OUR office has a resident West Bromwich Albion fan and it’s the duty of all of us to listen to Paul’s moans. A mediocre season could yet get worse because “The Albion”, as he calls them, aren’t safe from relegation and the seemingly-doomed have suddenly remembered how to win football matches. “I’m worried about Leicester City,” he admitted the other day. “Their manager is bloody frightening. Did you know he once wrestled a bear and won?”
Now, Nigel Pearson might want to pounce on this as yet more evidence of how we journalists get stuff wrong, misinterpret innocently, embellish slightly less innocently, choose the sensational line – and then run to the nearest phones with such goggle-eyed zeal that the entire row of booths topples over, just like in the film Airplane! See what happened just there? I embellished. We choose the sensational line and file our stories via laptops now. But you lot don’t care about such mundane mechanics. You just want to know about the bear.
‘Pearson was hiking in Romania when he was attacked by a pack of vicious dogs’
There wasn’t one. The bear was a good-going rumour for a while although the yarn is still a corker. What really happened was that Pearson was hiking in Romania when he was attacked by a pack of vicious dogs. He’d read up on these hounds who hung out in the Carpathian mountains, protecting their owners’ sheep, regularly killing bears, which might explain the confusion. He swung at them with his walking pole before diving into stinging nettles where the dogs, with their sensitive noses, wouldn’t venture. He thought they’d gone but they were waiting for him round the next bend and it was only when, backed up against a tree, Pearson jabbed them in the eyes that the slavering beasties finally gave up.
What did he feel like in that incredible post-match press conference last week? Did it seem as if he’d been cornered by more slavering beasties? I’m sorry, but the animal references are unavoidable, even to us hacks who say we leave the corny gags and the amateur psychology to the tabloids. Pearson, manager of the Foxes, seemed to behave like a bear with a sore head after the Chelsea defeat. And let’s not forget the ostrich.
“If you don’t know the answer to that question,” he said to the hack who’d upset him, “then I think you are an ostrich. Your head must be in the sand. Is your head in the sand? Are you flexible enough to get your head in the sand? My suspicion would be no.”
“Astonishing… bizarre,” declared the headline writers and the following day Pearson was involved in another heated exchange with a radio reporter who asked if he was worried about becoming a bully and whether he’d considered getting help for anger management. Really, these bust-ups were no more astonishing or bizarre than others involving Pearson this season, including that strange tussle with Crystal Palace’s James McArthur on the touchline, his “sacking” 24 hours later and the spat with an abusive Leicester fan, Pearson telling him to “f**k off and die”. But let’s concentrate on how managers react in the aftermath of disappointing results, the duties they’re obliged to fulfil, what they say at such moments and whether we should be surprised when they occasionally explode.
Last point first: We shouldn’t. When the final whistle has blown, everything is raw and tingling like a bad shin gash and not conducive to calm, considered assessment. Calm, considered assessment – if you’re lucky – is what you’ll get in the papers two days after the game. Post-match interviews are not set up so that the manager can have had time to sip a reflective cup of tea before he speaks. They’re scheduled so that, if crockery has flown across the dressing-room or if there’s been a row with the tea-lady, the press corps will be the very next people the manager meets.
Everyone thinks that Jose Mourinho is the master of the post-match interview because this born controversialist thinks about his every provocative utterance. I’ve never believed this. Immediately afterwards, there simply isn’t the time. When he stands in front of a sponsors’ hoarding on TV he looks stubbly and surly and slightly deranged. I don’t think he knows what’s about to come out of his mouth. His soundbites are splurgy, spontaneous and, often, pure gold.
At these moments we want managers to speak off-the-cuff, freewheel a bit, be passionate and – go on, then – controversial. Football, as we’re often told, is a branch of the entertainment industry. But some are better at the post-match interview than others. Pearson has been honest enough to admit to wondering if he’s really cut out for the job of manager. “I love football,” he remarked recently, “but I remember working with Sam Allardyce at Newcastle and him saying: ‘I f***ing hate matchdays.’ I know where he was coming from. The nerves, the emotion, the build-up to a game is horrible. This job is love-hate. It motivates me but also brings out the worst. It’s like being a masochist.”
Some managers, feeling cornered in the interview-room, and without Pearson’s walking pole to hand, will resort to sarcasm. They might be wilfully obtuse in their responses, or deliberately contrary. They might try to belittle the reporter in front of his colleagues. Pearson apologised to journo Ian Baker for the ostrich jibe, just as Jim McLean said sorry to the BBC’s John Barnes for biffing him, resigning as Dundee United chairman as well. We want passion from our football men but within reason.
The default position of many managers is that only a true football man can know what it’s like to be in their position. Sitting in the pressbox every week isn’t enough. You need to have played the game or been a boss like them to properly understand why Brian Laudrup and Basile Boli can be bought at great expense by Rangers and, with their great reputations, still under-perform. This, you’ll remember, was what irked Walter Smith about Chick Young in a notorious interview which ultimately wasn’t transmitted because of the high amount of swearing but is still available on YouTube – Young didn’t understand.
Do drama critics who’ve never written a play get the bards of theatreland adopting such a superior tone? And why can political leaders respond calmly to being called liars, as happened in last week’s TV election debate, when managers react so badly to the slightest inferred criticism? That politicians are involved in a popularity contest while, as Pearson said, managers aren’t, only partly answers the question.
We, the humble hacks, will never know what it’s like to be a top footballer but we remain intensely curious and ever hopeful that managers will tell us – though of course we love the knockabout of the post-match interview, just as long as it doesn’t get to knockout. Those once blackballed by Sir Alex Ferguson – “Yooz are all f****n’ idiots” – still carry around their banning orders like badges of honour.