Why football needs dictators in the dugout

The best way to lead a footie team to victory? Abolish any idea of democracy in the dressing room.

Tomas Duckling

Topics Politics

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As Chelsea dispatch their sixth manager in five years, England’s rudderless ship sails blindly towards Euro 2012 and Mitt Romney limps towards the finish line as the least-worst Republican out of a bad bunch, I am moved to ask: Where have all the leaders gone?

Successful football management has long been characterised by strong, decisive leadership. Jock Stein, Bob Paisley and Brian Clough weren’t known for their open-door policy towards players in need of a chat and a cuddle. Managers who demand respect and authority do so through clear decision-making rather than democracy. As Old Big Head himself put it, when discussing players who disagreed with his ideas, ‘we talk about it for 20 minutes and then we decide I was right’.

Alex Ferguson, arguably sport’s most consistent, successful and longest-standing leader, last week saw things quite simply: ‘The important thing is to have your personality as the most important in the club. If you allow players to dominate your personality, you’re struggling. I never had any issues with that.’ Both Clough and Ferguson were capable of making bad decisions, but the important thing is they were confident enough to make the decision in the first place. Whether it be right or wrong, a sense of direction inspires purpose and desire.

So impressed are Premier League boardrooms by Ferguson’s obstinate forcefulness that many have looked towards finding their very own ersatz-Fergie. This involved finding the brashest Scotsman they can or, even better, someone that felt the famous Ferguson ‘hairdryer’ first hand and hopefully can replicate it. The concept seems to be if you can’t find a real leader then, at least, make him scary or Scottish. Eight of the Premier League’s managers are Scottish and most of those hail from just a couple of districts in Glasgow.

When choosing a leader there also seems to be a battle between principle and pragmatism. The word from within the FA at the moment seems to be that they know the masses want Harry but they would prefer someone able to create an ethos, build a youth programme and develop a playing style. Or, at the very least, be able to send a text. All and sundry this week have commented that Chelsea boss André Villas-Boas had long-term principles about how football should be played (all triangles and pretty possession) that were to be admired, but his lack of practicality let him down. For example, £50million striker Fernando Torres may make beautiful diagonal bursts, but if they end at the corner flag rather than the goal perhaps it is time to go with Didier Drogba’s more battering-ram approach. If you can’t win pretty, win ugly. AVB seemed to be regarded by most as the right kind of leader for Chelsea, but unlucky to be leading the wrong men.

What really doomed AVB was when he embraced defeat. Chelsea, a club whose very motto is ‘strive for victory and shun defeat’, finally lost patience because he wallowed in weakness under the pretence of this being a transitional period for the club as a successful but ageing set of players was gradually shuffled out the door. Football managers, fans and players have always preferred the blame for failure to be attributed to unfairness, cheating and bad referees over admitting their team was beaten fairly. When AVB declared West Brom’s victory over Chelsea last weekend was due to them being ‘superior’, he signed his own death warrant.

AVB’s press conferences were poetic and honest; it might have been a better idea to be stubborn and simple. His biggest mistake was allowing those he planned to replace to remain within his midst. Was he expecting high-profile fading superstars like Frank Lampard and Didier Drogba to revel in their own removal? Footballers cannot be expected to consider the club as a long-term project; regardless of any love they may feel for their team, it comes second behind their love for their own security. Their careers are largely short-term and thus so are their decisions. AVB’s position was made all the weaker when he found out how much he needed the old guard to buy him time to find their replacements.

In relation to leadership, football may well be a microcosm of wider society. The advent of ‘participation’ and ‘engagement’, whether it be in the classroom, the boardroom or the doctor’s waiting room, may make people feel more involved but it undoubtedly gets less done. Today’s society sees steadfastness as a weakness not a strength. We want our leaders to listen to our views but we also criticise them for their indecision. We want a clear, unwavering focus decided by consultation at focus groups. We want success to be shared but failure to be attributed to one.

Chelsea will replace AVB, but if the next man isn’t as single-minded as Chelsea’s true leader – billionaire owner Roman Abramovich – then I doubt he has much hope.

Tomas Duckling is a History and Politics teacher living in Watford.

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Topics Politics


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