David O'Leary's training for management must surely have entailed a spell of moonlighting at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art.
His apparent insouciance in the wake of Aston Villa?s humiliation at Doncaster last week has been fascinating.
Whistling while Madame Defarge knits ever faster alongside the guillotine during the French Revolution is the image that springs to mind. He has carried it off with the same supreme selfassurance that has marked his football career.
At his media briefing on Friday morning, we expected a few twitchy gestures from someone apparently on the rack, glancing at the thumbscrews with a gimlet eye. But he fought his corner for more than an hour with commendable tenacity.
Now and then, the glibness that undermines him will pop up ? as when I asked him if he had looked at himself since Doncaster on Tuesday. His reply, ?Yes, I look at myself in the mirror every morning when brushing my teeth? was hardly Oscar Wilde, but football managers have long believed that they are superior in repartee to we grubby hacks.
Let that pass, though. There was a long overdue recognition from the manager that Villa?s travails are his responsibility. That marks a refreshing change.
Before it was all down to a lack of money, isolated mistakes on the field, poor refereeing, a chronic injury list, the bare bones of the squad, a negative media, the equinox badly aligned, too many matches in months containing the letter ?r?. Forget the last two ? glibness can be contagious ? but you get the drift.
This time, the penny seemed to have dropped. He even shifted position over the legacy left him by Graham Taylor in May, 2003.
Before, he had hinted darkly that he didn?t much rate the players he?d inherited and that excuse ran and ran for months. Now, at last, he admitted that this bunch of players were undoubtedly of his making.
So they should be, after 30 months in charge, and an outlay of #15 million on players in the summer ? three times that of Birmingham City.
So the buck stops there and O?Leary admits it. What should concern Villa fans is that he said that, although his players were ?a great bunch of lads?, they were ?a bit quiet?.
In other words, not enough ranters on the field or a few geeing everyone up in the dressing-room. Well, it was the manager who brought those players to the club and one assumes the character of the players who are targeted are also assessed, not just their abilities.
O?Leary, striving to radiate assurance that the Doncaster debacle needed to be viewed with a sense of proportion, told us that it wasn?t the worst performance on his watch at Villa. That came at Burnley last season when they were dumped out of the FA Cup.
I?m not sure it was wise to point up two successive shockers in cup competitions at the hands of lowly teams, because that indicated Villa are becoming serial underachievers under O?Leary (and look out, here come Hull City in the third round of the FA Cup next month). It might have been better, for once, just to acquiesce in the headline we were seeking.
For all O?Leary?s enviable sangfroid in the wake of Doncaster, there?s no hiding place when you?re in the technical area and you?re 1-0 down at Newcastle, with time running out. His constant glances at his watch and twitching of the shoulders as Villa sought a deserved equaliser laid bare all the flim-flam of the previous 72 hours.
Yet I didn?t believe the manager was facing the firing squad if Villa had lost on Saturday, nor do I believe that is the case during this month.
If Gareth Barry had scored from the penalty spot it would have been Villa?s third Premiership win in a row and that is the basis on which the manager is judged, not a stinker in the Carling Cup.
If you doubt Doug Ellis? attitude to such matters, consider the events of 1994. Only seven months after lifting the League Cup at Wembley after a tactically astute victory over Manchester United, Ron Atkinson was sacked.
I recall the chairman reeling off the facts in justification ? in the calendar year of 1994, Villa had played 34 Premiership matches, won only eight, drawn nine and lost seventeen. The bread-and-butter of league performances takes priority for Ellis.
In all the ill-researched comments about the chairman?s readiness to sack his manager, one salient fact has been largely ignored. Atkinson was the last Villa manager to be sacked, eleven years ago.
Now it?s true that John Gregory and Taylor left of their own accord, partly in protest at the chairman?s methods, but they weren?t fired. Brian Little had simply had enough of all the hassle when he resigned and nor has he ever blamed the chairman.
In fact, in two spells as Villa?s chairman ? 1968-75 and 1982-2005 ? Ellis has sacked only six out of 12 managers. Six in 30 years? That hardly justifies the ?Deadly Doug? soubriquet.
So those frustrated Villa supporters of tender years, influenced by lazy stereotyping of Ellis, should study the club?s history. A series of excellent books by Villa diehard Dave Woodhall will provide the necessary factual knowledge.
Another reason why O?Leary is safe for now is the strong possibility that Ellis may sell Villa. Talks with the Comer brothers are ongoing and positive and the proposed head of the consortium, lifelong Villa fan Michael Neville, has great respect for Ellis.
There is simply no logic in Ellis striving to present the best possible image for the commodity he is interested in selling while shedding the employee responsible for the goods in the shop window. That wouldn?t happen in commerce or industry, so why in football?
