Since the formation of this website in June 2009 only two Football League managers – Paul Tisdale and Chris Wilder – still remain in the same jobs.
A case in point, Torquay are now on to their fourth gaffer – having seen Paul Buckle, Martin Ling and Alan Knill come and go over the past few years – with former player Chris Hargreaves the latest to take on what tends to be viewed as one of the hardest gigs in the game.
Few would advocate such short-termism, but Alan Knill – the man who Hargreaves replaced last week – had arguably been on the ropes since he came in last season to help out while Martin Ling recovered from a stress-related illness. Having kept the Gulls up by the skin, Knill was given the opportunity to kick on this year but with a record of just 5 victories from 24 games and with his team floundering in the bottom two alongside a demoralised Northampton, it seemed inevitable that the board would opt for change rather than sleepwalk towards another spell in the Conference.
Without question, Knill was unlucky. Attempting to rebuild a squad that had seen a number of first-team players depart for bigger things over the previous 18 months – Chris Robertson, Mark Ellis, Bobby Olejnik, Eunan O’Kane, Rene Howe and Brian Saah among them – he had little to play with over the summer and, as is always the case when working with a small number of players, injuries then disrupted his selection once the season began, with the loss of key summer signing Ben Harding a particularly cruel blow.
The board could be said to be equally culpable, if not more so, for the state of affairs that Knill left behind. Back in March 2013 Gulls supporter James Bennett questioned their thrifty approach which – in essence – was premised on entrusting the manager to continue pulling rabbits out of the hat, and it would seem that they continued into 2013-14 with the same action plan in mind.
One might be tempted to question what the alternative might be at a club like Torquay, but having overseen the gradual chipping away of a hungry, creative and talented squad chasing promotion to the point that the Gulls are now fighting for survival, the board must swallow at least a share in the blame for the club’s current predicament.
But, when it would have been easier to climb aboard the merry-go-round, one suspects that they’ve finally made a decent decision in appointing Hargreaves along with fellow ex-player and former Truro boss Lee Hodges.
As many supporters on the message boards were at pains to request in the lead-up to their appointments, both fit the criteria of ‘knowing the club’ and – rather than seeing the job as a means-to-an-end – will view the challenge as a step-up in a part of the country where they feel at home.
Indeed, Hargreaves has had his eye on the role for some time. In his autobiography Where’s Your Caravan?, reviewed on these pages in November 2011, Hargreaves extolled the virtues of living in south Devon and made no secret of his desire to get involved in management once his playing days were over. In turn, when jobs have come up in recent years Hargreaves hasn’t hesitated in putting his name out there and he virtually made himself available for the Torquay position as recently as November.
But what of his management qualities? Although he’s arguably been in training for the job for a few years now, having only been involved on the coaching-side of things at Bournemouth and, before that, Exeter City it’s a tough question to answer but the signs are good, with both Eddie Howe and Paul Tisdale speaking well of him, the latter in particular noting his familiarity with the division.
And Hargreaves has always come across as the type of individual who is tailor-made for the setting of a football club dressing room – an extrovert whose confidence, natural enthusiasm and will to win brings the best out of other players.
That he’s already spoken of the importance of team spirit is telling, and Hargreaves’ plans are – out of necessity – likely to revolve around boosting morale levels amongst the group of players that he’s inherited.
A 2-0 win at an out-of-sorts Wimbledon on Saturday will have got the ball rolling on that front, the emergence of long-servant Kevin Nicholson; midfielders Damon Lathrope and Joss Labadie; and striker Jayden Stockley giving the side a greater steeliness than the team that this correspondent witnessed on New Year’s Day when the Gulls meekly succumbed to defeat at Plymouth.
But, without doubt, the squad that Hargreaves has inherited is a mixed one, with few players – rookie winger Jordan Chappell and loan signing John Marquis, who’s now returned to Millwall, aside – really shining in the first half of the season. To add to the new man’s task, the financial implications of two managerial sackings in just over 6 months will cause headaches as Hargreaves looks to supplement his squad; the loan signings of strikers Jayden Stockley, who’s back for a second spell from Bournemouth’s reserves, and Shamir Goodwin from Brighton, whose only previous first-team experience is with Tonbridge, is perhaps indicative of the level of signing supporters can expect for the remainder of the season.
But it was ever thus at Plainmoor and if supporters have now got one thing to cling on to it’s a renewed sense of belief. Cynics might suggest that a win at Kingsmeadow may simply be the bounce of a deceased cat but Hargreaves has always seemed destined for the role of pied piper in some shape or form and it wouldn’t be a surprise at all to see him and Lee Hodges turn things around in what is fundamentally a very average division.