Last Monday night, Gary Neville applied polish to his punditry crown with a forensic, split-screen dissection of Jon Walters’s set-piece goal at Upton Park – an epic sequence of crafty nudges, darts, blocks and shoves that knocked over enough claret dominos to make way for a tidy finish from Gio Trapattoni’s battering ram du jour.
It was the sort of coordinated mayhem that might have graced a playbook from a form of football in which its choreographer’s headwear and enthusiasm for collisions would be better appreciated. But the Neviller made no attempt to conceal his admiration for Tony Pulis’s monstrous creation.
‘I loved it,’ he gushed at half-time, wistfully imagining Tony’s wrestling troupe “standing on a windswept, six degrees pitch on a Friday morning for an hour while 15 of the squad sit on the sidelines.”
“The preparation that will have gone into that perfect moment.”
Two things sprung to mind, then later in the week another.
First, credit. As punditry goes, it made more educational viewing than the typical take on these matters from the BBC’s suite of Alans, which would, ordinarily, amount to hearing that Walters had connected ‘ever so well’ with Glenn Whelan’s corner before the eventual conclusion that ‘it’s gone in.’
Then, churlishness. Might Tony and his thinking cap need to conceive a rather less time-consuming means of crafting perfect moments, or even any old goals – perhaps involving his players passing to one another – if he is to prevent Norwich and QPR overtaking his side at the foot of the Premier League scoring charts?
But eventually, as the ensuing days made their mischief, Neville’s tribute began to feel something like a last stand for the fast-dissolving cult of the football manager.
A dewy-eyed paean to different times, when strong men had time to spare.
More than his tactics make Pulis feel like a throwback. In his job six years – just Moyes, Wenger and Ferguson, of his counterparts, have extended their legs further under a table – he appears, almost uniquely, to be ringmaster of all he surveys at his football club.
As Wenger observed of his oldest foe this week: “The print of everything, the life of everything, revolves around Ferguson so much at Manchester United.” You could almost say the same of Pulis, for better or worse. In most places, however, the only thing that revolves around a manager is the door.
It seems a long time ago now that we heard these words from Bill Shankly: “At a football club, there’s a holy trinity – the players, the manager and the supporters. Directors don’t come into it. They are only there to sign the cheques.”
Chiefly, that’s because it was a long time ago, but much has changed since first fans, latterly gaffers have been nudged out of that triad by the money men. As soon as money began to bloat the game like an irritable bowel, it was always a long shot that the football men would retain control of all its vital organs.
Sure enough, football began to discredit its manager class, first by doling them out hideous, plastic, padded jackets. By the time gaffers had twigged that ruse and put back on proper coats, the rise of the Stagedoor Johnnies – as Eamon Dunphy called Roman Abramovich on Wednesday evening – had fatally undermined their standing.
Nobody knows better how short time is than a man who still looks over his shoulder for a literal bullet, so Abramovich has been at the forefront of the modern rise of the project manager.
Giving men tasks rather than jobs.
Roberto Di Matteo’s task was to placate Lamps and JT and whichever of the other showgirls Johnny was waiting for at the hall door. Oh, and win a Champions League. Rafa’s task is to win it, or win something, without playing like Celtic.
This new way is certainly not the old way, but then, who is to say it’s the wrong way?
If only Wenger matched Fergusonfor seven years using old norms, just Abramovich, over the next seven, has kept pace. Maybe Arsenal could have used a project manager or two during that time to share the load. After all, Arsene doesn’t appear to have had much time to work on set pieces.
One day soon, with the life of most things at a club taken out of his hands, that might be all the project manager has to work on. His time may be short, but in a sense, he will have all the time in the world.
Rafa Benitez was once a man who would have considered only jobs rather than projects.
When he had embellished one tremendous job of work with a second La Liga title for Valencia, he immediately threw himself into a new one. While he spent the summer of 2004 analysing Liverpool’s squad and identifying potential signings, his wife put together for him a potted history of the club and the place. So Rafa listened to the Beatles, he worked on the language and making sense of the accent, and he read about the city’s descent from a thriving port to a gloomy employment wasteland.
Complete immersion for Rafa manifested himself in two ways. There was the touchline control-freakery that meant he often attempted to push and pull his players through 90 minutes, cajoling them into the precise positions he had envisioned with abundant frenetic mimes.
And there were the endless feuds with the club’s hierarchy that wrecked his head and found him the door.
Having to spend close on two years working on your website tends to make a man less choosy, so now Rafa, understandably, is available for project work.
And while it mightn’t be the making of him, it might of this Chelsea side, if the fans let him do his work.
Of course, like most people, he won’t care a jot for Chelsea. He will know exactly the terms of this engagement, so without any need to worry his head about the big picture, he can focus on what he does best; the smaller ones.
Criticism that his Liverpool teams were negative was always unfair. But they were certainly structured and tactically aware. Now, having assembled a potent attack – with possibly Falcao to come – perhaps all Chelsea need is a little pushing and pulling in the right places. Rafa, if he can clear his mind, should send all the right signals.
This article was first published in the Irish Examiner