heroes and villains


The Daily Chloroform’s sports pages blazed the news all Spurs fans awaited: 

"Sid Molehusband new Tottenham boss." 

Beneath the gaudy headline the rag informed its readership how the new man had been put in place by a Tottenham board after intense debate and lengthy deliberation. Further reading revealed Molehusband’s credentials: journey man player with a number of hapless pub teams (Bakers Arms beer bellies; Royal Oak head bangers) … undistinguished managerial career in minor London leagues: Balls Pond Road Rangers (twice relegated); Dalston Junction United (went into liquidation); Clapham Common Wanderers (disbanded)… Asked how he knew of the glamorous Tottenham vacancy, Molehusband replied, “I saw it advertised at our local Job Centre, so I thought, ‘that’s right up my street, I’ll go for it’”.  At the press conference to unveil the new manager, Daniel Levy could hardly contain his enthusiasm when he said, “At last we’ve got the right man. Sid is definitely the guy to take us back to the top”…

   This surreal introduction may appear a bit far fetched and even insensitive under the current circumstances, but I think it illustrates the thinking, or rather speculation, surrounding the appointment of the next Spurs manager. While Mr. Molehusband is a satirical invention there are some real life candidates presently being mentioned apropos the spurs job who display, at least to the author, the same level of unsuitability.  

Among these is Alan Curbishley.  Why ? Well, let’s look at a few simple facts: (a) his team has never won a trophy: (b) his record of 240 wins and 219 loses with 163 draws is distinctly below average when discussing the achievements of a great manager. I use the word great deliberately because, make no mistake, a great manager is what Tottenham need now more than ever. In percentage terms of matches played (622) Curbishley’s victories amount to a mere 38.5 %. To put this statistic into perspective Gerry Francis’s tenure as spurs boss produced (apart from some appalling performances) a 39% success ratio (Pl 142 W 55 L45 D42). The similarity between the two men goes further in that Curbishley, like Francis in the eighties, is feted as an up and coming managerial talent.       

   Statistics, however, are no crystal ball and the most persuasive argument against them to support a case is that they show only what happened in the past and not what will happen in the future. Curbishley proponents can point to the dynamic aspects of his thirteen years reign, the team’s relatively attractive playing style and their now secure place in the premiership (?) after years of struggle as examples of his ability. All quite true. And once installed as Tottenham manager with a patient and supportive boardroom behind him he might do a first class job.

   However, I doubt it. Managing Spurs is a world away from the quiet of the Valley. The expectation level, whether realistic or unrealistic, is massive given the club’s illustrious history, even more so now that the Arsenal are doing so well. The media attention is acute especially when the team struggle, ask Gerry Francis or Glen Hoddle.

Toward the end of his term Francis cut a pathetic figure before the gaze of the TV cameras, his head bowed, mumbling platitudes into a microphone. He clearly buckled under the weight of media scrutiny and supporter discontent. By contrast, Curbishley appears relaxed when interviewed before the TV cameras as Charlton Manager even when his team is doing badly. The absence of supporter expectation and the board’s obvious backing of their man provide Curbishley with the self confidence he needs to hand any media inquisition. In short, Curbishley is in his comfort zone and displays no indication of leaving.  Then there’s the thorny issue of transfer acquisitions, the undoing of many recent Spurs managers not least of which is Hoddle himself. An incoming appointee would need to boast a proven track record in this department.

   There’s no getting away from the fact that if the club want to attract top quality players a manager of genuine statue must be in place and he must be a man who commands respect in terms of achievement, tactical insight, fair mindedness and player evaluation. I think it’s fair to say that what Spurs need is not just a very capable manager, but also a man with a sense of mission. Someone who can create a dynasty at the club very much in the way Bill Shankly did at Liverpool .

   The patterns of a club’s achievement are fascinating and the process is undoubtedly cyclical. The Liverpool torch passed to Bob Paisley, Joe Fagan and Kenny Dalglish before the ascendancy of Manchester United eclipsed its glow, a glorious 32 year epoch which began in 1959 with Shankly’s appointment. During this period, Liverpool played 1,662 games, winning a staggering 923; losing 330; and drawing 419, an overall success rate of 55%. Dalglish emerges as the most successful of the quartet with a success ratio of 60.5%, followed by Paisley 56%, Fagan 53% and Shankly 52.25%. Again, to place this data in some sort of perspective, Bill Nicholson achieved 47.75% in his 16 years as Spurs manager and Alex Ferguson is currently 56.5% and Arsene Wenger 58% (percentages are expressed as the number of games won from a given total). Venables and Burkinshaw come well down the list with 41% and 40.5% respectively. Incidentally, the latter figures mirror almost exactly Souness’s  record at Liverpool and Blackburn .

