As we get older, we more and more often hear people uttering a variation of either, “I thought I had seen it all but…..” or “Nothing in football surprises me anymore, but….”.
Many times, of course, what they are in fact expressing is nothing more or less than hyperbole and whatever it is they have witnessed is nothing more than slightly unusual or offbeat. It could be something as mundane as a controversial refereeing decision or a player stepping out of line with an errant tweet or utterance before the cameras, but nine times out of ten whatever it is will have faded from the public’s consciousness before the week is out.
Just occasionally, however, something happens that really does take our breath away and really is astonishing in all its shape and form. This could be a happening on the pitch such as an individual piece of skill such as Heung-Min Son’s goal for Tottenham this past season, or something off the pitch which will invariably involve a personal or collective decision.
When this happens there is a universal shaking of the head and a common utterance of ‘How the hell has that happened?’ or ‘Who on earth could anyone think that would be a good idea?’
The aim of this latest ramble, therefore, is to have a look in-depth at some of these melon-scratchers over the years. These are, in the main, decisions taken collectively and individually that even now many years on are incomprehensible.
In short: What Were They Thinking?
Brian Clough at Leeds United.
Let’s start with the Grand Daddy of them all, shall we? Quite why Manny Cussins and his fellow Leeds United directors thought it was remotely a good idea to approach Brian Clough to become manager of the Elland Road club upon Don Revie’s departure to manage England is as much of a mystery 46 years after the fact as it was at the time.
After thirteen glory-laden years at Leeds, the man who was more than a mere manager at England’s greatest club was moving on. He had resisted overtures from a number of club sides in England and abroad over the years, but when his national side came calling the lure was too great to resist and so it came to pass in the summer of 1974 that Leeds needed to find and appoint a successor.
Revie himself was in no doubt who it should be and he wasted no time in recommending his midfield general, Johnny Giles, for the job. The Leeds board, perhaps a little miffed that Revie was leaving the club no matter what his reasons, promptly ignored his advice and instead incredibly plumped for Clough.
Clough’s record at the time was definitely good enough to be considered, seeing as he had won the league championship just two years earlier with Derby County. However, it was for a myriad of other reasons that the appointment made absolutely no sense whatsoever and so was doomed from the start.
Clough had seemingly made it his life’s ambition and work to constantly criticise Leeds as a club and its players, and, indeed, Revie himself, in the media over the past few years and he never missed a chance to make his feelings known.
He was forever running the club down for what he perceived to be negative tactics, dirty play, dishonesty, and bad sportsmanship. He had even called for Leeds to be demoted to the Second Division as a result of their poor disciplinary record and in doing so he had surely made a lifetime of enemies at the club before ever stepping into the place as the boss.
The Leeds players were dead set against the idea of Clough coming in, as was Revie, and Clough’s right-hand man, Peter Taylor also knew it would not work and so refused to give up his job at Brighton and Hove Albion and join Clough at Elland Road.
When Clough did eventually show up for work at Leeds his inaugural team talk was spent running down the squad in general and certain individual players in particular and concluded with the recommendation that the squad empty all their medals into the biggest dustbin they could find because they had won them through cheating and so were worthless.
Therefore, it was no surprise that the move didn’t work out, then. The only surprise was that anybody thought there was a remote chance that it would in the first place.
When Clough was sacked after just 44 days of infamy, he walked out of Elland Road with a cheque made out for the full amount of his contract in his back pocket. It was an expensive mistake by Leeds, and a blow to Clough’s self-esteem, but at least it set him up for life financially.
Howard Kendall Returning to Everton
Howard Kendall once spoke about love affairs and marriages in football. He compared his time spent at other clubs as the former and his feelings for Everton as the latter. That would explain why he returned to the club three times after leaving as a player in 1974.
His first spell in management at Everton lasted from 1981 to 1987 and after a shaky start was a glorious success. Four major trophies were won and a handful of others missed by a mere whisker before Kendall departed for foreign shores in the shape of Athletico Bilbao and then Manchester City.
Seemingly a shoo-in to take over as England manager when Bobby Robson announced he would be stepping down at the conclusion of the 1990 World Cup, Kendall was remarkably overlooked and not even granted the courtesy of an interview. Perhaps it was this disappointment that led him to make the biggest mistake of his professional career when he returned to the Goodison Park hot seat in the autumn of that year.
Following his departure three years earlier, Kendall’s former assistant, Colin Harvey, had been in charge but Everton had slipped out of the elite and were once again back amongst the also-rans. When Harvey was dismissed, the Everton board made an audacious bid for Kendall’s return and remarkably he elected to give up his successful position at Maine Road in order to make the trip ‘home’.
