Van Gaal beware if the press pack scents blood

VIEW FROM THE PRESS BOX: You don’t need the skills of Cassandra to be able to predict the future in sport, just a grasp of past events, writes DAVID WALKER

They say there’s nothing new in sport, just the same old stories being rehashed with different names.

Looking back to history: Louis van Gaal
Looking back to history: Louis van Gaal

Even the administrators of world athletics, who have spent so long in denial, know the problems besmirching their sport date back decades rather than just months and years.

Match fixing was exposed in football more than a century ago – in a Manchester United versus Liverpool game – and it’s 35 years since United sacked a manager for the crime of delivering a team with two key faults. They didn’t win any trophies and were boring to watch.

Present incumbent Louis van Gaal may display the arrogance of a man who never doubts his reputation as one of the world’s great coaches and, in that respect, he’s very different to the former United boss who won his last seven games in charge and yet was still sacked.

In terms of personality Dave Sexton was chalk to van Gaal’s Edam. Dave was a quiet, shy, retiring man who only opened up to a group of close friends and a select few journalists. He, too, was undoubtedly a brilliant coach, revered by many of the players he tutored at Chelsea, United and QPR.

But Dave just couldn’t handle the media or light up press conferences. He faced a huge challenge at United by succeeding the ebullient, walking, talking mate of the media called Tommy Docherty. The Doc left Old Trafford in disgrace after admitting to the board that he was having an affair with the club physio’s wife. But he invariably had a ready quip or piece of Glaswegian logic that would become an instant a back page splash.

Some of the Doc’s put-downs remain searingly accurate. Such as his description of a conversation with Sexton. Docherty explained: “Dave would say ‘Good morning. But don’t quote me’!”

Docherty built a United team of pace and attacking verve with exciting wingers in Steve Coppell and Gordon Hill. His last game in charge was the 1977 FA Cup Final victory when United prevented Liverpool becoming England’s first treble winners.

Dave Sexton: chalk to van Gaal's Edam
Dave Sexton: chalk to van Gaal’s Edam

Sexton attempted to add a degree of sophistication to United’s play and was financially backed by a board desperate – even then – to end their long wait since 1967 to win the League title.

The figures may seem minute compared with today’s multi-million pound transfers, but there were major deals when the likes of Ray Wilkins was recruited from Chelsea and Joe Jordan and Gordon McQueen were signed from Leeds. All three became cornerstones of Sexton’s United alongside his star asset, Lou Macari.

But Sexton, who died in 2012, was haunted by the big buys that didn’t deliver, such as £1.25 million striker Garry Birtles, who arrived from Nottingham Forest. Birtles made 25 appearances in the 1980-1981 season and failed to score a single goal. Can you see a theme developing here?

Sections of the Manchester media turned on Sexton. It reached the point where some of his supportive senior players tried to help him deal with media by giving him ideas of things to talk about. They’d even wait to check that their boss had delivered the bon mots to placate the voracious press pack. Invariably, Dave would prefer to be himself and simply clam up.

The situation became so bleak with the boring football and the non-communicative manager that several national titles went on the attack. United were horrified and at least one national newspaper received a letter from the club asking them to change the man deputed to cover Old Trafford affairs because he was not giving Sexton a chance.

The editor of that newspaper wrote back pointing out that he would decide who covered United, not the club’s directors. As usual in these circumstances the media hounds eventually got their man. Shy Sexton was sacked despite seeing his team finish the season with those seven consecutive wins.

Dave learned the key lessons of life as Manchester United manager. Winning is not enough. Your team has to win with a certain swagger and style. And when the media pack scent blood, they invariably make a kill.

Take note Mr Van Gaal.

  • David Walker is the Chairman of the SJA and sports editor of the Daily Mirror. He is a former Manchester-based football correspondent, including being the Daily Mail‘s chief football news reporter
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