During a podcast I did for the US a few months ago, I was asked who my three favourite managers were in La Liga, aside from the famous few. I replied with Marcelino, Manolo Preciado and Gregorio Manzano. The perceptive ones among you will realise that they have all been subsequently sacked - a fact that was pointed out to me by the interviewer, a few days ago in an e-mail entitled 'The kiss of death'.
"Why go for those guys?" you may ask. Well, it was a good, if somewhat unexpected, ball to be bowled on a podcast, and when you're under pressure to come up with a reasonably intelligent answer, you kind of dig deep. It may have been the 'M' factor, but I stick by my choice. The thing that binds all three of them is that they have never managed a real glamour club in the top flight (with apologies to Atlético), and they have never inherited a team of superstars or been handed pots of money to play with. And yet they are always around, either in gainful employment or drawing their temporary unemployment benefit, until another president with his options closed and his budget reduced picks up the phone and enquires as to their availability.
They also belong to the category of 'apaga-fuegos' (firemen) who are called in to douse the flames in the engine-room, steady the ship, and set it back on course. All of them had humble beginnings, and none of them was a particularly exceptional footballer - indeed, Manzano was originally a schoolteacher. Marcelino managed lower-division sides for the first ten years of his managerial career, before taking over the reins at Santander in 2007; Manzano scrambled about in the nether regions for 16 years before finally landing the job at top-flight Valladolid in 1999; and Preciado took seven before he made it to Santander, during the ill-fated regime of Dmitry Piterman in 2002. But Preciado, recently sacked by Sporting de Gijon, promoted five sides from lower divisions in his first ten years, a knack shared by Marcelino. Manzano has been more of a ship-steadier, managing 16 different teams in almost 30 years in Spanish football. He only has one trophy to show for it all - the Copa del Rey with Mallorca in 2003.
Manzano has handed out a few juicy soundbites in his time, usually unrepeatable in polite company, and Preciado had his 15 minutes of fame when he called Jose Mourinho a 'canalla' (lowlife) for suggesting that he had thrown a game against Barcelona. But when Mourinho spontaneously rang Preciado to sympathise when his father had been killed in an accident, the ex-Sporting manager had no hesitation in changing his mind about his adversary. "He's a good guy," he told the press. "I take back what I said about him. Sometimes you don't get to know the real, private person." Others might have remained quiet, but since Preciado's life has been marked by other tragedies, his appreciation of a colleague's gesture - one he had publicly insulted - was a lesson to many.
The three of them represent the basis of Spanish football, whether you like them or not. Marcelino, sacked by Sevilla last week after looking to be on an upward trajectory, is the least charismatic of the three, but what would he do with the squad at the Camp Nou or at the Bernabéu? Or perhaps, if one reversed the question, how would Mourinho and Pep Guardiola fare if handed a Zaragoza to sort out? The question may have no relevance, since the 'special ones' were born to inherit, to man-manage and to fine-tune, not to work through long apprenticeships in the muddy basements of the game. Their talents are indisputable, and their personalities are maybe better adjusted for coping with the particular pressures that accompany a dressing-room full of overpaid egos. Others were born to make a decent living from the game, but seem destined never to tread the velvet corridors of the big two.
This topic occurred to me because of the week gone by and its focus on football managers. Fabio Capello, a successful but never a particularly popular manager, had his resignation gratefully accepted by the English FA, with the acquitted Harry Redknapp waiting in the wings. Redknapp is popular with the media, whereas Capello is not. It makes a big difference these days. Kenny Dalglish, a wonderful ex-footballer but a man ill-equipped to cope with the new PR demands made on managers, showed how the limits of a manager's authority can be so easily exposed by the actions of a player like Luis Suarez, high on ability but short on social intelligence. In the end, Dalglish was obviously told to apologise for his fumbling defence of Suarez at Old Trafford by the fat-cats across the water. King Kenny has no real crown, and his throne is nothing but a cold bucket seat. At least he knows that now. Perhaps he always did.
