths. That the next manager that they want to replace him with will only be able to offer the same thing: hard work, a few ideas, a few contacts; and that really all that anyone can offer at a club.

Managers though are trapped in the need to believe that they can make a difference so Kean carries responsibility for the slump on honest shoulders, or as honest as football can bring itself to be.

When pre-season became interesting

At some point after the middle of the 1990s pre-season became a thing of interest.

Perhaps it is the rise of Sky Sports and the need for constant football, perhaps it is the public’s thirst for the close season to end as quickly as possible, perhaps it is clubs trying to spin out two or three extra big money games in a season but whatever has caused it pre-season in modern football has become much more of a big deal.

Looking at the likes of Guiseley who had Bradford City on the pre-season fixture list until recently the games against league opposition offer a chance of a pay day in excess of most league matches. Kendal Town play Blackburn Rovers and Wigan Athletic and walking around the Westmoorland town one would struggle to miss this fact – that and the fact that Chas Hodges is playing in town soon – which is a marked contrast to the games within the regular season which pass without note in that part of the Lake District.

Certainly City’s return to action against Eccleshill United was eagerly anticipated with a good number of Bantams fans looking at pre-season as a welcome return to normality.

Turn on the ubiquitous Sky Sports News today and you will see highlights from pre-season matches up and down the land. Last year when Newcastle United lost 6-1 in pre-season to Leyton Orient then Sky’s talking heads damned the Magpies to a season of struggle in The Championship. They won it.

So in tone and in the minds of supporters and on the balance sheet pre-season seems to be interesting in a way which it was not previously. Pre-season matches happened for sure and occasionally they would be seen in the newspaper (as is my recollection) and talked about in vague terms by very few who seemed to have a mystic view of the new players on the first day of the season.

Steve Gardner turned up as an unknown on the opening day of one year with the words “He looked good in pre-season” offered by a City sage who had seen such things. The sage was considered rare and some what obsessive – like people who go to more than one date on a band’s tour – while extrapolations about Gardner, as with Newcastle, turned out to inaccurate.

At City the change over from a pre-season which was the preserve of the dedicated and the players probably occurred around the time that Chris Kamara was manager and City played Newcastle United in which Peter Beardsley and Tino Asprilla weaved majestically and a high quality Middlesbrough side in a two day period and then went on (again, if I recall) to play Santos of Brazil in a game which saw the only – to date – overhead back heel volley goal.

Compared to that the reality of the season seemed something of a let down. The circus had come to town and then left us with some reality where Norwich and Swindon – not Newcastle and Santos – were the opposition.

Peter Taylor managed Southend at the start of that period and Gillingham around the middle but perhaps it is his experience a England u21 manager which shapes his thoughts on how preparation games should be treated. He talks about how the Bantams could have played some big teams at Valley Parade – Premier League Burnley played at VP last season – but for the newly laid pitch but it is clear that Taylor sees these matches as build up to Shrewsbury Town on the first day, no more or less significant than any other training session and certainly not wasting the fresh grass on for a few extra quid.

So City have no big name on the fixture list – Rochdale are the highest placed side we face – and a swathe of games against low opposition including North Ferriby United who City play at one on Saturday afternoon. Taylor talks about the games in terms of being build up, fitness getters, and while supporters can watch the manager does not see them as being spectacles. His threat to take his team home at half time at Eccleshill says all you need to know about how Taylor prioritises.

Not for him an evening watching Beardsley and Asprilla run rings around his players. Not for him bowing the knee to boys from Brazil.

So a City squad of around twenty-two will be split into two teams of eleven with the aim of fitness not performance. City are without Michael Flynn (Groin), Tommy Doherty (Calf), Luke Dean (Broken leg) and Jake Speight (Broken promises) but Tom Adeyemi will make his debut following his arrival on loan from Norwich City and have Matthew Tipton and Lee Morris looking to earn contracts.

The game kicks off early for those who fancy a trip to Grange Road but one doubts that anyone will be encouraged to slam in an overhead backheel.

Maybe Notts County are – gulp – doing it right

One can’t imagine that a few years ago Mark Lawn imagined he would be looking forward to the start of the football season as a chance to sit a few seats away from Sven Goran Eriksson who returned to English football with Notts County as director of football but the Swede and the Shipley based business man will be but yards apart for the opening day of the season.

Much mockery of Svennis’s return to English football at a low level with one blog summing up the move saying “If the money is there, then Sven will be there.”

You struggle to recall how Sven went from the man who beat Germany 5-1 to being today but it had far too much to do with his proclivities in the bedroom and not enough to do with his inability to tackle the Steven Gerrard/Frank Lampard midfield which was great at getting to places but lost grasp when they were there. Sven came more close, more often than any other England manager to success.

So why is he watching Steve Williams – the Barber from Bamber Bridge – make his professional bow in August and not off preparing for a World Cup or at least a Premiership or Championship campaign? Public relations partly – Sven is damaged goods – but then came a thought.

Notts County are owned by men richer than nations and the assumption is that they have arrived at Meadow Lane to buy success in short order. They have signed City man Graeme Lee and former Bantam Delroy Facey to achieve this.

Sven, Graeme Lee, Delroy Facey. It would seem that they are not putting the resources into the playing squad. If signing Graeme Lee was instant promotion then City would not be facing Notts County in League Two.

It occurs – and perhaps this will be proved to be wrong – that the money of which there is lots is going to Sven and Tord Grip and going behind the scene rather than on big contracts for players the way Fulham or Wigan rose through the leagues.

Qatari tycoon Abdullah bin Saeed Al Thani fronts an investment group which owns County and as with most investment groups he no doubts looks for longer term and sustained profits. This is not Blackburn and Abdullah bin Saeed Al Thani is not Jack Walker. It is not about pride it is about building a football club to be successful in the longer term.

How long? Sven talks of the Premiership and has signed a five year contract but if at the end of that five years the ramshackled County of last season are gone and a foundation for sustained success is in place then he will have done his job. Academy football, training grounds, recruitment policies. These are the things that one would want to put in place for longer term success and these are the remit of a director of football and County have gone for a man vastly over qualified for the job at League Two level.

Perhaps the remit is to build Notts County as a Premiership club from the outside in rather than the model of getting it Premiership on the pitch and hoping the rest well follow. After all that is the way Bradford City rose and fell.

At five on the first day of the season City fans will cheer to the rafters should we win and we would be joined by the sniggering behind hands of many ready to have a pop at Sven but short term results are not (it would seem, I could be proved wrong with a glut of spending tomorrow) the aim but rather the construction of a solid, robust entity which can maintain any success it has.

Notts County – for all the money bags talk – might be doing things right.