I was there (I’m not saying where) when a certain football manager reacted adversely to the idea of being asked about football by “a bloody bird.” That incident led indirectly to Harry Enfield and Paul Whitehouse writing a very funny sketch which you can still find on YouTube (see below).
I have been in many a stadium tunnel as a manager reacted angrily to what seemed like a reasonable question. And I have heard the odd reporter ask a question that left me looking for the nearest exit.
I was even once a victim of mistaken identity at Wembley and found myself being pinned up against the wall of the tunnel by a red faced and very angry well known official of the Football Association. His punch was only stopped by a former TV colleague (the “bloody bird” in question).
Interviewing a losing football manager is like walking on eggshells.
I thought it was very brave of BBC reporter Damian Johnson to ask Martin O’Neill if he was a man “full of self doubt.” The question came after Sunderland had lost to Chelsea.
I think it took much self control for Martin to not do what his former mentor Brian Clough might have done. Throw a punch.
You can say many things about O’Neill. Accusing him of self doubt is akin to asking Lionel Messi if he is lucky in front of goal.
An answer in the affirmative is never going to be forthcoming.
On Tuesday night Martin O’Neill leads his struggling Sunderland team into what is already the proverbial ‘6 pointer.’ A relegation clash at home to Reading, another side facing the drop. Quite what has gone wrong at Sunderland I have no idea. I expect O’Neill knows.
Two wins from fifteen league games this season represents his biggest challenge for a while. Perhaps since the days when his Leicester City side were in trouble. In those days he kept written complaints from fans in a draw. This was in the days before Twitter.
Martin did not throw away complaining letters. He kept the ones from fans who identified themselves. Then, when the situation improved at Leicester, he rang up some of those fans and asked the moaners: “what are your thoughts now?”
Martin O’Neill is a supremely confident man. Not in the often arrogant manner of Clough. He is as difficult to get to know as his former boss at Nottingham Forest, and he certainly does not suffer fools gladly. Cross him and he will not forget it.
Damian Johnson is a good reporter. A proper sports journalist who has learned his craft over several years. When I was producing sports programmes at Yorkshire TV, Damian was at BBC Look North and I have watched his developing and maturing on air reporting career with interest. We never worked together so he has no reason to know me and I have no reason to blow smoke up his backside.
But O’Neill and I go way back and have always got on. So I guess I am biased.
I do know that Martin will have made a mental note for the next time Johnson puts a microphone under his nose. Which, I understand, could be as soon as next week. Tread carefully Damian.
In my experience Martin O’Neill is a coach loved by players who want to work for a living. Players who are keen to improve their game. O’Neill loathes slackers almost as much as he despises their agents.
I cannot help but feel that O’Neill is one of those managers who will find his job ever more difficult in the era of millionaire footballers, many of whom are more interested in their bank balance than their personal match statistics.
I know many players who have worked for O’Neill and they have nothing but good things to say about his coaching, managerial and motivational skills. But those players would run through brick walls for the man in a different era. Not a hundred years ago, but in very different times.
He is not alone. I know of managers who were themselves players in the same era as O’Neill. At least three of them have given up trying to manage modern day players who would often, as one former Premiership manager told me: “wave their wad of cash, pay cheque or medals in front of my face and ask me how much I earn, or ask to see my medals.”
“Some players today are simply unmangeable” he told me. “Their whole attitude is that they are bigger than both manager and club. I feel sure Martin is experiencing that right now at Sunderland. I expect the January transfer market can’t come soon enough for him.”
O’Neill says of the perceived pressure placed on him and other managers these days: “I don’t think when I was playing there was this knee jerk reaction. Managers were not sacked for losing a few games regardless of where the team was in the table.”
I would love Martin O’Neill to manage my team.
I thought the Aston Villa fans who gave him so much verbal abuse were, frankly, deluded. O’Neill got Villa into the top six season after season. The fans were misguided. They thought Villa owner Randy Lerner was some sort of philanthropist and that he would endlessly invest.
But, when push came to shove, he refused to back O’Neill and sold his best Villa players from under him. He replaced O’Neill with Gerard Houllier and the club never looked forward!
Confident men like O’Neill are now stuck between arrogant players, whose talent is infinitesimal compared to their wage, and club owners who want to be seen as the saviour of a club.
As one former manager told me: “If you have neither Chairman or players on your side, you’re doomed. Being a football manager can be a very lonely occupation.”
I have time and respect for both managers who meet in Sunderland tomorrow night. I don’t envy them their current stress levels. And, as ever, I don’t envy the person who has to ask a losing manager about their future job prospects.