It's obvious where all this is leading. Osasuna's 3-2 defeat of Barcelona on Saturday night left Real Madrid with the rather attractive prospect of opening up a ten-point lead, which they accepted by winning 4-2 in the Bernabéu against Levante, although not without the early fright of a goal by the visitors in the fourth minute. Cue another hat-trick from Cristiano Ronaldo - his 15th for Real Madrid - and the league would appear to be over. Indeed, the biggest deficit ever turned over in La Liga from this stage onward was in 2004 when Valencia caught Real Madrid, making up an eight-point deficit. The problem for Barcelona now is that Real Madrid have only dropped eight points all season so far, but as John Toshack once remarked: "Pigs may fly over the Bernabéu." The remark caused him to be sacked by president Lorenzo Sanz, but Florentino Perez, the present incumbent, is rather more keen that his current manager stays.
Most of the chat for the past fortnight in the sport tabloids had focused on Mourinho's apparent intention to return to the English Premier League, to take over from his apprentice (Andre Villas-Boas) at Chelsea, from Roberto Mancini at Manchester City or to wrest power from the English Prime Minister, David Cameron. Now that the league title looks almost assured, and the Champions League is still temptingly possible, will the rumours dissipate?
Mourinho himself is an interesting case. Employed by Perez on the back of a vicious campaign by the tabloid MARCA to unseat Manuel Pellegrini and bring in Mou (largely because the newspaper saw him as an anti-Barcelona militant), Perez was also mindful of Mourinho's ability to control the press, to entertain them and even to scare them off, should the necessity present itself. Too many Madrid managers in the past had fallen foul of the city rat-pack, and their incessantly bi-polar reactions to whoever occupied the hot-seat. Mourinho had seemed to get them under control, but the apparently filtered news that accompanied the rumours of a summer departure spoke of his weariness with the constant fighting, the back-stabbing, the dressing-room moles, the twittering and the impossibility of ever keeping a single thing secret - not to mention the press accusations that he is basically an over-pragmatic manager. Nevertheless, he denied that he was packing his bags last Saturday, and fought back rather amusingly:
"Who told you I was going in June? Ask your so-called sources, and if your sources are anonymous, then ask them again. If they're imaginary, then you'd better think up some new ones."
He seems to be back in control, since even the most anti-Mourinho Madridista journalist is forced to acknowledge the beauty of the ten-point gap. Over in Barcelona, Guardiola is still tempted by the offer to direct Qatar's path to the 2022 World Cup, and a year's (highly-paid) sabbatical might look like a rest from the pressures he too faces, although he is universally popular with the Catalan press and probably has the job for life if he wants it. But he doesn't want it forever - however much his Praetorian Guard of Xavi, Iniesta, Piqué and Valdés may fantasise that he will never leave them - and the project may begin to unravel without him. Everything comes to an end, to which Rome and Babylon would attest, and Madrid's testosterone-fuelled assault on the Catalans' three-season dominance of the league may finally persuade him to leave while the going's reasonably good - perhaps with the Copa del Rey and the Champions League under his arm. Puyol should start studying for his UEFA badge. He's the obvious emotional long-term choice.
Managers, eh? Can't live with them, can't live without them. On Monday, I'll brave the cold again, this time in Anoeta, to see Michel make his managerial comeback for Sevilla, having replaced Marcelino this past week. As they say here, 'Técnico Nuevo, triunfo seguro' (New manager, definite win), but I'd personally prefer them to wait until next week. Once upon a time, Michel seemed destined for the Bernabéu, working his apprenticeship conscientiously at Rayo Vallecano, Real Madrid B and at Getafe, and doing a surprisingly good job at all of them. Smoother-tongued than Mourinho, and more aware of the institution and its foibles, he'll ascend to the throne one day, when Mourinho finally decides to take the Portuguese national job. That's when Rafa Benitez goes to Sevilla, having been sacked by Tottenham ... but that's another story.