Shop Steward GNev’s Three Year About Turn
Human beings have a tendency to focus rather too much on effect whilst often overlooking cause, and nowhere has this been clearer this week than in the sacking of Richie Wellens by Salford City earlier today. Gary Neville has learned the hard way that the internet never forgets, whilst the promise of a ‘feud’ between two celebrities of the world of football punditry has reeled the tabloids in as well. There is, however, a case to be made for ignoring this and looking a little more closely at the game’s current infatuation with rapid-speed hire & fire.
It was announced yesterday morning that Richie Wellens had left Salford City ‘by mutual consent’. Salford are currently in ninth, two places above where they finished last season. Wellens, who took Swindon Town to the League Two title last season, was appointed as the Salford City manager in November 2020. Wellens settled well into his new managerial position. A loss in this first match at Bolton was followed by losing just one of his next eight matches.
Since the turn of the year, however, their form hasn’t been great. They’ve won just four from 16 league matches, and have dropped from a season high position of fourth in the table, which was achieved by beating Barrow 1-0 on the 16th February. Since then, they’ve only won once in eight matches. On the other hand, Salford did win the EFL Trophy last weekend in the 2020 final. They had 24 hours to enjoy it, before Sunderland won the 2021 edition the following day. We all saw it happen, but that didn’t make the previous sentence any less weird to type.
The hilarity started with a tweet sent by Gary Neville in 2018 being dredged up – just as I am about to here; don’t be thinking my shit don’t stink – which read: “The scary thing is that a large % of people now support these sackings as they’ve become accustomed to it… How can you build a football team without getting 2-3 years. A rule change is required to moderate sackings of managers mid season in their first year at a club.” When Jamie Carragher quote-tweeted it with traditional cry-laugh emojis, social media arranged some deckchairs, pulled out tubs of popcorn, and sat back expectantly.
Obviously, this is uncomfortable for Neville. The first bit of what he says is correct. The life-span of the football manager at any one given club is lower than ever, and many supporters do now support their replacement after a short period of time. There’s considerable speculation as to why this might be on the part of both fans and clubs, that we now live in a culture of instant gratification, that the stakes are considerably higher (for the owners, at least), or that there are logistical reasons why it might nowadays be necessary, given changes to the game itself in recent years.
The second part of the tweet, however, is where the guffawing begins. It’s not unreasonable that he should have a different opinion now to in 2018 but, while Salford haven’t had much need to change managers that often, what with their trajectory having been almost unstoppably upwards since the Class of 92 and Peter Lim bought the club at the end of March 2014, and all. Phil Power, the manager when they took over, was fired at the start of the following year. His joint-successors, Bernard Morley & Anthony Johnson, left in 2018 after winning the National League North title, and their Graham Alexander, was sacked in November 2020. It’s easy to keep faith in a manager when things are going well, not that that did Morley & Johnson any good in the end.
His third point, that clubs should be banned from sacking managers until at least the end of their first season, is presumably one that he doesn’t agree with any more, but even those amongst us who pine a little for the days when managers were given time to try and form the team might argue that regulation in this form might be going in the wrong direction. The idea that a manager should be given time to succeed should be a matter of survival of the fittest. Those who get it right, evolve. Those who don’t are doomed to repeat the same mistakes in perpetuity.
Except, of course, it’s not always a sign of failure. Chelsea, for example, have done very nicely out of operating a managerial revolving door for a decade and a half, now. So it’s not as though only clubs who are failing on the pitch are pressing the button this quickly. There was a time, though, at the start of this century, when the most successful managers, Alex Ferguson and Arsene Wenger, had both been in their respective positions for some time. Ferguson, of course, was famously kept on by Manchester United for seven years before delivering this first Premier League title to Old Trafford.
That, however, all seems like a very long time ago, now. It seems most likely that the nature of the managerial position has continued to evolve without that many people outside the game paying much attention. When managers were first introduced into football in this country, they were effectively club secretaries, administrators whose jobs it was to arrange fixtures, sort kit out, and act as a contact for the governing bodies. The team would often be picked by the directors, while a trainer would get the team prepared for the match.
Over time, the role changed. The secretarial work was palmed off to a club secretary, while the managers started to pick the teams themselves and oversee training. This is the football manager that those of us in middle-age or older likely think of, when we visualise one. Time, however, has moved on. Clubs are now networks of staff, many of whom work out of sight, and out of mind. Everything is analysed. There’ll be PR and social media at professional clubs. The “manager” is now more commonly the “head coach”, and he’s also the figure-head. He soaks up negative attention which might otherwise be flung at players, who need to be on top of their game. The rules have changed. So the fact that it happens isn’t in doubt, but the question of why remains only partially so.
There are those amongst us who would argue that the financial cost of relegation – particularly at the top end of the game – could be catastrophic. Relegation from the Premier League costs clubs more than 90% of their TV revenue, parachute payments notwithstanding (and a lot of people want to get rid of those, too). This likely explains why the Championship, which is pressured at one end by a mad dash for promotion, which is expanded to include play-offs, and the spectre of relegation and the loss of several million pounds in revenue at the other, has a higher attrition rate than any other division.
But the events of yesterday morning happened in League Two, where there aren’t tens of millions of pounds at stake. Salford City have nothing to panic about. They’re in the top half of League Two. Ten points from the automatic promotion places (highly unlikely) and six points from the play-off places (plausible), Salford’s achievement for this season was beating a League One team to be be Pizza Kings For The Day, before Sunderland snatched it off them and took it away for the next 364 days.
Wellens is a manager with a decent enough reputation. He did exactly what Salford want now with Swindon Town last season. So why would they get rid of him four and a half months in, a week after his team lifted a trophy at Wembley? Blind panic might be a regular occurrence at the very top end of the game, but it’s difficult to believe that many are driven by legitimate extistential fear. But all the benefits of all this culture of hiring and firing, all extra work, all this extra hassle, remain curiously out of reach. It doesn’t seem likely that the benefits could outweigh the costs, at most clubs. There’s a chance, of course, that there might be a serious issue behind the scenes that the club is not at liberty to talk about in this particular case, but this wouldn’t explain the broader trend, that the average length of tenture for a manager in the top four divisions has fallen from three and a half years in 1992 to just over a year, nowadays.
So deeply embedded in the game’s culture is the notion of hiring and firing now that it seems unlikely that Gary Neville’s 2018 wish will come true. The suspicion, however, remains that managers are handy shields for the shortcomings of others, deflelcting attention away from those whose bad decisions really affect the clubs as businesses. Perhaps Gary Neville will fully explain himself, and what has happened in the three years between Shop Steward GNev wanting to ban Football Club Owner GNev from making the decision that was made yesterday morning. Or perhaps he’ll offer a third of an explanation and the whole carousel will just continue to turn, oblivious to how daft it looks to make a huge song and dance in order to hire somebody to do an important job, only to fire them four months later.