Madman Theory: Football’s clumsy pursuit of chaos

Words By Richard Jolly Illustration by Philippe Fenner
May 1, 2018

It did not figure in the normal diplomatic playbook. “I call it the Madman Theory,” the self-styled madman apparently said. Perhaps it would have been Richard Nixon’s principal legacy to the world. The break-in at the Watergate building, a subsequent cover-up and constitutional crisis ensured otherwise.

But the 37th president of the United States was practised in deception before then. His negotiations with North Vietnam were notable for an attempt to gain the upper hand by making them fear he was capable of anything. The Madman Theory gained topicality when there was a suggestion one of Nixon’s successors was reviving it.

That rather ignored the reality that there is a stark difference between crazy like a fox and crazy like a fool, and that a supposed madman who is actually deviously intelligent is unlikely to be an emulated by an unhinged narcissist with the attention span of a goldfish, a lack of knowledge or understanding and an incessant ability to lie. This is not a masterplan, but making it up as you go along, and a form of madness that renders it difficult for those supposedly on the same side to guess what is happening next, why, or how it inconveniences them.

And yet while no one deserves to be compared to the idiot-in-chief, there is a sense that the Madman Theory has been exported to football. Certainly some of the more traditional, more orthodox ways of running a club, the older model of respectability and responsibility, has been eschewed, sometimes because of ambition, sometimes due to an injection of new influences. It is different, too, from the slightly antiquated style of dictatorial leadership that was vaguely preposterous but rarely mysterious.

An element of the unknown can make anyone harder to second-guess. Novelty can lend mystique, even without cultivating the persona of a wild card in every equation. Take Roman Abramovich, who has displayed a capacity to keep everyone on edge at Chelsea.

At times, he has shown a damaging fondness for supersized gestures, such as the signings of Andriy Shevchenko and Fernando Torres, which amounted to expensive grandstanding and a self-indulgent inability to understand his sides. At others, he has simply demonstrated impatience. He has promoted a manager in Avram Grant, that no one else would have put in charge of an elite club, and fired many of the most decorated men in the business.

Yet institutionalised uncertainty has arguably reaped dividends: Chelsea have won far more than many a stable club in Abramovich’s 15-year tenure; perhaps the imminent sense that the worst could happen has galvanised some to produce their best. But patterns of behaviour can be assessed over time: in Abramovich’s case, it usually entails sacking a manager after a season without the league title.

It illustrates that the Madman Theory is a short-term ploy. It is hard to remain unpredictable, at least if it is associated with insight and strategy, rather than erratic stupidity. It is also more difficult to pursue such policies at clubs where commercial interests are paramount; those solely owned by one individual or entity offer greater scope for leftfield practices.

And the notion the irrational actor can possess brilliance was rather debunked by Venky’s at Blackburn; there were reasons why others ignored their illogical approach. If the Madman Theory is devised to unsettle with unpredictability, Rovers’ owners destabilised their own club.

Which brings us to other recent arrivals, seeming sufficiently alien that their actions can come as surprises. West Bromwich Albion’s owners have gone on a spree of sacking everyone – chairman, chief executive, manager, director of football – to create a power vacuum. Everton’s largest shareholder Farhad Moshiri may be adopting the opposite attitude, by constructing rival power bases in the same place (also, oddly, a feature of the early Trump White House).

PSV Eindhoven’s sporting director Marcel Brands seems headed for Everton. Perhaps the existing director of football Steve Walsh will remain. It sets up the possible scenario where each will sign players in the same position; after all, the policy of bringing in three No. 10s, in Wayne Rooney, Gylfi Sigurdsson and the lesser-seen Davy Klaassen, worked out so well. Of course, it might not happen, but an essential component of Madman Theory is to make everyone else believe it could and who, observing events at Goodison Park in the last year, can say definitively that it won’t?

Because that that is the problem with Madman Theory: it is hard to imitate, hard to perfect, difficult to use irrationality to pursue a rational outcome. Fail and it looks more like an unwanted form of chaos theory, creating a mess in such a way that it is tougher to determine what the strategy was and how it could ever have succeeded.

What are you looking for?