“Very few of us have any idea whatsoever of what life is like living in a goldfish bowl – except, of course, for those of us who are goldfish” – Graham Taylor on his time as England manager.  

Once a turnip, now reincarnated as a goldfish. Suppose they’re roughly the same colour. At the back end of 2010 few people would have predicted that come the end of the following season Roy Hodgson would be announcing his first England squad on the day his successor at Anfield, Kenny Dalglish, was being handed his P45 by the Fenway Sports Group.

Most people will shrug and accept that this is merely the fickle and transient nature of football management: hero one day, zero the next (or vice versa).  This precarious position is the by-product of a myth.  This myth of football management discounts all other factors and reduces the explanation of any team’s performance to one simple thing: how well the manager is (or isn’t) doing his job.

Sociologist Stephen Wagg has been writing on this subject since the 1980s and he argues that while managers clearly have some importance the overriding focus on them – the myth – has “colonized our commonsense” and has come about “because it suited the interests of all interested parties: administrators, club proprietors, the football media, players, ex-players and aspiring technocrats”.  Yet, how was this myth created?  Neither for the first nor the last time, it was an aspect of football which had much to do with the sport’s life-long lover: the media, and the development and importance of the position of the manager mirrored the development of the media during the same period.

The modern Press was born in the late 1800s thanks to technological innovations such as the rotary press, the telegraph and the railways as well as a wide-spread increase in literacy.  At around the same time public school chaps from across England were meeting to agree a set of rules for the modern game and as the Press and football took on the forms that we recognise today they developed a close relationship each helping to promote and popularise the other.

During this period there was no TV, nor even radio, only birds tweeted and reporters didn’t have to worry about those troublesome bloggers.  While a chattier reporting style did eventually develop, straightforward, factual match reporting was the bedrock of Press coverage.  As such there was no post-match rush for a few nuggets of golden copy from the manager nor any mid-week Press conferences to frame the narrative of the weekend’s matches and anyway at this stage of the game’s development the manager was an alien concept, with teams still being picked by committees.

During the inter-war years the Press – particularly Sunday papers such as The People and The News of the World – increased it’s coverage of the game.  The chatty style was honed to perfection and while headlines got bigger sentences and paragraphs got shorter and snappier and a “human-interest” angle started to appear in reports.  Local papers also capitalised on the booming interest in football with special post-match additions such as “green-uns” or “pink-uns” and increasingly these became a forum for fans to vent their collective spleens about those running their clubs.  The directors realised they needed a human shield and so they pushed the manager out into the spotlight (or firing line, depending on how you look at it).  With football club directors becoming increasingly distant figures and with players often banned from speaking to the Press, so the manager was the mouthpiece of their club.

By the 1930s a new fangled device called radio also brought managers to a wider audience.  John Reith the autocratic first Director General of the BBC on his mission to “educate, inform and entertain” wanted to bring different classes together and promote a sense of national identity and he took a keen interest in football as a means of doing this.  The Beeb had broadcast more than 100 League matches by 1931 when the Football League banned live commentary on games (blaming that and not the Great Depression for a fall in attendances) however, the following season the BBC broadcast a series of talks on football including interviews with managers such as Leicester’s Peter Hodges on “Team Building and General Managerial Worries or Practices”.  The talks continued until the 1940s when Wolves’ Frank Buckley suggested there should be a British league and the equally bizarre notion that clubs should test their mettle against each other in a pan-European notion with the teams travelling by airplane no less.

While the inter-war years had seen the manager gain more importance and the media-manager courtship begin, it was only after the Second World War that, but for a few exceptions such as Herbert Chapman, the first wave of managers as the absolute personification of their club came along.  This group, which included Sir Matt Busby (Manchester United), Stan Cullis (Wolves), Don Revie (Leeds United), Bill Shankly (Liverpool), Bill Nicholson (Spurs) and Jock Stein (Celtic), gained increased autonomy as club directors recognised that with the increased risks commercialisation of the game brought there was a need for specialists to run the playing side of the club. At the pinnacle of course there was Sir Alf, the man whose achievements all other England managers have been living down from ever since.

Walter Winterbottom was Ramsey’s predecessor but he was at the mercy of the FA’s international selection committee who, following the infamous 6-3 defeat at Wembley in 1953, were identified as “the guilty men” by Desmond Hackett of the Daily Express.  So began a concerted campaign to appoint a manager who was a former professional with sole powers of selection.  Ramsey was the papers’ and the fans’ choice and the FA did as they were told and gave him the job in 1963.  Not for the last time, the appointment of the England manager was heavily influenced by the Press.

When Ramsey’s wingless-wonders won the World Cup the manager was knighted in 1967.  Of the players (you know, the guys who’d actually broken a sweat) only captain Bobby Moore was honoured the same year (with an OBE).  Hat-trick hero Geoff Hurst had to wait until 1975 for his MBE while five of the team received no recognition from Her Majesty until 2000.  That ennoblement from Buckingham Palace, with its implicit suggestion that success was principally down to Ramsey, meant manager myth was completely cemented into football-media culture and from that point on it was just a case of embellishing it.

