Louis van Gaal and the collapse of English football culture
Rob Smyth laments the degradation of the culture of modern football, and the way managers like Louis van Gaal are treated by the media, fans, players and club owners in the digital age.
The most important bit of Fergie Time had nothing to do with a referee’s stopwatch. It was the slack allowed by the United board during the bleak, black winter of 1989-90, when most people thought Ferguson’s time was up. Instead he went on to win 28 trophies at United. You would think Ferguson’s case would be as powerful as a judicial precedent, yet it is quite the opposite. Ferguson stayed 26 years at United; these days most managers don’t last 26 months. Apart from Arsene Wenger, Eddie Howe and maybe Alan Pardew, all Premier League coaches should share Guus Hiddink’s title of interim manager. The job insecurity makes football management the sporting equivalent of the zero-hours contract. That aside, it bears no resemblance to the real world
There are many compelling arguments for sacking Van Gaal. The problem is supporters of every club – or rather dissenters – who are struggling will tell you that their case is different; that a sacking culture isn’t desirable but that this bloke really does need to go. They can’t all be right, and all those managers can’t be incompetent. In absolute terms, it’s simply not possible that so many managers can be as bad as the forest of P45s would suggest: the ratio of failure in management is up there with politics. For all his faults, the pressure on Van Gaal reflects a culture in which the lunatics have taken over the asylum and calm pleas for sanity will have you sectioned.
Arsenal are now the last bastion of rationality in English football, and we know what will happen there once Wenger retires. Wenger is approaching his 20th anniversary in September; it is possible, even probable, that he will be the last manager in English football to stay a club for 10 years, never mind 20.
Had Ferguson been sacked in 1989-90, history would have been recorded him as a complete failure at United. With the current overload of social media, rolling news and phone-ins, even Ferguson might have been overwhelmed by sheer weight of morons. More likely, the board would have succumbed to a crescendo of entitlement.
It’s worth recalling just how bad Ferguson’s United were, because Van Gaal’s team look like Spain 2012 by comparison. They finished 11th in 1988-89, when crowds at Old Trafford dropped below 25,000. That summer Ferguson went on the biggest spending spree in the history of English football (he spent just over £7m, which shows the extent of the inflation since). By February – even after Mark Robins’ famous FA Cup goal at Nottingham Forest - United were 17th and went to fellow relegation strugglers Millwall without a win in 11 league games. The style of play was so boring that George Best said he “wouldn’t walk round the corner to watch them play”.
It would be wrong to say that humanity was great in 1990 – Ferguson said he felt “like some kind of criminal” – but the abuse and pressure were nowhere near as severe or relentless as they are now. There is a zero tolerance approach towards the “criminals”; anything less than the best is a felony. The issue is not the criticism but the nature of it: often extreme, nasty, infantile and narcissistic. It is not just in the land of the blind that the one-eyed man is king. In modern football discourse, ostentatious ignorance and extreme opinions receive significantly more exposure than reserved wisdom. The way things are going, Match of the Day will soon be presented by Jeremy Kyle.
Look at these recent tweets about Van Gaal - there are even worse, not printed here for reasons of basic decency and asterisk preservation.
"I swear to f*****g God I hope LVG dies tonight in his sleep .... only way these s*** c*** owners will get rid of the p****!!!"
"LVG out scum b******"
This Is England 2016. It’s difficult to reconcile all this with a society that thinks it’s more sophisticated and civilised than ever before. The apparent contradiction comes from the remote, virtual nature of digital abuse, which is one level below verbal name-calling – and that never hurt us anyway, right? The above tweets are extreme examples, but at some stage almost all of us have sat in front of a keyboard and mistaken ourselves for Chuck Norris. Often it’s prompted by football, which brings out everyone’s Hyde side. A digital world didn’t bring out the beast in us; it just gave it a platform. If you behaved in such a manner in a drinking establishment in the 1970s, you’d have got a lit fag in the eye, and you could have had few complaints.
