I caught up with Stan Collymore in Dublin during the week for a conversation which produced our story on Thursday that, even though he only spent six months playing under Martin O’Neill at Leicester City, the striker still reckoned the Derry man was the manager who had the greatest influence on him in his entire 14 years in the game.
But that revelation came in the context of some broader observations that the former Liverpool, Aston Villa and England man had to make about management in the Premier League this season. This may well be the era of the superstar gaffer, a time when there is arguably more galactico content in the dug-out than on the pitch, but Collymore has a theory about a subtle evolution in the role which, if correct, could signal more trouble ahead for Jose Mourinho.
The warning signs were clearly there last season at Chelsea, he suggested, when Mourinho broke with what he calls “footballing omerta, or the Fergie philosophy if you like, that you don’t slag off your players in public.” And part of the ultimately heavy price he paid for not adhering to that principle was that “Eden Hazard didn’t turn up for him.”
Now, Collymore is increasingly of the opinion that, as the big beasts of management lock horns in the Premier League, the “marginal gains” will be made by those with experience of the game as players.
“It’s interesting that Hazard has already made comments this season about how Antonio Conte understands the players,” he observed. “And you had Fabian Delph saying he learned more in his first week with Pep Guardiola than he had in his career.”
For Collymore, this all indicates the unfolding of a new era in football management, a point where old and new schools intersect.
Embarking on a succinct history lesson, he reflected: “We went from the greats of the Boot Room at Anfield onto Alex Ferguson and then came this Arsene Wenger who came from nowhere but had a really good understanding of the young talent coming up in France. And then on the back of that, there was the emergence of Jose Mourinho. And it was like, we don’t need football men anymore, we just need people with great contacts who can motivate and who are little more cerebral than the bog-standard football character.
“Whereas what we’ve got now, as a reaction to that, is we have football people that are also more cerebral, who have been in the bubble for 10 or 15 years and are much more savvy about media, more comfortable with the use of stats and data.
“So we’ve seen old school management, which kind of finished with Fergie. Then new school management which meant getting bright people to run football teams. And now it’s about getting bright football people to run football teams.
“And so I wonder, particularly when it comes to dealing with young players, whether the likes of Guardiola, Conte and Klopp might have the better of Mourniho for having had successful football careers. And where Fergie used to be his main rival, now you have four or five managers who are very passionate on the touchline and who do seem to respect that omerta in the dressing room.
“I remember speaking to John Robertson — who, of course, was Martin O’Neill’s assistant for many years — at Aston Villa a few years ago, and I asked what the younger players were like in the dressing room. And he said they were nearly all pretty much robotic automatons, not a lot of characters. They’d all come through the academies from the age of 11, all cookie-cutter, and he said you had to keep lifting them up.
“Now if you’ve got a manager like Jose Mourinho who will do that for a finite amount of time but then, if things aren’t going well, will quite happily turn on them, then that logically explains what happened at Chelsea. Manchester United are a club with a global standing and so the question is will he be politically savvy enough that, inevitably when things don’t go right for him, he can bite his tongue. I saw in a press conference the other day (after the defeat to Manchester City) that he wanted to dig one or two out, and he didn’t.”
For what it’s worth, Collymore has seen nothing so far this season to change his pre-kick off conviction that Manchester City will win the title. But he believes the Premier League still has so much ground to make up in Europe that, even with Pep Guardiola at the helm, City won’t be claiming the ultimate prize in May.
“I do think City could get as far as the final of the Champions League this year but I still don’t think they’ll win it,” he said, “because, when you look at Barcelona and Real Madrid, they’ve both got more than one match-winner in their team, and I think Bayern Munich have a really good manager in Carlo Ancelotti who’s been there and done it.” And, as for United, he reckons the wait will be considerably longer. If you sat down and asked Jose Mourinho for his honest opinion, he’d say three years at least before United can seriously think of Champions League success. And that’s hoping everyone else stands still. Messi’s not going to go on forever and Ronaldo’s not going to go on forever but Neymar and Suarez are fine for a few more years. I remember tweeting when Alex Ferguson left, ‘United fans, welcome to mortality’. Well, we’re still waiting for Barca and Real to come back to mortality.”
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