Austrian-born Max Merkel is a figure we consider to be something of a BTLM cult hero. An undoubtedly successful coach with an indisputably difficult personality, Merkel made his reputation winning unlikely Bundesliga titles with unfashionable Munich 1860 and Nuremberg before decamping to Spain for well-paid stints at Seville and Atlético Madrid.
You could draw a number of parallels between Merkel and his more famous contemporary Helenio Herrera, at least on a personal level. Both were highly driven, autocratic disciplinarians for whom players were expendable pawns to be positioned and sacrificed as required. Controversy never drifted far from either and their blunt characters and high levels of self-regard made them rather divisive individuals. Herrera had a number of qualities that eluded Merkel though.
While certainly arrogant and opinionated, il mago was a naturally charming, witty and erudite man who could tease, tantalise and seduce even his bitterest enemies round to his way of thinking. By comparison Merkel was a blowhard who lacked anything remotely resembling charm or charisma. His attempted humour, such as it was, rarely transcended relentless and patronising sarcasm.
So although his success brought professional respect, his prickly personality meant he was never very popular with fans, players or journalists alike. Herrera of course was no particular lover of the media, but he was smart enough to always be able to keep them on message with clever quips or an insightful bon mot. Max Merkel didn’t do charm offensives – to his mind the function of sports journalists was to meekly record his hectoring and barking and recite them back to a grateful audience without comment or criticism.
The differing press the two managers received in similar situations was telling: Helenio Herrera was lauded as a great negotiator for the succession of bumper contracts he haggled at Inter and Roma, yet Max ‘the dosh must be right’ Merkel was labelled as greedy and self-serving for doing the same thing at Nuremberg and Sevilla. Physical appearances played a part in peoples’ perceptions too. Herrera was tall, imposing and urbane and exuded a natural managerial authority. For want of a better description, Merkel, with his receding hairline, sunglasses and trademark too-short shorts – never a becoming look for a man in his early 50s – had a slightly creepy Child Catcher air.
I’m afraid this particular Max Merkel story from his time at Sevilla does little to shake that particular impression of the man. It was 1970, a time when it was generally accepted that players could have the most intimate aspects of their private lives dictated by their managers and clubs. An infamous example in Serie A hit the headlines at the time when a dip in form by Milan’s Gianni Rivera happened to coincide with the player starting a relationship with an Alitalia stewardess. The club pressured him into ending the relationship and he duly acceded to their wishes.
It was a widely held preference by managers to have a squad full of married players back in those days. General thinking assumed that if players were married then they would be more likely to be home and in bed early, rather than out drinking and womanising in bars and clubs. Based upon what he observed at a Real Madrid side that had just endured its poorest season in recent memory, Max Merkel was a manager who came to question this accepted truism.
Merkel voiced his opinion that the club’s decline came about because three key players lost focus and form after marrying during the close-season. It was a curious theory. The players in question admittedly did not have good seasons, but Madrid had actually been in title contention until the mid-point of the campaign. Their form then fell off a cliff only because of a barely credible run of injuries – at one point all three of their goalkeepers were injured and the club was casting around desperately trying to bring in a replacement on loan for a League fixture the next day.
Max was still entitled to his own view on things of course and his conviction about this issue meant that on the eve of the 1970/71 season he was a deeply worried man. During that close season no fewer than six of his own Sevilla squad – Lora, Berruezo, Eloy, Rodri, Chacon and Bonilla – had all married. Whether sincere commitment to a sacred institution where a man and woman are formally joined in loving matrimony, or a calculated attempt to cause their unloved manager palpitations – both possible reasons for the multiple weddings remain on the table as far as I’m is concerned.
To mitigate the effects of this apparent issue and avoid what had happened with Real Madrid the previous season, Max decided to call in all the newly-wed wives to his office and deliver a pep talk about their new marital responsibilities – a scenario for the poor girls which I’m floridly imagining must have been akin to a tipsy, elderly relative (wearing sunglasses and too-short shorts) staggering over to the bride at her reception and offering sex tips for the wedding night.
Just to add another layer of skin-crawling embarrassment to this story, Max decided to share his pep talk with the rest of Spain. At a press conference he explained how he had decided to, altruistically, ‘give counsel to the wives of the recently married.’
“The wives are most interested that their husbands maintain peak form and gain the maximum possible to establish their new homes. They naturally want to live with their husbands, but understand this is not always possible because of concentration, away matches and overseas commitments.
Because of this loneliness I have been suggested that husbands and wives see their doctors for advice on the way to commence their new way of life so it does not alter or interfere with the normal developments, duties and obligations on professional footballers.”
His dalliance in the field of marriage guidance was of questionable success as Seville endured a wholly unremarkable season, placing four positions lower in the League than the previous year. A recurring theme in Merkel’s career was early success followed by a steep drop-off in form as players grew to thoroughly dislike him and his methods. It was no different at Sevilla and club and manager duly parted company with the players threatening to strike if he stayed a moment longer. For the ones Merkel did not alienate with his intimate involvement in their domestic affairs, a near-biblical training regime that involved huge boulders being dragged up and down terracing steps did for the rest.
Max moved to Atlético Madrid and was initially successful until his scope for falling out with people broadened enormously. Rather than annoying mere individuals as he usually did, Max managed to offend a whole nation with another of his abortive attempts at humour. His comment that “Spain would be a great country if it wasn’t for the Spanish” went down as badly as his Nuremberg team did the season after he took them to the Bundesliga title.