Tuesday, September 6, 2011

BOARD STIFF

Cook, Swales and Maddock: A History of Bombastic Eloquence

Happily, Manchester City has always been a club capable of putting its foot, be it clad with the latest Predator football boot, or slightly scuffed brogue, firmly into its waiting mouth. Players and directors alike have always revealed a capacity to entertain, amaze and shock in almost equal measures down the years and followers of the great sky blue soap opera have been comfortable with a bit of self-deprecation to bounce away any derision from outside.

The latest brouhaha surrounding the club leaves only a sour taste in the mouth, however. Gary Cook, the club's self-styled larger than life business guru, the type of man who you will find glad-handing countless strangers in suits, holding forth about this that and the extremely tedious other at networking lunches in three star convention centres and playing the big shouldered noise clapping staff into position for the latest ill-judged bonding exercise. He is the hugely embarrassing boss that we've all had at one time or another. When he speaks it is at a volume used only by self-confident people who are used to being listened to by large audiences. When he laughs, it is with that air-filled exaggeration that makes normal people disappear to the toilets for a smoke. When he enthuses it is with such hyperbole that it makes the hairs stand up inside your underpants. David Brent meets Fats Waller meets Tony Blair. It takes a special kind of human being to parp loudly and lastingly in public about subject matter he or she holds only a tenuous grasp of. To stride around representing a megalith like Nike, or for that matter the new global-reach Manchester City, takes balls, guts, bravado and a handsome slice of bullshittery and the great trouble with this cosmically inflammable combination is that, every time you pull it off, you wing it, you are surrounded by rosy shining faces clapping their little hands off, it eases a little more helium into the tank. These people eventually float around thinking they are part-owners of Planet Earth and can act as its spokesperson.

City have been blessed with some earth-shatteringly multi-dimensional boardroom mavericks during the club's rich and varied history. The first to really make his mark in the modern era was Peter J Swales, a man made for the monochrome era of the early 70s with his rugged tie-died comb-over making him look like he was trundling around the breeze block precincts of Altrincham with a lightly ravaged raccoon atop his bonce. The hair we would come to accept in the way you accept a pet dog that always arches his back for a dump in the most preposterously public places, but Mr Swales was never content to simply look absurd; he wanted to sound absurd too.

Never was this more apparent than the classic moment when the quietly spoken Mel Machin's promising but forever-understated reign came to an abrupt Swalesian end. Machin was the sort of guy that, after watching his team put 10 past Huddersfield, would say in a voice that required the collected presspack to nuzzle in to within 10 centimetres of his mouth, "I think the boys did a good job today and we'll be back again on Monday to prepare for Swindon Town". Cue startled hacks, mouths open, pencils mid air, wondering what to say next. Swales noticed this and, as was his style, sacked Machin swiftly and with no mercy. When he faced the press pack himself, it was down to Machin's apparent "lack of repartee with the crowd". You see, like Cook, Swales was one of those clever men, who could be hilariously funny (and smile along with the joke) without completely realising how truly entertaining he was being.

(below) Swales, looking like a player in the Cuban Missile Crisis, gets his bushy-haired man. Ian Niven's lively hairpiece can clearly be seen enjoying itself in the background

In the startlingly bold Granada tv film "City" from 1980, which happened across a story whilst innocently documenting the backroom shuffling of a big time football club, we saw the machinations of Swales and his bald-headed tea drinking cavaliers as Big Mal was ushered out of office and replaced by John Bond. Bond's job interview, filmed in full, is a gem of televisual romance from that bygone era. Watching it now is like seeing a black and white episode of What Happened to the Likely Lads: you watch it and feel your jaw dropping open as you realise the 70s was as close to today's society as living on Mars. Bond, all stacked hair (much to Swales' evident jealousy) and Norfolk burr, runs through a short catalogue of comically inept phrases to describe how he motivates, propels and dresses up a team, a club, a whole population. Swales and his grey-suited sexagenarians nod and smoke, tut and hiccup. In closed quorum, they begin another round of tea drinking, tutting and nodding. Ian Niven, a small man with a lively hairpiece, refuses to budge from his Pro-Mal stance. "I'm not saying (whether I like him or not) but I'll back anything you say or do, Mr Chairman" he fizzles. "Right that's settled then," says Swales, "Get him back in". Bond enters and sits. Swales: "Very good, that, John. We've listened to what you said and we've been very impressed and we'd like to offer you the job on the proviso that we, er, (starts to look sheepish for the first time in 25 years) can sort out the er compensation side of things with Norwich". And so, on the basis of ten minutes of trite one-liners and the hollow 70s version of Gary Cook's clipped management-speak, Bond is in and, naturally enough, two years later, out again. This was very much how Peter Swales, Altrincham's most successful and most high-profile television set salesman, operated. Speak, sack, think, in that order. Rest. Breathe. Call press conference. Speak, sack, think. Repeat to fade.

Swales may not have had many attributes, but he was a survivor and, for all the out-takes and slip-ups, he was still hanging on grimly to office in 1993, when - true to form - he sacked Peter Reid after three games of the new season. It is not recorded exactly what his problem was, but Reid almost certainly lacked "repartee" with the board, which by now included the cake-faced journalist John Maddock, hired as a buffer between the by-now bedraggled looking Swales (the raccoon combover supplanted by a set of thin, wet eels lined up in asymmetric novelty across the famous bald expanse) and manager Reid. "I am not the mouthpiece for Peter Swales," Maddock blustered to nobody's belief, "Make no mistake about this I am the new supremo at Maine Road with a specific mandate from the board". Reid was gone the next day, replaced by the invisible Brian Horton. Maddock himself lasted a gaff-strewn couple of months before falling on his own quill pen. Swales too was soon gone, a giant career of verbal tomfoolery and savage firings behind him for good.

Which, by a rather circuitous route, brings us back to square one. Cook, the super-garrulous chief exec who thinks a Thai dictator who has "disappeared" thousands of the country's criminals and likes the idea of adorning the match programme with his nicely oval face, is a "good golf partner". Would he have swung a haphazard four iron wit Pol Pot, one wonders, or indulged in a quiet game of Pictionary with Richard Nixon. We will perhaps never know. What is certain, is that, once again, the good and sometimes comical reputation of Manchester City is once again in the spotlight.

"Charismatic" leader
Cook is no more evil than, say, Ken Bates, no more plotting than Peter Kenyon, no more lame than Bill Kenwright. Indeed he has brought about change on a scale that most supporters could not have dreamed about three short years ago. Yes, the funds available have made him look good and generous, but as a man charged with driving the club's off the field activities forward, most would say he has been a big success. As a human being entrusted with not making the club a laughing stock with his quips, quotes and grimaces, he has been significantly less successful. It is with a grandiloquence that marries pomposity with ridicule that such figures come unstuck. This latest episode now paints the picture not only of a man with decidedly poor taste in jokes, but also one with an ill-considered plan for what to some might appear to be an attempt at cover-up. That will no doubt come out with the wash when lawyers and I.T.experts get their call. In the meantime, the irascible PJ Swales would no doubt have considered it the opportune moment to stand slowly from his swivel chair and say "Well, Gary, lad, you've done great, we appreciate that, really do, but I'm going to have to ask you to get your stuff.. No hard feelings is there". Mr Cook will be pleased that the trigger finger of Chairman Khaldoon Al Mubarak is decidedly less fidgety.

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Imbiber of Amantis 2005, cold water, black coffee. Victim of great Winona Ryder trouser theft; hapless dreamer, willing accomplice and crafty left sided midfielder.

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