Pep Guardiola seemed merely to be making a statement of first principles this week when he said: “The people don’t come to see who the manager is, they come to see how good the players are.” A strong and self-deprecating point, though slightly undermined by Guardiola’s position as he spoke: on a silver stool, in the resting rock star’s outfit of dark jacket over grey T-shirt, at his “official unveiling” as the new manager of Manchester City, backed by hoardings that appeared to position the event somewhere between an appearance at the Hay-on-Wye literary festival and the Pyramid Stage at Glastonbury. Nearly 6,000 people had come to see who the manager was, in the complete absence of players or football of any kind, in July.
We fetishise football managers these days, not least at the Euros, where the cameras can’t leave them alone. There’s Antonio Conte of Italy (Chelsea-bound) gurning, thrashing and even climbing the roof of the dug-out at one point. There’s Marc Wilmots of Belgium, fretting and preening in the technical area like a forgotten member of Spandau Ballet. Germany’s Joachim Löw was caught in an unguarded moment involving his fingers and his most intimate recesses, and suffered for it on social media, though arguably his chief error wasn’t sanitary: it was the sin of looking even momentarily uninvolved, despite the often-made point that the players can’t hear what’s being shouted by managers and are generally too busy playing football to think about it in any case. It was significant that the doomed Roy Hodgson was accused, in the immortal words of one Belgian commentator, of “watching the game like a cow watching a train go by”. Quite apart from various perceived tactical shortcomings, he had failed in his first duty to be antic and televisual on the touchline.
It’s taken as read now that fans want to see “passion” and “engagement” from their manager – as if these things only took the form of water bottle-kicking, ecstatic James Brown-style knee-drops and repeated poundings of one’s forehead against the physiotherapist. For managers to appear detached is to court death. And yet my favourite “cut away to the touchline” of all time occurred during a cup tie between Chelsea and Liverpool in 1997, when Chelsea were briefly under the management of the laconic Dutchman Ruud Gullit. Two-nil down at half-time and as good as buried, Chelsea emerged from the dressing room reborn and scored four times. When the third goal went in, the television camera swept to the sidelines to record the delirium that this unlikely turnaround would most certainly occasion in its mastermind – where it found Gullit, leaning forward and casually tieing his shoelace. Seen from this distance it looks like a sepia image from a cooler managerial climate now altogether lost to us.
At these Euros, the burden of entertainment has particularly fallen on the managers because the football has been so poor. The endurance of Iceland was fun to follow – but is the sight of a limited side loading the box for a long throw-in what we turn to international tournaments for? Can’t we get that at home? I’d take one moment of memorable skill by a solipsistic show-pony on €400,000 per week over any amount of earnest teamwork by overachieving stalwarts who humbly ply their trade in the lower leagues. In years to come, it won’t be the teamwork that continues to thrill us about Wales but the defence-removing “Cruyff turn” pulled off by Hal Robson-Kanu while scoring against Belgium.
There has been precious little of that stuff in a tournament where underperformance and caginess have been the dominant themes. During the vanishingly attritional grind-out between Poland and Portugal, Ian Wright even appeared to have run out of words. “I knew it would turn into this kind of game,” the former England striker said. “But I didn’t know it would turn into this kind of game.” Only one solution. Cut to the managers.
Hunter Davies is away
This article appears in the 06 Jul 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Brexit bunglers