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Is there still a place for the tyrannical manager in the soft world of modern sport?

Some 25 years after I last covered a Dundee FC game, I found there was something wonderfully reassuring about the uncompromising robustness of then-midfield dynamo and now-club manager John Brown's contribution to last Saturday's entertainment.

Jim Telfer's management style straddled a thin line between brutally aggressive motivation and bullying. Picture: Gordon Fraser
Jim Telfer's management style straddled a thin line between brutally aggressive motivation and bullying. Picture: Gordon Fraser

Just ahead of Bomber's post-match appearance, however, came an exchange that was a bit more disconcerting. It was with an older journalist who greeted me in friendly fashion before observing that the last time we had encountered one another had been in sorrier times.

I was baffled until he explained that the last time we had worked in the same environment was around 20 years ago when I had been contributing to his paper during a period when its sports desk was briefly ruled by a character with a penchant for issuing, as my erstwhile colleague put it, "bollockings" to one and all under his charge.

Having merely been involved with them on a remote, freelance basis, it had not affected me directly but I was aware of some of the nonsense that went on at the time.

Not that I could have done anything about it, but I almost felt guilty at realising that he had clearly been so badly damaged by the experience that it remains so prominent in his memory.

It was a disturbing example of the lasting effect bullies can have on those who have little choice but to defer to them because of professional seniority. This vastly experienced journalist had clearly been deeply scarred.

We have heard a fair bit this week, through testimony to the Old Bailey, about the sort of workplace bullying known to have been common-place in this industry and it has also long been part and parcel of the testosterone fuelled world of professional sport.

Just as in the rest of the world - even newspapers in this 21st century - so modern sports managers are, however, being encouraged to take a different approach. Probably quite rightly, they are told that one of the worst things they can do is to undermine, particularly through public comment, the confidence of their charges. It occurred to me that Bomber's press conference might have reflected that.

We are of an identical age, he and I, and, as a Dundonian whose leanings were always towards the Dark Blue end of Tannadice Street, I - rightly or wrongly - formed a firm impression of his outlook way back when I covered their matches during his playing days. Suffice to say, something in his demeanour tended to suggest that positive reinforcement is not necessarily his default position when displeased.

A combination of modern coaching philosophy and the nature of one brought up in a different era perhaps, then, helps explain his focus on what he characterised as a mistake by match officials on Saturday. In identifying blunders in the course of the 90-odd minutes that contributed to his side's defeat, he could have homed in on any one of a succession of mistimed tackles, lost markers and failure to maintain possession by his own men.

They were comprehensively outplayed in every department winning only - by a comfortable margin - the card count, as Falkirk ran rings around them. Yet pointing that out might have damaged the psyche of his charges which, in some cases at least, may be delicate.

Of course that may be nothing more than the fanciful notion of one who has spent too much time in more middle-class sporting environments, since it is a trend that has taken more and more of a hold in those arenas in recent years. We are also, of course, moving into high season for such matters.

These are far different times to the days when Jim 'Creamy' Telfer drove his men to feats that seemed beyond them, with grand slam-winning Scotland sides or series-winning British & Irish Lions teams, straddling the thin line between brutally aggressive motivation and bullying.

Perhaps the nature of contact sport means there is a special case to be made for that sort of approach in that particular professional workplace and, in that context, it is worth remembering that Telfer's management style was a lot less effective in the role of director of rugby.

Those who hanker after such a style of management should brace themselves for the next couple of months, as we embark upon the annual Murrayfield love-in that the RBS Six Nations Championship has become. Win, lose or draw, we can expect to hear high praise for the workrate of those for whom that ought to be the absolute minimum requirement when representing Scotland. Back when Telfer was coaching, we would hear public acknowledgement from successful international players like Finlay Calder that anyone could be selected to play for Scotland but all that mattered was winning.

Nowadays we are urged not to hurt the sensitive souls - we are regularly told they "know better than anyone that they must do better" - by reminding them that a losing record of more than 70% in a career of 50 or more caps is a shade disappointing.

Our society as a whole may be greatly improved by the weeding out of managerial bullies, but whether there is scope for a rather less touchy/feely approach within the world of sports motivation is one we oldies can only wonder about.

Oh, my Creamy and my Bomber of years gone by . . .

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