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Have a little patience

December 8, 2010

While football fans up and down the nation were left scratching their heads following Chris Hughton’s dismissal at Newcastle, the Football Hobo Alan Smithy could only shrug. Hughton’s sacking didn’t surprise him and just now, he’ll explain why.

Monday’s events at Newcastle United, everyone’s favourite basket-case of a club, served to reinforce one of my least favourite trends in modern football: that of the chairman not giving his manager ‘enough time’. The striking thing with Chris Hughton’s dismissal, however, is that contrary to most sackings the fans weren’t calling for the manager’s head. But it is they who have been left in the lurch after a largely popular manager has been consigned to the football scrapheap at the whim of an unpopular chairman.

I’m the first to castigate supporters, and it seems a largely modern trend, who demand unrealistic success of clubs and managers and call for their head at the first sign of not meeting their inflated expectations. Indeed, Newcastle have been that club perhaps too often before, and it might well be that the sins of the past are being visited on the club’s present day support in this case. But I don’t want to turn this into a discussion of the merits of Mike Ashley’s decision (largely because I see none). This is much more about my frustrations at the average length of tenure of managers, and the way these decisions are made.

It’s quite easy to sit here in the ethereal and abstract world of the blogosphere and say that managers should be given more time like it’s some sort of panacea to every club’s ills; it’s clearly not. These things have to be looked at on a case by case basis. However it strikes me as equally as facile to suggest that chopping and changing managers willy-nilly is any more of a solution, and yet this behaviour is regularly reinforced by the cries of fans and the actions of chairmen up and down the country.

You often hear managers proclaiming they’ll be promoted within 3 years, or that they’re working to 5 year plans. Why, then, do so many fall by the wayside before they’re given much of a chance to put these plans into fruition, on occasions even less than a season after being appointed?

There comes a time when a chairman’s ‘decisive management’ just looks more and more like counter-productive meddling. Leicester City are currently playing under their 16th manager since 2000 and Southampton have had 10 managers in as many years – Leicester are currently on an upturn from their nadir in reaching League One, but both clubs still sit comfortably below their 2000 level. Southampton’s decision to dispense with the services of Alan Pardew earlier this season typifies the bizarre way that some chairmen conduct their business. Indeed, Nicola Cortese might run Mike Ashley close in this year’s ‘stupidest sacking award’.

Compare and contrast such managerial profligacy in the search for success with Liverpool, for whom Roy Hodgson is only the 18th manager in the club’s history, going back to 1892. I’m not for a minute suggesting that the only difference between the clubs is how much time they give their managers, but even in their more fallow years Liverpool allowed their managers time to get things right. Manchester United have only had 8 post-war managers, despite going more than 25 years without a Division One title at one point in that period. Their faith and patience with Alex Ferguson’s inauspicious beginnings has been repaid a thousand times over. Both clubs reaped the benefits of their patience.

The debate ultimately boils down to something of a managerial ‘chicken and egg’ conundrum. Are managers successful because they’re given more time, or are they given more time because they’re successful? The problem is that it’s impossible to know for absolutely certain one way or the other. Clubs seem more forgiving of long-serving managers who have a dip in performance, and perhaps rightly so, but why aren’t new managers rewarded afforded a similar level of patience?

Would you be surprised to learn that fewer than one in five managers in the Football League have been at their club for more than two years? Or that only three of the Championship’s 24 managers have achieved the same feat, and that two of those three are at clubs that they got promoted to the division?

The experiences of clubs who have a metaphorical revolving door in the manager’s office are worse, or at least no better, than their ‘conservative’ contemporaries. History suggests an inverse proportionality between managerial turnover and success – clubs who lack managerial and/or boardroom stability naturally fare worse than those who have it in abundance.

Where would Everton be, for example, if after a wholly underwhelming 2003/04 season in which they finished one place above the relegation zone in 17th they had sacked David Moyes? Having ended the preceding season in 7th place, in only his second season in charge the club had finished woefully short of where they could have expected to be. Plenty of chairmen would have sought to stop the rot and replace the man in the dugout. Bill Kenwright stuck by his man, and I think it is entirely fair to argue that they would not have finished the following season in 4th place (and had four subsequent top eight finishes in the five years thereafter) had he given Moyes the bullet.

The problem with the managerial merry-go-round is more than just a philosophical point, though. Fans and chairmen at all clubs will naturally have varying expectations and thresholds of what they deem acceptable job performance. What’s often overlooked, however, is that there are also distinct financial implications to take into account.

The hidden cost of all these sackings and appointments is often in the severance packages generously offered to departing managers. It’s not uncommon for managers to bring assistants and other coaching staff with them from job to job, either; suddenly the decision to change the man at the top results in a raft of redundancies and new appointments, yet more instability wrought throughout an underperforming club, and yet more cost. All that before the incoming manager demands his transfer ‘warchest’ (a former tabloid staple of a word, sadly in decline) from his new chairman, and moves to replace the currently underperforming players with his own.

Of course, if he doesn’t get the job done to the board’s satisfaction, within a year or two the whole crazy and expensive process starts all over again.

If after shortlisting, interviews, references and background checks a club’s board decides that one person is above all others the right man to lead the club forward, what is it that makes them doubt themselves so quickly? In any line of business hiring a new member of staff, particularly a key one, is a tricky call. A candidate may look perfect on paper and perform well at interview and say all the right things. Ultimately, though, sometimes things just don’t work out, and not every employee will deliver the results expected of them. That’s life.

What I find surprising is the rate at which clubs are tacitly admitting that they’ve made the wrong decision. After all, if you hire and then fire five successive people for the same job in rapid fashion, does it not suggest that it is the people making the decisions who are the ones at fault? They are continually picking the wrong people, or have unreasonable expectations in terms of job performance of those they select. Either way, it seems it is the ones doing the appointing that are constantly getting it wrong, and yet little changes.

The problem in all this, of course, is the ability to know when enough is enough. This will always be a judgement call, and the rampant short-termism that affects the modern game is in danger of skewing everyone’s perceptions. That Arsene Wenger’s job at Arsenal has been called into question by even a minority of fans in recent seasons because he’s not won a trophy since 2005 is frankly laughable. Whether their calls are more laughable than Ashley’s decision to sack a manager who got his side promoted from the Championship at the first attempt and has them sitting 12th in the top flight after four months is up for debate.

What I do know is that patience is a virtue, and one that is worryingly thin on the ground.

You can read more from Alan Smithy on his football blog Football Hobo.

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