My father used to say that public memory is notoriously short. He was referring to politics not football but that holds very true for the round ball game as well. And herein lies a contradiction. There is nothing that arouses greater fury in football, both among the fans and the media, than the hire fire policy of chairmen and the board of struggling clubs. The moan is that the money men who always know the price of everything and the value of nothing want instant success and just do not understand that success in football takes times.
Yet this season has provided a classic example of how the fans and the media have made instant judgements about managers. In line with the dictum of modern football that the immediate is always the harbinger of the future at various times Brendan Rodgers, Louis van Gaal and, now Arsene Wenger, have been like rabbits in the headlights.
Let us start with Rodgers. Until the turn of the year it was widely felt that Rodgers’ success last year, when he nearly won the League, was a fluke. The old joke in English football has been that Liverpool always come late to a party, make no contribution towards the cost, and end up drinking all the champagne. Now it was felt Rodgers would do well to get even a glass of cheap plonk.
At that stage the fall of Liverpool was quite remarkable. In six months Rodgers went from winning the club’s first ever Premier League title, and its first since 1990, but for a slip by Steven Gerrard against Crystal Palace, to a manager for whom bookmakers were offering odds on when he might get the sack.
But the fact was that Rodgers had not become a bad manager overnight. Yes, praise for his managership last season was somewhat overdone. He was not quite the miracle worker he was painted out to be. Nor was his near success last season quite as revolutionary as it seemed then. Even at the height of last season’s success there were signs that Rodgers’ team was not quite the old Liverpool which had dominated the English game since Bill Shankly brought the club up from the second division nearly six decades ago.
The Shankly teams, and those of his successors like Bob Paisley, were all built on one iron Anfield principle: a mean defence which gave nothing away. Last season Liverpool leaked goals in abundance and this was masked only by the magic of Luis Suarez up front. Rodgers cannot be blamed for Suarez’s departure. That was, probably, inevitable even before the Uruguayan showed that he had this extraordinary belief that in football you not only used your feet but also your teeth.
However, what Rodgers failed to do in the summer transfer market was to bolster his defence and, even worse, somehow think that getting Mario Balotelli would make up for the loss of Suarez. What Rodgers did not do, and could not do, was copy his old mentor Jose Mourinho and acquire a player like Diego Costa or bring back an old master like Didier Drogba, both moves which showed why Mourinho is such a cut above the rest of the managers. But while Rodgers has not been able to remodel Balotelli as Alex Ferguson remodelled Eric Cantona, and the Frenchman was even more impossible to manage than the Italian, Rodgers has shown since the new year that reports of his demise, like that of Mark Twain, were exaggerated.
But with the great compulsion to make instant judgements since then we have had much written about how Louis van Gaal is not working and, after Arsenal’s defeat at home against Monaco, why it is time for Wenger to go. The case against van Gaal has always been easy to make since he will always be judged by the standards Ferguson set and also because there is an antipathy to the Glazer ownership of the club. This makes any sign of lack of success on the field a wonderful opportunity to bash the Glazers again and talk of how their greed for money, rather than investment in players, is ruining the club.
Wenger presents a different problem. There has for some years now been a small but very vocal and strongly organised group at the Emirates who believe he reached his sell by date long ago. For them the fact that his revolutionary impact was not just on Arsenal but on the English game as a whole is old history. They point to the fact that his record since David Dein, his soulmate, was sacked has been quite dreadful. For this anti-Wenger group always qualifying for the Champions League, something all his competitors envy, or even last year’s FA Cup win count for little. What matters to them is winning the League and Wenger has not delivered. For years their complaint has been that he did not want to spend money. That can hardly be said after he signed Alexis Sanchez but the defeat against Monaco has renewed their belief that while Wenger may once have been a magician he has long lost all his magical potions.
But such a reaction merely demonstrates how easy it is in football to make instant judgements and often the wrong ones. The fact is that while Arsenal may not win the League they could still win the Cup and there is nothing to suggest they could not win on Wenger’s old stamping ground at Monaco by a sufficient margin to progress. If that happens no doubt another manager will be under the headlights. Only one thing is certain. The one man who will always escape such instant judgement is Jose Mourinho. But then he has always been the special one.