When competing at the highest level of football – whether as a player or
manager – there is a certain level of mania that grips you in pursuit of
success. You become fixated with one, all-consuming objective: to win every
Anyone intent on stopping you becomes an enemy. You start to despise your
closest rivals and most difficult opponents and believe every decision that
goes against you is part of some grand conspiracy, or every poor bounce of
the ball is because your team never get the luck of others.
Once you step away from the life of a footballer you can see how illogical,
distorted and, frankly, embarrassing this state of mind is. Your brain is
trained as a professional to use everything at your disposal to claim
victory, but in doing so you leave yourself open to ridicule owing to an
inability to take an impartial view of a game.
That is why – for all the criticism aimed at Manuel Pellegrini for his
comments after Manchester
City’s defeat by Barcelona – I understand how and why he was so
consumed with his club’s interests that he lost the plot in his post-match
Now I am on the other side of the microphone, it occurs to me how much we
crave hearing from managers and players when they are at their most
emotional and vulnerable to saying something daft, straight after the final
You can imagine Pellegrini on Tuesday night, the adrenalin still pumping,
clearly upset his side have not delivered on his biggest night since joining
City. You see queues of television reporters waiting to ask managers what
they think and the potential for controversy is increased.
The manager will go into a press conference or a player into the mixed zone
for an interview and the journalists are eager for some colourful quotes and
an honest assessment of what has happened.
The interviewee then momentarily disconnects his brain from his vocal cords,
offers the most one-sided perspective imaginable, and everyone starts
pointing and saying: “Can you believe he just said that?”
Pellegrini followed a recurring trend. At some point, all the managers do it,
protecting their club’s interests even if it means they sound foolish. You
convince yourself that, no matter the situation, there must be some reason
why you lost – beyond the obvious, that the other team was better.
I do not necessarily think managers, or players, should be criticised for
this. It is an inevitable consequence of being part of a close-knit dressing
room and creating a siege mentality. An atmosphere where players, the
manager and supporters believe it is them against the world has often been
shown to be successful.
Sir Alex Ferguson was famous for it. At Liverpool
under Gérard Houllier and Phil Thompson, even some of the players, would
remark how biased the management team were when defending players or poor
performances. Phil, in particular, would never accept any criticism. It was
quite funny, at times, but it simply reflected how deeply he cared. We have
all been there, even if some examples are more extreme than others. It is
just that managers are at the front of house, having to express in public
what many of us might have just said in private.
I would compare it to getting a call from your child’s school that says he or
she has been in a fight. Your immediate reaction is that it must be the
other child’s fault. You have a default position to be overprotective, even
if you are wrong.
There is a line that should not be crossed, particularly when questioning the
integrity of referees, and Pellegrini went too far. I suspect in 99 per cent
of such cases, what a manager thinks immediately after a match is vastly
different to what he would say 24 hours later. The authorities should take
this into consideration when launching their disciplinary investigations.
That said, I find it particularly unbearable when managers turn the headlines
on a referee, deflecting attention from their team’s shortcomings,
questionable tactics or contentious selections and reduce a game to one
incident or decision.
The Premier League has three of the best referees in the world in Mark
Clattenburg, Michael Oliver and Howard Webb. Writing that will enrage
supporters from clubs who believe these referees are biased against them,
but they are being as absurd as Pellegrini in his criticism of Sweden’s
Jonas Eriksson. Referees will make mistakes, as Webb did in the Arsenal v
Liverpool match last week, but it is preposterous to suggest these guys
favour one side over another.
Where it is dangerous is when we start judging managers on their media profile
– how they perform in these interviews – rather than their coaching
capabilities. I fear the increased exposure of the Premier League in recent
years has had this detrimental effect.
I am bemused when, as a result of an impressive interview or press conference,
pundits and supporters take a more favourable view of a manager. Give me a
manager who can organise a team and win trophies over one who is charming in
front of a camera, please. The most successful managers can get away with
talking nonsense on a weekly basis.
Over time, I have seen the most polite, studious and intelligent of coaches
gradually succumb to the paranoia, insecurity and cultish
side-effect of being engulfed in the culture of a football club. It takes hold
of you and transforms you. I gave absolutely everything for every team I
played for. When I was a Liverpool player it was all-consuming and took over
my life, every second of every day.
Such tribalism is part of what makes football as dramatic and entertaining as
it is, warts and all. When managers lambast referees – or even criticise
each other, as Jose Mourinho and Arsène Wenger did – they are not just
speaking on behalf of their club, they are more than likely playing to their
gallery of fans.
No matter how biased a manager may sound, his comments often echo the most
blinkered sections of his club’s support. We need only to go on Twitter
after every Premier League game to read the evidence.
Before we start mocking the bias of managers, we should admit when it comes to
defending our team to the point of looking silly, we are often all as guilty
as each other.
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