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The ‘sack race’ and the “talkosphere”

January 6, 2011

WE’RE nearly a whole week into January, and the season is reverting to type: message boards and forums argue over the next sacking like potato farmers with a surprise bumper crop on their hands. In the German state of Hesse.

The New Year period remains an overdose of football, despite the weather’s best efforts. But football journalism seems to use it as an excuse to indulge in the partisanship – nearly paganism – of football fans themselves. The sole issue seems to be which manager will be removed next, the pet conversation of fanatics (even at Arsenal and Man City it has its adherents) that sets the agenda for the spring, just as foreign owners and their spending defines the summer.

Symptomatic of this is the hand-wringing of Paul Hayward in The Guardian over the treatment of Hodgson, Ancelotti, Grant and Houllier. Their “decent reputations”, as he calls them, are being eroded by a combination of “modern fan-power” and collective failure on the part of their players. It might seem that Hayward has nobly forsaken the journalistic trait of manager-baiting for a moment, but that would be too simple. In fact, he has given vent to the most sack-happy elements of support, and wrapped it up as compassion.

Writing “[Grant, Hodgson, Ancelotti and Houllier] had seen their team beaten and went to bed knowing they would be abused in the great new media talkosphere” is disingenuous at best. The modern journalist here has apparently forgotten that regular punters go to matches, and created what turned into his “talkosphere”. Journalistic rigour seems to go, if not out of the window, then at least to the ledge, ready to be pushed by a militant, non-specific fandom.

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On the one hand, blaming of the playing staff comes as welcome relief from bandying about names in ‘the sack race’. In the cases of West Ham, Chelsea, Liverpool and Villa, it could at least be argued that firing the manager is akin to shooting a losing jockey.

WAF is not one for politicising football that much, but Hayward’s conscience about the crisis might have been better served.  If he’s going to lump together the managers of the teams placed fifth, twelfth, eighteenth and bottom in the league, then why not at least note that to some degree all these teams are in the middle of a financial repositioning?

It’s very well developing a view of ‘them and us’ when it comes to Premier League finances, usually with ‘them’ being funded by foreign oil. Even Arsene Wenger (secure resident of the Emirates stadium) indulged himself in it this week.  But the ‘sack race’ of 2011 demands to be viewed with a certain amount of rationality mixed with respect, rather than poorly thought-out sentiment for totemic managers.

Look at the forces exerted on the crisis clubs.

Chelsea, languishing in fifth, seem to have been eclipsed in status and wealth by Man City. There has undoubtedly been a change in Abramovich’s policy, from the free-spending of the Ranieri/Mourinho era to Ancelotti’s tiny squad. Hayward’s blaming the players is very well, and an argument that is not made often enough. But what if there just aren’t enough proven, senior players to fulfil the tasks set?

Hayward trots out the Berlusconi-Abramovich comparison again, suggesting that Chelsea’s squad are hiding poor performances behind the meddling of the chairman. This conveniently ignores that the reputation Ancelotti made for himself at Milan came despite a hell of a lot more dictation from above. The role of the board is crucial at any club, as it has final say over any staff turnover at all. The constant linking of Abramovich and Berlusconi only serves to reinforce the parochial view of these islands – that we know how to manage our players, and run our clubs, and anyone deviating from a rough approximation of Herbert Chapman’s monomania risks ruining football with unnecessary decoration.

Liverpool and Villa have been linked in the popular imagination because of another quirk of ownership – that they both have American proprietors. Both, though, are in the process of severely trimming expenditure on players and investment in all areas, a factor that led to the tumultuous final seasons of Martin O’Neill and Rafa Benitez. If Abramovich is cutting off Ancelotti at the knees, then why not recognise the same restrictions placed on Hodgson and Houllier? And why not acknowledge the Sullivan and Gold effect at Upton Park, which has demeaned and undermined first Zola and now Grant more hurtfully than most terrace chants?

Why not consider the financial imperatives that remain at Chelsea, Liverpool and West Ham as they are all three seeking new stadia? This kind of multi-issue thinking is available to everyone: why limit the scope of the game to drum up yet more off-field ‘drama’?

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