The enduring agony that torments every manager

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“Shape! Shape! Shape!” Every week, the manager and the head coach berate their players with a different, repeated piece of advice from the stands. A few months ago, the chant of “Second ball!” was seldom off head coach Matthew Atkinson’s lips. A few months before that, Chertsey Town’s players were urgently and repeatedly advised to “talk to each other!” while manager Spence Day was demanding “Use your brain!”

If you haven’t made it to the Curlews’ charming Alwyn Lane ground recently you should. Day and Atkinson are a fantastic double act, the most entertaining masters of stream of consciousness since James Joyce, offering a rich blend of tactical advice, invective and verbal encouragement that has made them one of the most compelling sideshows in English football.

Like the proverbial good and bad cop, they have evolved distinct roles. Atkinson is the urger-in-chief, responsible for reminding players which nugget of tactical advice is supposed to be uppermost in their minds for each particular fixture, dishing out praise where appropriate and trying to rectify whatever deficiencies emerge as the pattern of play evolves. So on my last visit, he kept berating his back four: “Five yards! Five yards! Give yourself a chance”. Yet when Chertsey blew an early lead by conceding a stupid goal, Atkinson was surprisingly phlegmatic, remarking: “Forget it now and move on”.

Day dishes out the praise too – less often than Atkinson – but his usual tone is one of incredulous outrage at his team’s wilful refusal to obey orders. So when Chertsey try a short corner which goes wrong, he splutters: “What are they doing?” Later, when a midfielder tries to be too clever, he asks: “How many times have you gotta tell ‘em?” At other times, he asks “Why are we walking?” The only time the Curlews players get much respite from Day is when they score a goal or the referee’s competence is called into question.

It’s hard to know what the players make of this. Most of the time they seem to be “copping a deaf un” though very occasionally they just seem confused. In one match last season, the Curlews won a corner and, with Day and Atkinson both bellowing from the stand, were briefly at a loss as to who was to take it and what they were supposed to do with it.

Day and Atkinson are not comic figures. The Curlews are near the top of the Combined Counties Premier Division and have just won 12 games in a row, just a match short of equalling their club record. But their tirades offer a compelling insight into the agonies every coach must suffer, at every level, during every match. Some cope by chewing industrial quantities of gum, others kick water bottles, while a few have perfected a stoic impassivity. But to listen to Day and Atkinson is to virtually to be admitted into their minds as they contemplate the mysterious unpredictability of the charges who may decide their fates. Lion tamers, you can almost see them thinking, never have to put up with this kind of nonsense.

My favourite part of the Atkinson-Day duologue occurred after the Chertsey right-back had a good idea in the wrong part of the pitch and undid a promising attack with his trickery. This time Day wasn’t splenetic, indignant or loud. He just stared at the space where the move had gone awry and said, in a baffled whisper: “Why? Why did he do it? Why?”   

I suspect every coach has asked that very question since the game was reinvented at a few English public schools almost a century and a half ago.