   Someone once said that you can make statistics prove anything and there’s more than a grain of truth in this statement. However, statistics do provide some objective evidence of the caliber of man required for the Spurs’ job as well as illustrating how previous incumbents fell short of these historic bench marks. To labour the point: the Tottenham board should not consider any candidate whose previous teams do not demonstrate at least a 52% win ratio throughout several seasons.

   So where does all this leave Curbishley in the scheme of things. Well, though he is clearly a good manager capable of getting the best from meager resources he is not the man of destiny that Tottenham need. The Spurs hot seat has already seen too much ineptitude to dalliance with another little man promoted beyond his abilities.

    Another face in candidates’ gallery (along with Uncle Tom Cobbley and all) is that of Martin O’Neill. While the Irishman’s record at Park head is impressive, Pl 216 W169 L27 D20, a success ratio of 78%, this success is deceptive in that Celtic is one of two clubs which have traditionally dominated Scottish football. I’m sure that the club would have done as well with Madonna as head honcho (certainly the half time team talks would be livelier, not to mention the after match baths). While Curbishley’s pre-Charlton experience is non existent, O’Neill’s pre-Celtic managerial credentials lack conviction. Have we forgotten that he managed a very average Leicester side for five years before landing a plum job at the old firm. And in case you don’t know it, his record at the midland’s club is far from exceptional: Pl 223 W85 L70 D68, a success rate of 38%, hardly comparable with others mentioned in this article. O’Neill, like Keegan, is a tub thumper, a lively show man who wears his emotions on his sleeve, a managerial Dinosaur from the primeval wasteland of the old first division. A future Tottenham figure head? I don’t think so.

   Many people have criticized Daniel Levy and Co for delaying the appointment of a new manager. But it seems to me that the question of finding the right guy is so critical that the matter requires Einstein-like inquiry. If the process takes months then so be it. Levy is doing the right thing in consulting with knowledgeable people within the game in an attempt to find Mr. Right. Perhaps, and I hope this is the case, he realizes that Tottenham cannot afford to get it wrong again. I for one seriously doubt that the club can withstand another managerial cock-up in what has been a long series of fiascos. In the past the people responsible for these appointments have relied far too much on hunch, wishful thinking and half-baked football intuition rather than cold, hard, sober analysis of the candidates CV’s and their qualities as men.

   The board paid the price last time when appointing Hoddle, a manager who appeared to favour individuals on the basis of their personality rather than their playing skill. You cannot run a professional football club as if a popularity contest. The best player is often the most effective even though he may be the most loathsome drone this side of the Seven Sisters Road . Hoddle failed because he became too subjective, lacking the intellectual vitality necessary for objective thinking.

   Who ever succeeds David Pleat, and at the time of writing this is still unclear, he will need the deportment of an emperor and the mental clarity of a spiritual leader. The error we have all made, board members and fans alike, is allowing ourselves to be taken in by the facile success of those who seek career preferment and mistaking the clamour of the sports pages for a critique of a candidate’s track record. So let’s have no more former players hailed as returning messiahs, Ardiles, Perryman and Hoddle were, and let’s not mince words here, unmitigated failures. Thankfully, I cannot think of any recent Spurs player who might lay claim to the job— please, Mr. Levy, no surprises! Take all the time you need. But, for Christ’s sake, make a decision based on reason and not one influenced by some crusade to install a former playing favourite; or some “people’s champion” who talks a good game.

   Amid all the gossip and speculation in the newspapers one man stands out as a genuine prospect: Giovanni Trapattoni. I can already hear groans of disapproval as you recall the last time Johnny Foreigner took a crack at the job.

But wait a moment; Trap’s is no Christian Gross, no obscure freemason with the tactical nous of Forest Gump.

