David Preece: Volatile world of management is only for the real mad men of football

Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger.
Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger.
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If you happen to follow me on Twitter (@davidpreece12) you’ll know I spent last Sunday evening at one of the many events arranged at the Manchester Football Writing Festival over the past fortnight.

The festival is a celebration of the best of those who write about our beloved game, creating a wonderful extension to the books they produce and a great way for the readers to interact beyond the end page.

If football is a drug, then management must be like crystal meth

Unfortunately, I couldn’t attend all the events I’d liked to, but I was lucky enough to be invited to the one which interested me the most, namely the one chaired by Michael Calvin, author of ‘Living On The Volcano: The Secrets of Surviving as a Football Manager’.

It’s a book which focuses on a wide spectrum of managers across the leagues and strips away the barrier of soundbites placed between them and the fans to give a real nuts and bolts break-down of what it’s really like to be the boss.

It was the event I most wanted to attend because rarely do I read books on football that give so much insight into the world of football that I’m not already aware of.

Not that I’m saying I don’t learn anything from other football books, but football can often be like a young schoolboy who guards his answers in an exam in fear of someone copying them, so it’s not very often you see people within the game being so open with journalists and writers to the degree most of Calvin’s subjects were, which is why it made the book all the more fascinating to me.

The reality is, if there’s one thing management and coaching teaches you, it’s actually how little you do know.

As a player you think you know it all. You try and take in much of what each of your bosses passes on to you, allowing you to form your own ideas on what kind of manager you may one day be, but what you see is probably five per cent of what a manager does.

Your main involvement as a player, the training part and the 90 minutes of a match, are the most enjoyable aspects for playing and coaching staff alike, but as Rochdale manager Keith Hill said when he was my boss at Barnsley, “You will never get anywhere near to knowing exactly what it’s like and how you would react in certain situations until you are sat on this side of the desk.” And he was right.

It’s amazing how the cocktail of pressure from fans, disgruntlement from the board room and poisonous influences from inside the dressing room can change a person as soon as their name is put on the manager’s office door.

You go into the job with a view of how you will shape the team and the club, yet conversely it’s quite often those outside forces that mould and shape you as you attempt to adjust to the job.

I’ve witnessed friends who were the nicest guys in the dressing room as players, possibly too nice, turn into paranoid monsters, unrecognizable from the men they were before.

Of course, the dynamic of their relationship with players has to change, as one of the guests and a subject of a chapter in the book, Shaun Derry, pointed out on his first day as manager of Notts County.

When one of the players whom he knew from his playing days referred to him as ‘Dezza’ and not ‘Boss’ or ‘Gaffer’, he came down hard on him so as to drawn up boundaries necessary to do his job.

Shaun went on to to relay how the pressures of the job built as the concoction of board room battles, financial restrictions and results on the pitch took their toll, until the day came when he was relieved of his duties by the Notts County hierarchy.

On his arrival home, he opened his front door, where his wife greeted him with a simple, and much censored for this piece, ‘Thank God for that!’.

Now, that might not have been the comforting response he was expecting, and more importantly perhaps needing, but having looked at himself in the mirror, only to see a man who had aged 10 years in the 16 months he’d been in charge at Meadow Lane staring back at him, he knew exactly what she meant.

Football management is an occupation so dicey you’d be safer taming lions using a feather duster and an antelope for a shield than taking responsibility for a football club’s squad of players.

With the pressures that come with the job, the insecurity, the extremely short shelf life and the all encompassing nature of the job, it makes you think why anyone would actually want to do it.

And the answer to that question is twofold; their undying love of the game and, well, what other choice do most footballers have after twenty-odd years kicking a ball around for a living?

If football is a drug, then management must be like crystal meth, where the euphoric highs disappear as quickly as they came and if the next hit of a win doesn’t come soon enough, the decline can feel like you’ve been thrown from the top of the the Empire State Building without anything to break your fall.

Since almost 50 per cent of football managers never make it to their second job, it seems football management is more of a gamble than it is a career choice.

It’s not just reputations and careers that can be lost on the roll of a ball either side of a four inch wide line, but in some cases sanity that’s lost is too.

There’s a saying that pressure produces diamonds, but it can also exaggerate any flaw in your personality to a point where you don’t recognize yourself.

Demenours shift as microphones are shoved in front of their faces and merely by standing outside a dugout is enough for blood pressures to rise and vitriol to be spewed in all directions, towards officials, players and eventually, often in the final throws of their battle to keep their job, towards the fans too.

As I’ve discussed here previously, breaking points come in different forms, and run-ins with home support are another and it takes great mental strength to hold it together in such situations, of which very few do throughout their careers.

They say all goalkeepers are mad, or at least must be to want to be one, but after witnessing the other side, it’s the manager’s that should have their mental health question.

When we imagine a football manager we might picture him like Arsene Wenger, bedecked with his famous knee-length bench coat, when perhaps a straitjacket would be a more appropriate attire for the real mad men of football.