It’s not uncommon for a bloke in England watching a football news program to hear the phrase “manager lose the dressing room”. An idiom referring to a situation in which the players cease to respect and follow their manager’s instructions, this phrase is such a popular term to use in speculating any disputes within a football club, not least the potential resignation or sacking of the managers. Indeed, countless articles and documentaries about football managers emphasize the managers’ ability to not only structure tactics and plan training sessions, but also to persuade their players to buy into their managing style.
Then such emphasis begs the question – how do managers lose the dressing room? Media usually attributes such massive loss of respect towards a manager to one or several particular moments. I distinctly remember a commentator referring to Bolton Wanderer’s 5-0 defeat against Stoke City in the FA cup semi-final in season 2010/11 as the moment when the then-manager Owen Coyle “was never the same figure in his dressing room”, leading to a dismal run of performances in the next two seasons, before he got sacked during season 2012/13. A 2012 ITV documentary of Jose Mourinho also highlights Chelsea’s 2007 Champions League semi-final loss against Liverpool as the moment when the relationship among him, his players, and the club owner Roman Abramovich deteriorated to a point where Mourinho felt “it was all gone”.
Crude it may seem at the first glance, such analysis is intriguingly plausible, given how difficult it is for a manager to maintain a sense of respect from his/her players, and how such respect could easily vanish in the most trivial of all matters. The often downplayed truth is that managers, like referees, are generally regarded by the others with contempt rather than admiration. As Eduardo Galeano portrays in his book Soccer in Sun and Shadow, managers are the ones that limits and shackles the players as mere parts of his arbitrarily designed tactical system, and denigrates a “play” down to a “work”. If managers’ blandification of players and the game of football in general are all for the purpose of delivering success, then specific occasions that represent failure in achieving such purpose might be more than enough a reason for the players and the spectators to lose faith towards their managers. Another season’s worth of payment and sacrifice for absolutely nothing, they would think.
Would it be possible for managers to repair the damaged sense of respect from their players and fans? I doubt if such feat has been achieved in any type of organization, let alone in the world of football. The closest counterexample would arguably be Alan Pardew’s time as a manager in Newcastle United, in which Pardew did manage to persist during periods of extreme hostility from the Newcastle fans in 2014 to upturn Newcastle’s poor run of form. Even he, however, walked out of Newcastle not long after, opting for a shift to Crystal Place where he felt he could receive a full support and respect from the fans and the players. If such loss of respect are triggered by those particular moments of downright failure, which is bound to happen at least a handful in every season; if such loss cannot be repaired even after the managers did manage to produce better results; then perhaps it might be impossible for the broken managers to rejuvenate their careers in the same club – A remarkable parallel to the Johnsons and Nixons in the real world.