The grass is always greener on the other side of the wall. A.S.Roma, the Italian First Division Club, appointed me team manager in August 1957 because they felt they needed the iron fist of an English manager; and Leyton Orient agreed to release me from a ten-year contract because they believed that when I returned to them two years later I would be a better manager for my continental experience. It did not work out. Four months after that I was dismissed by Roma, despite having made them one of Italy’s top three clubs and three weeks later I was back at Leyton Orient who were by then at the bottom of Division Two. I might have been a slightly better manager for the experience, but I was certainly a much wiser one. My sixteen weeks with Roma were hard, intensely interesting, painful, confusing and, finally, bitter. I discovered their idea of a manager’s role was very different to mine. That was why we parted.
A good manager is always the king-pin in an English League club. Little is done without his consent or knowledge. He shapes policy and carries it through. He is ‘The boss’.
But in Italy, I learnt that the manager is usually at the end of the queue. I was given no assistance in finding a flat for my wife and two small daughters. I never attended a board meeting. I was not even invited to a little ceremony at which two new players were each given a wrist-watch. I was left in one room while the presentations were made in the next. Roma was a club full of undercurrents and intrigues, but what surprised me most of all was that even my success was resented. We lost only one of eleven games while I was there, and every second person in the club seemed to think he was directly responsible. Too many people wanted a place in the sun. Too many big egos sought projection.
Their attitude to players, too, annoyed me in one fundamental aspect. In England everything that is said and done is calculated to inspire self-confidence. It is, or should be, one of the basic rules of management. But Roma preferred to keep their players on edge. Even a player who had just performed brilliantly would find a director or an official sidling up to him and suggesting there was another man in the club who could do better. These same directors and officials liked to give the impression that no matter how well the side played, no matter what the result, they could have picked a better team. They had no conception of the meaning of continuity and confidence.
At boardroom level, Roma were shattered by public opinion and what the papers said. They would do anything to present a good image even if it meant action that was not in the club’s interest. Exactly what a Roma board meeting was like, or how they came to a decision, is something that remains a mystery to me. I do not even know how many directors they had, though I began to suspect there were dozens of them. Everyone I met, other than the players, seemed to claim he was a director. Not that these directors, even allowing they were all directors, kept themselves to themselves. They would spend hours in the club-house, mixing freely with the players and often talking quietly to them in dark corners. I could not help feeling that in some way they were undermining my authority. What is the point of their paying a manager to manage, I used to wonder and then whittling away his authority like this ? The Press virtually lived in the club-house, which was another thing that surprised me. Directors would waste no time in latching on to the reporters, putting their arms round their shoulders and falling into earnest conversation. It was strange for an English manager who was used to being the public voice of the club.
Later, after my dismissal, I was to reflect that one of the great weaknesses of Italian football is lack of proper management. Helenio Herrera of Internazionale (Milan), a great disciplinarian, is an exception; but his outstanding success only helps make my point. Too many Italian clubs fail because they have no consistent policy. They have too many people claiming to be in charge, but no one really in charge. My big regret is that I was not allowed to do the job for which I believed they wanted me. I think if I had stayed, Roma might have finished third or even second to Juventus who were then in their great days of John Charles and Sivori. As it was they finished in mid-table. But I was totally unaware of the problems I would have to face in the June of that year when the news first broke that Roma were interested in me. The approach was made in a typically woolly manner. No one approached me in the first place to say: ‘I am an official representative of Roma. Would you be interested in joining us ?’ Several newspapers carried stories about it, and then someone who was apparently ‘a friend of a friend’ casually mentioned the subject to me. I began to wonder if it was some elaborate joke.
I took my family to the Kent coast for a few days’ break, and it was here, lying in bed one morning, that I got a bit of a shock. I turned to the back page of one paper, and under a big, black headline was a story informing millions of people that I was definitely going to Italy. The next development was a phone call from a person who apparently bought and sold fruit in London. He said he was a relation or friend of the Roma president, and bluntly asked me: ‘Have you accepted our offer ?’ I simply replied: ‘What offer ?’ and the conversation ended. I did not begin to give the matter serious thought, in fact, until Gigi Peronace, that agent extraordinary, a splendid fellow, got in touch with me. The offer was suddenly a reality. I was interested, but there were so many things to consider that an immediate decision was impossible. Gigi took me to Italy a couple of times to show me around, and to introduce me to people, but, finally, two things persuaded me I should make the move.