Coverage of the 1966 World Cup had seen the creation of the first panels of TV experts but they had been black and white, staid and very fusty affairs.  Fast forward four years and the chance to cover England’s attempts to retain the World Cup in Mexico saw the concept of the expert panel reinvigorated.

ITV’s Brian Moore said they wanted “one or two extroverts” and that’s what they got with cigar-wielding Malcolm Allison expounding his belief that England was better in Europe “because we play against peasants, teams who play in primitive ways” alongside Derek Dougan, Pat Crerand and Bob McNab.  The quartet threw their Union Jack ties to the floor in disgust as England were knocked-out and despite having Brian Clough in their ranks, the BBC’s panel paled by comparison.

As with newspapers several decades earlier, so football’s development in the 1970s and 1980s was fuelled by the rise in the importance of a new form of media, this time television. Once again football and the media fed off each other in what became a crucial period which shaped our notions of the modern English game and the manager’s place within it, building on the relationship that had been established between the Press and managers in the 1930s.

Despite the fact no league games were broadcast live between 1960 and 1983, the BBC and ITV still saw football (and sport more generally) as a ratings battleground.  Both developed football highlight shows and Saturday afternoon magazine programmes, Match of the Day and Football Focus for the BBC and The Big Match and On the Ball, then Saint and Greavsie for ITV.  Building on the dynamic developed with the Press since the 1930s, the men in the dugout were central to this, perpetuating the myth that they and they alone, were crucial to a club’s success, helping them gain yet more power.  The increasing TV exposure meant that when the managers weren’t spending big money, devising tactics and telling players and directors how things were they were appearing on chat shows with Parky.

The launch of the Premier League and the huge increase in the amount of hours TV coverage devoted to the League both in England and a round the world increased the focus on the manager further still as did the introduction in 2003 of the transfer windows.  This move which concentrated transfer speculation to two specific periods, immediately limited what had been a regular source of stories for the media

The fact this manager myth built up in England also explains the distrust of or even basic ignorance about the role a “football director” (whatever that means) has to play in the running of a club.  Yet all the best managers have worked in tandem with other people from Clough and Peter Taylor to Arsène Wenger and David Dein.  When Dein left Arsenal in 2007 Wenger said: “It is a huge disappointment because we worked very closely together; David has contributed highly to the success of the club in the last 10 years.”  The Frenchman is pilloried for the fact that The Gunners haven’t won anything for the last seven seasons but rarely do people ask what role Dein’s departure may have in that.

The focus on the manager has also led to a focus on every nuance of their behaviour.  Among all the analysis of Roy Hodgson’s Euro 2012 squad the Guardian ran a blog focusing solely on his demeanour at the Press conference in which he made the announcement.  Roy was “single-minded” and “clipped, bullish, even discreetly wiry in his midnight-blue suit”.  How Hodgson addressed the assembled media will have little, if any, bearing on how well England does in Poland and Ukraine.  The colour of his suit even less so but he is The Manager and thusly it must be analysed (although to be fair a few days later the same paper was asking if Mark Zuckerberg should do business in a hoodie).

It’s not just manager’s football-related behaviour that’s analysed either.  Arguably Sven-Göran Eriksson and José Mourinho represent the apex of the manager-as-celebrity paradigm.  When Eriksson was England boss there was as much interest in his private life as there was in his skills as football manager and his celebrity status even rubbed off on other people (as it were).  His long-term partner Nancy Dell’Olio tangoed her way through three shows in the 2011 series of Strictly Come Dancing while Faria Alam (the FA secretary with whom he had an affair) spent 14 days in the Celebrity Big Brother house in 2006.  In both ladies’ cases the only qualification for being invited onto the shows seemed to be their relationship with a football manager.

While Eriksson’s star is perhaps on the wane (he’s been out of work since being given the boot by Leicester City in the same week Nancy was dumped out of Strictly) Mourinho’s is still very much in the ascendancy.  Having just added La Liga to titles in three other countries the plaudits continue to rain down upon him, however less attention is paid to the huge budgets he has to work with and the players he has at his disposal.

But I doubt the self-styled Special One cares too much.  Rarely one to shy away from the media spotlight he’s always willing to play up to the myth a prime example being in an American Express advert he stared in, and helped script, when he was at Chelsea.  The advert purported to show a day in Mourinho’s life starting when he arrives in his kitchen just in time to catch his daughter’s toast as it pops out of the toaster.  Next he takes her to school and puts up his umbrella before it starts raining (all the other fools have to run for cover).  The family business out of the way, it’s down to the day job and, having explained to his team what he wants them to do, he is the only person in the stadium who doesn’t celebrate when they follow his instructions and score a goal.  But why would he?  He knew exactly what was going to happen; he’s the manager and, of course, it’s all down to him.

By Roger Domeneghetti

This article originally appeared in In Bed with Maradona