Book Review: The Manager
Here, in the latest of our book reviews, Ben Summers takes a look at Barney Ronay’s The Manager, a book which surely deserves more than its two current stars on Amazon.
The Manager: The Absurd Ascent of the Most Important Man in Football
By Barney Ronay
Published by Sphere
August 2010, £8.99, ISBN: 9780751542790
This book’s incongruous appearance in Fabio Capello’s 2010 World Cup luggage leant it a curious subplot that could easily have been incorporated into the book itself. My guess is Fabio “I’ll speak fluent English by Christmas” Capello mistook this for a straight-laced historical piece. I just can’t imagine him smirking his way through, on page 11, “To the Modern nostril it’s the trainer who seems the more swamp-stinking.”
Ronay’s offbeat and typically hilarious overview is made up of roughly chronological chapters that document the evolutional stages of the managerial beast. He takes in “the Manager’s New Trousers”, “the Manager becoming incredibly famous”, and “the Manager as proto-yuppie”. So whether he read it or not, Capello’s mere acknowledgement of this book would have been an amusing, and therefore perfectly suited, additional chapter. (Ronay touches on the Capello story in this interview).
The Venn diagram of football/culture is a strange collision point. David James positions himself confidently in the overlap; I fondly remember his Wayne Rooney – Salvador Dali comparison in a weekly Observer column (Rooney has the style and the substance). Premier League Favourite Book surveys are also good value (Liam Rosenior: Fungus the Bogeyman), but smirking aside, it’s these kind of apparently trivial pop culture details that are central to Ronay’s writing. His observations aren’t on specific managerial achievements or vast tactical histories, but on how football’s top men have reacted to cultural change, and contrastingly, how we react to our managers.
As for literary footballers, when Harry Redknapp says he “doesn’t do tactics”, or, in this very book, Graham Taylor claims he “hates sophisticated football” it is easy to read “tactics” as “stuff from books”. This mistrust of the highbrow is tellingly demonstrated by one of The Manager’s central characters, Mr Charles Reep, an ex-army officer who, in the 1950s, developed a kind of pre-Opta statistical analysis of games; his theory that ‘Goals almost never come from a build-up of more than 3 passes’ was influential. The man was “an aggressive reductionist and a fanatical debunker of the artistic, the gilded and the foreign”, and is therefore representative of many of the managers in the book, right up until the late 90s, when, as the excellent “Enlightenment” chapter points out, Arsà¨ne Wenger arrived and was christened “The Professor”, not for his overflowing bookshelf, but for his earth shatteringly progressive suggestion of “water not beer”.
The pre-war period is well researched, recounting how the job of ‘club secretary’ advanced to head-coach and then manager as we know it. There is a well-told portrait of the pioneering manager Herbert Chapman, recently unveiled as a third of the Emirates Stadium’s new Adams-Henry-Chapman sculpted triptych. Ronay later case-studies some of English football’s managerial untouchables, without, as he is quick to reassure you, rehashing the “moss-encrusted backstory” of dozens of existing books on the subject. Matt Busby is “The dad you kind of wish you had instead of your own dad” and Brian Clough “had a kind of supra-football folk hero status”. There is no bootlicking here, and his account of Bill Shankly is particularly nonpartisan. The preaching of received wisdom, so hard to ignore in football journalism is, as ever, skilfully avoided by Ronay.
His meandering prose is so different to your standard football pundit that the book really benefits from back-to-earth contributions from David Pleat and the aforementioned Graham Taylor. In “The Manager gets hounded out”, there is a great account of Taylor’s thankless task of dealing with the tabloid press and the nation’s “craven inferiority complex, which goes hand in hand with assumptions of a divine right to success”. This passage mentions, and prompted a re-watch of, the astoundingly good An Impossible Job (here in full), Channel 4’s 1993 fly-on-the-wall documentary following Taylor and his staff as they fail to qualify for the World Cup, which exposes the monstrousness of the press, but leaves you helpless not to indulge in Taylor schadenfreude; is there a funnier footballing moment than his ‘can we not knock it?’.
It’s flabbergasting the access Taylor allows the Channel 4 team. As chapter 28, “The Manager disappears” discusses, the modern manager would never do so, indeed Ronay reveals he hand-wrote letters to every Premier League manager asking for an afternoon of company, and was rejected (or ignored) by all of them. It’s a shame there aren’t further interviews or contributions, as I think in Ronay’s hands something new could be coaxed from football men so used to media rituals suffused with habitual banality.
The book is probably best suited to existing fans of Ronay’s tangential writing, and having read Ronay’s previous full-lengther, Any Chance of a Game?, I’d argue his decorative style is better suited to the shorter length (if you are new to him I’d recommend starting with his Guardian archive), but it’s all really good fun, as I’m sure Capello would tell you.