Culture Clash for Big Sam

During the last year, I’ve discovered the pleasure of podcasts. Podcasts are great. For the uninitiated, they are like radio, except you choose the content you want to listen to. It’s one of my simple pleasures in life, sourcing a podcast on a topic and then spending an hour or two listening to an informed discussion. In recent times, I’ve listened to several podcasts on diverse subjects, from music to current affairs and a host of other things in between. In terms of sport, there are some terrific podcasts available.

My personal favourite is Off The Ball from Newstalk. Every week, Joe Molloy and the team provide informed and entertaining discussion from the Irish sports world. All major sports are covered, with the station providing extensive analysis on the hot topics of the day. The journalism is, in itself, excellent, and the team always provides pundits of the highest quality. It’s worth tuning in to listen to Joe Brolly or Paul Kimmage alone-both are Off The Ball regulars. The predominant subject being discussed last week was of course Sam Allardyce’s ignominious departure from the England post after only one game in charge. As usual, Off The Ball was my first port of call when looking for perceptive analysis. The Allardyce debate made for interesting listening, to say the least.

For those who don’t know, England’s manager left his post last week following an investigation by the Daily Telegraph into alleged corruption in English football. Part of their expose featured  clandestine footage of Allardyce negotiating a speaking engagement with businessmen that supposedly had interests in the Far East but who were, in fact, undercover Telegraph reporters. The rush to judgement on Big Sam was predictably speedy, with the prevailing consensus holding that his position had become untenable once the Telegraph footage came to light. The common view was that such enterprises were inconsistent with Allardyce’s exalted position and were fundamentally unbecoming of an England manager. To make matters worse, the former West Ham boss apparently discussed potential circumvention of FA rules on the contentious matter of third party ownership. The media verdict on Allardyce was both harsh and immediate. Many condemned England’s manager as foolish, while greedy was the adjective that featured most often in commentaries.

Whether you view the Allardyce sting as entrapment or a fine piece of investigative journalism, it’s hard not to have an opinion on his dramatic fall from grace. While the Telegraph has undoubtedly done us a service in publicising discussions those involved would have preferred to stay hidden, I think these events tell us much more about the changing nature of football than they do about any individual. Far be it from me to defend Allardyce, but some aspects of the media narrative don’t really add up. Firstly, in relation to greed, is it possible to condemn anyone as greedy in a world where market forces dominate and superstar players regularly earn in excess of £200,000 a week? When the underlying climate is intrinsically avaricious, how can anyone in football condemn Allardyce without leaving themselves open to hypocrisy? Moreover, as far as misdemeanours go, using your position to negotiate some keynote speaking isn’t exactly the worst practice ever committed in football.

I think most analysts have got this story wrong. In my view, Allardyce’s fall has little to do with greed and nothing whatsoever to do with corruption. Instead, Allardyce’s demise is about culture. Sam Allardyce didn’t change. Football did. Big Sam has long been perceived as the archetypal old-school manager; a traditional British boss with an instinctive feel for the conventions of the English game. Ironically, Allardyce’s lack of modernity was probably one of the reasons he was so attractive to his FA employers. After the cosmopolitan sophistication of Sven Goran-Eriksson and Fabio Capello and the eccentricity of Steve McLaren and Roy Hodgson, here was a man who embodied the most desirable traits of the good, old-fashioned British football manager. Someone grounded by modesty and grit, yet still possessing a sharp football brain and a humble intellect. For years, these were the sort of managers that prospered in English football.

However, the world of football has changed beyond all recognition in the last 20 years. Old-school managers like Allardyce have been steadily replaced by a new breed of boss. These new kids on the block exude sophistication and finesse; they have little concern for outdated and antediluvian attitudes. It’s easy to think of the prototype of the modern manager: young, brash, confident and cultured. Usually a former player. Whereas once guys like Big Sam were ubiquitous in English football, that style of manager is gradually becoming extinct, replaced by the Mourinhos, Guardiolas and Pochettinos of this world. It’s hard not to feel for the old-school manager. Football is abandoning them one by one. And as they fall, the modus operandi of the traditional boss slowly disappears. Allardyce has done nothing wrong, but still finds himself obsolete.

I don’t know everything that the Telegraph has uncovered, but I’d be very surprised if corruption was endemic in English football. Modern managers simply have way too much to lose to think in terms of “bungs.” Granted, power and money corrupt. And absolute power corrupts absolutely, as Lord Acton famously observed. But why would managers and players risk their livelihoods in this crass fashion when it’s so easy to enrich yourself quite legitimately in the modern game? It just doesn’t add up. Where vast riches exist in any walk of life, there’s always the potential for corruption. However, it’s hard to believe that such practices are institutionalised in modern football. And whatever rump of malpractice that still exists will eventually be washed away by the vast corporate machine that is the Premier League. As for Big Sam, don’t be too hard on him. Allardyce has certainly been naive and, by his own admission, a little foolish. And yes, he’s probably been a tad greedy. But no crime has been committed.  It must be hard when the world you’ve known changes before your very eyes. That’s the thing about culture. If you don’t change with it, it will leave you behind for good.

