Top-level professional football does not do democracy. Elite clubs have tended to function best as benign dictatorships ruled over by visionary leaders with the charisma to dominate and the intelligence to innovate.
Would anyone, with the notable exception of Roy Keane, have dared question the autocratic rule of Sir Alex Ferguson, for example? Ex-players like Gary Neville continue to speak in hushed tones about the mixture of fear and respect in which they regarded “the boss.” When Fergie said “jump,” they said: “How high?” (Incidentally, talking of autocrats ruling with an iron fist, I’ve long contended that the biggest mistake United made, post-Ferguson, was not heading straight to Diego Simeone’s door with the proverbial blank cheque).
Similarly, when former Sunderland hero Brian Clough (and boy could we do with him up front right now!) was in his managerial pomp and leading unfashionable clubs like Derby County and Nottingham Forest to unlikely triumphs, he was famously asked what would happen if a player questioned his methods.
“Well, I ask him which way he thinks it should be done,” he said. “We get down to it, and then we talk about it for twenty minutes, and then we decide I was right.”
Even today, in the era of player power, no-one at Manchester City would surely dare to question Pep Guardiola’s methods; how could they? And the toys recently seen exiting Mo Salah’s pram can only be attributed to a perceived weakening of Jurgen Klopp’s authority as confidence turned to doubt on the back of an unthinkable failure to qualify for the Champions’ League. These sort of regimes are always built on just such a fragile sense of undisputed sovereignty; if it’s questioned, it’s probably already gone.
At Sunderland, by contrast, it’s Sporting Director Kristjaan Speakman who is arguably the dominant figure overseeing our velvet revolution.
Speakman is the power behind KLD’s throne. Head Coach Tony Mowbray, as he passes his first anniversary in the job, has made several veiled references recently to being ‘just’ the Head Coach, and thus having limited influence upon – or even involvement in – matters beyond the training ground and the pitch. Mowbray says he’s fine with this; but then he would, wouldn’t he? What choice does he have?
Is this an issue? In his 1956 autobiography The Clown Prince of Soccer Len Shackleton infamously included a chapter entitled “The Average Director’s Knowledge of Football” that consisted only of a single blank page. Speakman clearly knows a little more about football than the cigar-chomping, port-swilling industrialists who inhabited the boardrooms of Shack’s day, so I wonder how the great man would have felt about Sporting Directors with Management Science degrees. Would a Speakman have merited a few choice words if Shack were re-writing that chapter now? If so, what might they have been?
Of course, Mowbray will be involved in recruitment discussions and decisions, but he’s clearly not in control of them. Would a player actually be signed against his wishes i.e., foisted on him? To an extent I doubt that; although when it comes to players such as Bennette and Hemir there does seem to have been an element of “we’ve identified what we believe to be a supremely talented young player, we’re bringing him in, and now we want you to develop him, Tony” about the whole thing.
Then there was the speculation this summer surrounding Francesco Farioli, now installed at Ligue Un club Nice on a three-year contract. I have absolutely no idea if Farioli could be the real deal or not (Nice have started the current season with three draws, by the way).
He certainly ticks a lot of boxes for the modern, Guardiola-esque philosopher-coach in a superficial sense in that he’s young (34), erudite (he read Philosophy at university, apparently) and worked under De Zerbi in Italy (twice).
But none of that really means anything, does it?
There was inevitable outrage from some quarters at the very idea of Mowbray’s position being under any kind of threat. Here was a man who’d taken us to the playoffs in spite of having no fit strikers, no fit central defenders barring a converted midfielder, and only one outfield player over the six-foot mark. Mowbray almost oversaw a minor miracle until those nasty Hatters gave us a wedgie and stole our lunch money. How could we be even contemplating the idea of rewarding that (relative) achievement with a P45?
But from another perspective it may not seem quite so absurd. I can no more see Mowbray as the Head Coach to guide us into the top half of the Premier League than I could see Lee Johnson (recently sacked by Hibs) leading us to the top of the Championship. It may sound harsh, but as with Johnson it’s probably a matter of ‘when’ not ‘if’ Mowbray’s replaced (and let’s not forget Speakman actually did leave it too late to sack Johnson – or rather, to replace him – but for a feat verging on alchemy from the now detested Alex Neil).
As I’ve said previously, it’s the Brentford and Brighton models we’ll need to emulate if we’re to compete in the Premier League, and for all his admirable qualities Mowbray is clearly no De Zerbi or Thomas Frank. It may sound harsher still, but he’s just too old, for one thing, and in a twenty-year managerial career his one season leading a team in the English top-flight was not pretty. His brief tenure at Celtic in the two-horse race that is the Scottish Premiership was arguably even worse.
Mowbray is a horse for a very specific course, and it’s the one we’re running currently.
I think it comes down to this: if we do manage to identify our very own ‘special one’ and then replace Mowbray with him, will Speakman have the good sense to get out of his way?
The latter certainly has a considerable sense of self-regard and seems to believe his own press as the man masterminding the Sunderland ‘project.’ If the right man to be our new Head Coach were to be someone in the mould of a Guardiola, or even a Clough, someone with a vision and the force of personality to bring it to life, someone far less affable and accommodating than Uncle Tony… I foresee, potentially, quite the clash of egos there!
De Zerbi, at Brighton, is also designated ‘Head Coach,’ but do any of us really believe he’d accept an owner to engaging in the kind of supermarket-sweep recruitment Graham Potter was forced to endure at Chelsea last season?
And can anyone honestly imagine Mauricio Pochettino putting up with that kind of nonsense now he’s in the Chelsea hotseat?
Our next leader has to be endowed with just such a force of personality; and Speakman – along with KLD, Steve Davison and the rest – has to be ready, when the time comes, to both appoint him and give him his head.