Rather guiltily I was nursing a sense of schadenfreude when England were 2-0 behind against Croatia on Wednesday. And I was not at all anxious ahead of the earlier Israel v Russia match, which Russia had to lose (apparently unlikely, but it did happen) for England to stand a chance of qualifying for the 2008 European Championships (ie by beating Croatia). So England are out, and the manager Steve McClaren has been kicked into touch.

I don’t follow football so closely to judge whether this a fair comment on McClaren, and wish him no ill. In any event, as the Croatia game wore on, my nationalism was asserting itself, hoping for a reversal of the reversal. It came and went, England clawed back two goals and all too inevitably, it seemed, conceded a third.

But the reason for my mixed emotions was that I was secretly hoping that if McClaren went, the job would go to Aston Villa manager Martin O’Neill, even though he’s ruled himself out today, it appears. The reason for my enthusiasm was simple. He once quoted William Goldman’s famous line: “nobody knows anything”. I think it was during some post-match analysis in the last World Cup. Wow!!!! I knew O’Neill was a clever man, but what a coup it would be if such a philosopher were leading the nation, through football, into the crucible of uncertainty that is the future. I’d promise to watch every game. I’d hang on his every word. It would be the end of the cliche “that’s football”. It would be no longer just a game of two halves.

O’Neill is a very different manager. Someone, perhaps, with a more visceral experience of success and reversal than even the average football manager, player, pundit or fan. In particular, worthy of close attention is his relationship with the late Brian Clough, a manager who was overlooked for the England job a generation ago, largely for his outspokenness.

In my first attempt at blogging several years ago, when I was a bit more certain myself, I wrote this post about Clough from a programme which featured O’Neill as an interviewee (see quotation that follows). O’Neill was one of those underachieving players experiencing mediocrity when Clough arrived to manage Nottingham Forest:-

Contributions from chat-show host and sports journalist Michael Parkinson and one of his former players appeared to give some original insights into how he was able to make a difference (it was not cash and top players that delivered his success.) Parkinson highlighted the fact that he could take under-achieving players and turn them into greats. This seems quite important. Other players chimed in with how demanding he was, if not brutal. But perhaps the best intervention which indicated that he was a process driven manager rather than results driven, was in the contribution of one player who said you never quite knew where you were. To paraphrase: “You could be 3-0 up at half time and he’d come into the changing room and give you a right bollocking. Another time, you’d be 2-0 down and he’d come in and say ‘Perfect lads–more of the same in the second half.’”

It takes a huge amount of courage to ignore the short-term result, even when it is positive, in favour of a process that will deliver longer-term success, not least because the wider community of interests, owners, managers, shareholders are victims of their own loss-aversion and will prefer success in the short-term no matter how it is derived.

I finally got round to reading Goldman’s Adventures in the Screen Trade, in the hospital waiting rooms just a few weeks ago. Goldman’s “nobody knows anything” is the heuristic’s heuristic, the numero uno of “I dunno”.

Goldman, an alumnus of the famous elite liberal arts mecca Oberlin College in Ohio is perhaps an unlikely prophet of the sciences of uncertainty, having scored massive successes with screenplays for Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and All The President’s Men (surely the most important movie made for knackered hacks everywhere). The book is a must-read for those who might worry about what Ed Leamer described in an Econtalk podcast suggesting that globalization was leading to a Hollywoodisation of labour markets. For a sense of the stakes, the current battles between the studios and writers are a hint of how the spoils can get shared in a deeply uncertain ecology, as Goldman would term it.

Art de Vany had a good post this week on contingency payment and one of his commentators highlighted a post by Netscape founder Marc Andreessen which argues that the entertainment companies can ill afford a dispute with their creative talent now, when creative talent is becoming less dependent on concentrated marketing and distribution companies to reach audiences.

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