Sometimes, your face just doesn’t fit

Hunter Davies' "The Fan" column.

Paul Lambert - Hunter has a hunch his face doesn't fit at Villa
Paul Lambert - Hunter has a hunch his face doesn't fit at Villa. Photograph: Getty Images

I was on Danny Baker’s 5 Live programme the other weekend. I arrived early and crept into the control room, sitting behind the producer and three technical people, pushing buttons, answering phones – all of them women and all in hysterics.

I couldn’t quite understand what Danny was on about, as I’d come into this item halfway through and didn’t know whether he was talking to someone real or spinning some fantasy about a made-up person – but it was still funny, fluent and imaginative.

The women were practically prostrate with laughter and could hardly do their jobs. Which is rare in broadcasting. Production people, usually humourless anyway, have heard it all before and are more interested in timing and the next item, and their coffee break.

Lucky Danny, I thought. How fortunate to be in a setting where you are so admired, loved and enjoyed. Wouldn’t we all like to go through life feeling at home and fitting in?

The next week he got the sack. Not from that job but from BBC London. And I thought, “How unlucky.” For some reason he must not have been fitting in. Or had he annoyed someone, or was it the usual cuts, to save money?

I keep looking at Paul Lambert and thinking, “Hmm, I don’t think his face fits at Villa.” And Martin O’Neill at Sunderland. Wrong time, wrong man? Brendan Rodgers at Liverpool – will he crack it or is he a misfit, as Roy Hodgson was? All of them are good managers but perhaps not for that place, not at that time.
Like AVB at Spurs. Despite a decent spell, he still doesn’t seem the right fit. Though what do we know, viewing from the outside?

Some managers manage to fail regularly yet it doesn’t seem to do them much harm. They come bouncing back, time after time – men such as Sam Allardyce and Mick McCarthy. It’s not then a matter of being loved. At a certain time, a club decides they are what’s needed.

Fergie and Wenger seem like perfect fits, otherwise how could they have stayed so long? But Fergie had a dodgy couple of years at United before he was accepted. Wenger was accepted quickly – “In Arsène we Trust” and all that. Now there are those who think, “In Arsène, we rust.”

With players, it’s all about environment. Steven Pienaar at Spurs was a total spare part, there seemed no role for him, nowhere to fit in. Clearly no one loved him; he must have been awfully unhappy. But back at Everton he is thriving again. I suspect that Dimitar Berbatov will blossom at Fulham, whereas at Man United he had no role, no one cared enough. Andy Carroll at West Ham? Will he fit in there, having been so publicly rejected at Liverpool ?

Being loved – by the manager, the coaches and fellow players – that is important. Laughing at your jokes, that’s a good sign. Being admired for your talent, that’s best of all.

But sometimes you are bringing to the party something they already have, or have better, so naturally you don’t fit in, they don’t make space, don’t accommodate you. You’d think this would be obvious to a manager when he buys you but he doesn’t know how it will pan out either.

In theory a good player is a good player but the right surroundings are vital. This happens in all walks of life, in politics, in broadcasting, on newspapers.

When Deborah Ross left the Independent for the Daily Mail, she was writing the same sort of stuff but the surroundings were different, she didn’t seem to fit the furniture. I thought Craig Brown would suffer the same way when he went to the Mail, but they seem to love him and give him air, breathing space.
And he has thrived.

Of course, you don’t need to be loved and applauded if you are confident enough to carry on, not dependent on reaction and recognition. All freelances have to get used to this and accept that they don’t really exist. It’s only when staff people get the push that they realise what unfeeling bastards they have been.

Hero, just for one day

About 30 years ago I had dinner with one of my heroes, the journalist James Cameron. To my surprise, he was moaning about the way the Guardian was treating him. He was doing a regular column but in a year no one had spoken to him from the paper, reacted to his pieces or even said they’d arrived. When he died a couple of years later, they cleared the pages and boasted about their distinguished writer.

What you have to do in life, friends, is see if your name is on the team sheet. That’s what matters.