We don’t know the extent to which social media is representative of society or a fanbase; the same could be said of a matchgoing support, such is the change in the demographic at English football grounds. Nobody knows anything. Instinct might tell us that social media attracts a gobby minority and produces a shouting match from which the silent majority have withdrawn in disgust. In a sense it doesn’t matter, because whether it is representative or not, social media carries almost as much weight as the stock exchange, with decisions taking accordingly by everyone from chairmen to editors.
Theodore Roosevelt was wrong. In the 21st century, it is not the man in the arena who counts. The credit belongs to the critic, the cold and timid soul who neither knows victory nor defeat, who sits in his pants on the sofa telling the world that he hopes Louis van Gaal will die.
These days there are not hundreds of letters; there are millions of tweets and posts and memes. It is overwhelming and inescapable, and the sheer noise makes it so much harder for a manager to turn things round, particularly at the top clubs. Negativity perpetuates itself; players give up more easily. The last manager at a huge English club to come back from the brink and thrive was probably Ferguson.
This creates a dilemma for any chairmen with oldfangled principles. Should you do what is right and proper and give a manager a minimum or two or three years? Or do you accept that events have spiralled out of control, usually through the fault of others more than the manager, to such an extent that it’s almost impossible he can turn it round and therefore it is in the best interests of the club to sack him?
That most managers benefit from time to do their job properly and in relative peace is a truism that shouldn’t need further exploration. At first, even Ferguson was overwhelmed by the United job. “Big club, this,” he would say to Bryan Robson and Norman Whiteside, and it was four years before his bum really stopped squeaking.
Many of the most famous triumphs in modern English football history have come from sides in a far worse position than Van Gaal’s United, such is the nature of the most important thing in sport and life: confidence. At Christmas 1997, Arsenal had lost four of their last six league games and were sixth, 13 points off the leaders. Arsene Wenger was under a fair bit of pressure, with one newspaper saying the dressing-room was split and he was no longer allowed to buy French players. They didn’t lose another league game until May, by which time they had won the title and were playing the best football in the club’s history. In January 1984, Howard Kendall’s were booed off after a 0-0 FA Cup draw at home to Gillingham. Within 15 months, the greatest side in Everton’s history had won the league, the Cup Winners’ Cup and also the previous season’s FA Cup.
In November 1992, before the second big turning point of his United career – the signing of Eric Cantona – Ferguson’s United were even less productive than Van Gaal’s: they had scored 19 goals in 21 games that season, and 49 in 49 games that calendar year. The only reason they didn’t draw games like 0-0 like Van Gaal’s team is because they usually conceded. Yet within months they won the first title in 26 years playing some of the best football in United’s history, and in 1993 they scored 109 goals.
There are so many examples. In the winter of 1981, Liverpool were both European champions and domestic has-beens. They finished fifth in 1980-81 and were 12th at Christmas the following season. In an age of social media plenty would have opined, with faux sagacity, that Bob Paisley had taken the club as far as he could and that it was time for him to go. Back in the real world, Liverpool stormed to the title by winning 20 of the last 25 games. The following season, Paisley’s last before retirement, they were champions with six games to spare. Later that decade, the press spent two years trying to drive Bobby Robson out of a job before he took England to the semi-finals at Italia 90 and they sent him off as a national hero.
There are thousands of non-sport examples that demonstrate the value of patience and time, too, including Pulp, Blackadder, Radiohead, Seinfeld and Parks and Recreation. If they were football managers in 2016, they’d all have been sacked before achieving greatness. Nor would Rome would have been built. It would have been abandoned as a failure after a day.
There are no definitive examples of those who were wrongly sacked, simply because we cannot see what happened in a parallel universe. But there are unquestionably thousands of managers who would have won trophies had they been given more time. You certainly don’t need a wormhole to an alternate reality to realise that Real Madrid have been a complete joke since they got rid of Vicente Del Bosque in 2003, or that the karma police have been after Newcastle with extreme prejudice since Bobby Robson was sacked in 2004.
