YOU JAMMY nowt! That was the collective laugh of recognition on Teesside as Israel got a last gasp winner and Brian Barwick slammed the draw with Steve McClarenÃ¢ÂÂs P45 in it. A Russian shot that could have dumped England out of Euro 2008 and ended his unpopular reign hit the post at one end – then Israel went straight up the other end to score and give Mac a helping hand to climb off the hook. For now.
The pundits, especially those frustrated that they had wasted so much time writing their unused vitriolic obituaries on EnglandÃ¢ÂÂs Dead Man Walking, immediately pronounced McClaren The Luckiest Manager Ever in tones that were a poisonous mixture of begrudged delight at keeping their holiday plans open for next Summer and thinly veiled contempt that it should come down to second hand fortune, a conclusion and a cocktail that many supporters will echo
Especially on Teesside where the heated debate on just exactly how spawny Steve McClaren has been in recent years is an old bone of contention.
In fact, for a while at the height of the Great Anti-McClaren Insurgency, the crucial role of Ã¢ÂÂluckÃ¢Â? in football became a key focus of the ideological battle with eager partisans deploying pseudo-scientific formulas, statistics or subjective evidence of incredible fortune in a bid to prove once for all that he was either a jammy tactician and BoroÃ¢ÂÂs best ever boss who happened to have poor PR or just a spawny bloke with shiny gnashers and a nice line in Houdini moments.
There were even quotes from Napoleon about ‘lucky generals being better than good ones’ being bandied about as well as chaos theory, particularly useful in explaining how some key selection dilemmas were resolved.
The notion that McClaren was just “lucky” was advanced by non-plussed Macophobes as a way of explaining what was a spectacular period of unprecedented success happening while their bete noir was in the hot-seat. They insisted he was a poor tactician, a weak motivator, a terrible man-manager, an awful judge of a player and the anti-Christ of customer relations yet somehow had to square the circle with the undeniable concrete glory of silverware and Europe: hence the entire project was ascribed to just a freak string of fortuitous random outcomes. Even professional pundits like Chris Kamara have repeated that line and extended it to England.
But that is woefully light on insight and analysis and reduces the mechanics of the managerial circus – team selection, purchasing, mental and physical preparation, tactics, organisation and motivation – to mere chance, which is just crazy. And even if people did think he was just lucky surely the bandwagon then should have been to get him to stay.
We know some aspects of the game are “a lottery” – the toss, penalty shoot-outs and how the balls come out of the bag during cup draws for instance – but the onus on bringing success must rest on the players and the bloke who has to get the best out of them or there is no point in investing in personnel and training facilities.
In fact, dipping into the big bag of football cliches again, we know that “you make your own luck in this game.” The perception of luck is directly related to league position and results. In a widely reported survey earlier this season gloomy and fatalistic Boro fans believed that the club was not just unlucky but ‘cursed’. They also felt that Manchester United was the luckiest club. So there you go Fergie, you haven’t got the best players and a trophy mountain because of 15 years of sustained spending and determined shrewd stewardship… you’ve just fluked it.
That so many Boro fans believe the club is unlucky is strange, especially as similarly large numbers also argue the former boss’s main quality was his good fortune. It is as if the entire envelope of McClarenism was sustained by a period of karmic tension between these contradictory forces of good and evil.
There is no doubt that there were flashes of great fortune, that is some random events with various possible outcomes beyond control that on a string of occasions fell kindly for us – a rebound here, a deflection there, the odd refereeing decision – during McClaren’s Boro tenure, including at pivotal points in some of the most emotionally charged moments in the clubÃ¢ÂÂs history.
In Boro’s glorious Carling Cup win at Cardiff in 2004 for instance, success came via a twice touched penalty that was possibly technically illegal but went unseen by anyone bar eagle eyed Fat Sam, and there was also a clear handball by Ugo Ehiogu late on that seven or eight times out of ten would be given as a spot-kick. Even getting to the Millenium Stadium involved good fortune as Boro won penalty shoot-outs against Spurs and Everton and then faced a weak Arsenal side in the semi with the big guns being rested.
There were moments too when Mac came up smelling of roses after injuries forced his tactical hand: play-maker Mendieta got injured leaving the boss to move awkward winger Bolo Zenden inside and fledgling flanker Stewart Downing onto the left leading to a run that took Boro to a highest ever Premiership finish and a European qualification.
