What next for Kenny Jackett and Millwall?
While the rest of the country was distracted by events at Old Trafford, a corner of south-east London focused on the departure of another long-serving gaffer. Though Kenny Jackett’s departure as Millwall manager probably cause any palpitations on Wall Street, it was no less a surprise to supporters than Sir Alex Ferguson’s retirement was to Manchester United. A mere six years in charge doesn’t even come close to matching the reign of Govan’s most famous son. Such is the nature of English professional football, however, that by the time of his exit, Jackett had been in post longer than all but five of his peers.
He’ll be almost as hard an act to follow. Two League 1 play-off finals, four consecutive seasons in the Championship, and an FA Cup semi-final is more than most managers achieve in an entire career. Millwall certainly have rarely had it so good. It is now quite difficult to recall that, when Jackett was appointed as manager in November 2007, the club was in serious danger of falling into the fourth tier. Some seven managers had come and gone in the preceding two years: the place was a mess. A 17th place finish in that season was no mean achievement, with a demoralised playing staff and a still naïve board. A slow start to the following campaign demonstrated the size of the task Jackett faced, but judicious signings and a focus on coaching improvement from pre-existing players led to a narrow defeat to a free-scoring Scunthorpe in the first of those play-off finals. The following season really was the making of his long tenure. Another slow start could have finished a man of lesser character; a less sanguine chairman might even have been tempted to call for a replacement. The Welshman’s persistence in backing and advising underperforming players and sheer hard work, though, engineered a surge up to 3rd place in the second half of the year, before a ruthless and utterly determined play-off campaign ended in promotion to the Championship. 9th place in that debut season was a fine achievement with limited resources, but the job got progressively more difficult in each of the following seasons. Spells of brilliant football and a 13-game winning streak in late 2012 suggested that he was capable of taking the club higher still. A poor end to the season and the failure of a few of his recruits, however, seemingly led him to feel that he could do no more.
As I type, Jackett remains the bookies’ favourite to take over at Wolves and local media reports suggest that he has been interviewed for the job. At first glance, it seems like a `hand in glove’ appointment: a club in desperate need of stability and rebuilding from the bottom up; a manager with a track record of repairing and relaunching clubs fallen on hard times. I can’t imagine anyone better placed to oversee the renewal of the playing staff as they adjust to life in the third tier. But somehow I don’t see it happening. Jackett’s quiet, diligent manner requires time and support from his employers and from fans. A trigger-happy chairman and restless terraces are the opposite of the conditions in which he thrives. His tenure at Swansea was followed by a spell coaching at Manchester City, and I wouldn’t be surprised at a return to the training ground this time around either. Jackett’s reputation in the game is as one of its leading tutors, and he always looked more comfortable in his initialled tracksuit than in shirt and tie.
Back in SE16, meanwhile, the timing of Jackett’s decision appears increasingly appropriate. A truly woeful 2013 ended with a depleted and under-confident squad being dragged from the jaws of League 1 by other clubs’ efforts. A similar start to next season would have been difficult for supporters to tolerate, and a mid-season change in management would have been harder for the board to judge correctly. Jackett had been attempting to combine the traditional Millwall aggression with the progressive, liquid style of passing that is becoming the norm in the top two divisions of English football. However, the lack of a quality forward prompted a return to the old school, leaving both supporters and manager frustrated. It has been apparent for some time that the playing staff would need significant reorganization this summer – the subsequent departure of the enthusiastic ex-Oldham winger Chris Taylor has left another position to recruit for – and, with some additional funds available following an unexpected run to the FA Cup semi-final, a new man will have extra scope to implement his own ideas that would not necessarily have been available at any other time.
The list of names proposed thus far includes the usual shop-soiled veterans, but also some more intriguing options. The merchants of doom and gloom that populate the forums are all calling for a grizzled old campaigner, citing the likelihood of relegation as the defining challenge. To my mind, though, the threat of a Warnock is greater. Despite the club’s troubled finish to the previous campaign, The Den holds a great opportunity for an ambitious coach: a trusting board; a core of Championship-quality players; and an off-field infrastructure vastly improved during the past six years. The conditions left behind by Jackett call for new thinking and optimism, not the battening down of hatches. Interviews are set to begin this week, but the possibilities haven’t yet begun to narrow down. Each day of the past two weeks has seen a different odds-on favourite, with a succession of ex-players being heavily backed before falling by the wayside. Younger managers with growing reputations appear to be out-of-reach: Eddie Howe’s attachment to the Dorset coast and the financial backing of Maxim Demin almost certainly rule him out, while Sean Dyche – who, as a respected former player, would otherwise be the outstanding candidate – is still in his first year at Burnley and reportedly subject to a hefty release clause. More likely are a number of those who have got fed up of tending their flowerbeds and are looking for a way back in to the game: Alex McLeish is one notable former boss rumoured to have applied. In the past few days, speculation has centred on the two managers who contested the League 1 play-off final, with tongue-in-cheek suggestions that the losing manager would receive the consolation prize of a place in our dugout. Certainly, Gary Johnson’s exploits at Yeovil and his record in the Championship have pushed him to the front of many people’s minds and it has not gone unremarked that Johnson’s contract at Huish Park expires this summer.
Whoever eventually takes the job, they will need a strong personality to be a success. Michael Calvin‘s description of the club as a `Family’ is quite apt: anyone who doesn’t accept its values will be given short shrift. But the brief glimpses of slick and confident play that Jackett achieved in 2012 show that a touch of panache isn’t incompatible with the grit. Chairman John Berylson has stated that his aim is to establish Millwall in the Championship’s top 10, as a step towards an eventual tilt at the Premier League. His appointment of Kenny Jackett last time around took us a long way towards that target. He must now find someone with the ambition and the knowledge to go still further.