It has, dare we say it, been a tetchy two or three days for the managers of England’s football clubs. Even a breed of people that live their entire lives with a metaphorical axe suspended precariously over their heads will have offered an extra shudder at the events of last three days, which have resulted in the departure of three of their brethren from their positions, and such is the instability of the manager of any club these days that those that remain in work may well even find themselves unable to offer so much as a whispered, ‘There but for the grace of God go I’ tonight. If the form book is anything to go by, there, regardless of the grace of God, they are most likely to go in something like the short to medium term.

To begin, then, at the top of the football food chain. Tottenham Hotspur may not have been the champions of England since John F Kennedy was the president of the United States of America, but modern football pays little attention to long-term trends. Spurs spent their Gareth Bale transfer window before they’d even sold that player, and the sheer volume of new recruits at White Hart Lane meant that Andre Villa Boas was always likely to face an uphill struggle in order to placate both the directors and supporters of the club this season. At the start of the season, this didn’t seem to matter too much. After all, the majority of clubs in the Premier League seemed to be in some state of transition or or and, although it was some distance short of setting the world alight, at least Andre Villa Boas’ team was grinding out results.

Of late, however, the manager’s position has become less and less tenable. Spurs thrashing at Manchester City a couple of weeks ago could, if we were being charitable, be described as a bad day at the office against a team that has been sprinkling stardust over the Premier League over the last couple of weeks or so. Losing by six goals to nil in a league match, however, is difficult to find justification for no matter who it’s against, and since then the manager has been walking an obvious tightrope. The weekend before last’s home draw against Manchester United proved to be inconclusive, though, as did the workmanlike away wins against Fulham and Sunderland that followed it. Liverpool at home, though, against a team that Spurs would consider to be their contempories for a place in the Champions League, would be the next real test.

It was, as things turned out, an examination that couldn’t have been failed in a more abject manner than it was. Such was the dishevelled nature of Spurs’ performance yesterday afternoon that it brought to mind those years when the club was looking over its shoulder at the relegation places rather than dreaming of balmy nights out at the Bernebeu or the Allianz Arena. It was tactically muddled and shot through with a lack of confidence which indicated a major problem behind the scenes at the club, and with the polished nature of Liverpool’s performance only serving to reinforce the suspicion that the Manchester City match hadn’t been as much of a one-off abhorration as some might have hoped, there was a hint of the inevitable about the annoucement made at White Hart Lane this morning. Indeed, the morose nature of Boas’ demeanour in recent weeks and rumour surrounding the club indicates that this managerial departure might even be a general case of “mutual consent” rather than a hidden code for sayin “go now, or we sack you.”

Further down the Premier League table, Steve Clarke’s departure from West Bromwich Albion might just be a case of a manager become a victim of his own success. Finishing in eighth place in the Premier League last season might not have seen the streets of West Bromwich festooned with navy blue and white bunting, but it was a significant achievement for a manager who had spent his post-playing career as a bridesmaid of the managerial business, rather than the bride. And for all the success that Clarke might have had last season, his team’s form had tailed off towards the end of last season – with just one win from their last nine matches of that season – whilst this season’s form has, after three comfortable mid-table finishes following promotion back to the Premier League, looked a little more like it did then the club went through its phase of boinging and boinging between the top division and the Football League Championship a few years ago.

Clarke may even have – presumably – inadvertently help to sign his own P45 at a press conference at the end of August. Normally not a man for the lavish statement, he surprised reporters by being very clear about the extent of the club’s need to sign new players, and it has been reported that this left chairman Jeremy Peace deeply unimpressed. This, of course, would leave any manager in a position in which results become the only factor that will lead to a condition of continuing employment. This hasn’t followed, and Clarke leaves the club with in sixteenth place in the table and just two places above the dotted line that equals the ultimate definition of success of failure at this level of the game. His replacement, whoever this turns out to be, will have to work within financial constraints – West Bromwich Albion FC has been financially well-marshalled in recent years, but now with the highest wage bill in the club’s history – but an aim for the remainder of this season of pulling away from any serious danger of relegation seems eminently attainable.

Finally, we come to the departure of Gianfranco Zola from Watford, which may, perhaps, be defined as a case of, “So near, yet so far.” Springing from the traps following his appointment as the club’s manager, Zola’s team came achingly close to promotion to the Premier League at the end of last season, but the hangover following that end of season play-off final defeat at the hands of Crystal Palace last May has proved to be a lengthy one. Somehow, Watford haven’t sparked this season in the same way that they did last time around, and with expectations at Vicarage Road perhaps a little higher this season than they were last time around, the pressure was already starting to build on Zola prior to last Saturday’s home defeat against a struggling Sheffield Wednesday team. Still, though, he brought Watford supporters a considerable amount of happiness last season and he did resign his position at the club with a resignation that was seen through with more grace than ninety-nine per cent of other managers might have done, with a letter published on the club’s official website earlier this evening.

I will always remember having been welcomed so warmly to this wonderful football club, to have been supported so fully and to have been able to share moments of excitement and joy that will always live with me. But this game does not wait and does not stop. There is always the next challenge and a new environment ahead which means nothing is ever the same.
For now, I want to wish the players, the staff, the fans and everyone else who has Watford Football Club at heart my best wishes for the future. It has been a privilege and a pleasure to serve this club and I am sure we will see each other again one day.
Zola departs from Vicarage Road with his reputation within the club only nominally tarnished, like the other two managers mentioned above, perhaps a victim of a football culture that tolerates only a constant stream of success. The facile thing to do at this point would be to blame “boo boys” amongst clubs’ support for his departure, but in the case of Zola – and, although this sort of thing is obviously difficult to quantify, to a slightly lesser extent at Tottenham Hotspur and West Bromwich Albion – there seems to be a genuine sense of poignancy that it ended this way. Regardless of the stuttering start this season that his team suffered, football, for supporters at least, is built upon those days that live with us for the rest of our lives, and it hardly seems unreasonable to suggest that Zola’s team of last season granted Watford supporters one of the most remarkable of those to be seen at any club in recent years.
Professional football, however, has changed almost beyond recognition. It feels as if the legend upon which entire narrative of a football club’s story so often finds itself being written is something that will probably never be written again. There can be no such thing as the next Bill Nicholson at Tottenham Hotspur – the world has changed too much – though Nicholson’s most famous quote, ‘It is better to fail aiming high than to succeed aiming low, and we of Spurs have set our sights very high, so high in fact that even failure will have in it an echo of glory,’ brings a wry smile this evening. In 2014, there are only results. Only the next result and the last result really matter. And for Andre Villa Boas, Steve Clarke and Gianfranco Zola this evening, there now follows a period of contemplation over what comes next – which at best, we might well respond, is likely to be another period of unstable employment in an ever more volatile career.

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