BY WILL MAGEE
There are many mediums of protest art. Paintings, such as Picasso’s hopelessly monochrome, surreal anti-war work Guernica. Music, from classical compositions like L’Internationale to the folk of American labour, from the soul of the civil-rights movement to British punk. Photographs, such as Andres Serrano’s Piss Christ – I don’t know exactly what the image is protesting, but the fact that it depicts a Jesus submerged in wee suggests that it’s something really profound. Posters. Graffiti. Installations. Body art. Then there’s protest art via performance.
The parameters of protest-art performance are usually very wide and highly inclusive. Reciting poetry. Striking action poses. Nailing your genitals to things. Hiding things inside your genitals before retrieving them in front of an audience. Pretty much anyone can engage with these artistic modes and use them to express pretty much anything. Nonetheless, there is one sort of protest performance which is decidedly specific and entirely exclusive. It is specific to grievances in sport, while it is exclusive to the managers of professional sport teams. This sort of performance is known in creative circles as ‘the post-match interview’.
There’s no denying it’s an art form. Take the most high-profile managerial protest interview of the year, that given to Guy Mowbray by Louis Van Gaal after Manchester United’s 1-0 loss to Chelsea. With Mowbray having cruelly oppressed Van Gaal by making several overbearingly normal queries about his team’s performance, United’s manager suddenly launched his protest by turning the inquiries on the inquirer – by inverting the power dynamic between interviewer and interviewee. It was impossible not to feel Van Gaal’s righteous wrath as he began to demand Mowbray’s thoughts on the self-evidently unfair match, as he began to expressively subvert their relationship through his dramatic restaging of their predefined roles. Soon enough, his would-be-interrogator was stammering, pausing, unsure of his purpose – of whether or not he was even interested in the interview. Van Gaal then delivered the crucial lines of his dramatic dialogue with an ironic flourish. ‘It’s good… that you are interested’.
But is it good to be interested? Or is being interested a violation of a manager’s rights? Did Manchester United really play ‘the best match of the season’? Or were they actually flattering to deceive with the same mediocre brand of football they’ve played for most of the campaign? The moment that his audience questioned itself in this way, Van Gaal’s performance was successful and complete. After that, Mowbray could only make the feeblest and most ‘rhetorical’ attempts at interviewing. Van Gaal batted him away with the astonishing superiority of a man who knew he had protested, and protested well.
Van Gaal’s protest interview is only the latest act in a long tradition of football manager theatrics, of course. Brian Clough got things started in his 1979 interview with John Motson, deconstructing the media while simultaneously terrifying Motty by hissing like an early-modern Mephistopheles. Since then, audiences have been treated to Kevin Keegan’s powerful personification of Fury, Arsène Wenger’s ‘prettiest wife’ metaphor, Rafa Benítez’s ‘facts’ soliloquy and Harry Redknapp getting soaked on Sky Sports – doubtlessly a critical statement on the cold fluidity of life as a Premier League gaffer.
Managers from other sporting codes might not engage with protest art quite so often, yet when they choose to do so it can still be spectacular. In rugby union, ex-Saracens coach Brendan Venter protested his €25,000 fine for censuring officiating standards by spending an entire post-match interview simply repeating his interviewer – this was clearly a creative representation of the repetitive nature of refereeing mistakes. In the NFL, 80s New Orleans Saints coach Jim Mora once verbalised the Socratic paradox so as to highlight the inherent foolishness of assembled journalists, while ex-San Francisco 49ers coach Mike Singletary protested the virtues of radical collectivism in a candid monologue on his tight end Vernon Davis. I could go on. In almost all sports, across all disciplinary boundaries, the managerial performances have been countless.
Naturally, audiences are now wondering where the protest interview might go next. The ever-growing demands of professional sport in the marketised era suggest that the protest interview must surely become even more theatrical, even more spectacular. Will the next Premier League season see José Mourinho tell an unsuspecting Sky interviewer that his team need to show more guts, before dumping a whole bucket of rotting fish innards over his own head in symbolic remonstration? Will Alan Pardew fulfil his media commitments totally nude, helping everyone to visualise the constant overexposure of the Premier League manager? Will Amelie Mauresmo emerge during a presser on Andy Murray and throw balloons full of warm pig gore at BBC employees, each one a figurative illustration of the persistent sneering at his Scottish bloodline? Will Nigel Pearson spend a calendar year dressed as an ostrich? These might be acts at the extreme end of protest performance, but by god they’ll make good viewing.
Then again, there’s something to be said for minimalism. Maybe, in the near future, managers of professional sports teams might react to adverse results, refereeing mistakes, media scrutiny and player difficulties with the understated, semi-polite restraint of ordinary people facing relatively mundane issues. Now that, that would be a real statement.
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