The only one likely to be surprised if Spurs replace Villas-Boas is the man himself
The Portuguese manager’s reaction to Alan Sugar’s comments showed a lack of judgement
Today marks the cinematic release of The Class of ’92, a documentary about Fergie’s Fledglings. David Beckham, Paul Scholes, Ryan Giggs, Nicky Butt and the Neville brothers have been doing interviews to publicise the film. It’s been a joy to hear the “Four Yorkshiremen” tone of these interviews, particularly those of the arch-miserabilist Scholes.
“Kids are different nowadays,” Scholes told Gary Neville of the Mail on Sunday. “Kids are mollycoddled . . . there is nothing streetwise about them. They’re almost trying to be manufactured into players whereas when we were growing up, we had to look after ourselves.”
Scholes continued: “We had to get three buses in the morning to get to Carrington, now they are dropped off, they are picked up in a minibus at the training ground, taken to school. They don’t really have the tough part of life of trying to look after yourself. And sometimes it does show. Sometimes they are . . . not as tough or streetwise as you need to be . . . it is just the way the world has gone. We had advantages without knowing it.”
When Scholes complains about how things have changed, he’s showing that in a broader sense, they remain the same. The old always moan that the young are soft, lazy and simple-minded. You wonder what the war generation thought of young Scholes, riding around town like a lord on his three buses to play football on the lush grass of Carrington, never spending a single day down the pit, or picking through gutters for discarded cigarette butts (which is how Wigan chairman Dave Whelan says he spent the war).
Circle of life
But if Scholes is right that players these days have gone soft, maybe the same is true of the managers. The new breed of coach may not even have played football to any level, never mind driven a tank into Rome like Bob Paisley. Take Andre Villas-Boas, who was born in 1977, the same year Giovanni Trapattoni won his first scudetto as Juventus coach.
When Trapattoni was a child, northern Italy was under Nazi occupation. One biography claims little Trap befriended the soldiers of the local German garrison, who would give him chocolate. No doubt when the Allied troops arrived, Trap ran alongside their jeeps shouting for free chewing-gum. Perhaps such a childhood is what Scholes would call “an advantage without knowing it”.
Trapattoni had seen a lot of life. Maybe that’s why he never seemed bothered when people criticised him in the press. He instinctively understood that to react to his critics would somehow be to concede they were on his level. Instead, Trapattoni acted like he was too big to care what any flyweight journalist had to say, meeting provocation with a lofty, knowing nonchalance that was one of his greatest assets as a manager.
Compared to Trap, Villas-Boas enjoyed a privileged upbringing, immersed in education and opportunity. But he is not what Paul Scholes would call “streetwise”.
He often has a slightly absent air as though he is too absorbed in his own thoughts to notice what is going on around him. Sometimes it becomes obvious that he really hasn’t noticed. Asked once whether he worried about getting the sack at Chelsea, he said: “the owner is not going to pay €15 million to get me out of Porto only to pay another fortune to get rid of me.” That was the moment the press lost faith because it was no longer possible to believe that he truly understood the circumstances in which he was working.
Villas-Boas’s comments after yesterday’s 2-2 draw may have pushed him closer to the sack. He accused Alan Sugar of driving an agenda against him, and said of the Spurs fans: “It’s their team, their passion, and they don’t trade it for anything, not like Alan Sugar, who traded it for money.” Thus, he effectively revealed he’d been rattled by the idle musings of a celebrity fan.
Villas-Boas then took on a Daily Mail journalist who had written a critical article about him. Rebuking the paper for insulting his competence, integrity and “human values”, Villas-Boas quickly found himself bogged down in a semantic debate over the meaning of the word “we”. The fact that the Mail put a bit of spin on his comments after Spurs lost to Manchester City should have warned him there was no point arguing with them. As Bernard Shaw could have told him: “never wrestle with a pig. You get dirty and the pig likes it.”
Villas-Boas told the journalist that he didn’t know him, as they had never talked. But talking is not the only way to know somebody: you can also learn a lot by watching. Watching Villas-Boas since he arrived in England, you can see that he is furiously sensitive to criticism, when he is criticised he gets angry, and that he struggles to resist the urge to retaliate. You marvel that despite his intelligence, he still hasn’t worked out that grappling with critics makes him look weak, not strong.
And you fear that the only person who will be surprised if Spurs decide to replace him is Villas-Boas himself.