My experience as a manager had been confined to Yeovil and Leyton Orient. I was thirty-eight years old, and after a lot of graft, I had got as far as the Second Division. I realised, uncomfortably; that I knew a lot about the Southern League and the Third Division, but only a little about the Second and even less about the First. European Cup football was beginning to make its presence really felt in England, and it all helped bring home to me the limits of my horizon. Orient had been my world, and though they were doing well, I felt I was going backwards. I needed experience on a different level.
English football was still in the backwash of Hungary, still convinced after that famous victory at Wembley in 1953 that everything continental was best. I saw that many of the men coming into League club management were experienced internationals, and I decided that unless I took a good, long look at what Europe had to offer, I would soon be at a big disadvantage. Roma offered me an opportunity to widen my range. At the same time, I could not pretend that I had earned a fortune with Yeovil and Leyton Orient. I decided it was time to earn myself a few pounds, and so, with Roma offering to give my knowledge a new dimension and to pay me handsomely for the privilege, I decided to accept their offer.
I had a five-year contract, with a five-year option, with Orient, and it had run only eighteen months; but it was agreed that experience in Italy would make me a better manager, and, obviously, more useful to the East London club when I rejoined them. It was reported that I turned the offer down before accepting. This was not so. There was simply a delay while the details of my contract, salary and bonuses were agreed on, and while I established – or thought I established – exactly what my job and responsibility would be. The contract was a good one, It was for two years, running from August 1st 1957, to July 31st 1959 and guaranteed me about ¬£7000 a year, in addition to which I was to receive ‘Matchprizes’ equal to the players and expenses. I undertook ‘to maintain everywhere a fair, disciplined and correct behaviour, to have a standard of life both morally and fiscally sound and to be irreprehensible in sport and civilian conduct’. In return the club undertook to give me ‘every support and backing’.
There was also an agreement in writing, signed by Renato Sacerdoti, the Roma president and myself, which precisely defined my responsibilities. It contained nineteen clauses, the first two of which were as follows:
Mr Alec Stock is hereby appointed by A.S. Roma as manager-coach-trainer of the First Division football team, and will also have direct control upon the reserve team and technical charge and control upon all junior teams. Mr Stock is in sole charge as far as the technical management is concerned as well as all disciplinary and sports activities of the football teams. However, he must report at least once a week to the chairman of the A.S. Roma on the progress of all the various football teams, and in particular of the First Division team and reserve team.
Clause 15 stipulated: ‘Any breach of the agreed clauses by the guilty party will enable the other party to call for the immediate break of the contract with rights to damages.’ But this, of course, seemed a reasonable safeguard for both the club and myself, and I looked forward intensely to my new job.
I was warned soon after arriving that one of the big problems would be the city of Rome itself. The climate, the good living and the sweet life of that wonderful city can make hard work and self-discipline difficult for the professional athlete, and Roma believed an English manager would have the necessary ‘steel’ to make their players overcome these temptations. Rome was much too hot for training at this time, so we left the city and its gaiety to go to Spoleto, in the mountains to the north of the capital, for three weeks’ training. We began our work at nine o’clock in the morning, and half past six in the evening, and I found immediately that most of the first-team squad were willing to train hard. In fact, I made them work very hard, probably harder than they had ever worked before, but though a few showed resentment at first, things went well. I was relieved that they were willing, because when I started I remember thinking: ‘How do I train an Italian side ? How am I going to get through to them ?” I appreciated only too well that what makes one manager better than the next is what he says and how he does it.
The club realised this and provided me with an interpreter, though my admiration for their thoroughness took a fall when I met him. He was a sixteen-year-old Italian who had picked up his English in Wales. He was to be the bridge between myself and players worth hundreds of thousands of pounds. He was the person who was to relay technical talk to such players as Gunnar Nordahl, the barrel-chested Swedish centre-forward, then thirty six years old, who played for the Rest of Europe against Britain in 1947 and later joined Milan before moving to Roma. I often wondered in what form my instructions reached the players.
Taken from the book ‘Football Club Manager’ by Alec Stock
Edited by Byron Butler
Originally published by Routledge and Kegan Paul – 1967
Reproduced by kind permission of Taylor & Francis Books (UK)
(Final part to follow soon)