In praise of Manager’s Notes

Programme notes

Arriving at a football ground in advance of kick off there are a few options for passing the time until kick-off; Watching the teams warm up, listening to the up-tempo motivational music pumped out by the tannoy system, observing the antics of the furry team mascot as it gambols around the sidelines, or reading the managers programme notes.

Manager’s notes are something of a football institution, but they have not been universally well-received. Ahead of a game with Manchester United in the 1969-70 season the then Arsenal manager Bertie Mee could barely contain his disdain when he set out his view in the notes that:

“I strongly believe that a Football manager’s job is one that does not permit him to appear too often in print. Equally, however, I believe that I owe it to our supporters to tell them from time, to time, just what is going on behind the scenes.”

It was not until the tail-end of the season, some seven months later, that Mee would allow his words to appear in the programme on the occasion of the second leg of the UEFA Cup against Anderlecht with Mee’s chief topic being his pleasure with the progress of Arsenal youngsters Eddie Kelly and Charlie George.

While some managers continue to avoid programme notes, leaving the job variously to chairmen, club captain, or programme editor, Mee’s view appears to be in the minority. Indeed one of his successors in the Arsenal hot-seat Arsene Wenger routinely fills several pages with conversational-style observations and anecdotes ranging from the performance of the team, the players, injuries, discussion of the attributes of the opposition and reflections on the ones-that-got-away. Reading these the fan can be forgiven for thinking, for a few moments at least, that they are engaged in a one-to-one chat over a pint with the manager.

Wenger has, of course, been with Arsenal for some time, but programme notes can be useful too for incoming manager looking to make a vitally good first impression with fans; setting out their credentials, and just as importantly their vision to return the club to greatness and like Louis Van Gaal, in his notes ahead of Manchester United’s pre-season friendly with Valencia, anticipating that “special moment” when he would be “walking out into the stadium as the manager of Manchester United.”

Equally for the under-pressure manager programme notes can provide a space for setting out excuses for ‘undeserved’ defeats; a long injury-list, fixture congestion, the bad luck in hitting the crossbar, the unjustly awarded (or denied) penalty and the unfair sending-off. Programme notes are a place for the manager to rail against everything that is wrong with the world.

For those of a more sporting bent, notes also allow the manager to acknowledge the achievements of the visitors, and of their opposite number – particularly if the visiting manager is a former colleague from back in their playing days. In fact this gesture is expected as demonstrated by the furore surrounding Jose Mourinho’s omission of any mention within his programme notes of Arsene Wenger’s achievement in leading Arsenal for his 1,000th game in charge against Chelsea.

Mind games, perhaps, but Mourinho – whose own notes rarely rise above the average – would do well to take a lesson from Brian Clough who manages to combine a gesture of sporting acknowledgement with a reminder of his own greatness. Welcoming Aston Villa ahead of a 1979 clash Clough opens his notes with:

“If there is any manager and club who have had more publicity than myself and Nottingham Forest this season it’s got to be Ron Saunders and Aston Villa.”

It is a line which you can only imagine Clough saying, though in a modern managers life you sense that there are several more pressing issues to attend to than sitting at the word processor and banging out a few hundred words, besides there is no shortage of capable writing talents involved in putting together the glossy ‘match-day magazine’.

Such developments should however, be resisted as managers notes are by far at their best when at their most eccentric and off-message – though few can be more off message than a one-time manager of Hampshire’s oldest football team, Fordingbridge Turks, who in recounting a 5-3 loss to Southbourne suggested that with the exception of two players “the rest of the team need shooting.”

When boss of Conference side Yeovil Town in the 1989-90 season Brian Hall, in his On the Ball column, eschewed the usual topics to produce some classics of the notes genre; One fine example being a surprisingly humorous account of a six-and-a-half-hour nightmare journey to Nottingham en route to take on Boston. Of the M1 Hall’s sense of frustration is tangiable as he writes

“We explored at about 1mph every yard of it from just outside Luton to Toddington, had a break to discuss the road surface and surrounding countryside and decided we were enjoying it so much that we continued our examination for a further five miles.”

It is a description which lays bare the unglamorous life behind-the-scenes in the lower reaches of the game. More importantly it somehow reduces the distance between the manager and the fan, which is what manager’s notes are all about.

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