‘Provided You Don’t Kiss Me’ has to be one of the quirkiest book titles in the library of football. Then again, its subject is one of the most colourful and charismatic characters in the game: Brian Clough. Written by a – then – rookie Nottingham Post reporter, Duncan Hamilton, it traces the local media-manager relationship during the glorious and tumultuous reign of ‘Old Big ‘Ead’ at Forest.
It’s an impressively written account (William Hill sports book of the year 2007) that is insightful, entertaining (how could it not be?) and often touching. A friend currently reading it keeps reminding me of details I’d half-forgotten. We get day-to-day Clough, the successful and then broken-bond seasons of working with Peter Taylor, his outward show of utter self-belief and much more. And there’s a sprinkling of quotes. ‘We talk about it for twenty minutes and then we decide I was right,’ says Clough, on dealing with players who disagree with him. You cannot help but think there’s magic in those pages but it would be of little use as a manual for management.
It’s just one of several references to football management that have come my way in recent weeks, via the screen, stage, page and pitch. The Reds, we all know, have been deeply involved with their own saga as to who they feel is the best fit to lead Forest. Cooper’s departure was a mixture of the agonising and the inevitable. Now the culmination of so much recent focus on managers comes with news that Jurgen Klopp is to step down as Liverpool manager at the end of this season. That has already unlocked some fine tributes to the man and his management style as he’s gained respect well beyond Merseyside during his years at the club.
‘In an era short on admired leaders, Jurgen Klopp has been a rare role model,’ says journalist Simon Kuper in a recent article. He talks of characteristics Klopp exhibits that others – not just in football – would do well to note. On arriving in England, he immediately worked to understand what the club meant to everyone involved. ‘He understands that the whole point of professional football is shared communal emotion.’ That’s Kuper again, as he identifies the key qualities of Klopp. Surprisingly, one strength he highlights is the German’s ability to delegate effectively. He provides the vision but training and match tactics are left to his trusted team. That’s confidence.
Confidence, we know, is a given when we talk of success in any sphere, be it self-confidence, confidence in others or both. It can be conjured like alchemy or necessitate patience to breaking point. Sat in our local Odeon recently, I caught a film that slipped under the radar of most of my football friends and they missed a treat. ‘Next Goal Wins’ follows the true story of just about the worst team in international football. American Samoa (never heard of it? Nor had I.) lost 31-0 to Australia in a World Cup qualifier in 2001.
That record defeat badly bruised the pride of players, backroom staff and the islanders and the South Pacific nation didn’t want a repeat. Enter a new, professional coach, from the USA. We follow Thomas Rougen (played by Michael Fassbender) as he tries to assert his style before he bends – somewhat! – to the Samoan way of life. It’s the build-up to the 2014 World Cup and compromise and shared understanding become the dominant features of management. Skill is in short supply on the pitch but other attributes emerge.
A return visit to my local cinema last week was for the screening of the National Theatre stage play ‘Dear England’. Gareth Southgate (courtesy of a brilliant performance by Joseph Fiennes) is the focus as he wrestles with outdated FA practices, inherited player attitudes and a footballing nation that expects – ever since 1966 – to win every competition for which it qualifies. That weight of expectation is crushing. Southgate introduces a psychologist to the support staff. She asks the players to keep a personal journal.
Initially, the young international squad view most of the new initiatives with scepticism. ‘Back to school stuff.’ Over the course of the play, though, we see them mature, consolidate a team identity, share values as to what it means to represent England, and learn to call Southgate ‘Gareth’ as opposed to ‘Boss’, ‘Gaffer’ or ‘Sir’. We know the arc of success (though, still, trophyless) of the men’s England team, from a World Cup semi-final in 2018 to Qatar’s 2022 defeat against France in the quarter-final. Sandwiched in-between is the Euros final at Wembley and loss against Italy … on penalties! (Memories of his own miss from 1996 come flooding back.)
It’s a powerful piece of theatre and a reminder that footballers are sometimes vulnerable when exposed to the limelight of the game. Most of us aren’t necessarily wired to cope with the pressures of a voracious press and critical public. Managing the mentality of players is a significant challenge for any team coach, aside from such as ensuring levels of physically fitness and keeping abreast of player form. Southgate is not the complete manager – and no magician – but he is shown to be a man with a vision for England, both on and off the pitch.
Klopp, possibly, most closely personifies the kind of attributes we associate with successful management in the Premiership. He comes over as strong and sensitive, passionate yet practical, a romancer and a realist. He knows the job has taken its toll on him and his family but he’s smart enough to recognise when to leave at the right time. A difficult call when your reputation is still in the ascendancy.
Does any of this get us closer to what makes a successful manager (however we define it)? Somewhere, perhaps there has to be a bit of magic, a coming-together of disparate factors. We’ve had a taste of it with Steve Cooper. We can only hope that Nuno has a special ‘something’ to offer. He doesn’t quite need to perform miracles yet but it might not be long before he does have to!
*Article provided by Stephen Parker (Nottingham Forest Correspondent).
*Main image @NFFC Brian Clough certainly had the magic in management.