Thursday, 9 April 2015

Sticks and Stones

It seems to be one of "the" unwritten rules in football; a manager should never publicly criticise his players. When they do, they often attract criticism themselves, from fans and media commentators alike. Much of the media condemnation comes from ex-players, often reflecting on their experience and how they would feel.

Just taking the last couple of seasons, Tim Sherwood has attracted condemnation from Michael Owen for the then Spurs manager’s criticism of his side and Peter Schmeichel suggested that Roberto Mancini’s constant disparagement of his Manchester City players contributed to their slump in form. 

Rarely, do you see managers doing it. Therefore when it happens it is bound to grab attention and make you wonder. Why that player? Why this particular game or moment? What is driving the decision to go public with the comments?

Very few top managers do it and Sir Alex Ferguson was clear about why he didn't berate his players in the press.

"My job is not to criticise my players publicly. When a manager makes a public criticism, he is affecting the emotional stability of a player and that cannot be the professional thing to do."

That is why, as a tool of man-management, public criticism of your own employees tends to be viewed so negatively, not just in football but any industry. Everyone prefers to be spoken about favourably, or at least criticised in private. I have never used that tactic and can’t imagine when I would.

Back to football, Jose Mourinho has a slightly different approach, based on how view the maturity of the players and their working relationships.

"It is part of my job, to try and find the best strategy to get the best out of my players. I love to praise my players publicly. I don’t love to criticise them. But sometimes, either by strategy or by frustration, I’ve done it.

I think the most important thing is the personal relationship. When you have a personal relationship, you can accept the criticism and are open to it. You know your friend, your coach, your father or your wife criticises you it’s for your own good. That’s the basis of our relationship. I have a fantastic group of guys and a great relationship with them."

“It reminds me of my first team at Chelsea, the same kind of relationship I had with that fantastic group of guys. I feel completely open with them. If they feel they have to do the same with me, I don’t have a problem.”

Closer to home, Nigel Clough has come in for criticism this season for his handling of Marc McNulty. Match winning and goal-scoring performances have seen the player return to the bench for the next game. Attempts to cajole praise for McNulty from the manager in post -match interviews, instead provokes lists of problems, things the striker has still to learn and could do better. Yes he scored, but……….

To some fans it feels like Clough is nit-picking. To others it adds to a perception that the manager likes to be contrary and go against the flow. Or, in a more positive light, that he is just being his own man - a manager in the mould of his father - willing to stand by his decisions however much others see it differently.

The truth probably lies somewhere in the mix. McNulty does have a lot to learn; both in terms of positioning and all round game play. At the same time, in a side struggling for goals, fans wanted to see some positive threat on the pitch, something that McNulty seemingly provided.

The manager has pointed out in interviews that this is part of how he handles McNulty, focusing on how the player responds to this criticism. This has in itself generated concern amongst fans. They view it as a risky strategy, one that only seems to raise the hackles of the striker's father on social media and doesn't seem to be to the overall of benefit of the club. Subsequently, the criticism has spread to other members of the team, as players were named as to blame for recent defeats. This blame game, with little self-flagellation from the manager seemed to raise ire further.

Bizarrely, public criticism is frowned upon by any fans, yet many of these very same fans are the ones who want and demand honesty from their manager. If the view from the terraces is that tactically the manager got it wrong, or a player underperformed they want it acknowledged, they want to see some form of action taken.

Yet we all see the game differently, within that view and opinion there will be some common ground, but everyone is looking at the game in different ways. At half time versus Scunthorpe, I was criticised by some for being too negative, given we were winning 2-0. Yet, if it hadn't been for Jose Baxter's penalty we would have been going in at half time 1-0 up, having rarely tested the Scunthorpe keeper and the nervousness at not capitalising on our dominance of possession would have left many fans fearing another slip up.

To test the water I praised the first half against Crewe, one all at the time, but with a very similar 45 minutes to the Scunthorpe game in terms of how we had played, passed and finished. I was criticised again. It was "rubbish", the passing was "awful". The responses highlighted the difference made by a goal, on a rare foray forward, from the opposition, but also how we all view matches with different tints of red and white. On this basis can a manager ever be seen to be getting this right? 

This isn’t the first time a United manager has used this as a means of motivating his players. Early in the 1991 season, with United yet again making a slow start in the top tier, Dave Bassett was highly critical of his players in the press. Rarely singling out individuals, he came down more heavily on the team as a whole, in his own forthright fashion.

A young 16 year old fan, read and listened to his comments, thought about it and sent him a letter. The letter largely thanked the manager for what he had achieved at Bramall Lane, they remain some of the greatest times that fan has had watching the Blades even twenty odd years later, but the letter also asked why he was so openly negative about his team.

A week or so later a letter came back to the writer, a copy is below. In Bassett’s reply, he touched upon the fact that many of his comments were well thought out and not a spontaneous, heat of the moment outburst that his style tended to suggest. He also suggested that used sparingly these comments are a useful management motivational tool in both business settings as well as sporting realms and that he would hope that his management style had matured to the extent that he knew the right balance to use with his players.

He went on to make a point about using public negativity to develop a united response from players, whether that criticism has come from the fans, media or the manager himself.

"What you see and what you are told by the press is only a small part of my overall motivational strategy that has the best interests of the club at heart."

