Greg Johnson asks whether foreign managers have fallen foul of the English football psyche…
As he held the League Cup aloft in victory, shares in Michael Laudrup rattled up the ranks of the managerial stock exchange. His worth had already soared far beyond and above the valuations placed upon him in the summer, and come the close of business in May, it looks likely that Laudrup will have all but confirmed his place as one of the most attractive managerial investments around.
Swansea’s first major trophy in their 100 year history; Europa League entry for next season; exquisite football; the likelihood of an entirely respectable final position in the Premier League; and named as the man fans most want to takeover the reins at Real Madrid – it’s an impressive end-of-season growth report to reflect on for the Dane who co-founded a free-market think tank in his homeland in 2004.
In almost every possible manner, Laudrup has made the perfect first impression on English football. Charming, charismatic and handsome, there is something almost Mourinho-esque about how the league has fallen under his spell. In tabloid speak however, he is the jovial Scandinavian to the Special One’s fiery Portuguese. No wild pronouncements or headline grabbing antagonism, just calm, cool composure and sincerity. Both present comfortable identities that play up to familiar English stereotypes and folk heroes – after all, Mourinho is the much anticipated belated successor to Brian Clough.
Back in August, many feared that Swansea would be unable to take the weight of Laudrup’s reputation alongside a difficult second season. Instead, he has taken flight aboard a glamorous swan, added some exciting new plumage of his own along the way. Some fear he may yet migrate south for next winter.
Watching on as Swansea grab glory through technically proficient football and European transfer bargains, Arsene Wenger must wonder where it all went wrong. In his darkest, most embittered private moments, Arsenal’s long-serving steward could be forgiven for fantasising about a spot of duck hunting – the kind that would impinge on the Queen’s feathery property.
Now eight years without a trophy, it seems as though Wenger’s goose is cooked. The knives are again out and look sharper than ever, intent on carving their pound of flesh from the Frenchman guilty of taking charge of an English institution.
Back in 1996, Wenger crossed the channel, ushering in a new area of sophistication in match preparation, nutrition, fitness training and foreign purchases as he sought to conquer England. Utilising knowledge gaps his new rivals had yet to discover, he used his advantages to make Arsenal into a team of serial winners and the nation’s second favourite club. His methods culminated in the invincible season of 2004, but with his competitors assimilating his ideas and advances, Wenger lost his competitive edge.
His nickname, the Professor, soon became a euphemism for being a haughty Frenchman with a university education who had come over here to tell us how to play our game.
Being beaten by an intellectual foreigner who knows better is never acceptable for the English mind-set, and it seemed that a sense of sniggering bitterness existed well before the titles dried up. The idea of a continental deploying cynicism and dirty tricks however is a direct affront to our indigenous sensibilities of fair play and naive conservatism with a small c.
Roberto Mancini, the Premier League champion manager, faces the sack. Unlike Laudrup, Mancini’s card was marked upon his arrival at Manchester City, cruelly appointed almost immediately after the sacking of Mark Hughes. Initially it was believed that he had been present in the stands, watching Hughes’ final game before stepping in to replace him.
Then there was the football: at first defensive and dull, and yet boringly effective. Hughes was the former Blackburn miracle worker and a genuine British managerial prospect in the eyes of his supporters, and Mancini came over here and took his job. Even after delivering the trophy City craved and the league title of their dreams he remains a man burning up under the media glare, unable to make the mistakes of his predecessor.
Following on from recent outbursts from Wenger and Mancini, last night Rafa Benitez snapped during another fraught press conference. This time, as manager of Chelsea, he was without his physical fact list prop. His current position was clearly untenable to anyone paying the slightest bit attention when Roman Abramovich appointed him, but it’s tempting to feel some pity for the Champions League winner who has become more celebrated for his appearance as rotund matradee than a manager.
It’s as if the public traumas of managing Liverpool continue to haunt him, re-prodded and poked each day by the presence of Fernando Torres. Benitez certainly doesn’t do himself any favours when speaking to journalists or staring down a lens, but it’s hard to remember another manager becoming so utterly ground down by reflections of their own absurdity. Could it be that while Rafa jumped the shark, it was the press who threw him the ramp?
While Mourinho and Laudrup are seen as integrators Wenger and co are cast as interlopers. They upset the apple cart with their awkward challenges to convention and yet enrich and reform the English game with their unwelcome interjections. Without success to validate their outspoken perspectives, they become troublemakers destroyed by self-parody.
That’s not to say they’re right, but when compared to British managers they are ranting figures of fun rather than strong characters prone to remonstration. More reserved managerial imports go about their business quietly and diligently of course – the Martin Jol’s and Robertro Martinez’s of this world – but when the likes of Harry Redknapp and Kevin Keegan are offered up as homegrown geniuses, it’s hard not to wonder if there’s something rather insidious going on in the English football psyche.
Is there a culture of latent managerial xenophobia in English football or are Benitez, Mancini and Wenger seen for the bizarre, cantankerous agitators they are?