With the contracts of O?Leary, his assistant Roy Aitken and the fitness specialist Steve McGregor extending to May 2008, it would cost the club about #5 million if they were sacked now.
No doubt the chairman has one or two clauses built into their contracts to minimise the cost but Villa would still take a whack. O?Leary?s business adviser, Michael Kennedy, is one of the smartest sports lawyers around.
If the takeover proceeds satisfactorily, then O?Leary presides over some poor results, then he may well encounter the horse?s head in his bed.
A run of matches against Bolton Wanderers, Manchester United, Everton, Fulham, Arsenal and West Bromwich Albion is a tricky prospect. It will define Villa?s season and the future of O?Leary. Doncaster on November 29 would then be viewed as the nadir, or the beginning of the end.
Can you name the six managers Doug Ellis has sacked? Visit our messageboard and tell us - we'll sort out a prize for the first correct answer.
England need head start in preparations
Dennis Amiss has long given of his best to Warwickshire cricket. Now, as he enters his final few months as the club?s chief executive, he can perform a noble service for England?s cricket fortunes.
Dennis is the chairman of the committee that oversees the running of the various England teams. In practice that usually entails giving the coach Duncan Fletcher what he wants.
That costs a fair amount, although now that the England and Wales Cricket Board has scandalously sold the television rights to Sky Sports for the next four years in return for a pot of gold, hang the expense will surely be the attitude when Team England?s interests are considered.
Well, Amiss should put his foot down over the itinerary for England?s tour to India, starting in February. More warm-up matches are needed, not the cursory number played in Pakistan last month, which led to the players going into the Test series under-prepared.
Fletcher bridles at suggestions that more time is needed to acclimatise to the conditions on the subcontinent. He states that England have prospered in recent years, despite truncated itineraries, but he misses the point.
In South Africa and the Caribbean in the past two years, England have winged it, getting away with being under-cooked through team spirit, good captaincy and at least one player coming up with a vital performance when it was desperately needed. But in Pakistan they ran out of inspiration. They cocked it up in the first Test at Multan, when they ought to have nailed down a target of 198 with some comfort. After that, they were always chasing the series. If the batsmen had been attuned to the pitches through more match practice, they would have won in Multan.
The same challenges lie ahead in India. You simply cannot expect to turn on the tap without doing the hard work. The players want the shorter tours, because they are away from home for long periods in a calendar year, but the hard yards have got to be undertaken to give yourself the best chance of winning in such a difficult place for visiting sides.
Amiss finally ignited his England career in 1972-73 on the long tour to Pakistan and India. A dedicated practiser, he knew the necessity of acclimatising to different batting surfaces before the serious business started. Go on, Dennis ? give it straight to Fletcher. Get the players out to India early.
Heroes beyond the grief culture
Now that George Best has finally been laid to rest, the grief culture will move on.
This week, it will alight on John Lennon, murdered 25 years ago. Lennon?s life and achievements ? like those of Best ? will be highlighted in the media by influential middle-aged executives who mourn their own youth and impose their nostalgic musings on the public. That?s the power of the media for you.
In the grieving for Best, the dignity of his father Dickie will linger longest for me. Manchester United?s lead displayed just the right mixture of sorrow and pride. The decency of the overwhelming number of football fans of all clubs should also be recognised, as should the understandable affection from the people of Ulster towards their wayward son.
Best?s two ex-wives will have garnered some moving anecdotes for books being rushed out for the Christmas market. I?m equally positive that their earlier publications were motivated by the same desire to honour their erring spouse, rather than cash in on his name. A generous contribution from Angie and Alex to the fund set up by George?s physician Sir Roger Williams to help other alcoholics will help dispel my scepticism.
I also hope that the greatest British footballer still living will be feted by all and sundry when he dies, but I doubt it. That?s because he last played in 1960, having combined a football career with that of a plumber.
He played only for his home-town club. He flourished in a more conformist, unobtrusive age but he played 76 times for England and was considered by his contemporaries as a wonderfully versatile footballer.
Brian Clough, Bill Shankly and Tommy Docherty knew the worth of a player, being convinced that this man was the greatest British footballer they?d seen. Modest, unassuming, he could do the lot, in their considered opinion.
He?s still hale and hearty, pottering around his beloved Preston North End FC, at the age of 83. His name is Tom Finney. He was knighted a few years ago.
Mark Lawrenson and Andrew Flintoff also hail from Preston, have achieved a bit in their field, and consider Finney one of the great gentlemen of sport.
As ?Freddie? told me last year, ?He?s the sort of sportsman you aspire to becoming yourself: someone never too big for his boots?.
Best would probably be amused at the emotions exuded on his behalf this past week. But there were footballing heroes in earlier eras, even though television cameras and press photographers were thinner on the ground.
Try not to forget them, even though you didn?t see them in the flesh.