Gerard Houllier’s appointment as Aston Villa’s new manager on a three-year contract has highlighted the growing complexity and difficulty of selecting a Premier League manager. Choosing a new man to pick the team, train the players and generally steer the club in the right direction is clearly always going to be a big decision, but these days things are complicated further by numerous additional roles. Houllier for example has just left the French Football Federation from the mysterious role of “technical director” to the national team and due to Randy Lerner’s apparent liking of caretaker manager Kevin McDonald’s coaching style there was talk of Houllier taking a similar role at Villa at one time, with McDonald handling the coaching of first-team affairs. Villa fans, whatever their views on Houllier, ought to be counting themselves lucky that they have at least appointed a manager and not adopted an incomprehensible system, inspired by continental clubs, that has produced only failure when tried in the Premiership before.
Personally I think it’s a shame Villa didn’t appoint Alan Curbishley and give an obviously capable and talented English coach a chance with a decent sized club. Curbishley had a torrid time with the board room at West Ham and deserves a more stable environment in which to try and manage a top club. However it remains to be seen whether Villa’s moneymen are content, given the circumstances under which O’Neil left the club and the telling words in the club’s statement which suggest Houllier was a candidate willing to compromise about lack of funds: “Two of the key qualities in our search for the new manager were experience of managing in the Premier League and a strategy for building on the existing strengths in our current squad, and Gérard Houllier comfortably satisfies these criteria.” I certainly find it odd that Villa should turn to Houllier given his exile from the English game since his departure from Liverpool. Articles reporting the appointment emphasize Houllier’s glittering CV, but much of his experience is with French clubs a long time ago. Since Liverpool he has returned to his French comfort zone and can hardly said to have been successful in whatever it was he was asked to do as “technical director”, given the French’s disastrous World Cup. As manager Raymond Domenech got the barrage of blame but Houllier had a role and it was hardly part of a successful set up.
Indeed whenever I have seen them enacted systems involving a “technical director” or “director of football” do not seem to bring success. Certainly in the English game it would seem from the evidence that clubs who put their faith in a talented coach over a long period of time stay at the top of the game, such as Arsenal and Manchester United. When Chelsea tried a system involving “sporting directors” or something similar, “the special one” clashed with both Frank Arnesen and Avram Grant, with disagreements between Jose and Grant eventually leading to the Portuguese’s departure. Following this Chelsea entered a period of decline, allowing United to reclaim dominance and they have only recovered to wrest back control since trusting two excellent coaches in Guus Hiddink and Carlo Ancelotti to run things their own way. “Technical Directors” or their equivalent always appear to be the owner or chairman’s spy, breathing down the neck of the manager and meddling with his transfer budget to create conflict and a climate of paranoia at clubs that does not breed a the unified vision and team spirit necessary to win trophies. Equally though the system has not worked well at clubs at the opposite end of the league, those in need of new impetus to avoid relegation. Dennis Wise was handed a role at Newcastle United by hands-on owner Mike Ashley that did nothing to revert the Toon’s slide to the Championship, but grabbed plenty of dramatic headlines. Portsmouth too experimented during their topsy-turvy period of ownership and poor performances, to no avail.
Like many people at the moment I have succumbed to curiosity and bought Tony Blair’s memoir, A Journey. In the first chapter he touches on the opposition he met from the Civil Service for bringing special advisers into the affairs of state, but makes a convincing argument that modern governments need such expertise on hand immediately to deal effectively with situations. I imagine the fascination with “technical directors” stems from a similar realization that the modern game of football requires a variety of top level experts. However Blair’s memoir also makes it clear that he and he only was leader, he felt that individual burden and we’re all aware of the complications between him and Gordon Brown over who should be leader that eventually ended his time in office. Football clubs today still require a leader, someone who has the final say and whose vision should always be behind day to day decisions. “Directors of football” and other such roles may have their place, but particularly when the person appointed to such a role has a high profile they cease to be an adviser and ally to the manager but become an inspector and internal threat to his authority. Too often these positions are merely waiting rooms for the next manager, from which the “technical director” shall opportunistically spring as the pressure rises. Even if the person taking such an advisory position has no ambition to take over as manager, the culture of the game in this country has not changed sufficiently for the manager to be unconcerned by such an appointment. In an age where foreign managers and all the communication problems that come with them are commonplace, it is surely better to at least keep the management structures of a club simple and have the best man at the helm, supported by staff of his own choosing. This man should then be judged on the way he deals with the various pressures of the modern game and whether he gets results; not constantly assessed internally by an observer that adds unnecessary weight to the burden of management.
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I can remember the media storm then as we witness another now. In the dying weeks of Blair’s premiership before Brown finally took office, the longest ever serving Labour Prime Minister criss-crossed the country, controlled the airwaves, plastered the newspapers with his grey, weary image. It was all so desperate, so futile. A man who had done so much to secure his place in the history books but had also not achieved enough. A man who had done too much in some instances so that all his other work was overshadowed. I remember his helicopter landing at one of his much praised academy schools on the news, the crowds of children ordered to gather in bemusement at the fading celebrity anxious to go out with a bang, anxious not to be forgotten. All it all did was remind everyone what they disliked about him and enable Gordon Brown’s honeymoon period, in which the gruff Scott dealt with crisis after crisis, got on with the job, unconcerned by image.
