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4 May 2022

Football is full of tech. Isn’t it time for managers to catch up?

While the rest of the game embraces innovation, coaches remain steadfastly analogue – and they’re missing all the action.

By Hunter Davies

I do like watching Allan Saint-Maximin of Newcastle United. He is not particularly tall, just five and a half feet, but oh so muscular and fast, so tricky and positive, even when he falls over, which is quite often. We like footballers who appear to be characters, who entertain us, like Gazza and Best, who make us stand up and smile when they get on the ball, even when they are not exactly brilliant. Bobby Charlton was brilliant, as was Gary Lineker, but somehow they were functionaries, not fun. I also like Saint-Maximin’s hair. He has recently taken to wearing bigger, more colourful headbands and long hair at the back.

Remember some winters ago there was a fashion for snoods? A sort of tubular woolly scarf that you pulled over your head? Rather fetching and excellent for keeping players warm, poor petals. Carlos Tevez at Man City wore one and lots of other players followed, till Fifa banned them, the spoilsports. Health and safety innit. I suppose there was a danger of strangulation, if you got pulled to the ground by your snood.

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The FA banned women’s football in 1921 as being unhealthy. Some alleged that women would never give birth if they played the sport. It took 50 years for the FA to change its mind. Now look at women’s football today. Huge crowds, a massive following. I have a granddaughter who seems to train every evening after school.

There have been loads of innovations in football these last few years – but most of them are pretty boring techie stuff. Gawd, the number of video analysers who now sit behind the benches with their laptops, producing fatuous stats that impressionable managers think they can use next week in training to improve and inspire their lumps. Scores of medics and technical coaches and physios test the players’ hearts, livers, blood pressure and bollocks on the hour, then make them lie down in ice baths. New diets, new regimes, new systems, backed up by graphs and stats, come in every season.

Managers themselves of course are totally neolithic. These days, the only time you ever see a grown adult getting out a scruffy little notepad, leaning it on his knee, then licking his pencil to laboriously write down his aperçus, is during a game. You would think mobiles had never been invented. During those few minutes writing their observations, they are not watching the game as their heads are down. Why not dictate into a phone or a mini recording device? They would not miss a moment of the match.

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Then they think they are really cunning when they slip a handwritten note, in their best joined-up writing, to a sub to hand to the captain. He glances at it, thinks What the f***, not again, then shoves it down his socks and forgets about it. The manager carries on shouting and screaming, waving his arms, steam coming out of his ears, just as they have for 150 years – despite most of his players not being able to hear a bleeding word. When we used to have designated wingers who hugged the touchline, they knew they would have one half of the game with the manager bellowing in their ear – then blessed silence the other half.

I am sure in this day and techie age it must be perfectly possible for a manager to communicate directly with each and every player on the pitch all the time. Hearing aids these days are so small you can’t see them. Surely a hidden speaker could be implanted in every lughole to receive instructions?

Having admired Saint-Maximin’s taste in wide headbands, I now wonder if in fact they do not contain concealed receivers, picking up messages and transmitting them to his ears. His manager, Eddie Howe, is pretty young, only 44, so I would expect him to be clued up on modern gadgets. Perhaps we now know the real reason why, following Newcastle’s 2-1 win over Leicester City on 17 April, the Premier League told Saint-Maximin he would not be allowed to wear that particularly fetching number in future matches – and it had nothing to do with FA rules about headbands having to “match the colours of the kit” after all.

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This article appears in the 04 May 2022 issue of the New Statesman, Dictating the Future