In defence of mild cheddar

Paul Gilham

Tim Sherwood. Oh, Tim Sherwood.

Tim Sherwood, the newest cast member in long-running English comedy series Football Managers Say The Funniest Things, has started with something of a bang. For Sherwood, if you cut him half, bleeds the colour of the club. And Sherwood likes his attackers to attack, his defenders to defend, and midfielders to do a bit of both. And most pleasingly, Sherwood likes his cheese to be cheddar and his cheddar to be mild, not the "rest of that muck".

Sherwood, in short, is coming across as a confection of cliche and little Englander conservatism, which is an absolute godsend to anybody that likes to feel even vaguely superior about football, or 'Twitter', as we'll call it for short.

What's not entirely clear, though, is whether saying silly things has anything to do with being a bad manager. Brendan Rodgers, after all, appears to be doing okay at Liverpool despite his crippling addiction to the word "myself". Roy Hodgson has risen to the pinnacle of his profession despite what appears at times to be a complete inability to say anything without irritating somebody. While their preferred sandwich fillings remain mysterious, their various idiosyncrasies when it comes to the words that fall from their mouths haven't stopped them having moments that look suspiciously like competence.

But then, using cliches doesn't make you an idiot. It might make you boring. It certainly makes you unoriginal. It will probably make you bad at writing, or commentating, or doing any other job that requires the arrangement of words in an interesting order, which is why SB Nation writers are told to avoid them like the plague. But it doesn't make you an idiot.

When it comes to communication, then what is actually being said is only ever part of the battle. Equally if not more important is how it is said, and who it is said to, and how they respond to it. Don Revie prepared his Leeds team with detailed scouting dossiers; his great rival, Brian Clough, passed simple and specific instructions to individuals before and during the match. Revie's method worked for Revie's players; Clough's worked for Clough's. Helpfully for the purposes of this argument, Clough's attempts to manage Revie's players went spectacularly badly. There is no one right approach: instead, there are better and worse approaches depending not only on who is managing, but who is being managed.

Back to Tottenham. What went wrong for Andre Villas-Boas isn't and may never be entirely clear. His dismissal could have been motivated by anything from clashes with his director of football over transfer policy, to a head turned over the summer by Paris Saint-Germain, to the fact that it might very well amount to gross misconduct to lose 3-0 at home to this puddle of a West Ham side. What is clear, though, is that while he perhaps hadn't lost the dressing room in the manner he did at Chelsea, Tottenham's players weren't playing as well as they can. Either his ideas were bad, or they were badly expressed; most likely a combination of the two.

All of this needs to be seen in the light of one of the greatest footballing traditions, what philosophers call The Managerial Principle of Opposites. Broadly, the principle dictates that when a club sacks somebody for being a bit crap, their immediate replacement should be the opposite. It's a solid and intuitive principle. If something isn't working, do something else. If management-speak isn't getting the point across, fall back on good old-fashioned. If Emmanuel Adebayor won't play for one manager, the quixotic nature of the man virtually demands that he will for the next. If the rich stuff's making you feel ill, try the mild cheddar.

Perhaps it's not a long-term solution - its power hinges on the freshness of the contrast, which will naturally dissipate with time - but in a world where managerial life-spans are measured in months rather than years, it's increasingly useful. Just ask Roman Abramovich. And while Sherwood's results have so far been inconclusive - everybody loses away at Arsenal these days; everybody wins away at Old Trafford - it certainly looks to a neutral observer that they have, at the very least, located a bit more vim and verve. Perhaps more importantly, Sherwood's been able to make it clear that he is very distinct to his predecessor, which the Principle absolutely requires.

It's obvious that a lot of the stick that Villas-Boas wore during his time at Tottenham was motivated not by any consideration of his faults as a manager, but by the persistent current of anti-intellectualism and anti-foreignism that still defines England, English football, and English football punditry. And it's clear that a lot of the support that Sherwood has received has been similarly motivated: here, at last, is a proper English football man built from proper English football stuff. See, he bleeds the colour of the club! He plays 4-4-2! Egg and chips!

The suggestion, though, that his management will be as stale as his quotes rests on the presumption that he's saying the same things in training that he is during press conferences, which seems a risky leap in itself and also doesn't chime with what we actually know. Sherwood, after all, is namechecked in Graham Hunter's Barca as running Tottenham's academy along the same lines as Barcelona's. (Hunter quotes him as saying "In development, it's about producing players, not winning games. There is still a lot of old-school mentality around," which sounds suspiciously progressive.) One of his assistants is Chris Ramsey, a man with more super-modern coaching qualifications than seems feasible for one human being. And Kyle Walker hasn't been doing much in the way of defending, a sentence that rather pleasingly works both as a tactical point and a cruel joke.

In short, the appointment of Sherwood, though it may yet turn out to have been a ridiculous one, wasn't ridiculous one because he says silly things in press conferences. Just as Villas-Boas wasn't quite the disconnected chancer of caricature, neither is Sherwood the bastard lovechild of Alf Garnett and Mike Bassett. Various talking heads may have wanted him appointed because he's a mate and an Englishman and proper football bloke, not like that horrible ginger man, but presumably Daniel Levy is working at least partially in the hope that he's a good coach, and might be a good manager.

So should failure come, it will come not because he likes boring cheese. It might come because he likes bad tactics. It probably will come because managing a football club is difficult, managing a Premier League club is really difficult, and managing Tottenham in their current state of mild dysfunction looks really, really difficult. Particularly if it's your first attempt. Though 4-4-2's back in fashion, so that's encouraging.

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