As Ole Gunnar Solskjaer stands on the Old Trafford touchline, arms folded, the sternest of looks painted across his face, there are few people in the world who would want to swap places with him.
His Manchester United side are losing 5-0 at home to Liverpool, they’re down to 10 men and facing one of the most humiliating defeats in Premier League history. But all he can do is stand there, motionless in his technical area, knowing a swirl of abuse and criticism is heading his way.
Social media is already abuzz with hurtful messages and comments directed at the Norwegian, while pundits and journalists question if the death knell is tolling on Solskjaer’s time in the Red Devils’ dugout. Well, not quite all of them.
In the ensuing hours and days, Solskjaer’s former team-mates in punditry positions refuse to call for his head – triggering more online reaction, questioning that bias. Phil Neville, who played with Solskjaer at United between 1996 and 2005, went one step further, attacking the desire to call for managers’ heads when things go awry.
“We live in an era where it’s seen as quite normal to ask people to be sacked, which I find absolutely incredible,” the former England Women head coach told the Miami Herald.
“If you were any other workplace and you walked into a shop and you said, ‘I want you to be sacked’, I think you would be reported to the police.”
In the same interview, Neville said, “social media is an absolute cesspit for people that are just the lowest of the low” and anybody who has dared to venture into the comments of certain posts can’t contest that. Yet his assertion that managers’ job security shouldn’t be openly discussed does beg the question if we are going too far on the human being in the hot seat.
The idea that it’s a new phenomenon doesn’t ring true, though. This week, Channel Four replayed its cult documentary Graham Taylor: An Impossible Job, which follows the former England manager’s unsuccessful qualifying campaign to reach the 1994 World Cup.
Within it, there are various references to the growing pressure on Taylor both in the press and among England fans. There is one clip where the Three Lions boss comes within feet of Wembley supporters yelling “Taylor out” at him as he slopes down the tunnel following one defeat and another where someone off camera shouts for him to “do the press a favour, resign” as he does a TV interview.
In one prescient scene in a match against San Marino, Taylor turns to a member of the crowd to remind them they’re “talking about another human being” as John Barnes receives boos from the England crowd and points out the “influence of the daily newspapers” due to articles written in the past.
Social media didn’t exist back in the early 90s, although if it did, it’s not hard to imagine the vitriol Taylor would have been receiving. Yet it didn’t save him from national humiliation, with a fervent press pack willing to turn the screw on him at every turn.
Taylor was famously branded a turnip by The Sun, appearing on the front page with his head resembling the root vegetable. What makes it so pertinent now is that recently sacked Newcastle manager Steve Bruce said “it was hard being called an inept cabbage-head” in reference to a tirade of abuse he received as Magpies boss.
If it’s any consolation to Bruce – even if it’s certainly no justification – the Photoshopped images of his face on a cabbage passed around social media weren’t plastered across newspaper front pages as Taylor’s turnip was. And it’s hard to imagine that happening under any circumstance nowadays, even though The Mirror morphed Fabio Cappello into Frankenstein’s Monster in 2010 after the then-England gaffer pointedly told the media, “you create the god and you create the monster, no?”.
Harsh criticism still exists in columns and reporters still call for managers to get their comeuppance, but there’s much less acceptance of ridiculing individuals in the way Taylor was subjected to.
Bruce took months of flak while at Newcastle, despite doing a respectable job considering the constraints placed on him at St James’s Park during his time there. His position was questioned by some quarters very early in his reign and that soon transformed into personal jibes.
Perhaps it’s there that Neville has a point. By normalising Bruce’s criticism and constantly demanding his sacking, it didn’t become too much of a leap to start the “bully, disgusting behaviour, trolling” that the Inter Miami coach describes online. Bruce became the punchline and his profession turned into a joke.
It’s undeniable that social media does shape the agenda now – and not just in football. Opinions are shared freely, creating surges of extreme views and means news stories, comments and football results can go on to gather new context and much greater relevance.
To take Neville’s point, that can extend to around-the-clock analysis of a manager’s credentials and suitability for the job in a more obvious way. But this is nothing new in football, although social media does fan those flames in a way that terrace chat and pub debate couldn’t previously. Incidents and results are less likely to be forgotten, criticism is more stinging and mob mentality means reactions become more extreme.
Society and the monetised nature of the football industry does mean there’s less patience and more sackings than decades gone by, but the stakes are higher, there’s more coverage and the potential rewards are greater. Rightly or wrongly, it comes hand in hand.
So Neville’s assertion that fans shouldn’t be calling for managers to be sacked struggles to hold much sway in football fandom, where the psyche is that supporters who spend money on their team have the right to have their say.
What is for sure though, is the distinction between professional and personal criticism does need to be made, however disastrous the result.