The Premier League’s Perpetual Managerial Soap Opera

by | Jan 7, 2016

If there’s one thing that we can all agree on as the Premier League takes a short break in favour of the FA Cup Third Round, it’s that this has been a most unusual season so far in this particular division. And while the Scudamores of this world may choose to reap whatever positive headlines can be gained from this, it doesn’t seem unreasonable to suggest that little of the relative unpredictability that we have seen over the last five months or so was planned. As greater and greater amounts of money have sluiced through the top division of English football over the last quarter of a century, whether through ever-rising television contracts, increased commercial revenues, the involvement of the hyper-wealthy or ballooning ticket prices, Premier League football has become a world of social stratification. The biggest clubs, broadly speaking, hoover up the top spots in the league while the rest fight for scraps and the occasional domestic trophy.

The fact that we’ve had a few unexpected results in the Premier League this season, however, hasn’t been enough entertainment for some, though. We live in a world that is media saturated nowadays, and this has come to mean an increasing clamour for narratives that don’t take place between three and five o’clock on a Saturday afternoon. The upshot of this is that professional football has increasingly come to resemble a soap opera, with its very own stars, plots and subplots, machinations and over exaggerated personalities. And at the very top of the cast lists of the families in these perpetual novelas documenting a battle for a nebulous form of victory that cannot by its very nature be eternal, are the heads of the families. The JR Ewings, the Rodrigo Borgias, the Don Corleones. Occasionally flawed, ruthlessly driven, the masters of all they survey who can be toppled at any moment. The managers.

The manager of a modern Premier League football club has to assume many roles, but it is as the conduit through whom the personality of his employers may be viewed that has come to be the most important. Every utterance is pored over, every decision torn to pieces in a quest for some form of inner truth or other. We have come to fetishise the football manager and project onto them powers that no human being could ever realistically hope to be able to wield. Rather than being a key cog in the overall wheel that makes up a football club, the manager has to assume a responsibility that is frequently unrealistic, and furthermore we sneer at them when they fail to live up to whatever lofty expectations we’ve projected onto them, as they almost inevitably do in the end.

It’s not only supporters who are complicit in this cycle, of course. The press has a long and ignoble history of manufacturing controversy for reasons that may or may not be limited to a desire to increase sales or drive clicks to their websites, their own amusement, a failure to play by their rules, getting (often understandably) snippy in press conferences or interviews or looking a bit odd. The likes of Louis Van Gaal, Jose Mourinho or anybody else you care to think about that ever gets sucked into this ultimately destructive spiral – and it’s a list that could go on and on ad infinitum – don’t suddenly lose the wealth of knowledge that they’ve accumulated over the course of decades in the game. You wouldn’t believe this if you read the majority of newspaper back pages on any given morning, though.

The changing role of the player may also be considered in this particular maelstrom as well. Twenty years ago, the phrase “losing the dressing room” was practically unheard of, but in 2016 it’s a given that a manager who wishes to stay in employment needs a greater degree of support amongst players than he ever would have done in the past. It might be suggested that players are starting to understand this leverage and could even be starting to use it to their advantage – persistent rumours coming out of Chelsea over the last few weeks or so would certainly bear this out – which wouldn’t be surprising, particularly when we consider the influence that many agents seem to have these days. When we add the reasonably well-established fact that club owners have in the past used managers as fig leaves for their own deficiencies, it becomes clear that the pressures that build upon managers do not come solely from external sources.

Small wonder, then, that the build-up to a manager losing his job can have a tendency to look like a soap opera killing off one of its main characters. Indeed, in the case of Jose Mourinho the manager, the whole episode took on a quasi-Shakespearean edge. How would he go? Stabbed on the steps like Julius Caesar? By placing an asp to his breast in the manner of Cleopatra? The whole story was so telegraphed in this respect that, writing in the Guardian, Marina Hyde called it before it even happened. Furthermore, our rush to build these stories means that as soon as one manager is dead and buried, the cycle starts all over again, only with a different target. It took barely any time following the departure of Mourinho from Stamford Bridge for attention to turn to Louis Van Gaal at Old Trafford. Van Gaal managed to stay on his tightrope over the Christmas and New Year period, but daggers are drawn for him and the white noise of speculation will continue to hum in the background until a spectacular run propels Manchester United back into contention in the title race or his team stumbles again.

We, the supporters, fall somewhere between the groundlings in the pit at the Globe theatre and the crowd at a public execution, shouting and jeering as a condemned man is led to the gallows. Or at least we would be, were this the seventeenth or eighteenth centuries. In the twenty-first century, we gather around water-coolers, or on social media. We look at the contenders to be replacements – increasingly, these days, before any swords have been fallen upon – and consider how the new stars of the show will fare in comparison with those that they are replacing. But the soap opera can never be decisively won. The soap opera will continue to go round in circles, in perpetuity.

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