Not long ago, the cult of the manager was under threat. Sure, the gaffer was never more important or regarded. But the ‘project manager’ era was upon us. The best bosses were spinning on the European merry-go-round, cutting and pasting their philosophies and methods onto each of the game’s superclubs in turn.
You could do things the clean way, with an executive Ancelotti package, a no-fuss, blue-chip bet on competitive respectability and impeccable boardroom relations. Or if you wanted more headlines and enemies, there was the Mourinho option, with higher insurance premiums and the need to collect trophies quickly before the whole club blazed in a fire.
Then there was Pep, the continent’s giants forming a rondo, waiting to be passed the one true philosophy. A frictionless guarantee of 100% possession and record points tallies, as long as you had a billion to spend.
People were bound to tire of it all sooner or later, and focus on players instead. But something shifted. Perhaps it was global ennui and the yearning for belief systems to replace religion. Maybe the renaissance of the pressing game required something more persuasive to get players to run around like never before.
Whatever it was, the messiahs have risen again. And two of them will face off in Madrid tonight. In Klopp v Poch: Battle of the Supermanagers on Channel 4 Thursday night, cult members lined up to give praise to their lords.
“He has this aura, this spiritual connection,” Jermaine Jenas said of Poch. “You seek his presence.”
“We’d all love to play for him,” said Lawro, of Klopp. “He’s got it. Whatever it is.”
While Steven Gerrard performed a ceremonial handover of the torch of unbelievable belief he once carried for Liverpool:
Unbelievable belief has always had its place in the language of football. But now it has become about building connections and releasing emotions and, in Poch’s case, the summoning of universal energy — this week by getting Spurs players to walk on hot coals.
There is a lot demanded of the modern messiah. These are gaffers who can harness the power of riotous laughter, yet are always ready to dissolve into tears. They have to combine the instinct for context of a historian, the conscience of a social worker, the knack of a snake oil salesman, and the pop psychologist’s gift for aphorisms.
Poch has always cut a resemblance to coach Eric Taylor from Friday Night Lights and it would be easy to picture him in the Wanda Metropolitano dressing room tonight, leading a chorus of ‘Clear eyes, full hearts, can’t lose’.
“Life is a present,” said Klopp this week. “We have to deal carefully with it and have fun with it.”
Less “can he do it on a Tuesday night in Stoke?”, more can he teach you as much about the human condition as Tuesdays with Morrie. Management is no longer about copying and pasting a philosophy, rather about building a bespoke ideology for your flock.
Big ideas are needed, but you will pay the price for slavish devotion to ideas over the building of connections. Chelsea, admittedly a place where it is difficult to see any kind of spirituality flourish, have rejected Sarriball like a transplanted heart. At Arsenal, perhaps Unai Emery just hasn’t been able to communicate what it is he is trying to do, or decide who he wants to connect with.
And while Ole Gunnar Solskjaer has attempted to weave a belief system by connecting United to its past, he may as well go ahead and park in the manager’s space now Fergie has made it clear he’d have preferred Poch all along.
Perhaps Poch’s first big break came courtesy of Roy Hodgson, who advised him not to speak English in his first pressers at Southampton, and instead use an interpreter. “This allows you to have a wall. Gives you a bit of mystery.”
At Spurs, Poch has gradually revealed his joyful and sorrowful and glorious mysteries, though he insists his universal energy could vault any language barrier.
“You can speak very good English but without translating any emotion or feeling, which is pointless. When I am in front of people, everything changes. It’s like I was born to be there. It’s hard to explain, but I look in people’s eyes and it becomes easy to connect.”
He has built connections and transformed Tottenham. Or, in today’s parlance, altered its DNA. Washed it of its Spursiness. Tipped the balance of North London power.
In everyday life, meanwhile, unbelievable belief has taken us into dark corners. This week, Tory leadership contender Rory Stewart rued devotion to ideas over connections when it comes to Brexit.
“I was trying recently to stuff three bin bags into a small bin and my wife said: ‘You’re never going to be able to fit these things in’. And I thought — what would it mean to turn around and say: ‘Believe in the bin.’ The same with believing in Britain, optimism starts with reality.”
For optimism to survive in football, whatever about politics, the new reality is that the manager must first be the kind of man you wouldn’t mind being stuck in a line with, as former Tottenham defender Ryan Mason explained this week.
“I’ll never forget that first pre-season tour to America. We were stuck in a long passport queue and I suddenly realised I was standing next to him (Poch). With other managers that might be awkward, but we ended up chatting for 20 minutes and I can honestly say I learnt more in that time than in years under other managers.”
On the front cover of Germany’s Manager magazine this month, Klopp is tagged ‘Der Feelgood Boss’. He also made the cover of German GQ, editor Tom Junkersdorf noting: “The way he hugs his players, that’s how people want to be loved, not only on the field but in modern companies as well.”
Before we hold up gaffers as exemplars of human resource practices, we should acknowledge that football retains certain unique advantages in this arena. Poch, in particular, has been able to avail of a maxim he learned from another venerable figure of English management, Howard Wilkinson:
“You can’t only be 99% belief, it needs to be at 100%. If you can’t manage that, it doesn’t mean you’re a bad person. It just means you don’t fit in here.”
So the elite bosses don’t have to work too hard to sell a way of life to men like Emmanuel Adebayor. But they must sell something to the flock, to make the connections with the fan base.
“Klopp is not selling anything, just himself,” Jürgen Klinsmann insisted in Klopp v Poch.
“His big advantage is that his image is not far from his personality,” Christoph Nesshoever says, in Manager magazine. “He doesn’t have to act differently in public than in private.”
Regardless, the touchline antics do seem a shade self-conscious, the goal celebrations a touch too choreographed, and Nesshoever notes: “He is cautious over how he is seen. He had new hair implanted, he changed his teeth for a nicer smile. He works hard on his brand.”
The Poch brand won’t be damaged tonight. Clear-eyed or not, he can’t really lose, as long as Spurs hearts are full. This campaign has produced as much last-minute drama as any Friday Night Lights.
Neither should a Tottenham win undermine anything Klopp has achieved, though cults aren’t built on logic. And another final defeat might just leave the smallest crack in his status as a spiritual leader, a figurehead people will follow. And you can’t only be 99% belief — it needs to be at 100%.