So maybe we, as fans, have to accept a nuanced approach to man-management, more so in football. Whilst we, as managers in our day to day work, may not take the critical approach to personal development used by Bassett, Clough and Mourinho, we need to accept that the manager will see fit to use what they think is right. They will only act in a way they feel is in the best interests of the club, they have no reason not to as it is their livelihood at risk.

The fact that one of the most popular managers in United’s recent history used similar techniques is often forgotten amongst his success. It certainly didn’t inspire the kind of response Clough’s player criticism has generated, albeit the use of social media means the strength of views are amplified these days. Who knows how many others questioned the manager in letters to the club? We will never know.

It could also be argued that with his team under-performing in the league and recruitment decisions and team selection under scrutiny, this is just another verbal stick with which to hit the manager. But as he might argue when defending his treatment of McNulty, ‘Sticks and stones may break my bones, but saying things won’t hurt me’.

Friday, 20 February 2015

Falling for the Blades

In the last fortnight I have seen the question posed many times; Could the result at Gillingham be the equivalent of Crewe away last season? A turning point in this phase of our relationship? Colchester the Tuesday after saw some moments of joy, but there were concerns that this wasn't a long term, sustainable happiness. The fear that all wasn't quite right still, the fear that when the big date comes they will fail to turn up.

After the Colchester victory, charismatic full back and bearded cult hero John Brayford tweeted "The Blades train is coming". To which a fellow Blade replied "It's a bit fucking late". It is, but how many thought we would go to Bristol City and win? I know I didn't and I am someone who thought the gap between the two teams wasn't that great back on that first date in August.

Since then Blades fans have been green eyed monsters. Admiring glances cast towards the "quality" signings made by City and the clear impact they have had. Meanwhile, we added plenty of depth to the squad, but with a feeling that the match day eleven wasn't being greatly enhanced. Chopping and changing week in week out, our love had lost its identity. The over-arching commitment was there, but there just wasn't the association with what we saw, the things we hold dear. The commitment felt one way.

But on Valentine’s Day they delivered. The emotions swung again and even for the most hardened and pessimistic a happy ending to it all seems a possibility. But then you realise that it's just two dates with destiny and we need as many as 13 or 14 in the next 18…..Then a night in Nottingham ends well and you can see, or you hear of, the steely determination to make this work.

I want to believe we can replicate last season's run. I really do. Nearly 40 years of being a Blade reins in that hope. It's a form of self-preservation. Like a broken relationship that you will never walk away from. It is all about managing the potential disappointment. You still want and hope for the best, but you never expect it.

Football fans are the most loyal half of a relationship I can think of, in any aspect of life. You are in a marriage, often arranged, set upon you by parents or grandparents. Arranged but then secured in that moment when, clutching your Dad or Grandad's hand so tight, you see the floodlights, the expanse of green, and hear the buzz and the noise.Sometimes there is a choice, but those who have a choice tend to choose a partner more in the public eye. Yet for all this unstinting devotion, for all this commitment and financial expense, for the public disdain and contempt, what do we get back?

A roller coaster of emotion, varying results, fluctuating from success to failure knowing that success is relative; limited by finances and the ever expanding gap between top and the middle, never mind the bottom.

You travel every week to be treated like a criminal, with no other justification other than your chosen love. You are kettled and frogmarched, shoved and contained. You are warned and disrespected without provocation. You are not allowed to respond, to defend yourself, even in the most polite or respectful terms. Your words twisted, your intentions deliberately misconstrued. Barriers restrict your movements, young and old, fit and infirm equally discriminated against. Some fall, no official hand is offered to pick them up. You pick them up and help them along.

You pay extortionate amounts for just 90 minutes with your love, but pillars and posts often block your loving gaze. They test your levels of endurance, through enforced discomfort, but you still sing songs of devotion, until they become objects of your ire and pent up frustration.

You stand exposed to the wind and rain on open away ends like Gillingham, as the rain waters down the jug of milk by the burger van and further dilutes your tea or beer when bought. That is if you can pass the taste test and distinguish between the varying shades of brown liquids which are poured into plastic cups that barely shield your hand from the scalding liquid within.

You gorge on food that's fast, but a fast track to adult obesity. Carb loading, wallet emptying. Food that has a mark-up that would only make it appear reasonably priced to a person who lived in Zimbabwe under Mugabe.

We show our love by wearing our love's favoured colours, but every year that spectrum is expanded by new away kits, or even third kits required through conveniently inappropriate away colour selection. Hues chosen by the colour blind, or a fashionista who knows nothing of your years of devotion or the history and tradition. 

Being a lover of the Blades the potential upsides have been joyous. Dates in the less enervating cities of Leicester and Cardiff and in the dated town of Darlington have brought euphoria. Closer to home and visits to less salubrious parts of our home city somehow left us in rapture and bliss. But more often than not the big dates in the smoke have seen a failure to perform, a let-down, with an audience in tow. The pain more heartfelt and public.

The negative memories tarnish and always rise to the surface. They pin back your hope for a brighter future. They will mess up somewhere along the line and you will just accept it and return for more. 

As a London Blade tweeted to me this week, “You have to have the rain to have the rainbow”. But in the back of your head you just see rain. You dare not hope for the sun, because when will it come?

I do hope that we ride the love train and have a date with the Championship in August, I really do. Just forgive me if I don’t build my hopes up too much for now. I'll take it one week at a time. As much as I look forward, me and United have got history.