Which Championship managers are bound for the Premier League? Part 2
The second part of this mini-series has been a little while coming. Apologies for that, but it is well worth the wait. Included below are the views of some of the Championship’s top bloggers and most prolific tweeters on whether the man in charge of their club is destined to manage in the Premier League.
Tony Mowbray (Middlesbrough)
Tony Mowbray has already managed a Premier League team – West Bromwich Albion in 2008/09. The season ended in relegation, but Mogga was applauded for his adherence to good football, remained popular with the fans and ultimately was rewarded for taking the Baggies down with the Celtic job. Of course, they aren’t known as the ‘Boing Boing’ club for nothing. Leading a newly-promoted side working within strict constraints was always going to be tough, but did he do the right thing by insisting on an attacking game that often left them exposed?
Then we have Middlesbrough. You could argue that his brand of football really has little place in a league that prizes grit, toil and massive centre-backs over style. Mowbray has gone on record to declare his admiration for Swansea’s passing game, yet this is a dangerous philosophy to try to instil into lads who are still battling the drop. There’s a strong case to be made for doing what anyone else scrabbling for points produces, which is to put men behind the ball and counter attack to steal the odd goal.
And yet there’s nothing wrong with trying to win football matches ‘the right way.’ This is never truer than in a thoroughly depressed region of the country, where the words ‘deprivation’ and ‘unemployment’ are often the first things Teesside babies learn to say, one crying out for some beauty, even if that’s just from the occasional Tony McMahon freekick. Added to that is his ability to make footballers feel special. The practically horizontal Kris Boyd aside, the players have upped their game considerably since his arrival, especially the local youngsters who are being forced to step up in the wake of the club’s decision to sell anyone worth a few bob.
Most important has been the improvement on the pitch since his arrival. Boro are widely acknowledged to have made a string of mistakes following our unlikely appearance in the 2006 UEFA Cup final. Few have been more costly than the decision to replace Southgate with Strachan and then let the Scot blow a small fortune on a promotion tilt. By October 2010, we were certainly heading out of the Championship, but in the wrong direction. The team was on its knees. Strachan did the decent thing and walked before he could finish the job of taking us down a further tier, which would have been disastrous. Since then, we’ve pulled back from the brink, albeit slowly because of the disjointed, imbalanced squad Mogga inherited and the need to sell before he can buy. But all steps are now in the right direction. For that, the feeling is that he can make it in the top flight, we hope with his hometown club.
Paul Lambert (Norwich City)
Any list of the country’s brightest young managers includes the same names; Simon Grayson, Eddie Howe, even Jim Gannon before he went a little bit crazy. And Paul Lambert. Dour, famously reserved in front of journalists, with the steely, fearless gaze of a man schooled in Old Firm derbies. An unexpected hero for Norwich fans.
When he came to a club at its lowest ebb, expectations were not high. Relegation under a Norwich legend and a 7-1 defeat to Lambert’s own Colchester are now so famous in football league folklore that everyone has heard the story. But, given Lambert’s then modest success, many were underwhelmed at his appointment. Yes, he was the conqueror on that opening weekend, but his career so far had included a poor spell at Livingston, a play-off semi-final defeat at Wycombe and an unspectacular stint at Colchester.
18 months, one title, a 5-0 revenge at Colchester, squad overhaul and second promotion push later, Lambert has become the first Norwich manager since Mike Walker to have the fans pleading for him to stay. The brief flirtation with Burnley proved to be a red herring; Lambert is someone who understands that something special is underway. More than anyone in recent times, he understands the club and the place it has in the hearts of local people, the reason they packed it out with over 25,000 bodies in the third tier, and the appreciation for the stylish, passing game he has reintroduced. What Norwich fans fear most about not getting promoted this year is not the missed income or a delayed reunion with the Premier League – it’s the chance that Lambert will get there first.
Blessed with an eye in the transfer market (just look at League One stalwarts Andrew Crofts and David Fox anchoring the Norwich midfield), the media handling skills of Martin O’Neill (never one to knock a player in public), tactical awareness and adaptability and unwavering ambition, all honed in his coaching courses in Germany. To quote Brian Clough, he might not be the best young manager in the country – but he’s in the top one.
Sean O’Driscoll (Doncaster Rovers)
The label “the Arsenal of the North” has been tagged on Sean O’Driscoll’s Doncaster Rovers side relatively frequently. This is testament to the fluent passing style the manager prefers to utilise, but as a deeper analogy it also reflects why O’Driscoll is unlikely to manage in the top flight.
