The Managerial Merry-Go-Round Grinds Into Gear
It usually takes approximately three matches before the rumour mill starts to rotate, so it is that time again. Already, there is talk that Alan Curbishley is going to be kicked out from West Ham United, and that Harry Redknapp is going to make a “surprise” return to the East End to take over there. Lower down the football pyramid, the knives are also out for Stevenage Borough’s Graham Westley after the pre-season Conference favourites picked up just two points from their opening five matches Westley has been in charge of Stevenage for, you guessed it, five matches. Following Saturday’s defeat at Fulham, there has even been talk that Arsene Wenger may be running out of support at Arsenal. There are differing reasons for the difficulties that all of the above are facing. Curbishley is apparently likely to be the loser in a “clash of personalities” behind the scenes at Upton Park, though that particular “clash” is most likely to have been brought about by pressures on the club owners as a result of the current global financial situation. Westley is a person that divides opinion within non-league football, and is always likely to have a considerable number of critics should he run into difficulties. Wenger is feeling the strain because of circumstances that are beyond his control. Arsenal have under-performed over the last couple of years or so, but again financial constraints that are beyond his control to what may be the start of Arsenal’s decline into mediocrity.
What can we learn from this? Well, we have at least got three weeks into the season without anyone actually having been sacked yet. This, I guess, is a start. However, the culture of instant gratification that seems to have descended across so many different aspects of our lives in recent years appears to be starting to take hold within football, and it’s not a pretty sight. The overwhelming feeling seems to be that some managers seem to start without a hope in hell of completing the season. Jose Mourinho and Martin Jol were dead men walking before the season even started last year. It was merely a matter of time before they went. Derby County reacted to their woeful lack of preparation for life in the Premier League by sacking the man that had got them there in the first place. They didn’t improve afterwards and this season has seen them start as badly as they finished the last campaign. The irony is that Paul Jewell, who over-saw the majority of last season’s woeful performances is now in danger of losing his job when it might have made sense to replace him at the end of last season. As it stands, any new incumbent at Pride Park will most likely inherit a dispirited squad that was built by a manager that doesn’t seem to be capable of going the job. With the transfer window slamming shut in less than a week’s time, there won’t be much he can do about it.
Why clubs don’t replace managers during the summer more often is a mystery to me, especially in a climate within which new managers can’t, after less than a month of the new season, do much about the squads that they hav got until the new year. Brighton & Hove Albion are a reasonably good example of how clubs can get it right. They decided, at the end of last season, that their coaching staff needed a reshuffle so, with the corpse of the 2007/08 season still twitching, they moved manager Dean Wilkins into a coach position and brought former manager Mickey Adams back. This gave Adams a vital three months to remodel his quad, and the Seagulls have started with two wins from three matches and sit in fourth place in League One.
Too many other clubs, however, seem happy to allow events to overtake them and control the decisions that they make. There is an extent to which nearly all early season managerial sackings are media-driven. We can expect the media pressure on managers to increase ten-fold after the end of the transfer window next week. After all, the press will have very little else in the way of “gossip” to write about until the January transfer window and even the January transfer window, as demonstrated last season, doesn’t provide much food for hungry hacks. Martin Jol’s predicament at Spurs this time last year was a prime example of this. The season before last, he had been desperately unlucky to miss out on a place in the Champions League on the final day of the season thanks to a bout of food poisoning prior to the final day of the season. The press spent the summer making the phrase, “he’s taken them as far as he can” into a truism and, after they lost on the opening day of last season at Sunderland, the knives were out for him. There was no conceivable way that he could survive the season.
All of that said, however, are Spurs in a better position now than they were this time last year? True enough, they won the League Cup, but they didn’t make it past the quarter-finals of the UEFA Cup and didn’t make it into the top half of the Premier League table. Last summer, they lost one of their best strikers to a team that they may have considered rivals for a Champions League place, and they yet seem likely to lose their other one to Manchester United. They haven’t signed decent replacements for either, and the fruits of this policy have been borne out in two defeats to start their season and performances that would seem to indicate that they are not capable of doing any better than they did last season, and plenty capable doing quite a lot worse.
We’ve done “the importance of continuity” on here before. Bill Shankly built the foundations of the Liverpool side that would dominate European football within three years of his departure from Anfield over a period of fifteen years. Alex Ferguson took six and a half years to bring the championship title to Old Trafford, and survived several close shaves with the sack on the way. Matt Busby needed seven years to bring the title to Old Trafford and had been there for twenty-three years by the time that they won the European Cup in 1968. Many of these greats of football management, also, were involved in easier times, when there was considerably more even distribution of money within the game. No manager in the Premier League bar Luis Felipe Scolari and Alex Ferguson is likely to challenge for the championship this season, and all Premier League managers bar those two, Rafael Benitez and Arsene Wenger are at least ten times as likely to get sacked as they are to even finish in the top four in the table.
Ultimately, however, you get what you pay for. Every result is a matter of life and death in the modern game, and clubs, managers, players, the media and even fans lap up this over-statement of the importance of it all to such an extent that none of us should be surprised when clubs choose to overlook the obvious benefits of long-term stability in favour of the quick, “easy” sticking plaster of a new manager. You’ll have to forgive me if I spend much of the next nine months with my fingers in my ears, though.