It hasn’t been a terribly happy Christmas break in the Football League Championship, with two sackings immediately after the festive period which can only be considered to be perfect summations of the insanity of the hair-trigger nature of modern football club ownership. At both Blackburn Rovers and Nottingham Forest, managers have lost their jobs today for under somewhat different circumstances but with the same ultimate result, that of nationwide head-shaking at decisions which go against every instinct of what sound custodianship of a football club should be about. Though the timing of these two decisions means that they will be lumped together as one, though, there are clear differences between them – one of these dismissals has come at a club at which such behaviour has become something approaching the norm in recent years and the other at a club which was due to be ushering in a return to past glories with the arrival of a new owner during the summer.
First of all, then, to Ewood Park and the ever-adorable Venkys, an organisation which has been managing to snatch defeat from the jaws of defeat – frequently, it has rather felt, with something almost approaching a degree of relish – ever since they first took Blackburn Rovers over. Last summer’s inevitable relegation from the Premier League was the opportunity for the owners to run a clean sweep through a sinking Blackburn Rovers ship, but this was, of course, somewhat difficult with the club having agreed to improve his contract terms in November 2011. Kean, however, was a dead man walking from the very start of this season and he eventually left the club, having spent a sizable amount of money on rebuilding the first team squad during the summer, at the end of September with the intriguingly oblique parting shots that he had been “forced to resign” and that his position had become “untenable” with the club in third place in the Championship table.
In looking for a replacement for Kean, Venkys seem to have decided that the heart-strings of the club’s supporters needed to be tugged in with any new appointment. Berg made two hundred and sixty appearances for the club during the years that he played for them and was a key member of the 1995 Premier League championship-winning team. Berg had enjoyed a modest managerial career in Norway with Lyn and Lillestrøm, but his much-publicised comments whilst working as a pundit on Norwegian television that “There are no real managers with credibility who would accept a job like that” seemed especially unfortunate when he was offered the Blackburn job at the end of October. His time in charge of the club hasn’t been particularly auspicious, but to attempt to extrapolate on the basis of ten matches in charge of the club is extremely difficult, even if slumping to seventeenth place in the Championship table is a clear cause for concern. It’s impossible to say with any authority whether Berg would have been able to turn the difficult start that he had as the club’s manager. All we know for certain is that he inherited a team built by a different manager and that, with the January transfer window still a few days away, he was certainly never given the chance to build the team that he might have wanted to build.
For once, however, Venkys might even have been bested in terms of managerial decisions which baffle and dismay in even measures. For the supporters of Nottingham Forest, Christmas was probably not supposed to end up like this. With new owners and a new manager, Sean O’Driscoll, capable of considerable experience and the capability of delivering both attractive and winning football, this might have been expected to be a season during which Forest supporters – who have only seen five years of top division football in the last two decades – had something to cheer about. Not, apparently, so. Forest’s performance so far this season has hardly been dismal by any stretch of the imagination. A 4-2 win against Leeds United at The City Ground yesterday afternoon left the team in eighth place in the Championship table, one point off the play-off places with more or less half of the season left to play. Somehow or other, though, this has not turned out to be enough to spare O’Driscoll from the axeman’s block he has also been relieved of his duties.
The club’s owners, Fawaz and Abdulaziz al-Hasawi, stated that they made the decision because they wanted a manager with “Premier League experience”, all of which makes the appointment of a man who got a club relegated from the division two years ago and came damn close to repeating the trick at a different club a year later. And this, let us not forget, is the sum total of Alex McLeish’s “Premier League experience,” all of which has come with a generous helping of dour reductionism, the sort of football that could curdle milk at one hundred paces. McLeish may well have won the League Cup with Birmingham City a couple of years ago, but the team’s collapse in league form after that win and the sheer torpor of his Aston Villa team last season should surely have been enough to outweigh that achievement. Quite what he can bring to the manager’s job at The City Ground which O’Driscoll wasn’t in the process of pulling together is anybody’s guess, as are what the thought processes of people that saw a good Nottingham Forest performance against Leeds United yesterday lunchtime and thought, “Well, that’s not what we want from a Nottingham Forest team at all” might be.
There is a possible explanation for this outburst of Championship madness – cold, blind panic. Last summer, the Premier League signed a new television deal that is 71% higher than the one that it replaced, and it kicks in this summer. Failure to get promoted at the end of this season will, therefore, hit the owners of clubs that fail to get promoted hard and, in addition to this, clubs that miss out on promotion at the end of this season would, even if they found themselves managing it next season, be substantially disadvantaged competing against clubs in the Premier League that have a season of this milk and honey to their advantage already. It is possible that some of those who decided that this season was the time to speculate in order to accumulate in the hope of a place in the Premier League are already starting to get a little tetchy at the thought of missing out. The stakes have been high when it comes to a place in the Premier League for some years, now. At the end of this season, however, they will grow enormously again, and nobody
This, however, is mere conjecture – an attempt to make sense of a situation which seems, on the surface, to make very little. Perhaps the biggest problem at Nottingham Forest, at Blackburn Rovers and at scores of other clubs is that if the owners have a thick enough skin, they are answerable to nobody. This isn’t a reflection of the nature of foreign owners on football clubs in this country. It is, however, probably a reflection on the sort of person that seeks to get involved in the running of a football club in this particular way. Perhaps one or both of Nottingham Forest and Blackburn Rovers – both of which are fine old names, present at the very birth of professional football in the 1880s – will end up seeing the success that their supporters crave and their owners apparently demand come the end of this season. Perhaps, however, they won’t, and there are plenty of clubs before them which prove that replacing the manager is far from a panacea for the ills of many clubs. It is to be hoped that, in the rush to demonstrate their ambition, neither of these two clubs end up getting trampled underfoot.
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