For O’Driscoll’s methods to come to fruition it is, as George Harrison once said, “gonna take patience and time, to do it, to do it, to do it, to do it, to do it, to do it right”. Arsene Wenger built the current Gunners model over a number of years. Similarly, it was a good season and a half before O’Driscoll’s vision began to click. At Doncaster, he was lucky he had a chairman who stuck by him while some supporters called for him to go.
In the top flight he would not find such a patient employer. Of the Premier League teams, only Fulham and Wolves (a former club and the one he supports) are likely to employ O’Driscoll in the future, and the prerogative of each side is to stay up at all costs. O’Driscoll wouldn’t bring that, and so the only club he could really be given a fair tilt at the top flight with is the one he is at now. And as a Doncaster supporter I can say the chances of that scenario arising are pretty slim.
Dave Jones (Cardiff City)
Many expect that next season Dave Jones will end his sabbatical from Premier League management.
If Jones does take Cardiff into the Premier League, it will be some catharsis for a man who lost his first top flight job with Southampton when he was falsely accused of child abuse. As unfair as it was for Jones, the Saints had happier times under Glenn Hoddle and Gordon Strachan, enjoying four consecutive mid-table finishes and an FA Cup Final appearance.
Jones reinvigorated a Wolves side that had faltered under the stewardship of Colin Lee, taking them to a third place finish in his first full season in charge (2002/03). However, Wolves badly tailed off towards the end of that campaign sliding below arch-rivals West Brom in the race for automatic promotion and losing in the play-off semi-finals.
The next year saw Wolves reach the top flight for the first time since 1984, meaning that Jones succeeded where the likes of Mark McGhee and Graham Taylor failed. However, their stay was short-lived and unmemorable save for a 1-0 win against Manchester United.
When Jones moved on to Cardiff, he had three consecutive mid-table finishes (11th, 13th and 12th) without threatening the neither play-off places nor relegation – many managers have been dismissed for less. The Bluebirds’ improbable run to the 2008 FA Cup Final in his third season with the club showed their potential under Jones and since then they have finished 7th, 4th and currently lie 3rd.
However, much like his Wolves 2003 vintage, Jones’ Cardiff teams have a habit of fading towards the end of the campaign. In 2009, they missed out on the play-offs despite being in 4th place in March and having three games in hand on the teams around them, and this season they have gone from early pacesetters to being part of the bun fight for automatic promotion.
Jones needs to win promotion this season if he is to manage in the Premier League again. Not many chairmen and fans can tolerate three consecutive near misses and questions are rightly asked whether a manager is the right man to get the team over the final hurdle.
If he doesn’t get Cardiff promoted this season, I can’t see many chairmen aiming for the Premier League looking at his CV of one promotion and just one season managing in the top flight in the past ten years and seeing their man.
Mark Robins (Barnsley)
The job at Oakwell is probably one of the best apprenticeships in the business for young managers – a club that cannot reasonably expect to challenge for promotion given their lack of resources, yet still a fine challenge. For Barnsley, finishing mid-table is an achievement and this gives a manager like Robins both the breathing space to try to build his reputation and a base from which the club can push on during his time in charge.
Some astute recent loan signings have provided a timely boost to Barnsley, a team that have recovered well from a poor run of form to look clear of danger bar any late collapse. The next step will be to foster a better mentality on the road. Barnsley’s record on their own patch is currently equal that of sixth-placed Leeds United, but only Crystal Palace and Scunthorpe United have lost more games away from home.
Keith Millen (Bristol City)
When Millen took over from Steve Coppell, there were plenty of question marks. Could Bristol City survive? Would Millen be able to turn the club around? Those questions still largely remain, despite an impressive 3-1 victory at Watford recently. It seems unlikely that Millen would be able to engineer an Ian Holloway-style overhaul of Bristol City’s playing style and even less likely that, attractive football or not, he could gain promotion at Ashton Gate.
There is plenty of work to be done to steer the club away from the drop zone as the season enters its fourth quarter and Millen has far too much to prove to be thinking about the Premier League at this stage. Perhaps more of a firefighter than a long-term solution with an eye on the top flight, unlike the following candidate.
Eddie Howe (Burnley)
The flavour of the month. Howe was courted by many Championship clubs before he picked Burnley as a reluctant exit route out of his beloved Bournemouth. This reluctance had everything to do with a lifelong attachment to his former employers and nothing to do with his understated excitement at the challenge of leading Burnley back to the big time.
All the materials are in place for Howe to make his case as a future Premier League manager. Long term, Burnley have the resources to meet the needs he identifies within the squad. Presently, however, there is already much to be positive about. There has been a marked improvement in performances, if not necessarily league position, since Howe’s appointment and a late push for the play-offs is well and truly on. Howe is arguably the brightest managerial prospect outside of the top flight.