Let us take a trip down football’s memory lane.
It’s the spring of 1993, and former Sunderland striker and iconic manager Brian Clough’s eighteen-year tenure at Nottingham Forest has ended with the club slipping out of the top flight after being unable to compete in the maiden season of the glitzy new Premier League. After a trophy-laden managerial career, Old Big ‘Ead’s time in the dugout is over, a great man of football now looking in from the outside as the newly-established top flight wrapped up its first season.
Had the cards fallen differently, who’s to say that Clough wouldn’t have been a viable candidate for the Sunderland job?
After all, he was only fifty-eight at the time of his retirement, and with other football statesman like Sir Bobby Robson and Giovanni Trappatoni still going strong, perhaps only Clough’s personal demons, and maybe a disillusionment with football, prevented him from returning to Sunderland as manager. His affection for the club was deep-seated, and the thought of him taking over and perhaps leading us from Roker Park into a new era at the Stadium of Light is certainly a romantic one.
Of course, this is all wistful fantasy, but it does shine a spotlight on an interesting argument, namely, is the era of the ‘boot up the backside’ breed of football manager coming to an end?
In recent seasons, the likes of Tony Pulis, Neil Warnock, and Sam Allardyce have dropped off the conveyor belt, perhaps never to return to frontline management, and as the seasons roll by, you do wonder whether their style of management is being lost forever, as the game evolves and new, slicker operators emerge in dugouts across the world game. That trio might not have been stylish or trendy (football dinosaurs, as my dad might’ve said), but when it came to digging out results, they succeeded more often than not.
Sunderland, of course, have had their fair share of no-nonsense gaffers down the years. From the gum-chewing Scouse swagger of Peter Reid, to the brusque Yorkshire grit of Mick McCarthy, and of course, the frankly scary Roy Keane, we’ve been blessed with managers who could inspire, lead, and mould squads of often reasonably average players into game and title-winning teams.
None of these guys were what you’d call Zen-like figures. They managed the simple way: home truths delivered when needed, an emphasis on work-rate from the players, a clear tactical outlook, and straightforward exchanges with the media. And with all three, it worked beautifully for varying periods of time. Of course, we did go ‘modern’ for a while, with the combustible duo of Paolo Di Canio and Gus Poyet both enjoying stints in the SOL dugout, but generally, our most successful profile of manager has been the kind of man whose messages are clear, and whose personality is headstrong and is able to hold it together under often immense pressure.
Modern football managers, as we see regularly with the likes of the uber-cosmopolitan Jurgen Klopp and Pep Guardiola, can’t simply be managers. They have to be, at various times, philosophers, tactical gurus, slick in front of a camera, thoughtful and PR-savvy during press conferences, and capable of managing players who, by common consensus, are far more highly-strung and sensitive to criticism than their counterparts of twenty or thirty years ago.
Egos are far more delicate, the politics of the modern game much more pronounced, and in that regard, maybe the art of football management has lost some of its earthiness and contact with its roots, but on the other hand, it has certainly made for a slicker, more marketable product.
Returning to Clough, if his managerial career was one of success against the odds and punching above your weight, his son, Nigel, has forged an interesting, if not quite as successful.
Indeed, when Jack Ross left Sunderland last year, many clamoured for Clough Jr to be given the job. Whenever you see him interviewed, you can see that those traits of honesty and fairness shining through. Even after his Burton team were beaten 10-0 on aggregate by Man City last season, he still found some self-deprecating humour in the situation.
If his career hasn’t yielded the collection of trophies that his father collected, he has certainly delivered some excellent results with limited resources, Burton Albion’s run to the league cup semi-final in 2018/2019 chief among them.
Maybe in five or ten years’ time, the game will have changed to such a degree that even the likes of Klopp and Guardiola might find themselves in a similar position to their predecessors.
It will be fascinating to see who can move with the times, as the game continues to evolve and certain philosophies become dated. As with all sports, nothing is permanent and those who stand still will undoubtedly find themselves left behind as football marches relentlessly onwards.