Before I say anything else, please accept my apologies for the site having been down for much of this afternoon and this evening. It’s an issue related to the hosts’ servers and – I think – it has now been resolved. Normal service resumes here.
As summer starts to meld into the autumn, the nights draw in and the daggers start to become drawn. Several managers in the Premier League and the Football League are already starting to look nervously over their shoulders, dreading what the crowd’s reaction might be on Saturday and pondering what the relevance may be of that bizarre and most unfathomable of rituals, the Vote of Confidence. Paul Hart and Roy Keane are two of the managers looking the most prone, but it is John Barnes at Tranmere Rovers that is already starting to assume the look of a dead man walking.
Barnes commands considerable amounts of respect. He was a marvellous, marvellous player – probably the best England player of his generation – and he has a reputation for being one of the nice guys in a football world that often seems to be inhabited with sociopaths and psychopaths. Supporters of Tranmere Rovers, however, are starting to wonder whether these traits are enough, though, since Barnes’ Tranmere side (which finished only two points outside of the League One play-off positions last season) has slumped to six successive defeats at the start of this season. This was not what the club planned when they took on a former international winger as their manager during the summer.
On the pitch, many of the problems seem to be tactical. Barnes has been accused of playing the wrong formation when taking into consideration the limitations of the players that he has at his disposal and, in a broader sense, having a lack of understanding of the peculiarities of lower division football. There is no question that the skills required to manage a lower division club are, broadly speaking, different to those needed to manage a club higher up the football ladder. Whether it is more difficult or not, however, is open to question. Managers in the Premier League have the sorts of resources that their League One counterparts can only dream of, but the shortcomings of their opponents are fewer and further between and the expectations are on a different plane.
On the other hand, Barnes and his compatriots are playing against as teams as limited as theirs. Clubs which have players with limitations. Clubs which have vulnerabilities which may be easier to exploit. And Barnes, at the moment, is failing. More worrying for him still were rumours that the directors of the club were already regretting their decision to sack previous manager Ronnie Moore at the start of the summer, and that they may have been preparing to bring Moore back to the club. As things turned out, Moore returned to another of his old clubs, Rotherham United, but this only papers over the cracks but, although there seems to be little debate that what Barnes is doing at Prenton Park isn’t working at the moment, the situation at Tranmere is indicative of a wider problem with the administration of football clubs, and it seems to be a fairly universal one.
In short, the process that clubs use for hiring managers is fundamentally flawed. John Barnes has broken the colour barrier (for which Tranmere do deserve some credit), but the suspicion remains that he was hired as the wholly inappropriate manager of a lower division club, solely on the basis of his reputation as a player. Football club directors (who haven’t ordinarily played the game much themselves) have a tendency to be in awe of great players. Newcastle United is an excellent case study in this respect. Chris Hughton has stabilised the sinking ship at St James Park and turned them into credible promotion candidates in a difficult division which is a very different environment to that which everybody at the club had been used to.
He still, however, is not being seriously discussed as their next manager. Alan Shearer seems to remain the popular choice, in spite of his complete lack of managerial expertise and the fact that he took them down from the Premier League last season. Shearer may have been Newcastle’s greatest striker of the last twenty, thirty, forty or fifty years, but that doesn’t qualify him to be the “only” man for the manager’s chair at the club. Newcastle aren’t the only club to make basic errors in their managerial appointments. Sunderland took Ricky Sbragia on as manager after a handful of matches as caretaker-manager on an eighteen month contract. Six months later, he was out of a job and Steve Bruce was snatched from Wigan in his place.
Too many football clubs hire in haste and repent at leisure, and too many potential managers don’t seem to understand the often opaque requirements of managing different specific clubs in different specific situations. On a personal level, it is a disappointment to see John Barnes falling short of the required level at Tranmere Rovers (his goal for England in the Maracana in 1984 was one of the single most exhilarating moments of my entire childhood) and he may have left it all too late to repair his reputation there, but the moral of the story from Tranmere is a pretty clear one for clubs and managers. Clubs need to appreciate how important the managers position is and treat the appointment with the seriousness that such a make or break position requires. Managers need to do their groundwork and adapt their philosophies to whichever environment they find themselves in. John Barnes is an intelligent, thoughtful man. He can do better than he is doing at the moment. It just might not be at Tranmere Rovers, though.