Three years on so much has changed in British politics and Blair returns. How strange it seems to recall that Brown seemed the perfect antidote to years of Blair’s charm, that Cameron was perhaps weeks away from swift election defeat. Who could have predicted a Lib-Con pact that seems to have ushered in a new political era and at the very least left the Labour party isolated and leaderless? In one newspaper today the totality of media coverage achieved by the release of Blair’s memoir, A Journey, is compared to that of a budget and this is testament to how his legacy provokes a response from any British voter. It is impossible to be indifferent to Blair. Just as the average voter will passionately launch a diatribe against the Chancellor for raising fuel or cider duty, they will relish the opportunity to vent their feelings on Blair. Unfortunately for him and a man once so dependent on popularity his legacy is overshadowed by one thing: Iraq.
In many ways the issue of Iraq stands totally separate to all other aspects of Blair’s legacy but looms larger than everything else. So for example Blair can still be talked about as one of the top three post-war British Prime Ministers along with Atlee and Thatcher. He can still rightly be hailed as the architect of New Labour, a man whose visions and whims steered the course of history. Journalists and commentators still refer to him as the benchmark of the modern British leader, even the current Conservative Prime Minister does not shy from the title “heir to Blair”. Cameron’s reorganisation of his party in Blair’s style and the coalition’s continuation of Blairite reforms in areas like education, show just how successful Blair was in occupying the centre ground of politics so totally that it shifted to the left. His overwhelming electoral success redefined the British political landscape and leaves the Labour party with an enormous task in replacing him. And yet despite the continuing significance of his influence in the everyday struggle of British politics and indeed across the globe many believe he missed opportunities and even he now recognises this.
In his interview with Andrew Marr, Marr challenged Blair that he should have achieved more given the commanding nature of his majorities and the time he had in power. Blair’s direct response was a defence of what he did achieve but elsewhere in the interview true regrets and the motivation behind the title of A Journey for his memoir emerged. Blair admitted that he did not acquire a true vision until towards the end of his time in office, a vision about the structural reform of the state and modernising public services. In the beginning he had been “trying to please all of the people all of the time”. The most significant and influential strand of Blair’s legacy today relates directly to this in that people look to him for a master class in winning elections. In terms of policy Blair has only a handful of achievements he has now willing to enthusiastically champion as his successes and admits he left it too late to start initiating meaningful reform he took time to acquire a passion for. Prior to this costly, late revelation that occurred long after he had the surge of popular backing to properly carry it through, it seems he was content to leave matters of expenditure and policy largely to the Treasury, and to the statist agenda of Gordon Brown he so criticises.
Throughout his time in office though, Blair was enthusiastically active in areas of foreign policy. He embraced the doctrine of “liberal interventionism” and with the exception of Iraq was successful in both achieving results and convincing the British people of the necessity of action. Large chunks of his recent interview with Andrew Marr inevitably focused on Iraq and the morality of the decision to go to war, but Blair was also asked about Iran. He made it clear that if he were still Prime Minister he would not rule out military action to stop the Iranians acquiring nuclear weapons and that to allow them to have such weapons would be unthinkable. Now of course the argument as to whether or not Britain should ever intervene militarily in Iran, especially given the lessons of Iraq, will be long and fierce. But Blair is not wrong to insist it should remain an option; Britain should have the capability. And yet at the moment a ballooning deficit and the extent of government overspend would mean an overstretched, slim line MOD mobilising to invade Iran at short notice.
This then is perhaps one of the worst aspects of Blair’s legacy. I do not disagree with his passionate moral crusade in many areas of foreign policy and his preference for interventionism. Britain still has a role to play as a civilized, developed nation and a proud history of just conflict. However Blair’s inaction whilst in office when it came to the restructure of the state leaves Britain underprepared for the decisions he believes to be right now and may partly explain his guilty donation of the proceeds of his book to the British Legion. Blair appears to be aware he asked too much of the armed forces. He now claims he would have taken a different path than Gordon Brown out of recession, a “New Labour” path that modernised welfare through the combination of public and private and reduced statist spending. He says he wants to see more power in the hands of individuals. Controversially he appears to praise the coalition at the end of his book, but insists he wants neither a bigger or smaller but “reshaped” state. If this was truly the case during his tenure as Prime Minister, then surely Blair could have recognised that some areas of government can only have “big government” solutions, as I have said in previous articles. One of these areas would be defence and yet the armed forces felt cutbacks during the New Labour years, unlike most other departments. An area where more private involvement could have been encouraged was in health, but the NHS budget swelled to become the government’s biggest burden.
An Iran with nuclear weapons is a threat far more real than Saddam Hussein ever was. This time the evidence is undoubtedly there. Iran and Israel poised with their fingers on nuclear triggers is surely not a recipe for a peaceful Middle East, not a stable environment for a young Iraqi democracy, not a safe haven for energy companies in ever growing need of oil, not the right backdrop for the fight against terrorism and slow withdrawal in Afghanistan. Tony Blair rightly insists Britain should be involved if global consensus is reached and action is taken, but the choices he made or failed to make whilst in government shall make it hard for any Prime Minister to commit to a successful intervention in which the lives of our service men and women are best protected. Whether or not Blair was right or wrong about Iraq he failed to introduce seismic change in government on the same scale as he did in politics, paving the way for the coalition to tackle New Labour’s excess excessively. The challenge for Blair’s eventual Labour successor, after winning the party and the country over, will be to find a middle way that promotes sustainable growth and equality, whilst not turning off voters.
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