Pochettino, Respect, and the ‘Never Kicked a Ball in Your Life’ Theory

Pochettino, Respect, and the ‘Never Kicked a Ball in Your Life’ Theory

Monday, 24 September, 2018 - 06:30
Everyone loves Mauricio Pochettino, but it has been a trying week for Tottenham and their manager. Illustration: David Humphries
London - Barney Ronay
Deep down, behind the club loyalties, beneath the professional distance, everyone loves Mauricio Pochettino. You can deny it. But search your feelings, you know it to be true. There is just something very likable about Pochettino: the barking laugh, the pouchy dimples, the way he strides around the touchline looking like the world’s most handsome oil rigger.

Plus of course there is his success as a coach, which has come in the most interesting way, as a developer of players, the author of a style of play. Pochettino has been 100% successful in getting Spurs into the Champions League on a restricted budget over the last three years, which has always been the only realistic goal no matter how many times people keep telling him he has to win the League Cup.

As a reporter you want to hear Pochettino speak. You want him to enjoy being in England. You want his views on players and tactics. You want to go for a barbecue at his house afterwards and smoke a cigar while he cooks the steaks in a pair of Wayfarers and a Hawaiian shirt. Later on maybe we can have a game of poker with Diego Simeone and Carlos The Jackal.

So persuasive is the Poch charisma it was tempting to give him a pass when he started talking about “respect” in midweek, with the suggestion he wasn’t given enough of it after Tottenham’s 2-1 defeat by Internazionale. Pochettino had been asked a question about his decision to omit two of his best defenders from a match Spurs lost as a result of bad defending.

It was an excellent question, the sound of someone doing their job well, going into uncomfortable spaces at an uncomfortable moment.

The response – “don’t disrespect the players!” – was un-Poch like. It was even a little José-ish in its tone. “Respect, respect, respect,” Mourinho had barked across the press room a couple of weeks ago in Manchester, standing up and pointing and looking slightly wild in response to what started off as a fairly routine question about playing Ander Herrera in a back three.

This touchiness, the apparent outrage at being questioned, the suggestion that a cat may not in fact look at a king, is increasingly common around football. But the hostility is also something that should be resisted, and that should be questioned in itself.

Who is allowed to have an opinion about all this? English professional football has always had a disdain for the views of those who have not been employed to play English professional football. This notion of disrespect at being asked a few questions, whether by journalists or fans empowered by social media, springs from the same place. How dare you, who live outside this world, to whom this is all interpretation, question my actions.

In philosophy this has been referred to as the “practical man” fallacy, the idea that nothing can exist with any meaning outside immediate physical experience. In football this emerges as the “never kicked a ball in your life” theory.

This states that even the most taciturn, unreflective human with the physical gifts and good fortune to be paid to kick a ball will in every case have a better understanding of all issues around kicking a ball than, say, Brian Glanville, or a club season ticket holder, or the historian Simon Schama.

My favourite recent example of this was history ace Schama’s good natured Twitter “beef” with Alan Shearer during the World Cup. Shearer responded to a minor disagreement over the nature of England’s performance by suggesting that as he, Shearer, had played in similar games 20 years ago his view must be the correct one.

Shearer was joking, riffing on his own spectacular career as an England player. But it was funny in other ways too, because Schama is a historian and academic, disciplines that rely entirely on interpreting experience through evidence and reasoning. Schama’s views on, say, the French revolution or the dissolution of the monasteries are considered valid and illuminating, despite the fact he wasn’t present at these things either, and has never stormed a Bastille in his life.

But when it comes to football, which is happening right now, which you can see, and which isn’t actually that complicated or hard to understand? No way mate. Nobody could ever imagine what football is like. Even after seeing it happen in front of you, having evidence and being intelligent. Now shut it and listen to the thoughts of Danny Mills.

Respect: how much should you really have for anyone? Shearer is right on this. His experience enriches his views. He can use it to tell you interesting things you wouldn’t otherwise have known. But it’s not an exclusive deal. There might also be things that Schama (who’s never shot an Austrian Archduke in his life) or a teenage tactics blogger, or Rene Maric, the 26-year-old assistant manager of Red Bull Salzburg, might be able to tell Shearer.

Similarly Pochettino is right that his intimate insider knowledge of the mental and physical requirements of his players should be respected. But it can also be questioned. There is no need to create an artificial barrier here. Football has always been furious, disrespectful, iconoclastic, hostage to the furies of the crowd. This is the source of its strength, its resilience and its financial good health. So spare us the talk about respect. The day people stop asking questions or shouting from the bleachers, glued instead to their in-house docu-films, or bled dry of doubt or interest by an increasingly set bunch of hierarchies; well, that’s the time to start worrying.

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