He was to admit later that it was a case of the heart ruling the head and he had little or no chance of replicating the success enjoyed during his first spell. Three mainly nondescript years followed before Kendall resigned following a falling out with the board over money for new players.
Kendall would return for one more bite at the cherry three years later when he once again walked out of a job where he was doing well and was well-liked, this time at Sheffield United, in order to return to Everton. This time his return was even more ill-advised and disastrous as a single season back on his old stomping ground saw Everton only escape relegation on the last day of the season.
There have been other managerial appointments and decisions taken that while not quite as extreme as these two, have still been baffling in their conception. These too were seen as either ‘risky’ at the time, or else ‘downright ridiculous’ and so they too didn’t depend on the benefit of hindsight when they invariably went wrong.
Some contenders here include John Barnes being given the Celtic Head Coach job despite having no coaching or managerial experience whatsoever, Alex McLeish being handed the reigns at Villa Park after having spent the previous season busily overseeing city neighbours, Birmingham City’s, relegation from the top flight, and Harry Redknapp taking over as boss at Southampton shortly after walking out of Portsmouth (the first time) and declaring, “No way will I be going down the road”.
Barnes lasted a few months, McLeish was sacked at the end of his only season in charge of Villa, and Redknapp walked out after leading the club to relegation and promptly resurfaced at Portsmouth.
There are other decisions made by managers that looked ridiculous at the time and were proved to be so by events. As a Liverpool fan perhaps you can forgive my indulgence if I start by highlighting a few examples of less than stellar decisions made from some of the occupants of the Anfield hot-seat over the years.
Gerard Houllier had his critics but he also enjoyed a fair degree of success in his time in charge of Liverpool. The famous ‘treble’ year of 2001 was undoubtedly the highlight and there was great expectation that Liverpool would kick on from there and challenge for the top two titles of Premier League and Champions League.
In 2001-02 Liverpool certainly had a chance to win the Champions League. Having coming through the two group stages that existed back then, the Reds found themselves into the quarter-finals and paired with Bayer Leverkusen. An edgy 1-0 home victory was eked out in the first leg leaving the tie wide open.
In the return at the Bay Arena, an early Michael Ballack goal was cancelled out by a strike by Xavier before half-time, leaving Liverpool in a relatively strong position. Because of the away goals rule, the Germans needed to score twice more or face elimination and although they were piling on the pressure, Liverpool seemed to be coping without too much alarm.
It was then Houllier made the baffling decision to substitute holding midfielder, Didi Hamman, and bring the less disciplined (and talented) Vladimir Smicer on in his place. It was truly a remarkable act of folly that had immediate disastrous ramifications. Unshackled for the first time in the game, Ballack now ran riot and the Germans scored three times in the next twenty minutes to knock Liverpool out.
This was the last time Liverpool truly challenged under Houllier, and from then on he was on a slippery slope. That summer he allowed his emotions and personal feelings to sway his thinking when he refused to sign Nicholas Anelka on a permanent deal and instead went for El Hadji Diouf and Salif Diao instead. Two years later and he was out of a job.
Houllier’s successor, Rafa Benitez, did indeed famously deliver the Champions League of course, and he too was expected to push Liverpool onwards from that success but in reality, just fell short. Perhaps his downfall could be traced back to trying to sell Xabi Alonso to Arsenal so he could sign Gareth Barry in his stead.
Alonso refused to move and stayed at Anfield another season but did so with his nose severely put out of place. A year later and Real Madrid came calling and this time it was Alonso who wanted to go while Benitez was begging him to stay. A pivotal moment perhaps, as the following season was not a successful one for Liverpool and Benitez was sacked upon its conclusion.
There are others. Graeme Souness’s decision to sell his story – and possibly his soul – to a certain newspaper in return for £50K is certainly up there in the ranks of all-time stupidity.
Away from Liverpool, one can only look back in wonder and amazement at the decisions taken by Howard Wilkinson and Kevin Keegan to sell Sir Alex Ferguson their two best players at a time when they were managers of Manchester United’s biggest challengers.
Wilkinson sold Eric Cantona to Sir Alex, so the story goes, after being knocked back in a query for United’s Denis Irwin, while Keegan inexplicably decided to take £7 million plus Keith Gillespie in exchange for Andy Cole. Cole would go onto win honours galore over the next few years at Old Trafford, of course, while Keegan and Gillespie won nothing at St. James’s Park, and within two years Keegan would be gone.
History is no doubt littered with other countless examples of times when people who should have known better have made inexplicable decisions, but to err is human, as they say, and such errors are what help to contribute to the game as we know and love it.