"Is it ever acceptable to sack a manager that has just won a trophy?"
"Yes, obviously. Let's suppose they were caught match-fixing, or doping, or skimming off the profits of an elaborate scam involving the purchase of players with long surnames and the printing operations of the Megastore. Stupid question. Don't know why you asked it."
"Right. Is it ever acceptable to sack a manager that has just won a trophy for not being good enough?"
"You get trophies for not being good enough these days? Arsene Wenger joke!"
"This dialogue conceit isn't really working."
"Oh, don't say that. C'mon, ask me another."
"No. I don't know how Socrates put up with this."
Exciting times for fans of chaos. Noted fringe-botherer Roberto Mancini has been sacked as manager of Manchester City, apparently for gross disappointment, and Malaga's Manuel Pellegrini is expected to replace him imminently, or at least shortly, or if not shortly then at some point in the not-too-distant. Though given the way that the footballing news cycle has been freewheeling downhill for the last few weeks, it wouldn't be much of a shock to find the job going to Rafael Benitez, or a corner flag wearing Malcolm Allison's old hat, or Stuart Pearce's lucky stuffed horse, or Stuart Pearce.
On the one hand, sacking a manager who finished 5th, 3rd, 1st, and 2nd in the league, and who reached two cup finals, winning one, seems harsh. On the other, this season has been an exercise in slack-jawed crown-surrendering, remarkable largely for a European campaign of surpassing inadequacy and persistent reports of friction within the squad. Add to that the availability of the well-respected Pellegrini -- apparently; apparently -- and it's not difficult to see why the thought of a change is tempting enough to act upon.
News of Mancini's imminent defenestration has been dribbling out for months, but was substantially leaked in the run-up to last Saturday's FA Cup final, which suggests two things. One, that the nexus between City's directors and the press contains more than a few people who aren't too keen on His Bescarfed Ex-Majesty. And two, that even a thundering City triumph wouldn't have been enough to change the decision. That second is the most interesting, because the idea of sacking a manager who's won a trophy feels strange and counterintuitive. That's the point of the whole thing, after all. Go and win something. Oh, you did? Well, not good enough. Get your things.
The thing is, there are trophies and there are trophies, depending on who you ask. Take Kenny Dalglish's second spell at Liverpool, which ended with a League Cup winner's medal and a P45. On the one hand, glory! On the other, well, Liverpool's league form was morbidly mediocre. Doubtless there are other examples, perhaps involved those masters of the precipitate sacking, Real Madrid. Managers who did what they were put there to do, or at least did what the popular notion of a football manager would suggest they were put there do, only to find out that they were meant to be doing something else.
This is threatening to collapse into a "so what is the point of football anyway?" piece, which would be messy. Let's say that there are many possible points to football - that sounds right; there may be as many as there are people who give a toss - and conclude that it shouldn't be a massive surprise if the people that own football clubs and appoint football managers have different ones to those that support them. After all, these are different types of people doing different things for different reasons, and perhaps the only thing that an owner of a team has in common with any random individual fan of that team is that come Saturday, 3 o'clock, they'd both like the same result.
This is not to presume homogeneity of football owners' (or fans') motives, or to reduce this down to: "why oh why are the rich incapable of human love?" (They are, of course, but that's for another day.) But when Arsene Wenger refers to fourth-place as a trophy, he's not just attempting to put a sunny slant on Arsenal's self-trimmed ambitions, though he definitely is doing that. He's re-purposing football's language of achievement to reflect a new hierarchy of triumph. So is every relegation-threatened manager who's counted the cup finals left to safety. One man's victory is another's irrelevant bauble.
It should probably be acknowledged here that cup competitions are a dreadful way of answering the question: who is the best football team? A happy confluence of accident and design ensures that they are malicious, temperamental, untrustworthy things, so ludicrously prone to the slings and arrows that it's a wonder anybody can find the energy to write those 'CHAMPIONS LEAGUE FAILURE: IS THE PREMIER LEAGUE DYING?' pieces. There never was a cup win that didn't owe something to luck, usually something substantial. (As an aside, while leagues are obviously a better test, they are still some distance from being scientifically rigorous. This is good. Science is a terrible spectator sport.)
Winning a cup doesn't always rock financially, either. A team that wins the FA Cup but gets relegated from the Premier League is going to suffer, unlike a team that finishes a safe fifteenth and plummets out in the third round. See also: the Europa League. It's lucky for Wigan fans that Dave Whelan has a particular attachment to the oldest pot of the lot - he once broke his leg with Budweiser; you may have heard - otherwise their moment of transcendent joy might well have been shaded by boardroom mutterings of distraction.
So what does it mean that City were (probably, maybe) intending to sack Mancini regardless of the FA Cup final result? Being generous, perhaps, we might decide that they were taking a long-term view, and had simply decided that Pellegrini (or whoever) was a better bet for all their bright and shiny tomorrows. Being pragmatic, it might be that they reasoned that beating the 18th best team in the Premier League wouldn't be much of an achievement, regardless of the occasion of said beating, and the weight of external evidence was such that it didn't matter. Being realistic, we should probably admit that the only top-end English trophies that matter any more are the Premier League (which for most competing clubs means simply staying in it) and the Champions League (which matters most not in the winning but the qualifying, is deliberately league-like in its early structure, and is for the majority of clubs perfectly and permanently irrelevant).
This is a loss. The point of a cup is not to establish who is the best, but who did the best, which may sound like a semantic point but is terribly important. The value of supporting a team that wins a cup comes not from the knowledge that your team is the best in any abstract or general sense, but from knowing that when your team was asked to do something, it did, and when it was asked to do the next thing it did that as well, and on and on through the season, until eventually the world ran out of questions and rewarded your persistence and fortune with a medal and a ride in an open-top bus. It's a test and a triumph of doing, not just of being.
To be human is to be a mess of memory and affection, and to be a football fan is just the same, and to win a cup is to have those affections and memories coalesced into one glinting, irreducible object of triumph. They didn't carve WIGAN WOZ ERE into the FA Cup on Saturday, except they definitely did, and they carved it into the memories of everybody watching and the hearts of everybody supporting Wigan. Had City won, it would have been the same (albeit less surprising and less pleasing for the neutral). But in this post-cup world, a club's place in the hierarchy of the important (read: profitable) competitions is the priority, if indeed you can have a priority in a list of one. Memories are a weak and feeble currency. If Mancini had won the FA Cup, his dismissal would probably have been the right move, by all the relevant, current criteria. But what a cold and narrow righteousness this is.
"Football's rubbish, isn't it?"
"Yeah. I wish I didn't like it so much."