I always feel sorry for those fresh-faced, eager but nervous young subs sitting on the bench. The chosen ones get called to warm up, flexing their muscles, flexing their minds, trying to look cool and controlled, but sick inside.
They jog up and down the touchline, doing silly steps and twists, just to show how fit and flexible they are, trying not to hear the jeers when they pass opposition fans or bump into an equally young sub from the rival team, doing his own silly warm-ups.
The sub keeps one eye on the manager, looking for a sign, trying to read his contorted face, and the other on the clock – f***ing hell, only seven minutes left, I am never going to get on, I am never going to be a Prem player, ever.
Then the nod comes. He strips off his training stuff, struggling to get it over his boots, wishing his mum was there to help, has his body examined for rings and earrings, boots checked for sharp edges, by which time his mind is in a whirl – he’s unable to think straight, know his own number going up, never mind his own name. All those years of sweat and tears, terrors and triumphs, since he was eight years old, and at last this is it: what he has lived for.
Then what happens? Two goons from the back-room staff grab him, one with a laptop with flashing shapes and patterns, the other with a flip chart, flipping it over and over.
How is he supposed to take anything in? He is already a mental wreck, hyped up, face taut, but he nods his head, will agree with anything – “Kill my mother? No problem.” He dashes on to the pitch and makes his first tackle, diving in like a mad dog. He is off, red-carded. Five minutes still to go.
I blame the laptops. In ye olden days, a manager would put a fatherly arm round a young player and say one of two things: “Just go out there, play your normal game and enjoy yourself.” Or: “All I want you to do is get us a goal.”
The latter could be a bit worrying, imposing a burden – it was almost a threat – but it was usually done with a smile and, best of all, it was understandable: nothing technical, nothing abstract, no false number nines, no holes to be filled. Just score us a goal. Simple, eh?
When André Villas-Boas got the sack at Spurs, my first thought was, “Hurrah, this could be the end of the laptops.” Not completely – because they do have their place – but their proliferation behind the scenes is getting out of control.
I used to think it was just the young foreign managers who were technology-obsessed, especially those with humble or non-existent playing careers, such as A V-B and Mourinho. They also bring in their gang from home, speaking their own language, as Fabio Capello did with England, which must really piss off the native old guard. But Sam Allardyce caught the bug at Bolton and he, too, became obsessed by science. Doesn’t seem to have done him much good at West Ham, if he is still there.
Benches at all Prem games these days are filled to capacity – rows and rows of them behind the actual bench, filled with young, smooth graduate video analysts, monitoring every player, from his pass rate to his bowel movements. They do it all week long, not just match days, rushing round the country to look at rivals, then poring over computer screens.
They then present the manager with graphs, video clips and PowerPoint displays about whatever it is they think really, really matters. Yes, the manager still has to make the final decision but more and more he relies on the supposed evidence of science, not his own eyes. Yet good players are good because they know what to do.
Modern technology, on the whole, leads to complications, not clarity. I have just been trying to get some parking vouchers from the council. It used to take me three minutes, filling in a form, posting a cheque. These days, you have to do it online. It took me two hours and was a nightmare. Now I want to go out and kick someone.
Lucky for me, I’m off on my summer hols. See you in two weeks . . .
Hunter Davies returns on 7 February