Ten Hag may have been miffed but the awkward questions do need to be asked | Max Rushden

Estimated read time 6 min read

When is the right time to ask a manager if they’re going to be fired? Is there ever a right time? If you’ve just masterminded an FA Cup win over arguably the best team in world football, should you just be able to enjoy your afternoon?

It’s been interesting to watch the fallout – if that’s not too strong a word – from Gary Lineker and Alan Shearer asking Erik ten Hag a couple of pretty direct questions about his future in the Wembley sun last Saturday.

Lineker begins with some standard stuff to a winning FA Cup manager: ‘Well done/does this show how good you are when your players are fit/how nice is it to beat your rivals …”

It only changes after Lineker asks whether the Dutchman and his players have been unfairly treated by the media, to which Ten Hag says yes. And then in comes bad cop Shearer – with a slightly blunter approach. “You had a team out there who have shown a great attitude, who have shown great ability, who have won every single tackle. That hasn’t always been the case this season though has it, so you can understand why we do criticise sometimes. If you would have had that every single week then you wouldn’t have finished in eighth. Today was unbelievable.”

Lineker diplomatically asks Ten Hag if he knows whether he still has a job – his voice almost tailing off as he asks. They do a bit of how good is Kobbie Mainoo and then Lineker says he hopes to see him next year. Ten Hag looks a little irked, while Micah Richards smiles and Wayne Rooney stands very still. Naturally it all exploded as if the world had ended.

The Mirror ran the headline: “Alan Shearer and Gary Lineker slammed for ‘pathetic’ Erik ten Hag interview on BBC.” The Mail: “Gary Lineker leaves Erik ten Hag looking FURIOUS.” The Manchester Evening News: “Alan Shearer fires X-rated response to Erik ten Hag interview criticism” – a reference to a tweet where Shearer uses the word “shit” to describe “large parts of Manchester United’s season”, which it seems hard to argue with.

Later Shearer defended the line of questioning on The Rest is Football podcast. “To finish eighth, to finish with the number of goals they’ve conceded, shots against, it’s embarrassing. So for all of those things we’ve had to criticise them this season. If we didn’t we wouldn’t be doing our job. But he’s entitled to have the hump with people who he feels are being unfair, but I felt I was well within my rights [to say what I said].”

The interview itself seems totally fine – and perhaps the only reason there’s been any discussion about it is because of how rarely anyone asks a manager an interesting question. This is not a criticism of your off-camera post-match interviewer. Even the top echelons – your Shreeveses, your Davisons – have to be much more careful.

Erik ten Hag holds the FA Cup after Manchester United’s win at WembleyView image in fullscreen

You can really only ask a variant of: “What did you think of the game, Brian?” If they’re rude to you, you can’t answer back, if they ask you your opinion you can only say: “People aren’t interested in my opinion.” And you can’t push them, because you’ll probably have to interview them next week. There is a history of managers refusing to talk to journalists, and in that power dynamic there’s only one winner.

It would be so refreshing for a post-match interviewer to call out the bullshit managers routinely trot out when trying to deflect from a defeat. On one of the many occasions last season when Ten Hag appeared to have been watching a different game to the rest of us, how wonderful would it have been to see someone holding a big Sky Sports microphone saying: “I think you were watching a different game Erik.” But they probably wouldn’t be holding that microphone the following week.

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It is worth stepping back to consider the bizarre way we treat football managers. Imagine having a pretty rough few months at work, and then after a really good day, being thrust on to live television in front of millions, and being asked if you’re still employed. That’s a very odd situation for any human. Holding people to account matters – but Ten Hag is only trying get the best out of Diogo Dalot, he’s not wasting millions of pounds of public money forcing desperate asylum seekers on to a flight to Rwanda that will never take off.

But that is the way of things, and it brings us to the art of asking confrontational questions. It is an awkward thing – whether on air or around the kitchen table. Most of us try to avoid it at all costs. It is something I am really not good at. When I think back to moments on Guardian Football Weekly when I should have confronted guests, on the most serious of topics, I have generally shied away from it. That should be in the “things to improve on” box on my appraisal form. It is much easier to criticise players, managers, administrators, governments, when they’re not looking you in the eye.

And to that end I actually thought Shearer and Lineker did an excellent job. It’s the question people want the answer to. It’s definitely the right person to ask. You probably won’t get an answer, but you never know. It’s understandable that Ten Hag might not have loved it, and that some Manchester United fans finally having a nice time just wanted to revel and not think beyond the last 90 minutes.

And really this is only another example of the constant football content machine. Someone says/does something. Some people like it. Some people don’t. People take to the internet. Someone writes about it. Someone else writes about someone writing about it, and before you know it England have been knocked out of the Euros on penalties.

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Source: theguardian.com

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