Football Managers and Public Speaking



Politicians must be so jealous of football managers.

Our leaders have to fight for publicity. New policy ideas or funding programmes have to be pushed, leaked and spun relentlessly to gain any significant media coverage.

But if Sir Alex Ferguson suggests a referee is slightly overweight … it instantly becomes headline news! (By the way, Google “Ferguson criticises referee” and you get 342,000 hits!)

Like it or not, football managers are among the most reported public speakers of the modern age. The media (and presumably the football public) hang like seagulls (see below) on their every word. They are the philosopher princes of the 21st century.

Once Plato warned us that “ignorance is the root of all evil”; now Mourinho postulates “no eggs, no omelette…it depends on the quality of the eggs” and his profound words are immediately beamed around the world, analysed by experts and repeated reverentially by Sir Trevor MacDonald on News at Ten.

However, some football managers are extremely effective public speakers. What techniques can we learn from them?

Decoding reality
One key responsibility of those in leadership positions is to explain reality. This is often harder than it sounds and it takes a skilled communicator to do so effectively.

Here is an example. Arsene Wenger is constantly criticised for under-investing in his Arsenal team. The expectation of fans and the media is for high profile transfers and bank-busting player contracts. Wenger resists this and is frequently attacked for being “conservative” and even “tight”. But read his clever reaction to the criticisms: “What is unbelievable is that, I am in a position where people reproach me for making a profit. The people who lose money – nobody says a word. Reproach the people who lose money. I do business by managing in a safe way…in a healthy way, and on top of that you reproach me for making money. It looks like we are in a business where the desired quality is to lose money.” The language is simple and powerful. The logic is impeccable. Put like that, it is hard to argue with Wenger’s approach.

Make complex ideas simple
This is a vital skill for effective public speakers, especially in business contexts. Many football managers are actually excellent at doing the opposite: they make simple ideas complex! Take this example from Brendan Rogers: “I use a quote with the players -“Per aspera ad astra” – which is Latin for ‘through adversity to the stars’.” It is hard to imagine that this had a massive impact in the Liverpool dressing room. But I can imagine Jamie Carragher and Steven Gerrard exchanging a worried look at that point in Rodgers’ pre-match talk! He could just have easily have said “never, ever give up”.

Contrast Rodgers’ unnecessary complexity with the beautifully simple description of football from his illustrious predecessor Bill Shankly: “Football is a simple game based on the giving and taking of passes, of controlling the ball and of making yourself available to receive a pass. It is terribly simple.” Or Brian Clough, who famously walked into the Nottingham Forest changing room, placed a ball on the table and said: “God gave us grass to play on – go and play on it.” All of the talk, analysis and tactical variations of football boil down to those simple truths, intelligently and clearly expressed.

Use effective imagery
What is the most memorable image used in British football over the last thirty years? Parking the bus? Sick as a parrot? Over the Moon? How about? “When the seagulls follow the trawler, it is because they hope sardines will be thrown into the sea”?

Eric Cantona (not strictly a manager – I know – but indulge me) deserves some credit for this image. He was widely ridiculed for it at the time. But it works and it has stuck. He was criticising the press (the seagulls) for pestering him (the trawler) in the hope of receiving small, morsels of gossip and information (the sardines). Pompous and high blown it might be, but it is vivid, memorable and it just about holds together as an analogy. Using natural imagery like this is a powerful, universally accessible oratorical technique.

Contrast Cantona’s ambitious poetic vision with, say, Kevin Keegan’s notorious and unimaginative mixed metaphor “the tide is very much in our court now”. Which is more likely to stay in your mind? Cantona made his point, actually a fairly profound one about media scrutiny. It was comprehensively reported at the time and has since passed into the common memory. Job done. Smart man.

Be inspirational
Accomplished public speakers have the ability to inspire their audiences: to make them believe in an idea or the possibility of positive change. Pep Guardiola, manager of Bayern Munich, and previously of Barcelona is a master of this. He does not make inflated promises but with simple, loaded language he has the ability to inspire and bring people with him. When appointed as Barcelona manger in 2008, he said simply: “I can’t promise titles but I am convinced that the fans will be proud of us.” Three years later, after unprecedented success as Barcelona manager, Guardiola was awarded a Medal of Honour from the Parliament of Catalonia. His message, delivered in the Parliament itself, was similarly understated, humorous but also pointed, inspirational and politically loaded: “If we get up early and have a think, believe me, we are an unstoppable country. Thank you and Long Live Catalonia“. Odds on Guardiola running for office in Catalonia one day?

Rationalise failure
Sorry to pick on Keegan again. But you must remember the legendary Sky TV interview in 1996. As Newcastle United’s title lead slipped away, Keegan famously lost it. Wearing a pair of enormous headphones, that made him look like a deranged cyberman, and clutching a monstrous microphone, Keegan ranted at the camera finally exclaiming “We’re still fighting for this title, and he’s got to go to Middlesbrough and get something, and…I tell you honestly…I would love it if we beat them…love it.” Brilliant theatre and I suppose, in its own way inspirational for die-hard “Toon” fans, but in reality Keegan’s tirade was counter-productive. He had snapped under pressure, revealed his inner turmoil and damaged his professional reputation irreparably.

It is a responsibility of any leader to contextualise, explain and manage failure. It can be one of the toughest tasks for a public speaker in business, politics or any professional environment. Football managers have to do this regularly (some much more so than others!). The best example I can remember comes from Bill Nicholson, manager of Tottenham Hotspur at the peak of their powers from 1958-74. He once memorably said: “It is better to fail aiming high than to succeed aiming low. And we at Spurs have set our sights very high, so high in fact that even failure will have in it an echo of glory.” What a brilliant way of rationalizing failure, turning the ignominy of defeat into part of a noble aspiration.

So who are the most effective public speakers among the modern managers? If you wanted originality of expression and humour you might go for Ian Holloway. If you wanted wisdom born of experience and some controversial insights, Sir Alex Ferguson is the obvious choice. If you wanted someone to address a business or political audience, perhaps you might pick Wenger or Guardiola. There is a lesson in this. Effective public speaking depends very much on the nature of the audience. Adjust your own style accordingly.

And who is the worst public speaker among modern managers? Of course, it would be invidious of me to name a particular person. So I will adopt the approach that Ron Atkinson used for referees: “I never comment on them…and I’m not breaking the habit of a lifetime for that prat!”