Owners - what do they know? | The Anfield Wrap

IMAGINE walking into a garage, plucking a spanner from the mechanic’s hand and saying ‘hang on, mate – you do it like THIS, I’ve seen it on the telly’.

You wouldn’t dream of it, would you? So why do we – the football fan collective – think we know better than managers just because we’ve watched the game and spooned the odd chance wide on a pub field?

We all do it. Slag off the manager’s team selections, the transfers, the tactics, the substitutions, even what is said in the post-match press conference.

It spawns a thousand blogs, tactical charts, podcasts, phone-ins, fanzines and bar-room conversations.

Yet step out of the football bubble and think about things rationally for a moment. Go on, it’s good for you. We really don’t know better do we?

If you’ve ever had the pleasure of talking informally to someone who is a top-level football coach you’ll know exactly how limited your knowledge is as a fan compared to someone who has lived and breathed the game from the inside for a long period.

Add to that the information you never have at your grasp. How fit, really, is a player? What’s their attitude like? How have they performed in training? Are they carrying an injury?

Some of this information never makes it into the public domain for obvious reasons. They know, we don’t.

But all that said there’s no real harm done. Football supporters have moaned, groaned and griped since year dot. It’s what we do.

When it becomes a whole lot more sinister is when people with power start playing the same games as fans.

Modern-day football owners are now, more and more, entrepreneurial high-flyers. People who want to make money. People who want the prestige of having a football club in their portfolio.

It’s light years away from the ‘local fan come good’ model that was so often the norm in the past.

Anybody who watched the excellent BBC2 documentary QPR: The Four Year Plan can’t have failed to have shifted uncomfortably in their seat as Flavio Briatore, a man largely devoid of football experience, dictated to managers, swore at players and disposed of coaches like a smoked cigarette (nine full-time and caretaker managers led the team during his reign).

Within minutes of the film beginning he was seen describing successive managers as “that fucking hooligan” and “that prick in the dugout”.

The supremely confident F1 mogul even waved away fans’ protests: “I want the names of who is booing me, or I sell the club!”

His comedy sidekick, chairman of the time Gianni Paladini, didn’t fare much better and the pair become embroiled in influencing substitutions, loaning out top scorer Dexter Blackstock against the manager’s wishes, and openly instructing the gaffer to change tactics.

Scary stuff, and a film that must surely leave any fan wondering quite what really goes on behind the scenes at their own clubs.

Paulo Sousa, one of the managers shown the door at QPR, has since said: “Interference from the boardroom in team matters – both in the dressing-room and at the training ground – meant no-one stood a chance.”

Quite. Who would you want calling the shots – the football man or the businessman?

But was the situation at QPR extreme? Not so, according to many football journalists who watched it, no doubt nodding knowingly throughout.

As illuminating as the cameras were, evidence of interference from the boardroom is rife and there’s a worrying new wave of suits poking in their noses in a far from subtle way.

In 2008, when asked about then Manchester City owner Thaksin Shinawatra effectively making Sven Goran Eriksson a dead man walking at Eastlands, Alex Ferguson revealed: “At some other clubs the owners want to pick the team. I know at one club the owner faxes his team to the manager every Saturday morning. Can you believe that?”

Last season, Wigan owner Dave Whelan publicly criticised manager Roberto Martinez’s team selection after the Latics lost to Swansea.

“That was the worst performance in four or five years and I’ll be meeting with Roberto on Monday,” he told the media.

“I’ll be asking some questions about the performance and the selection. There were three quality players on the bench and I want to know why.”

To be fair to Whelan, he has actually played professional football so that sets him apart from most of the people quaffing champagne in club boardrooms.

But how did his actions help Wigan on that occasion?

As it was, he accepted he was in the wrong a few days later: “He [Martinez] told me that eight players had been away on international duty and that two of them never arrived back until after 7pm on Friday night. I was not aware that we had eight players away.

“I fully accept what he said and I back him fully.”

Whelan’s actions, however, pale into insignificance when compared to what’s been going on lower down the leagues at Bournemouth.

Trailing 1-0 in a home match with MK Dons, owner Russian oil billionaire Maxim Demin and his wife decided it would be a good thing to enter the changing room to talk to the players at half time.

If that wasn’t cringe worthy and worrying enough, the Cherries lost the game 1-0 and chairman Eddie Mitchell then went on Radio Five Live to explain what had happened and swore three times, prompting presenter Mark Chapman to cut him off.

Mitchell later explained that he did not know the interview was being broadcast live on air, but insisted that there was nothing wrong with Mrs Demin offering her words of encouragement.

“She and her husband have put a lot of energy and a lot of money into the club through me and I believe that she is entitled to express her opinion,” he said.

Money, it seems, is a match for knowledge.

Mitchell has form for odd behaviour. After coming under fire for selling much of the side that reached a League One play-off semi-final last season, he told critics at a fans forum that those who disagreed with his management style should “go and support Southampton”.

And after defeat to Chesterfield – their fifth in a row – earlier in the season, Mitchell went on to the field at the final whistle in what looked like an attempt to reason with hostile fans.

Stewards stepped in after he appeared to beckon several supporters on to the pitch and he then returned with a microphone to address the crowd.

His comments, picked up by the BBC, included an invitation for “the lad in the leather jacket whose eyes seem to be popping out of his head – why don’t you jump over the fence and come and have a chat with me? Come on then. One to one?”

While Mitchell clearly favours the all guns blazing approach, Roman Abramovich has behaved more like a silent assassin at Chelsea.

Widely reported to have bought Andriy Shevchenko and Fernando Torres without the knowledge of the man in the dugout, the Russian, another known to visit the dressing room on a regular basis, has worked his way through eight managers in nine years, none of whom have left Stamford Bridge with a win percentage of less than 50 per cent.

He may argue his decision to axe Andres Villas Boas was vindicated but it’s hardly a healthy situation is it?

More oar-sticking was reported at Wolves before Mick McCarthy was sacked when owner Steve Morgan entered the dressing to barrack the players after a 3-0 defeat to Liverpool.

McCarthy, a manager for 20 years, revealed that it was the first time he’d witnessed a chairman act in such a manner before, with tongue firmly bit, adding: “If I was delighted with it I suppose I would say that.”

These examples are just the tip of the iceberg.

Venky’s promised Ronaldinho, David Beckham and Lionel Messi at Blackburn.

Former Liverpool co-owner George Gillett answered a transfer budget request from ex-boss Rafa Benitez by telling the Spaniard he’d spotted a new running machine in America, and perhaps if he got one it would improve the players he already had.

Too often, these people know nothing of the game we love yet their own ego permits them to get involved, frequently with disastrous consequences.

The fans, the players, the managers…well, why do they matter?

Bill Shankly famously said: “At a football club, there’s a holy trinity – the players, the manager and the supporters. Directors don’t come into it. They are only there to sign the cheques.”

If only that were true.

This article first appeared in Late Tackle Magazine 

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