West Ham’s new manager is, they hope, the opposite of their old manager.
When the Hammers board sacked Slaven Bilic it seemed more like a relief for everyone than anything else. The Croatian manager was dearly beloved by the fans, but change was clearly long overdue. And when it finally came, so did the recriminations.
What seems to have happened is that Bilic let standards slip at the London Stadium. Far from running a tight ship, the former West Ham manager had let his players do what they wanted, and seemingly cut a presence in training which didn’t suit the group. But what it boils down to is that Bilic treated his players like adults, and as a result it appears as though the players took advantage. That can work for some groups of people in any walk of life. For this West Ham one, for whatever reason, it didn’t.
Another former Hammers boss, Harry Redknapp is, a man, in the same mould. Another old-school type manager whose management style was about motivating his players emotionally rather than technically. It wasn’t about making them better – they’re professional footballers, it’s up to them to do that for themselves – it was about making sure they were alright to go out onto the pitch and give their all. And when players of good quality give their all they should win things.
“We get carried away with coaching and coaches. I have my coaching badges but they came out of a cornflakes packet.”
Harry Redknapp, West Ham manager, 2001
New manager Moyes, in many respects, is old school himself. He’s a firm character and likely won’t tolerate the lack of discipline that Slaven Bilic would appear to have let slide in his training ground, but he’s also a very different kind of coach. And coach is the operative word.
Over the last few years, we may well have gone too far with our lust for great football coaches. Players will always be venerated and idolised when they’re on form or at the top of their game, but managers seem to be growing ever more in stature. Now, instead of teams, we talk about Slaven Bilic’s West Ham or Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City. The point seems to be that the manager controls the team in the way that a grandmaster controls his chess pieces: it’s become heralded as a battle between two brains, not just two sets of players. Perhaps not even.
It’s not a new phenomenon as such – Redknapp was talking about it in 2001 – but it probably comes as a result of the Premier League and the money it brought to the game. Now, every place is worth millions of pounds, relegation is economic catastrophe, and results are a premium a manager needs to afford, otherwise he’s out and there’s little he can complain about. And that’s only been exacerbated with time.
Coaches and coaching, then is what makes players better and the group better, but now that managers are scrutinised probably more than the players themselves, it’s also something that makes a manager look like he’s actually doing something.
When you’re Bilic, and your best moments are in the dressing room before the game when you capture the mood of the players perfectly and motivate them by knowing exactly the right thing to say, people won’t necessarily understand that you’re doing anything at all. If your players are clearly coached on the pitch, however, that bit’s obvious.
That’s perhaps why managers are so keen to have their tactics look obvious on the pitch. But it’s not just fans and owners they have to appease, it’s the players too. And so you wonder if there still is a place for a manager like Bilic, especially as the pressure isn’t just on managers anymore but also on the players.
Football has become a world where the best players are plucked out of school and chosen for the biggest teams in the country. That means there’s pressure right from the off: if don’t succeed and what else are you going to do with your life exactly?
If you play for a big club and are already on tens of thousands of pounds a week, can you really justify it to your family to leave the academy in search of a first team spot in the lower leagues, on a lower wage, and with no guarantee that you’ll ever make it back to the top? In some ways, those players are sitting on a golden ticket, on a human level, they’d be gambling to try to reach the very top.
Indeed, there is already an almighty clamour for this year’s England U17 World Champions to be given regular starting spots at their Premier League clubs ‘for the good of their development’ – as though foisting them into one of the most pressurised environments in the entire world before the other kids their age have even finished their A Levels was quite obviously a good thing.
That illustrates why Bilic’s approach may well be past its sell-by date. In that environment, it’s understandable that footballers have, to some extent, become these strange beings who live in a bubble. Treating them like adults, as Bilic does, isn’t necessarily a good thing: not because they’re not adults, but because their lives aren’t about a laid back atmosphere, they’re on-edge all the time.
After all, their upbringings have been so different that there appears to be a different set of values when it comes to the small pleasures in life. Most 17-year-olds love being allowed the top button of their uniform undone. Footballers want someone who’s going to make sure they have the edge over the opposition – because if they don’t, they’ll lose. And if they lose, that bubble bursts. The pressure is huge. And that’s the same for every player at every stage of their career, not just the younger ones.
That’s why clubs and players themselves can’t afford to have a manager who appears to have won his coaching badges from a cereal box. They need a manager that the players respond to not because he’s a nice guy who treats them well, but because he gets the best out of them on the pitch.
The job of the modern manager is to understand his group and to make sure they improve as players and as a team, not just motivate them by making sure their lives are stress-free. Whether or not you think that David Moyes is a failed coach who became a laughing stock at Manchester United and ruined his career at Sunderland doesn’t matter, in the end: what matters is that the players trust him to make sure their careers don’t suffer, and for that they need to buy into his methods or face relegation.