The manager in a double squeeze

by Roy Messineo

Two season ago, Carlo Ancelotti inherited a timeworn Chelsea squad without a major title in three seasons. The golden years were now tarnished pewter. Was this squad one step from retirement or memorable swansong?

Ancelotti answered by winning Chelsea’s first double with these old dogs, minus most notably leaden-legged Michael Ballack and Deco. Before Ancelotti’s second season, he bought the unpolished but fierce Ramires to firm the spine, and later, the assiduous David Luis and his kinetic mane to compliment the rickety John Terry and his soldierly crop. And of course, there was Fernando Torres.

Ancelotti should have earned quite a bit of capital to add to what he irrevocably possessed by right of his career. But not at the impetuous and confused Chelsea, a club trying to emulate Barcelona on the pitch and Real Madrid off it. Silvio Berlusconi proved containable, but Ancelotti couldn’t withstand the subversion of Roman Abramovich’s erratic schemes and the force of blame. For winning nothing last season, Ancelotti was sacked.

In Barney Ronay’s The Manager, the evolution of the England-based manager is charted from its late 19th century origins as humble secretary to today’s celebrity figure and mesmeric leader. He is conceived as a kind of artifact with attributes that change over time. It’s nothing like the metamorphosis of winged creatures that were once worm-like. Instead, the manager’s evolution is a process of innovation and replication. Some attributes change, find strong expression or individualize, while others persist or are carried over.

There is one guiding attribute, written into the original fabric of the early manager that will follow his distant inheritors wherever they go, “Look far enough back and you see a founding instability in the very notion of being a football manager.” This instability is inescapable, surrounding the birth of the manager, who was “Called into being by forces beyond his control” as well as forming part of his being.

The afflictions of this instability are the “constant sorrows” and the inevitable sackings. Ancelotti, at his season-ending press conference, stated that his future would be discussed over the coming days and weeks, but learned before the room cleared that he already had been sacked, informed by way of the billionaire’s apparatchik, whose methods incline to bureaucratic insensitivity over decorum and style. Ray Wilkins knows something about this, and now forlorn Carlo Ancelotti—the latest to meet his end by this founding instability—does too. Success must be immediate; the financial stakes are too high.

Despite the ancestral baggage and the formative experiences of world wars, sexual and social revolutions, or conservative excesses of the 1980s, the manager not only persevered, but became irrepressible, making his mark, creating legacies and mythologies, and most importantly, increasing his power over the management and identity of their clubs. The manager went from lowly administrator to the coveted asset of visionary and charismatic personality, yet always remaining the fall guy.

We discover at the end that the manager’s evolution is not a straight ascent. Today he has met his match. Under the billionaire’s thumb and the dictates of football’s global economic imperatives, the manager feels an intensified and aggressive instability enter the room and rise from within. He is in decline, an endangered species. Like the early proto-manager, today’s manager has become acquainted with powerlessness. His evolution has come full circle.

The final chapter reaches the evolutionary high point, which nearly completes the circle. Sir Alex Ferguson is the living elemental artifact, “an emblem of things past, of old virtues rather than new.” He has out-evolved the ancestral baggage. He won’t be sacked. No one resides as assuredly on the sideline. Ferguson doesn’t pace, grimace, or mutter. He sits in his seat as immovably as his managerial tenure, rapidly chewing very resilient gum.

Through Ferguson, the decline of the manager is confirmed. He is the end of the end of the line. While that instability doesn’t manifest in hyper-mastication, football’s new frontier signals its arrival at the door, “The ineffable creep of the global and the macro-economic, the dissolution of the paltry domestic stage into something more vast in its horizons.”

And creep it did, but unexpectedly from the other side. Still a product of the same forces, rising player power enabled the new economic realities to fight on a second front. Ferguson’s resilience faced an unprecedented test last October when Wayne Rooney nearly left the club.

Entering the final year of his contract, and in light of slump and transgression, Rooney turned the leverage of his bargaining power into hostage taking and ransom demand. Intransigent ego fed by unctuous agent is not unprecedented. But Rooney’s negotiations didn’t stop at his own valuation. He launched a critique of the club’s spiraling debt and its potential to compromise the club’s future success. Clarifying the club’s finances and aspirations were now contingent of his signature. Player power extended beyond personal terms.

Yet Rooney, the club’s highest paid player, and the standard by which players’ wages are measured, ignored his proportionate debt contribution. Despite the hypocrisy, his criticism carried some truth: Manchester United has a debt problem, both deepened and kept at bay by continued success on the pitch. How long could the club stay one step ahead?

Rooney’s rogue tactics left Ferguson somber and nearly speechless. In the end, Ferguson brilliantly outmaneuvered Rooney and new terms were agreed, but not without concessions reflective of the manager’s weakened position. Through a double squeeze, that old instability finally found its most nutritional host.

During the Ferguson and Rooney saga, a frothing mob gathered outside Rooney’s home. One could imagine torches and tools from the shed in hand, and snarling faces spewing epithets over a high wall. No one can imagine a similar scene surrounding Samir Nasri’s home.

Rooney’s exceptional case exemplified the extremes of player power. By comparison, Nasri’s situation is the benign form and a better example of the normalization of augmented player power taking root in the game.

In a March interview, Nasri stated his happiness and desire to stay with the club responsible for developing him into the player he has become. Yet in February, Arsenal and Nasri failed to agree to a new contract over a wage increase that threatened Arsenal’s wage structure. The “gentleman’s agreement” to put talks on hold until the off-season signaled that negotiations required attention, but were not in a critical state.

The delay cued the wolves. Rumors of Barcelona’s interest immediately surfaced. Nasri’s reply was substantive, foreshadowing things to come. “As things are right now, I am happy here and I have confidence from the manager. But things can change quickly in football, and then we may have a new situation.”

And Arsenal’s season did quickly become “a new situation” as promise descended into crisis. A new contract was no longer certain. The stalemate over wages continued, but the message had evolved. Like Rooney, Nasri bolstered his leverage. A new contract is additionally contingent on Arsenal signing big-name players as proof of commitment to winning trophies. Considered un-sackable, Arséne Wenger, through the demands of his players, feels that founding instability closer than it has ever been. How much longer can he preserve the purity of his philosophy?

Rooney’s debt argument was legitimate, but to legitimize the argument’s use in contract negotiations required pinpointing similar discontent within quarters of Manchester United faithful. Again by comparison, Nasri’s call for big name players is almost universally accepted. Aside from this comment, he has remained diplomatic and refrained from publicly forcing a move. Entering the final year of his contract, he has little need for forced extraction, while remaining rightfully obliged to his self-interest. The question is where this ethical line lies. His flexing of player power beyond personal terms becomes legitimate and normalized through the public’s shared position. Taking advantage of a position of strength is distinct from taking the club hostage, but distinguishing the two becomes difficult when the ethics are blurred by public values.

The signing of top players as a negotiating tactic is a symptom of the game’s arms race. Money and success have almost fully converged in the era of billionaire ownership, which leads to the normalization and legitimacy of player power through the “spirit of winning”. A player’s desire to win trophies in inarguable. It is the player’s means that draw criticism. The desire for trophies can act as an alibi for a player whose true interest is securing a lucrative contract.

Player power, as an extension of football’s global economic order, has found a way to increase leverage over wages without looking baldly mercenary or greedy. It is not raw power, but strategic and opportunistic, reactive and adaptive. Player power has grown stronger and more pervasive through the ethical legitimacy of shared public values and under the alibi of the noble desire to win. This says as much about the spectator as it does the player. Player power is well on its way to becoming sensible and perfectly natural.

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