Twitter: @RoryMcGimpsey




Can The Stick Exist Alongside The Carrot?

Should a manager or sports coach ever criticise his/her players in public? This rhetorical question comes to mind on the back of comments made by United boss Jose Mourinho in the last couple of weeks. Mourinho was quite outspoken about certain players in the aftermath of recent defeats and the Portuguese manager’s attitude has sparked a debate over what is and isn’t appropriate for someone in his position. Further to my last blog, the Red Devils predictably bounced back (what a cringe-worthy and cliched phrase!) from their early season slump with an emphatic victory over last season’s champions Leicester City. The United boss was completely vindicated in his selections and tactics as the Old Trafford men slayed the Foxes with overwhelming ease. Were Mourinho’s previous statements justified on this basis? Certainly, whatever the United boss said to his players, it seemed to work a treat.

The answer depends on your perspective and level of tolerance. Conventional football wisdom decrees that you never criticise your players in public. According to this logic, the environs of the dressing room are sacrosanct and any harsh words uttered behind closed doors should remain eternally private. For example, Alex Ferguson had a strict policy of omerta in relation to his players and obsessively refrained from critiquing them in the public arena. Assuming that the former United boss was much more direct behind closed doors, overt public criticism was nevertheless a territory he never ventured into. However, his current successor is cut from a different cloth. Mourinho is notoriously bold, brash and outspoken. United’s manager has no qualms about speaking his mind and seems unconcerned whose feathers get ruffled in the process. While Mourinho would probably contest that he’s overtly, publicly critical of his players, there’s little doubt that the former Chelsea coach is more forthright in his views than many of his managerial peers and predecessors. So, which approach is correct?

It’s easy to maintain the traditional view that players should never be criticised in public. After all, it’s only logical that players respond better to praise than opprobrium. However, I think that public censure can sometimes be justified if it provokes and inspires the right response. It’s a rather counter-intuitive argument to make, but some individuals respond well to honest, forthright critique. As a motivational tool, constructive criticism can be extremely effective. Apart from anything else, it can induce a desire to prove the manger or coach wrong. Similarly, many players respond best to honest and accurate appraisals of their performance. While well-meaning platitudes are well and good, nothing beats an honest and candid assessment of players’ performance aspects that can be improved. It’s always helpful to have essential evaluation measured in a quantifiable way. The key word here is “constructive.”

I believe firmly that individuals are always motivated by praise and encouragement above anything else. This is true in any walk of life. Sport, business, the arts: you name it. I was never much of a rugby player, but I played a little in school and college. I was very enthusiastic, but lacked the coordination and skill to be much of a player. I remember one of my coaches being particularly harsh on some of us. This man had little inclination to encourage or spare any feelings in respect of our efforts. His philosophy was very much one of tough love. And this was supposed to be a fun experience?! Yes, a good (metaphorical) kick up the arse is needed sometimes, but surely there has to be a combination of carrot and stick employed? My abiding memory of this coach’s approach is how utterly self-defeating it was. Regardless of what he thought of our abilities, surely he realised that he would have got more out of us by praising every once in a while? To be fair, this approach wasn’t particularly uncommon. It’s how things were done in those days. A sort of faux drill sergeant mentality.  In my experience, it never worked very well. Professional sport is a much different world to social rugby of course, but the basic principle is the same. How best to motivate an individual? How tough should a coach be?

Sometimes unfiltered honesty is the best policy. Whatever one thinks of Mourinho’s exhortations, they seem to have worked pretty well. Moreover, the United manager’s record confirms that his methods usually succeed. When dealing with elite footballers, the last thing you want is a bunch of precious prima donnas who regard any sort of criticism as a form of personal judgement. After all, we’re talking about multi-millionaire superstars here. Surely, the least we can expect of them is an ability to withstand a little honest critique? The key is balance, in my view. Although it can be beneficial to put the cat among the pigeons sometimes, coaches must be careful not to erode the unity and purpose that underscores any team. Modern players are much more delicate flowers than their forerunners. It’s a fine line to tread. Jose Mourinho is infinitely more qualified to make these judgements than I am and I’m sure he’ll get the balance right.  Constructive criticism certainly has its place, but there’s no substitute for sincere encouragement. In sport, history tells us the best results are achieved by a careful juxtaposition of carrot and stick.