Dodging the bullet

With heads beginning to roll across the Football League, Rich Prew looks at the fragility of football management and discusses the best way forward for clubs aiming to stabilise in the near future.

Does anyone out there have an occupation with lower job security than the average Football League manager in England? With a few notable exceptions, lengths of tenure at English league clubs have been slipping for a decade, and each week brings news of more changes.

As of May 2010, League Managers Association (LMA) figures show that the average length of time spent by a manager at a Football League club is 1.4 years. There were 51 managerial changes last season, up from 45 the previous season, including 36 sackings. Only seven clubs have not changed their manager in the last five years.

This would appear at odds with what logic suggests. Stability and patience are often quoted as infinitely desirable by club directors and yet when the time comes, when short term results are poor, push usually turns to shove, and managerial changes are made.

As Richard Bevan of the LMA says:

“Sacking a manager creates instability and uncertainty and last season’s high number of dismissals reinforces how volatile an industry football is, especially for managers.

“More worrying is that the average tenure of those managers that were dismissed this season has reached an all-time low by comparison with other years. In simple terms, managers are being given less and less time to deliver. This goes against both the theory and the reality – clubs who give their managers time are more stable and more successful”.

Middlesborough manager (for now!) Gordon Strachan has an interesting perspective on how changes in the media industry are affecting the role:

“The game has changed – it’s getting more like Italy where there’s a demand for instant success now. And it’s all different with the media now, with all these phone-ins and message boards and all the rest of it – “vote now if you think the manager should be out of a job”, “60 per cent think this”, but who cares?

“And you watch the television and it’s “let’s go to speak to somebody standing outside a superstore”. And there’s some geezer standing outside a superstore at seven o’clock at night. Why would you want to speak to him in the first place?”

Interestingly, there appears to be no direct correlation here between the size of club and its expectations and the length of tenure. For in the Premier League you find the following, with their length of service at current clubs:

  • Sir Alex Ferguson: 24 seasons
  • Arsene Wenger: 14 seasons
  • David Moyes: 8 seasons

All have produced long term results under the media spotlight and the big expectations from Directors and Fans, both factors most usually cited when hypotheses as to why clubs are so trigger-happy these days are suggested. In a historical context though Sir Alex would only creep into the top twenty-five all-time managers for length of tenure.

Meanwhile in the Football League, if you’ve managed your current club for just under three years, you’ll be in the top twenty of the Seventy Two’s managers for time spent at your club. Only four of the Seventy Two have been manager for five years or more:

  • John Coleman, Accrington Stanley: 11 years
  • John Still, Dagenham and Redbridge: 6 years
  • Dave Jones, Cardiff City: 5 years
  • Paul Trollope, Bristol Rovers: 5 years

We could add to that Dario Gradi, manager of Crewe Alexandra for 24 years from 1983 to 2007 and caretaker manager twice since, and currently.

Do these lower-league managers have anything in common that would suggest reasons for their longevity, and from which other lower league clubs could learn? After all a club should be striving for a long term relationship with a successful manager shouldn’t it? Long term planning becomes possible, costs of ending management staff contracts early are lower and, logically, long term results should be better without constant changing of playing styles. I suggest the following, for at least three of the four:

Long term success

This is obvious but in the cases of Coleman and Still who both took their clubs from Non-League into the Football League, this clearly buys them a lot of time during the tougher spells. Trollope has achieved promotion and a run to the FA Cup Quarter Finals. Jones has had Cardiff knocking on the door of the Premier League and reaching the FA Cup Final.

Aiming low

Crucially, often low expectations from small-ish supporter bases, and low media profile. Again these tend to deliver patience and time to managers, especially for those coming from promotion into the League.

Association with the club as a player

Still has an association with Dagenham and other clubs in the area going back to the 1960s. Coleman played for Eleven small Lancashire Clubs. Trollope played for Bristol Rovers, with a long family connection to the area . Fans can often identify with Players then managers with these long connections. This itself can buy patience from the fan base, reducing pressure on club owners to hire and fire.

The exception to the latter factors would appear to be Dave Jones. He himself is a rarity, the only manager with five years or more tenure in the Championship.

The lesson from this small sample size, for smaller members of the league, is stick close to home when appointing a amanger. Potential managers who know your club, the area and the fans have a headstart in saving you the turmoil and dramatic changes that every managerial change can produce.

The Seventy Two
The Seventy Two published an outstanding series of articles about the Football League between 2010-12 and was the brainchild of Leicester City fan, David Bevan. As well as collaborating with The Two Unfortunates on the Football League Blog Network and a mammoth 2011-12 season preview, the site featured a host of leading bloggers and David was rewarded with a nomination in the 2011 Football Supporters’ Federation awards. Latterly, he was joined as co-editor by Joe Harrison and TTU is happy to present this archive of the site’s output.

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