The joker who brought hope to the mediocre
On Friday 23rd February 2007, Swansea City appointed Roberto Martinez as their new manager. By taking the reins in south-west Wales, the 33-year-old replaced Kenny Jackett who had overlooked Martinez for a spot in his team before the Spaniard moved on to Chester City.
Martinez was a huge success at Swansea, winning the League One title at a canter and consolidating the club’s position the following season with a very respectable top-half Championship finish. In addition to some fine results, Martinez managed to coax sublime football from the Swans, prompting envious eyes to watch on with interest.
Among the admirers during the 2008/09 season was a certain Premiership chairman. Dave Whelan liked what he saw and Martinez’s Wigan Athletic connections made his switch to the DW Stadium last summer an obvious one.
Less obviously, Martinez’s sole Championship campaign also drew fascination from a current Premiership manager. Not that Ian Holloway was managing anyone that season. Having just been relieved of his duties after overseeing Leicester City’s relegation to the third tier for the first time in their history, Holloway was merely watching and learning.
When Blackpool came calling, few could reasonably have expected that Holloway’s delight at Martinez’s methods would reap the rewards of a play-off push. Particularly at the cruel expense of the club whose previous season had been the base model for his work at Bloomfield Road.
Yet Swansea were edged out on the last day, firing just two shots at Doncaster’s goal in their final game as the Tangerines narrowly retained the top six status they had coveted for weeks and gained so late. Holloway made heroes of previously unremarkable lower-league men such as Gary Taylor-Fletcher, Keith Southern and Ian Evatt.
Employing a 4-3-3 formation and demanding that the high ball be shelved for the majority of the game, Holloway inspired Blackpool to produce some commanding performances. Coincidentally, the most ruthless was a 5-1 demolition of play-off rivals Swansea.
Martinez had not been working with megastars, but Holloway managed to go one step further whilst arguably working with a weaker squad. Match of the Day viewers will enjoy the post-match quips but the fact is that the Blackpool boss has set a new standard for managers of similarly unfancied Championship clubs ahead of the forthcoming new season.
And there are plenty of them.
One is Kenny Jackett, who preceded the progressive Martinez at Swansea. Jackett’s hard-working Millwall side will not play the same attractive, short-passing game that Holloway fostered at Blackpool but they will have been encouraged by the evidence that a small budget does not prevent big ideas.
Another is Martinez’s successor Paulo Sousa, limited by a restrictive budget at the Liberty Stadium but determined to impose a continental style on a cheaply-assembled squad. It is unclear whether he will continue that policy at Swansea, whose fans became frustrated at their team’s woeful record in front of goal as the pressure told, or instead perhaps at rumoured suitors Leicester.
Without question, though, the second tier of English football is becoming home to an increasing number of forward-thinking managers. Buoyed by the success enjoyed by Martinez and Holloway, the trend of Championship managers gleaning attractive football from unfashionable players is surely set to continue.