Footballers can be ruthless, unforgiving souls. Take it from me, the merest whiff of weakness is sniffed out, seized upon, and cleverly used for individual or collective gain. Hundreds of players have made self-protection an art form over the years, and I’ve known plenty of them. Is it any wonder that managers are so paranoid? Honestly; they should be.
I remember Bruce Rioch making the switch from Bolton Wanderers to Arsenal in 1995, and immediately getting Gunners fans onside with the big money captures of Dennis Bergkamp and David Platt. However, inside the lion’s den - the dressing room itself - that wasn’t ever going to be enough to win over the doubters because Rioch’s reputation had preceded him. He was known in footballing circles as an old school ‘Sergeant Major’ style gaffer and that just wasn’t what the type of boss the majority of Arsenal’s senior players fancied working with.
The first day handshakes and traditionally jovial pre-season banter appeared to radiate positivity, but lurking inside were deep-seated doubts and preconceptions that were hard to shift. As soon as results didn’t go Arsenal’s way that season, the grumbles predictably surfaced and with Rioch reverting to type – taking a hard line stance with the side – rows and rucks soon became commonplace. I was sure it would only be a matter of time before the manager, and not the stars, would be replaced. And so it proved.
While I wouldn’t describe Andre Villas-Boas as a fearsome dictator, his prospects of finding footballing redemption at White Hart Lane depend greatly on his ability to shake off his reputation for upsetting players.
As we all know, getting tough with the old guard didn’t sit well at Chelsea’s training ground in leafy Cobham, and you can be 100 per cent certain that a sea of texts, calls and BBM’s were exchanged between Spurs and Chelsea players the moment it first became apparent that Villas-Boas had been handed a Premier League lifeline by Daniel Levy.
“Did he really stand in the car park clocking you in?”
“Is it true he tried to walk you through the how to defend manual?”
“He can’t play can he? Is he useless?”
“He looks arrogant. He’s an egg isn’t he?”
I can imagine the questions.
First impressions count with footballers, but they’re not critical. I’m told that the Portuguese boss has taken on a much more relaxed demeanour with the Spurs squad and that it’s been a case of so far, so good in terms of his man-management. But when the results are irrelevant that’s an easy situation to manufacture.
This weekend the action starts to get serious and if Tottenham are winning matches, the 34-year-old manager will pretty much be able to get away with whatever he wants. Even if he stops smiling and begins to rattle a few of his players’ cages, how can they moan when the team is picking up points aplenty? They can’t.
Unfortunately for Spurs, they can’t possibly be expected to win all of the time. There will be poor performances, frustrating situations and disappointments, there always is. And AVB must, and I mean must, react to them in a way that’s acceptable to his players. He will sink or swim on those responses this season.
If the Portuguese panics and shows weakness, he’ll lose the dressing room. And given his record at Stamford Bridge it won’t take much for the cracks to turn into craters.
Staying cool is part of the reason why another of my former managers, Arsene Wenger, has been so successful for so long. I was there on his first day at the club, when the then little-known Frenchman introduced himself to the first team squad. That day there were smirks and sniggers because he ‘looked more like a school teacher than a football manager’ but as the weeks, and winning results followed, respect was quickly earned. Crucially, when the inevitable dips occurred, Wenger didn’t change either. He behaved exactly the same way, exuding confidence in his players and remaining completely unwavering when it came to his football philosophies and beliefs. It’s still the same today.
Can Villas-Boas change his ways and learn from the mistakes he made in west London? He has to.
I wonder if the first big test is just around the corner. Despite the smiles, not everything is going his way and it may not take too much more to tip him or his players over the edge.
Already AVB has walked straight into a row over Gareth Bale’s dubious absence from Team GB, been mildly criticised for using the Welshman up front rather than in his best position on the left wing in pre-season, used several different formations, failed to identify Scott Parker’s Achilles problem until the eve of the new campaign, potentially upset Brad Friedel by publically stating his desire to bring in a new keeper, and most importantly of all singularly failed to bring in one striker (let alone the three he needs) to keep Jermain Defoe company in the Tottenham attack.
By nature footballers are sceptical when a new manager comes in. They fret over whether the boss will like them or if he’ll turn the team into winners - and they are critical judges when it comes to the actions they take. Players watch a manager’s every move.
Andre Villas-Boas must tread very carefully in the coming weeks and months because if he puts a foot wrong, history could repeat itself and it might be his own players that turn on him, before the fans do.
Former professional footballer Adrian Clarke came through Arsenal's youth system in the early '90s and went on to make a handful of appearances for the first team before moving on to Southend United and Stevenage Borough. He now works as a journalist and broadcaster and is writing an exclusive weekly column, Professionally Speaking, for bet.unibet.com. You can follow him on Twitter @adrianjclarke