To be a good manager, you must be able to throw teacups

"What do managers do, daddy?" They manage, son. "Like grandad manages?" Yes, like that as well.

There are two meanings. In the executive sense, a manager is in control. In the sense my father-in-law used it, he wasn't in control. Whenever I asked him how he was, he would say "managing", which meant he didn't have control, but was somehow coping, getting by, still with us, which he was till he was 96.

By the time you read this, we'll know how Kevin Keegan is managing. That game against Luxembourg was a joke, a country of 50 million playing a country of 50,000, Man Utd against a non-league team. What could that possibly prove? Poland should show us how Kevin is managing.

Bobby Robson, for the past eight days, has been the greatest, most loved, most admired manager in the history of managing. He could probably have remained so, but alas Newcastle have to play a game on Saturday. Shame, really, just as he was doing so well. Harold Macmillan used to say that running the country was a doddle, awfully easy, except for one thing. Events, dear boy, events.

In the case of a football manager, events mean injuries, loss of form, chairman going potty, all those events over which they have no control. Now there is a new thing over which they have no control. Their players.

Players are being carried away by their own importance, egged on by their agents, blinded by the thought of someone else getting £80,000 a week. They now make impossible demands, require ridiculous perks. Frank Clark, the former Nottingham Forest manager, tells a story of a star player wanting the club to relay his living-room with wood blocks as the fluff from the carpet was annoying him. Poor diddums.

Alex Ferguson and Gerard Houllier were going on about this problem last week, bleating about it, becoming, well, quite self-important about it, saying how tough it is, handling the modern player, people just don't understand. They each suggested that the media, the supporters and the players all "need to show managers more respect". More diddums.

So what do they do, what does it take to be a manager? Being a bastard, that seems to be a help, but a fair bastard, consistent, so all the players know where they are. Throwing teacups in the dressing-room, that seems to help as well. It did Fergie no harm.

There is no point in a manager trying to be personally popular. That's a sure sign of weakness. It rarely works in the real world, either. When I was a boss, of sorts, managing a little team of 20 people, I tried to be popular, keep them all happy- and failed. They all hated me. When I was chairman of the governors of our local primary school, I got that wrong as well. After our first meeting, I treated them to champagne, as a sort of bonding, so they would really, really like me and work awfully hard. One bloke, a Tory councillor, said he only wanted to be a governor for his CV when he stood for parliament. He wasn't coming to another meeting. He did become a Tory MP. Even got knighted. And I wasted my champagne on him.

The only way a football manager will be popular is by being successful. Then everything is forgotten. So how do you become successful? It pays to be able to identify people who can play football, that does help, but getting them to play well and consistently, that's harder. Some do need a good kicking, some a good cuddle, some are fragile flowers, some nutcases.

It takes cunning and cheap psychology to handle them. Fergie, in his autobiography, describes this process very well, learning how to pretend you are decisive when you're not, how to let them down lightly, when to give reasons for your actions.

One mistake managers make is to believe that if they put in the hours, success will come. Most do work too hard, rushing around the world to look at players, often unnecessarily. Videos these days give good clues to potential signings. You need a network of contacts whom you can trust to tell you the truth, about who's a boozer, a druggy, a lazy sod, hated by everyone, always late for training. But all that can be done on the phone.

When teams get stuffed, or perform appallingly, managers will often bring them in next day and make them do extra training. This rarely works,except as a punishment. During a long, hard season, extra training is not what they need. Talking it through with the senior players, and being honest about each other and the team's tactics gives a better chance of identifying problems.

But managers think that practice, practice, practice will do it. It does for individual players. David Beckham did not wake up one day able to make a perfect cross. Dwight Yorke wasn't born with the brilliant ball control he has today. It took them years of doing the same things, over and over, mostly on their own.

Getting a unit to function better is different. The problem and the solution are often abstract, and can't be prescribed beforehand or explained afterwards. So much depends on timing, chance, dynamics, events. Why did Dalglish do it at Blackburn and not Newcastle? Why has Graham Taylor done so well with Watford yet not with Wolves? Who knows? Except that the ones who survive can manage in both senses. They are in control when things are going well, as Fergie is today, and also able to cope, to manage somehow, keep alive, when things are not going so well. Which is what Fergie did in his first five years. He managed to manage.