And en route to Eindhoven there were some outrageous rubs of the green too: a Hasselbaink dive for a penalty against Roma, the best player on the pitch and one man defensive wall being sent off for Basel helped while the gung-ho playground piling forward in both that game and the Steaua semi were desperate last throws of the dice.
And yet… and yet, if McClaren WAS just Ã¢ÂÂluckyÃ¢Â? why did it so often go wrong for Boro at crucial moments? Is it lucky to lose key players – Juninho, Mendieta, Downing, Viduka, Schwarzer – at watershed moments? If he was just lucky how did Boro lose that FA Cup semi-final to a poor West Ham team and get their keeper crocked just before the UEFA Cup final to boot? That was a game tailor-made for a spawny get to win with a stoppage time own goal against the balance of play and cement his position as best boss ever and book a third successive year in Europe.
If he was really lucky wouldnÃ¢ÂÂt we have been given that stonewall penalty in that UEFA Cup final against Sevilla in Eindhoven, and wouldn’t VidukaÃ¢ÂÂs effort gone flying in rather than hitting the keeper meaning Boro didnÃ¢ÂÂt have to chase the game and then be cruelly exposed? If he truly lived up to his Ã¢ÂÂluckyÃ¢ÂÂ billing Sevilla would have stuttered, had injuries, missed their chances and we would have won. Boro would be a world power now.
Plus, if you accept that BoroÃ¢ÂÂs Ã¢ÂÂgolden ageÃ¢ÂÂ rests on the personal karma of McClaren then it follows that the current malaise is more down to Gareth Southgate having an aura of ill-fortune rather than the squad being smaller, weaker and less balanced or because the football philosophy is being changed on the hoof without all the neccessary personnel being in place.
That said, the black cat that crossed MacÃ¢ÂÂs path must have splashed him with the distilled essence of rabbitÃ¢ÂÂs foot and four leaf clover the day the FA opted to give him the job. Big Phil withdrew and Big Sam was left under a cloud by the Panorama ‘bung’ probe leaving Mac – still reeling from dodging the Red Book throwing incident and deep in a relegation battle – as the only real candidate for the job. Now that really was a jammy break.
There is actually quite a body of academic work building up over the nature of Ã¢ÂÂluckÃ¢ÂÂ and quite a bit on the role of fortune in football management. The lucky few are said to be skilled at noticing opportunities, make decisions based on intuition, create self-fulfilling prophesies via positive expectations, and have a resilient attitude that transforms bad luck into good.
That to me seems the opposite of the received opinion of McClaren, a boss whose critics say failed to notice obvious opportunities, stifled intuition in favour of caution and frequently talked down high hopes and expectations.
Comprehensive research at into the role of luck in sports management (US gridiron as well as top level international football) has defined the recipe for success thus:
L – Long term strategy
U – Understanding players
C – Communication skills
K – Knowledge of the game
I – Innovative
E – Experience
R – Recognising talent
Yet that wish list of managerial skills seems to be the very opposite of luck too. In fact, it seems the recipe for a conscious, solid, broad-based multi-disciplined approach that seeks to leave as little to chance as possible. There is no suggestion there of teams picked on the basis of pin-sticking or just relying on the bounce of the ball.
And besides, most of those who insist that McClaren was Ã¢ÂÂjust luckyÃ¢ÂÂ would probably equally vehemently argue he does not even possess basic ingredients L,U,C,I or R anyway.
For me, ascribing results or trends in football to chance is a cop out and informed more by a subjective assessment of the boss than by any analysis. In fact, it is a deliberate refusal of analysis in favour of prejudice and super-natural mumbo-jumbo.
Football results are determined primarily by the skill of individuals and the organisation, preparation and motivation of teams, not intangible forces acting to shape the outcome of random events to suit a particular individual’s pre-disposition to get a favourable bounce.
Yes, there are times when those moments of chance happen – but good teams overcome them with their ability to shape their own destiny. If you are a successful team luck doesn’t even get a mention, it is only when you fail and people are looking for excuses that it rears its head.
Was Mac lucky that Israel won? Only if you believe the result is in some way related to his fate rather to the fact that Israeli have lost only twice in 25 home games and that Russia are poor travellers with a long history of bottling the big games that dwarves England. And if you think it IS because Mac is fated then get your money on now for England to win the European Championships. You might just be lucky too.