What is Stuart McCall? A genius for leading Motherwell to second place in the league seven months ago, or a clown for being turned over by little Albion Rovers a week past Saturday?
At the risk of stating the obvious, football management must be the most erratic and insecure business in the land. A few bad results and all the good things you’ve done in the game are suddenly forgotten by the critics. It must be massively frustrating, not to mention infuriating, for any manager to have his decisions ridiculed and his suitability questioned by people whose only experience of football management extends to playing Football Manager on the computer.
Any managerial appraisal should factor in the often-overlooked fact that every boss or coach has earned the right to work in the profession by virtue of attaining his badges. Most have a background in football, usually from having played, which automatically gives them a better understanding of the game than most of those who haven’t.
An example of managers who have a football background knowing better than those who haven’t is when it comes to judging the value of certain players. Fans often rave about the tricky winger who produces a few pieces of magic, while ridiculing the defensive midfielder they only notice when he gives the ball away. Managers will see the opposite.
They will notice when the winger doesn’t track back or fails to beat the first man with his cross after rousing the fans with that said piece of magic. They will also notice that the midfielder who passed straight to the opposition a couple of times is also the guy who worked the hardest, made the most successful passes and was, in general, far more important to the team than the wishy-washy winger.
Everyone has an opinion about who they think are good managers and who they perceive as duds, but a view of the overall picture would suggest that all managers are of a similar competence and that football generally boils down to who has the better, most balanced group of players at his disposal.
No manager has a completely perfect record throughout his career, which proves that it is far from an exact science. Managerial greats like Sir Alex Ferguson and Arsene Wenger have generally been working with top-level players and benefited from being given time in periods of difficulty. Both could easily have been sacked at various junctures.
Of all the managers currently in charge of top-flight teams in Scotland and England, pretty much every one has had good times in the game as well as bad times. This doesn’t mean that they are sometimes a good manager and sometimes a bad one. Chances are they probably go about their business in a similar manner all the time.
So how can Alex McLeish be perceived as a national hero for his work with Scotland yet derided as one of the worst Aston Villa managers ever? Fabio Capello is a managerial legend, yet widely criticised for his England tenure.
What is George Burley? He was a roaring success at Ipswich and Hearts, then deemed a flop in charge of Scotland.
Valdas Ivanauskas is one of Hearts’ most successful managers of the last 30 years. Is he really one of the best they have had in that time, though?
The reality is probably that the Lithuanian was the manager at Tynecastle when they had their best team of the last 20 years, just as Gary Locke, by contrast, is currently struggling for results with the worst Hearts team of the modern era at his disposal. It is surely not unreasonable to suggest that Locke would also be capable of finishing second in the league and winning the Scottish Cup if he were fortunate enough to be in charge of the 2005-06 vintage of Gordon, Pressley, Hartley, Skacel and Co.
Across the city, Hibs have generally been mediocre with various average groups of players operating under a wide range of highly-regarded managers. The only Easter Road bosses of the last 20 years to really buck the trend were McLeish and Tony Mowbray. It’s surely no coincidence that those two were able to sign or inherit the best groups of Hibs players in recent times.
Maybe I’m too soft, but I genuinely can’t think of many “bad” managers in football. However, for all that they deserve endless respect for their meticulous efforts to gain an edge, it is hard to escape the feeling that, by and large, football boils down to who has the better players and whether or not they turn up on any given day.
The savage criticism and ridicule to which hard-working and highly-competent operators are routinely subjected in a game of such quirks and fine margins remains a scandal of modern-day football.