Del Bosque and Robson were replaced by Carlos Queiroz and Graeme Souness – brilliant as a defensive coach and pundit respectively, but nowhere near as accomplished in management as the men they succeeded. What started as a quizzical interest in the grass on the other side has become an obsession that fuels deluded fantasies. If every team in the Premier League achieved what their fans think is par, there would be five champions every season and no team would be relegated. In September, Garry Monk was legitimately touted as the next England manager; within weeks he was fighting a losing battle to save his job. Short of him sticking two pencils up his nose and limiting his team-talks to the word “wibble”, this simply cannot be correct.
Before the turning point of Ferguson’s United career, the 1-0 win at Nottingham Forest in the third round of the 1989-90 FA Cup, Jimmy Hill said United looked like a beaten team in the warm-up. Better to look beaten in the warm-up than during the game: an injury-hit team played with splendid defiance throughout a match that is still spoken about to this day. In 2015, players – consciously or unconsciously – are far more inclined to throw the towel in once it becomes apparent their manager is a dead man walking. They are good-time Charlies. Managers don’t lose the dressing-room. The players go into hiding.
The old line that players win matches and managers lose them has never rung truer. Player power is rife, yet the phrase is partially misleading: in terms of fortitude the players have never been weaker, a reflection of the way masculinity has diminished in a post-Sopranos world. If he resigns, Van Gaal should consider suing his players for constructive dismissal. “Guys today have no room for the penal experience,” said Tony Soprano of the burgeoning rat culture in the mob. The same applies to football: nobody can be bothered with even short-term hardship. If the same attitude was taken in real life, the divorce rate would be 99 per cent. But then football management is more of a fling than a marriage nowadays. The LMA might as well be sponsored by Tinder.
It’s not just the fault of players or chairmen; fans are equally influential. Some seem to think their club is like Kickstarter. The more audible fans – or perhaps more visible, in this digital age - don’t have unrealistic expectations so much as impossible demands: like replacing the greatest manager of all time with somebody just as good.
It’s inevitable that, at some stage in the future, fans will pick the starting XI via a website poll, or vote on whether a manager should be sacked. The Glazers would like that. Paying fans have a right to express disapproval, of course they do, but It’s a fine line between legitimate criticism and juvenile bleating, and nobody really knows where that line lies.
The media, the more pompous elements of which are almost too self-important to function, contribute too. In the past headlines would suggest a manager “could” or “should” do something; now he “must” do it, or else: Van Gaal MUST stand on the touchline and wave his arms around a bit. This is football, not a humanitarian emergency. We all contribute to the culture of sport that resides on the moral low ground and has long since lost reality’s contact details. Football is in dire need of an epiphany. We should cancel the 2016-17 season and give everybody a year to stand in the corner and think about what they’ve done.
It’s easy to say that the sacking culture is out of control, but not so easy to find a solution. The horse hasn’t just bolted; it’s on a different continent and is logging on to its iPad to call Van Gaal a t**t. If football could not find a relevant moral in the story of Ferguson, who would have been sacked in 1989, 1995 and 2005 had fans had their way, there is little chance of things changing. We probably have to accept that – as with banter, passive-aggressive behaviour and narcissistic mawkishness - this is how the world works now, or at the very least how social media makes everyone think the world works.
Barry Davies, the great BBC commentator who was eased out of Match of the Day for appreciating the value of silence, once said that “perhaps each generation gets the commentary of its age”. The point applies here too. Pep Guardiola and Jose Mourinho, the most successful coaches of their generation, have never stayed more than four years in a job, and Guardiola was so weary in his fourth year at Barcelona that you doubt he’ll make that mistake again. Carlo Ancelotti did spend eight seasons at Milan, but since then he has jauntily boosted his CV and his bank balance by winning major trophies for and being sacked by Chelsea and Real Madrid, with a short stay at PSG in between. Three years used to be the minimum for a manager to have a fair crack; increasingly it feels like the maximum.
“Mutual consent” is one of the game’s more risible euphemisms, but if used sincerely – football’s take on conscious uncoupling – it could make things better. It’s not an ideal solution, but it is preferable to the alternative: of humans being treated like criminals, and of some club sacking the next Alex Ferguson before he has won a single trophy.