By J Hutcherson – WASHINGTON, DC (Mar 24, 2011) US Soccer Players — Once upon a time, the role of manager in English club soccer meant as much control as that person could carve out for himself. Manager versus chairman still plays itself out at the highest level, but it's normally over transfer money rather than the manager trying to usurp roles intended for others.
That's the contemporary sports business plan in place across England, with chief executives taking the place of club secretaries and the manager as the principle decision makers. At this point, there are usually multiple levels of club bureaucracy. In some instances, that chief executive and even the chairman challenges the manager as the face of the club.
Every now and then we get a throwback to the old days. Aston Villa's managerial shakeup just before the start of the season. Alex Ferguson's seeming insistence that nothing's really changed in his role since the day he took over in 1986.
In Ferguson's case, part of that is simply longevity. He does what he does because of tenure and trophies, even if it manages to anger the Football Association and inconvenience members of the media. Until relatively recently, that was part of the manager's job.
Ferguson's media blackout against the BBC was responsive. He stopped talking after not liking what he was hearing and reading. Not exactly fair enough when part of the manager's role is to face the media, but also not exactly beyond the pale all things considered.
Now the BBC has setup a make nice meeting to get Ferguson back on the record six years later. Most have probably forgotten Ferguson's complaint, that the BBC went too far in trying to link his son's role as an agent with Ferguson's role as manager of Manchester United.
That's probably part of the reason that, up to this point, the Premier League has been unable to dissuade Ferguson's multi-year silent protest. The BBC seemed to have misjudged line between personal when it comes to Alex Ferguson. One wonders what they expected, apparently it wasn't years of a subject simply refusing to talk to them.
At the same time, Ferguson is facing off with the Football Association for doing a manager's job. Well, at least the old job of the manager. He complained about a referee. Not only did that end up with a five-game ban and a fine, it also turned into the greatest manager in the recent era of the English game publicly criticizing a match official.
This isn't a hard and fast example of the decreasing role the manager is expected to take, but it's certainly indicative of how that role has been boxed in. There are official ways to complain other than a manager complaining openly that his team has been hard done by to anyone willing to listen. The stand-up style of a Brian Clough simply doesn't work, even if it would be more entertaining than anything we've seen in years slowly turning into decades.
You could argue that too much is at stake. Sports business has turned parochial English clubs into international revenue generators. Though England hasn't quite fallen for the manager as business guru like the North American model, they've taken enough to turn the manager into a business role. He literally manages their most valuable asset and is judged accordingly.
Having a manager spout off in that old familiar style is nothing more than a business risk is at this point. Though there's some leeway in the moment, it's not enough to absorb the type of candor that was once a lot more common.
From a spectator standpoint, what's missing is part of the act. The manager as the boss not only of the club but also the liaison for the fans. He normally ended up the one saying what the fans were thinking on behalf of the club. The closer he got to the fans' frame of mind, the better. That's Clough saying what everybody was thinking following a shady exit from the European Cup. It was a host of managers in the 70's and 80's unafraid to talk their team up.
What we have now is the safety play. Candor when things are going bad and it's obvious to everyone that the manager's job is in jeopardy. In even the mediocre times, that seems to have been lost.
Ferguson's longevity has made him the exception, but that goes hand in hand with his willingness to consider the moment as much as the potential repercussions. Like him or not, part of what makes him great is a willingness to take risks and stick to his statements. That's lost on too many of his current colleagues.
Comments, questions, solutions to problems that have yet to present themselves. Please, tell me all about it.