Reserving Judgement on Graham Westley

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Following Saturday’s defeat at Preston North End, Huddersfield manager Simon Grayson remarked that his charges had made the home side look like Real Madrid and if these comments were largely a criticism of his own team, the more paranoid among North End fans might view them as another set of cast aspersions on the character of Mr. Graham Westley.

For the current Madrid crop, stewarded as they are by an elegantly greying, right of centre taskmaster, are not above the underhand – and so it is with Westley. Unmentioned in the recent Sound of Football podcast devoted to footballing chicanery he may have been, but that’s perhaps because he might well have dominated half the programme – he must be grateful for Steve Evans and his continued occupancy of the more lurid lower division headlines.

Until that win over the Terriers, the fog of schadenfreude had been enveloping the Preston boss and was threatening to engulf him permanently. The dressing room hadn’t been lost as such – more packed on to one of those removal vehicles one sees transporting trailer homes and driven merrily over the cliff into the River Ribble.

Rumours and abnormalities abounded – the 2am series of text messages that informed the squad of his first team selections, the likening of those parts of the training ground devoted to rehabilitation to a spa and the complex’s consequent reduction in size (had Westley managed England in 2006, he would doubtless not have chosen Baden Baden as a retreat), publicly stripping Paul Coutts of the captaincy, introducing his notoriously punishing double training sessions, the deployment of journeyman centre half Aaron Brown in an attacking role and ordering the glue factory’s van to show up for Clarke Carlisle and Ian Ashbee.

Nor has the reputation he engineered before arriving at Preston done him any favours – a proponent of physically uncompromising football and the unauthorised ‘time out’, one commenter on a recent piece on Two Hundred Percent claimed that the Westley way works for ‘non-league brickie types’ but would be insufficient to reinvigorate proud Preston. Nor is the man from the Heathrow flight path renowned  for on-field unpleasantness alone – it’s remarkably under covered these days but still the biggest mark against him was his abandonment of Farnborough Town after he had denied them the opportunity to take on Arsenal at their Cherrywood Road ground in 2003.

But perhaps the most bizarre event of all is the one that perhaps provides a kernel of understanding. Westley’s public complaint that 4 of his players had leaked his team line up to the opposition before the game with Sheffield Wednesday provoked shock, not so much because of the event itself, but the decision to air the fact to the press. The lockers may be a virtual no go area, but Westley obviously continues to lob in the hand grenades one former player accused him of throwing.

For sure, it was perhaps ill advised to wash such drastically soiled laundry in public but it would not be his way to try and compromise. Preston have a squad of 30 players and one packed full of that benign-sounding clan, ‘old pros’ – two of whom, Graham Alexander and David Unsworth were in charge in the interregnum between Phil Brown’s departure and the new man’s arrival. The decline has been dramatic ever since Preston tussled with Sheffield United in a play-off semi-final in 2008-9 and a sequence of managers – Paul Simpson, Alan Irvine, Darren Ferguson and Brown have been unable to control a dressing room of turbulent priests. Initial conditions have hence been taxing.

Long contracts have become sinecures and the lilywhites conceded 73 goals in 2009-10 before finally tumbling – miserably – in 2011. This campaign under Brown had been an appalling one and relegation fears have only been eased by that victory over Huddersfield. The season began with a 4-2 defeat at home to Colchester and Bournemouth, Rochdale, Leyton Orient and Brentford have returned from Deepdale victorious.

Behind it all is the financial malaise explored by my fellow blogger Lloyd in our Turmoil Week series of posts back in February. The aforementioned Ashbee, Nathan Ellington, Tyrone Mears and Claude Davis are just a few of the faces that PNE could scarcely afford and owner Trevor Hemmings is coughing up regular installments of three quarters of a million pounds to keep the ship afloat, while swimming alongside is a rather rare species of dazzling white fish last spotted in the vicinity of Leeds, Cardiff and Plymouth.

Fans have been critical of the style of play but it wasn’t Westley who brought the men my colleague Ben referred to as ‘lantern-jawed bludgeoners’ Jon Parkin and Neil Mellor to Lancashire; nor can he be accused of being fully in cahoots with Peter Ridsdale - his history is more of one who stands aloof from directors and indeed, prefers to be in absolute charge himself.

3 wins and 6 draws in 16 games, the orchestration of fan protests in the Brentford game and that litany of black marks all count against him, as well as the dark memories of another Preston boss who liked to play it long, one John Beck – but writing off Westley may be hasty.

Early judgment is becoming all the rage at the moment, stoked by a Press beholden to kneejerk pronouncements – when proclaiming Andy Carroll to be a carthorse, Kenny Dalglish as a bitter Scotsman, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain as the answer to all our problems, Manuel Neuer as almost on a level with Joe Hart, Graham Westley as having been ‘found out’.

Once the 21 out of contract players have departed in the Summer, there will be a chance for the former Rushden & Diamonds and Stevenage man to impose his will on the eleven and judging by Chris Powell’s achievements at Charlton, who is to say that North End won’t be knocking on the portals of the Championship a year from now? I don’t especially like him either – and Farnborough’s fate continues to be the mark of the man – but useless? Let’s reserve judgement.

Rob Langham (pen name: Lanterne Rouge) is co-founder of the defiantly non-partisan football league blog, The Two Unfortunates, a website that occasionally strays into covering issues of wider importance. He's 45 and lives in Oxford while retaining his boyhood support of Reading FC. He tweets as @twounfortunates and has written for a number of websites and publications including The Football Attic, The Inside Left, When Saturday Comes, In Bed with Maradona, A United View on Football and The Blizzard as well as being nominated for the Football Supporters' Federation Blogger of the Year Award in 2013.

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