A journey through projects of the Football League
“Project” is generally perceived as a dirty word in English football, particularly in the lower leagues. It is usually employed as justification for short-term failure or overly extravagant expenditure. When things go wrong, everyone needs to pull together and believe in the project. When things go right, it’s just called winning…
proj·ect [n. proj-ekt, -ikt; v. pruh-jekt]
1. something that is contemplated, devised, or planned; plan; scheme.
2. a large or major undertaking, especially one involving considerable money, personnel, and equipment.
3. a specific task of investigation, especially in scholarship.
4. Education . a supplementary, long-term educational assignment necessitating personal initiative, undertaken by an individual student or a group of students.
We still don’t hear the words “sporting project” that often on these shores. The term has begun to crop up in recent months, particularly at Stamford Bridge during the brief Andre Villas-Boas era, but we tend not to think of our football clubs as being involved in projects. Perhaps it sounds a bit too continental for some people’s liking.
There are various types of “sporting project”.
Take the supporter-centric model. AFC Wimbledon is the most obvious example of this in the Football League but you must also throw Brentford and Exeter City into the equation. Although fan ownership is a long way removed from the time-constrained, player-based “projects” of any one manager, it does feel like a project in the most real sense of the word. Is supporter ownership “something that is contemplated, devised, or planned; a plan; a scheme”? Yes. The goal may not be promotion, but simply continuing stability for the club – something which has been all too lacking from too many clubs in recent years. Is it “a large or major undertaking, one involving considerable money, personnel, and equipment”? You bet it is.
All other “projects” seem incongruous in the company of that supporter-owned model which eschews short-termism and bases its entire philosophy around ensuring there is a football club to support.
Think about the Mark Hughes model whereby a manager is parachuted into a failing football club, given tens of millions of pounds to spend and buys Djibril Cisse. The recent Football League variation of this model involves another former Manchester City manager setting his Volvo on course for the East Midlands and bringing glamour names like Sol Campbell and Darius Vassell to the great unwashed. How eternally grateful we were. One, of course, being “not the real deal” whilst the other is “a real project”. A couple of weeks ago, that “real project” announced losses of £15.2million for the previous year and even greater losses have been made since.
There is also the Barcelona model. You don’t necessarily need to recreate La Masia from foundations to spire in order to ape this approach. You just need to keep the ball on the ground more than people are used to, keep faith in a couple of titchy midfielders and place heavy emphasis on possession percentages. If it works, you’re a genius named Brendan Rodgers. If it fails, you’re forgotten. And plenty have tried and failed to implement a possession game in the Football League using players of sub-standard technical quality.
Many football supporters yearn for a culture to be built within their club, a consistent approach from the boardroom down. The example of Swansea is a shining beacon here for the blindingly obvious reason that a similar style of football (that being, keeping the ball on the floor) has flowed from one manager to another and then on to a third. Perhaps the greatest achievement was not so much that possession football was maintained for a number of years, particularly as Paulo Sousa’s role in proceedings is often overplayed.
The real coup has been to spread responsibility throughout the playing staff, meaning that the loss of any single player or manager has not been devastating. Admittedly, “that difficult second season” will prove tough but the club should be stable in the long-term and the fact that the team is not centred around one individual should stand it in good stead. And how often do we hear fans stating their wish for their team to be “built around” one star player?
Where the success of the Swansea model really comes into focus is when examining the effects, and parallel universe, of the play-off semi-final second leg at the Liberty Stadium. If Robert Earnshaw’s shot had zipped into the net rather than back into play when it cannoned off the post late in that game, Swansea and Nottingham Forest fans would be living in a very different world. But whereas it is entirely imaginable that the Swans would have retained continuity again in the Championship, Forest opted for change.
Billy Davies, while an effective manager at Championship level, is “not a man for long-term building, someone who develops the youth players, who brings the whole club forwards as one”. Things could have been different had Forest not made a hasty and ill-judged appointment in the shape of Steve McClaren but, in any case, Davies left something of a house built on sand despite two successive play-off places.
When McClaren’s “project” to bring the learning of success with FC Twente and failure at Wolfsburg to the Championship failed, Forest fans clamoured for a Forest man. They got one, Frank Clark, as chairman but, unthinkably, Steve Cotterill was the man they saw pictured holding a scarf on the City Ground pitch, charged with retaining the club’s second-tier status. There has been recent success in this aim, perhaps partly due to the arrival of Sean O’Driscoll amid Cotterill’s backroom staff. But what Forest supporters crave in a perfect world is someone with the same vision and commitment that saw O’Driscoll transform Doncaster Rovers. In October last year, Cotterill signed a three and a half year contract.
We could move on to Doncaster, O’Driscoll’s former employers. We could move on to John Ryan; to Dean Saunders (former international team-mate of Mark Hughes); to Willie McKay; to El Hadji-Diouf, Frederic Piquionne and Herita Ilunga; to what came after O’Driscoll. But that “project” speaks for itself.
What of the reigning champions of the Football League, Queen’s Park Rangers? Again, recent documentary The Four Year Plan spoke volumes. The best scene involves Flavio Briatore reflecting upon four failed appointments not with the realisation that the club may be badly managed, but with the assertion that they managed to find “the four idiots” that were out there waiting for an opportunity in the Loftus Road hotseat.
Neil Warnock, the saviour of The Four Year Plan, is now out of the frying pan and into the fire working for Ken Bates at Leeds United. But it could be argued that Warnock, like Billy Davies, is an effective Championship manager and someone who can produce winning football in the here-and-now, but not a builder of the long-term future of a football club. Maybe QPR have the right idea, throwing January millions at the chance of staying in the big time. Right now, a point from safety with reports that contracts cannot be re-negotiated should the worst happen, this is a project that could soon plunge back out of the Premier League as Pompey did.
While QPR sit just below that dreaded dotted line in the Premier League, Exeter City take up the same position in League One. If only one could survive this season, most neutrals can be forgiven for having already decided which “project” they would prefer to prosper.