Zinedine Zidane and the Perils of Going Back

Zinedine Zidane and Stuart Pearce don't have a huge amount in common beyond a shared penchant for mildly psychopathic on-field violence. But the Frenchman would do well to look to Pearce as an example of the dangers of listening to your heart.

by Alex Hess
11 January 2016, 1:53pm

PA Images

As first games in top-level management go, treating a reverent home crowd to a strutting 5-0 win, replete with a hat-trick from your new boss's most treasured player, isn't bad going. Indeed, watching Real Madrid wallop in goal after goal on Saturday evening, you could almost see the stars aligning in the night sky above the Bernabeu as the fans' returning hero did his best King Midas impression. Zinedine Zidane was back, and all was well.

As anyone who's seen Shrek will well know, the narrative of the returning saviour promises a great deal of glory. In football especially, there's an undeniable romance to the idea of a club legend coming home at a time of need to steady the swaying ship. But there is also – with football in general, and with Zidane in particular – a distant sense of fatalism that will almost certainly engulf the whole saga. Just look at Stuart Pearce.

On the face of it, Zidane and Pearce don't have a huge amount in common beyond a shared penchant for mildly psychopathic on-field violence, but the Frenchman would do well to look to Pearce for an example of the dangers of listening to your heart in these situations. Pearce, as you may remember, spent much of his playing career forging himself legendary status amongst Nottingham Forest fans, his bone-shuddering tackles and violently struck free-kicks becoming the stuff of City Ground folklore over his 12 seasons there. When he left for Newcastle in 1997, he did so as a god among men.

In the summer of 2014, with Forest locked in midtable stasis and in need of inspiration, Pearce got the inevitable call. As he marched out the tunnel prior to his first game in charge and directed an impassioned air-punch towards the fans, the atmosphere at the City Ground was, by all accounts, a joy to behold; "A genuine tingle down the spine moment, something to feel truly emotional about," as Forest-supporting journalist Nick Miller wrote.

Six months later, having taken his beloved club from 11th in the Championship to 14th and with his blundering side showing little sign of improvement, Pearce was summoned into the boardroom and given the Alan Sugar treatment.

READ MORE: The Cult: Zinedine Zidane

The interesting thing here is that if you speak to Forest fans, they will insist that Pearce's status as bona fide club legend remains intact. They mean it, too. And yet there is an inescapable reputational give-and-take at work once a portfolio of transcendent playing achievements has been thickened with a middling managerial stint. At the City Ground, the memories of Pearce The Player may be recalled no less fondly in light of his time as manager, but once his adoring public has witnessed him being tactically outwitted by Ian Holloway, surely the perception of Pearce The Herculean Superhero is no longer as self-sustaining.

And Pearce is far from alone. Diego Maradona, Ossie Ardiles, Kenny Dalglish, Alan Shearer, Greame Souness, Ally McCoist, Glenn Hoddle, Dino Zoff... there is no shortage of players whose godlike aura among a certain set of fans has been shattered to varying degrees by a blast of gritty managerial realism.

In all these cases, the intervening years – the time after the departure and before the return – is the key period. Call it mythologisation, call it collective memory, but the way these men's reputations were constructed effectively set them up for failure. And this is no more so than in the case of Zidane.

Zidane in full flight, 2004 | PA Images

We may now remember Zidane as an infallible superhero, but in reality this wasn't quite the case: his time at Real Madrid was not simply a matter of five years' undiluted joy and success. He was majestic, of course – maybe even peerless – but he was also prone to flitting in and out of games, often important ones, and was frequently guilty of needless and costly red cards. His last two seasons at Madrid were defined by high-profile failure. He was, in short, only human.

And yet the perception formed during his years away from the public eye – as with all the above names (and as with George Best and James Dean and Steve Jobs and every other glorified public figure) – has benefited from the collective mind having expunged any memories of the mundane, leaving only rose-tinted recollections of the resplendent. As such, Zidane's feeble display in the 1997 Champions League final (marked into anonymity by one Paul Lambert) has not formed part of his mythology; his ludicrous volley to win the competition five years later very much has. The effect of all of this is to foster an image of flawlessness which can, by definition, not be improved upon – only undone. All the best, then, Zizou.

There are exceptions, of course, even if they're rare enough to prove the rule rather than negate it. Pep Guardiola at Barcelona is the obvious one: statesmanlike club captain turned all-conquering, era-defining manager. Carlo Ancelotti has won the European Cup four times with AC Milan – twice as player, twice as manager, while Franz Beckenbauer remains the only man to have won the World Cup from both sides of the touchline. In England, Kevin Keegan's iconic status amongst Tynesiders, earned through helping Newcastle to promotion during his Indian summer as a player (departing the St James' Park pitch via helicopter after his final appearance), was only enhanced by his spell as boss, bequeathing the free-flowing heroic failures of the mid-90s. But such cases are rare, and while each of those men were certainly admired as players, none (with the possible exception of Beckenbauer) were worshipped quite like Zidane.

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Johan Cruyff could also lay a claim to entry on this list. He endeared himself to the Barcelona crowd initially by joining as a superstar player for a world-record fee, and in 1974 ending their 14-year wait for a league title. He returned a decade later for an eight-year managerial tenure that saw the club hoover up every trophy going. All that, plus laying the groundworks for Barcelona's next two decades of heavyweight dominance.

And yet, and yet. Cruyff was given the chop in 1996 following a bout of the sort of bitter hierarchical acrimony that he invariably tends to bring (immediately after sacking him, the vice-president threatened to call the police to have Cruyff removed from Camp Nou). His legend lives on in Catalonia, but again the story is tinged with a sourness that did not exist before. Cruyff's case study is hardly a persuasive argument to never 'go back' – his time as Barca manager heightened rather than harmed his standing there. But it does illustrate how top-level management tends to encompass a great deal of political bickering, and that all but the tiniest fraction see their reign ended with an ignominious sacking.

And – in case the phrases 'political bickering' and 'ignominious sacking' aren't enough to remind you – Zidane has not just taken over at any old club, he's taken over at Real Madrid. That would be Real Madrid, where the average managerial tenure is one year, three months; Real Madrid, where pretty much every modern-era manager, regardless of their trophy haul, has departed dejectedly, on a note of perceived failure.

Saturday's win was as good a start as could've been hoped for, and in the eyes of the Bernabeu faithful, for another day at least, Zidane remains immortal. His real problem is that once you become Madrid manager, immortality has a pretty short shelf-life.