This guy’s the real McCoy. A winner as both player and coach. In his 14- year playing career with AC Milan Trapattoni won two Serie A Championships, two European cups, a Cup Winners Cup and represented Italy 17 times.

The man from Lombardy did not get off to an auspicious start when he returned to AC to begin his coaching career.

It wasn’t until he took up the reigns at Juventus that things really started to happen, winning six scudettos, two UEFA Cups and a European cup throughout the seventies and eighties. Moving on to Inter Milan, Trapattoni notched up more success by winning the Serie A championship and UEFA cup in 1989 and 1991 respectively. Trapattoni also has the advantage of working outside of his native country, having two spells at Bayern Munich, the first being the most successful when  his team captured the Bundesliga in 1997. His stay at Fiorentina saw the club make the Champions League before Traps took charge of the national team.

   The Italian’s approach may give rise to concern among die hard Spurs fans as he is closely associated with the much maligned, and it has to be said much misunderstood, catenaccio style. His teams are rather like the man himself: gritty, determined and rock-ribbed (sounds a bit like the old Arsenal). Like nearly all Italian coaches he favours a solid 3-man back-line with a rugged midfield in front, often featuring a sweeper. However, it would be wrong to see him as a kind of Italian George Graham, as his teams often play with 3 forwards. Not only has he achieved considerable success, Trapattoni has worked with some of the world’s greatest players and as a result he is clearly not fazed by dressing room malcontents. What is more, he has vast experience of dealing with the Italian media, a heroic task in itself and a facet that will put him in good stead once in the Devil’s kitchen heat of the Tottenham job.

    The appointment of a foreign coach is not without risks, however. Apart from all the cultural adjustments Trapattoni would be required to make there’s the major question of language, of being able to learn English and speak it well enough to motivate players and get tactical points across, an aspect that dogged his second spell at Bayern as he was unable to fully master the German tongue. There’s also his age, at 65 he’s no spring chicken. Still, on balance I think this is a gamble worth taking. British football is now sufficiently Europeanized to suggest that the communication issue is no longer the barrier it was once. The fact that Ranieri, Wenger and Eriksson ply their trade here successfully indicates that it can be done by anyone who cares to meet the challenge. And history shows us that Trapattoni loves a challenge.

   British football is on the verge of a brave new world, and by definition that includes Tottenham Hotspur. It is not too fanciful to say that within a few seasons we will see the creation of a European super league (why do you think Arsenal are moving to a new stadium!). Let’s face it we’re half way there already with the advent of the Champions League. The best two or three teams in each European domestic league will be hived off to compete against each other in a rarefied elitist environment—no doubt to the huge financial advantage of the television companies, but this is another story. In order to be part of this new order Spurs have to catch up with the likes of Manchester United, Arsenal and Chelsea. This can be done. But it can only be done by leadership and commitment from the top, something which has been depressingly missing for the last fifteen years. ENIC find themselves in control of Tottenham at the most critical juncture in the club’s history. Their decision concerning the next manager and the financial investment and backing he receives will make or break the club. Sound boardroom decisions backed by self confident daring in term of player investment will give Spurs a shot at any future super league. Fail and the club will find itself isolated in a football leper colony, doomed to die a slow death among the Bolton ’s and Blackburn ’s in a nether world of mediocrity.

    I for one refuse to accept that we have sunk so low as to consider the likes of Curbishley, O’Neill, Souness and God knows who else to over see the club’s direction. The new man must be cosmopolitan, urbane, knowledgeable and above all, be a “winner”. Those responsible for making the impending appointment need to go away and acquaint themselves of the club’s history, its association with panache and élan. The club desperately needs to reinvent itself and those in control need to break out of their comfort zone and start thinking big. It seems to me that the atmosphere surrounding Tottenham has become timid through lack of success. It’s time to end the years of under achievement. This means capturing a manager of proven pedigree and recognized statue; and providing him with the financial muscle to buy players of proven ability demonstrated at the highest levels. Nothing short of these measures will rescue the club from the doldrums in which it now finds itself.

   I repeat. Take all the time you need Mr. Levy. You dare not fail. Bear only this in mind: The man you want will be of “spirited bearing, good natured and free as Robin Hood; yet with the port of an emperor – if need be, calm, serious, and fit to stand the gaze of millions.”

Rod Saines

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