The phrase goes, “Marry in haste, repent at leisure”, but supporters of Peterborough United may be wondering this week whether this caveat also applies to divorce. The rise of the Cambridgeshire club from League Two to the Championship had been one of the more understated surprises of the previous couple of years, but this season, in the harsh glare of Europe’s fourth most watched league, the club has stalled spectacularly and last weekend became the first in the top four divisions of English football to be relegated. In the cold light of day, if recriminations are likely to start at London Road, the target of those may well be the club’s owner, Darragh MacAnthony, who this week appointed the fourth manager of the season at London Road.
MacAnthony had, prior to his involvement with Peterborough, been involved in an attempt to take over at AFC Wimbledon, but the supporter-owned club told him that they weren’t interested in his desire to take their club over and run it as his fiefdom. He was only thirty when he took over at Peterborough United in 2006 and, early in his reign, made a public statement in a match programme in which he stated that he would get the club two successive promotions. This is something that he did deliver upon, but some might wonder what the point of two successive promotions would be if there is no apparent plan in place once the club reached his initial boast.
Darren Ferguson was the man that took the club from League Two and into the Championship, but after a poor start to the season he lasted in is job until only Novemberof last year. It seemed at the time to be a harsh decision, to remove a manager that had brought so much to the club after just three months in a division that the club hadn’t been part of for well over a decade. The players that had been the key catalysts behind this promotions – the likes of Craig Mackail-Smith, Aaron McLean and George Boyd – had all apparently stalled (all three of them came from non-league football) and it felt as recently as November as if Peterborough had, with two successive promotions, already overstretched themselves.
Ferguson was replaced with Mark Cooper, who arrived at the club from non-league Kettering Town, but he failed to steady the ship. In January, MacAnthony gave a very good impression of somebody that was losing his mind with a public statement that seemed to blame everybody for Peterborough United’s woes – everybody, that is, apart from Darragh MacAnthony, of course. Cooper (who hadn’t won himself many friends amongst the supporters with the nature of his team’s performances during his thirteen matches in charge at the club) left less than a week after an extraordinary rant, in which he stated (among many, many other things) that, “I am done with defending the players, previous management, current management and everyone else at the football club top to bottom”, and that, “”the referees are rubbish”. For the first time this season, the sense of disharmony within the club was laid completely bare.
Jim Gannon was brought in to replace him and, although results did improve under his stewardship, he rejected a four year contract that was offered to him (a decision which, in itself, said much about what may or may not have been going on at the club), meaning that the former Bristol City manager Gary Johnson was brought in as his replacement. Peterborough United supporters may now hope for a little stability – it seems implausible that, after the last eight months of near-chaos behind the scenes at the club, he won’t be given until at least the start of next season to start planning for a new season back in League One. With a few weeks to try out some of his plans in matches that are now essentially meaningless, a period of calm may finally engulf the club.
Part of the problem with appointing a new manager is that you never know whether they are going to be the right man for the job until it is getting on for being too late. The most sensible choice on paper can easily turn out to be an unmitigated disaster, and the surprise choice can be a huge, gratifyingly unexpected success. What we know for certain, however, is that having four managers over the course of one season is unlikely to bring a great deal of success. The management of a football club remains a nuanced business, and replacing one manager with another requires a degree of upheaval that can easily cause as much damage as it carries benefits.
The good news for Peterborough United supporters is that at least their club remains solvent and that their early relegation might even prove to be a blessing in disguise. Whether Gary Johnson will prove to be the right man for the job or not is a question that we are unlikely to know the answer to until the autumn at the very least, but at least he should now be given a few months in which he can stamp his authority upon the club. An automatic return to the Championship may yet prove to be beyond them but after two promotions and one relegation in three years, it might be time for Peterborough United to step off the rollercoaster and have a season of consolidation. They might even find that the calm does them good.