It’s taken a long time for Terry Butcher to make himself anything like as popular as a manager as he once was as a player, but this week the growing respect he has been earning for his achievements at Inverness has been further enhanced in the eyes of many by his plain-speaking on the subject of league reconstruction.
Butcher had his most successful playing days up in Scotland, but without being universally popular. Playing for one half of the Old Firm is of course going to have that effect, and he was one of the players convicted of breach of the peace after a particularly stormy Glasgow derby in 1987. Earlier in the same year he’d campaigned actively for Maggie Thatcher at the general election, which wasn’t the way to make yourself many friends north of the border either.
His managerial career started back down south, way back in 1990 and initially as a player / manager, with an unsucessful spell at Coventry, then an even less successful spell at Sunderland. There were to be a few years in the wilderness before he got his next chance in 2002, back in Scotland with Motherwell. Here at last he did okay, keeping the club steady and taking them to a cup final despite off-the-field turmoil that included an spell in administration.
Leaving in 2006 turned out to be a mistake, further unsucessful spells followed at Sydney and then Brentford, where he seemed to make himself especially unpopular, before he returned north of the border where the air seems to suit him best, first as assistant to George Burley with the national team, and then, in January 2009, as manager of Inverness, who were then involved in an SPL relegation battle.
He couldn’t keep them up, a final day defeat to Falkirk condemning them to their first ever relegation, and the following season they started slowly in the first division. But having been midtable in November, they finished the season with a 21 game unbeaten streak, easily overhauling a stuttering Dundee side to win the league – and only promotion spot – with something to spare. It was the first trophy Butcher had ever won as a manager, almost twenty years after first turning his hand to it, and only a cynic would observe that he had to get them relegated first.
Since then, his reputation has risen further, with Inverness making an impressive return to the SPL. Spurred on by their Irish duo – Jonny Hayes, signed from Leicester in 2009, and Adam Rooney, signed under previous management from Stoke in 2008 – they’re been consistently in the top half of the table so far, mostly on the back of their away form. Five wins on the road, plus some draws including comebacks at both the Glasgow clubs, extended their unbeaten away record to something over a year before it came to an end at St Johnstone earlier this month. Home form has been less impressive – just eight points from ten games – and they’re currently on an eight game winless streak, but nonetheless Butcher’s stock as a manager has never been higher.
And this week he’s made himself unexpectedly popular with a rant about league reconstruction in a post-match interview given to Radio Scotland on Tuesday night, in which he complained that his club, and others, were being bullied into proposals for a smaller top league, to which he expressed himself vehemently opposed. The rant struck a chord among the many fans who are equally opposed to the plans. One should, of course, be a little wary about assuming that the most vocal hard-core of supporters – those who express themselves through internet boards, polls and indeed blogs – are a typical cross-section of the country’s support. Nonetheless every survey and every indication available – this one from Supporters Direct, for example – suggests that matchgoing supporters are overwhelmingly opposed to a top division of ten teams.
Many people within football are equally doubtful, but plenty are hedging their bets, and even one or two of the apparent champions of a larger league failed to put their vote where their mouth was at the SPL’s meeting earlier in the week, fuelling concerns that there will eventually be a fudge with the critics bought off.
Butcher, on the other hand, was refreshingly unequivocal, and was entirely unconcerned about toeing the party line or upsetting his bosses at his own club. Actually, the reasoning he gave in that interview on Tuesday isn’t necessarily all that great – his main concern seemed to be that three teams would need to be relegated to create the smaller league, and that relegation is a financial catastrophe. Following that logic to its conclusion would see the SPL set up as a completely closed shop, and in any case the plan’s supporters would, quite legitimately as far as it goes, argue that one of the main aims of the reconstruction is to create a better-funded second tier precisely to lessen the impact of such relegations.
Still, it was a post-match interview, he’d just seen his team lose, and few managers are at their most articulate at such moments. He did better than most of us could for an off-the-cuff rant. And even if other people have arrived at the same conclusion by different reasoning, to have a prominent figure speak out against the plans so strongly has still been a big boost. It means there’s someone to take the case to a wider audience too – Butcher has been interviewed again by the BBC since, and will feature on Football Focus on Saturday lunchtime. If the preview clip is anything to go by, he’s got plenty more to say and some much more to-the-point questions to ask about just how the proposals are going to achieve anything.
It’s not going to make a big difference to anything by itself, of course, and the league reconstruction debate has plenty of mileage left in it yet. But fair play to him nonetheless. I hope he, and Inverness, continue to prosper, and I hope he continues to speak out where he feels the need to do so.
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