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Are you talking to me?

October 21, 2015

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It’s the lot of a football manager to take the brickbats when the team is doing badly and to be largely invisible if the team is doing the business..

Much the same could be said about the area where he and his assistants are stationed during the game – it largely comes into focus when the supporters want to vent their spleen; when the goals are flowing on the park, it is less noticed.

Even its changing title – from “dug out” to “technical area” – seems to reflect the journey upon which football has embarked in the past century.

Richard Gordon’s latest offering: Tales from the Dug Out: Football at the Sharp End (Black & White Publishing) gathers together tales and reminiscences from many of the big names of Scottish football – all focused on that area which, more than one contributor suggests, can be a bit of a mad house of stress and confusion.

As you would expect, Fergie features, alongside Archie Knox, Jim Duffy, Alex Smith and Gordon Strachan. Terry Butcher, Stuart McCall and Jimmy Calderwood share their memories, and Jim Jeffries and Billy Brown confess to a few moments of irascibility!

If you’ve ever wondered about the meaning of pitchside managers’ frantic gesticulations, or how difficult it can be to make a substitution, this is the book which will satisfy your curiosity.

Referees, many of whom supporters will have been trying to forget, give a good insight into their approaches to controlling the technical area and their communications with “Fourth Officials”, and you may even have some sympathy for the likes of Kenny Clark, Willie Young and Hugh Dallas .

Craig Brown provides a lifelong perspective, Jimmy NIcholl is predictably amusing, and a chapter from the ever thoughtful Pat Nevin offers his ideas on technical area etiquette for substitutes and squad members.

Like the beautiful game itself, this book contains the trite, the hilarious, the affecting, and the surprising. It reminds us, as fans, how little we actually know of the world of the footballer and manager, despite our reserving the right to tell them how to do their jobs on a weekly basis.

The dry wit of the much missed Tommy Burns brings reflection, and Chick Young’s description of Martin O’Neil’s touchline devastation at having a championship snatched away from his team in the dying minutes of the season, remind us of the emotional energy which is invested in the game.

On the other hand, the games employed by managers – Dick Advocaat and Nigel Pearson come to mind – remind us that winning football matches is not always solely about the skill of the players on the field.

The oft quoted Bill Shankly line about football and life and death hovers over the stories in this volume – and indeed the great man from Glenbuck Cherrypickers features in the history of the humble dug out.
We learn that the “dug out” was originally just that – a pit dug on the sidelines in the 1930s to enable visionary Aberdeen coach, Donald Colman, get a clearer view of what players were up to on the pitch.

The author tells us that, when the introduction of substitutes, physios and various other staff became common in the 60s, Shanks decided the dug outs at Anfield were no longer fit for purpose.. Knowing that assistant manager, Bob Paisley, had some bricklaying experience, he set forth, along with Paisley and Joe Fagan, the coach, to construct new dug outs at Liverpool which did service for over thirty years. Thus three consecutive Managers were physically responsible for the building of the Anfield technical areas.

A bit of a modern day challenge for Messrs Mourinho, Wenger and Van Gaal one would have thought!

In keeping with his broadcasting persona, Gordon’s book has obviously been written not only by someone who loves football and all its arcane routines and traditions, but who gets on well with its practitioners and revels in the tales and memories which make up its hinterland. The names here may be predictable, but frequently their stories are not.

Football fans will smile at the secrets revealed and the mad moments recalled here, but, if they have a mind to, may well be given cause to reflect on the pressure under which players, managers and referees operate, and the role the supporters play in its generation.

My favourite moment in the book?

Ebbe Skovdahls’ triple substitution – pure fitba’ magic!

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