Andy Butler: How football gives and takes away

Andy Butler. Photo by George Wood/Getty ImagesAndy Butler. Photo by George Wood/Getty Images
Andy Butler. Photo by George Wood/Getty Images
In Gareth Southgate’s extraordinary book Woody and Nord, he describes being approached by Terry Venables to take the sixth penalty in 1996 in typically open fashion.

Southgate concedes that, in the heat of the moment (despite his penalty experience up to that point having been: taken one - missed one) he said yes because ‘what else could I have said?’.

He then goes on to explain that he reassured himself that ‘the sixth man was rarely needed in a penalty shootout’.

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Southgate said yes because he always did when called upon because saying no wasn’t in his vocabulary at 24 and because, frankly, the sixth man is rarely needed.

Andy Butler scores THAT goal against Charlton. Photo by Harriet Lander/Getty ImagesAndy Butler scores THAT goal against Charlton. Photo by Harriet Lander/Getty Images
Andy Butler scores THAT goal against Charlton. Photo by Harriet Lander/Getty Images

In January 2021, when the various rumours of Darren Moore’s exit became apparent, the Rovers board devised a plan B. They approached the man they saw fit to lead the club forward in the unlikely event that Moore (who had pleaded his allegiance to the Rovers throughout) left the club mid-season.

Andy Butler, a leader within the dressing room, native of the town, said yes.

What else could he have said?

Butler knew such opportunities were rare and leapt at it. A man with clear aspirations to manage thrust into a job that was on paper too much, too soon. If he’s as human as most of us, Butler will have gone to bed last January dreaming of his name plastered across TV screens above the words ‘Doncaster Rovers Manager’ as we progressed through a successful play-off campaign. We all have an ego.

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But football management is cruel. A job in which if you don’t know exactly who you are there are thousands of people with an opinion, all ready to tell you. A job where thick skin, self-assurance and confidence are as vital as any tactical expertise. These are all qualities which take time to cultivate in new environments.

Even those at the top of the game can lose themselves in this blizzard of expectation. Roy Hodgson looks younger now than he did in charge of Liverpool. Remember Alan Shearer’s similar salvation mission at Newcastle in 2009?

As Rovers’ season petered out and losing football matches began to feel as familiar as checking that your mask is in your pocket, it was agonising to see Butler face up to the post-match media. He seemed to be hurting just as much as all of us.

When speaking to a mate, has your brain ever picked up subconscious signals that they aren’t okay? Subtle facial muscles that are screaming out for help whilst their mouths forcefully mutter that they are doing fine.

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At times it felt as though you could see the anguish behind Butler’s eyes. The cogs of his industrious brain churning out new formations and new methods of playing out from the back in the backdrop of a dark fog. From the outside it seemed as though some the hardest things about football management were some of the hardest things about life in general: switching off, zooming out, not panicking.

In these moments it must have been incredibly difficult for a man still working out his identity as a manager to continue to pit his wits against tried and tested League One managers.

Football has an unparalleled ability to cast people into stone the very moment they succeed or fail. Roberto Baggio. Diego Maradona. Sir Francis Tierney. All immortalised by specific moments. Gareth Southgate talks of immediately knowing that the missed penalty in 1996 would follow him around for the rest of his life.

But no such spell should be cast on Butler’s time as manager of Doncaster Rovers. Yes, we will remember the 2020/21 season warts and all, but it’s also important to remember the courage it must have taken to take on the role and the service Butler provided on and off the pitch.

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The Buzz Lightyear chest oozing with pride each time he walked out on to the Keepmoat turf, the goliath headers clear and of course the one at the other end of the field in the play-off semi-final at Charlton.

Butler insists that his management career is just beginning. You can’t help but feel that 2021 may have made the start of his journey more difficult. How might he come back from this?

After placing his penalty into the arms of Andreas Köpke, Southgate slumped to the floor with his head in his hands. At the post-match press conference Southgate said he felt like he had let the whole nation down. Twenty two years later the nation was bellowing out it’s love for him via amended Atomic Kitten hits.

Both men were courageous enough to say yes. Both men failed to meet their objective. But maybe neither of them will be defined by it.