Hot Seat Narratives: Looking Beyond the Manager
The stats relating to the duration of managerial spells are, as you might expect, damning. This season, the average length of employment across the Premier and Football League’s 92 clubs is 1.64 seasons. In the Championship the mean is even worse, standing at 0.82 seasons. Between the Premier League and League Two, 47 of the 92 managers currently in position are yet to complete a full season with their club (which will rise to 48 when Mansfield appoint a replacement for Paul Cox). Only 17 managers have been in charge for two full seasons or more.
Meanwhile, behind the numbers lie some increasingly barmy episodes. Mark Robins parted company with Huddersfield by mutual consent after just one game this season; Scunthorpe dispensed with Russ Wilcox two months in despite him almost single-handedly steering them to promotion against the odds last year; Leeds recently appointed their third ‘head coach’ of the season (or fourth if you count Neil Redfearn’s earlier spell as caretaker). So inured are people to this era of intensive hiring and firing, it now seems, that barely an eyebrow was raised when Darko Milanic left the latter after only 32 days.
In the background, the years a number of commentators have called for ‘minimum windows’ within which managers should be allowed to bed down their ideas while others simply shrug their shoulders, suggesting that those in the ‘football asylum’ should just accept that things are as they are. This particular series on The Two Unfortunates has tried, by way of three posts on Watford, Newcastle and Exeter — where chaos has reigned or, on the other hand, there’s been relative continuity — to delve deeper, posing and attempting to address such questions as: Is the reduced shelf life of managers necessarily a bad thing? If it is, then why exactly? Does it affect the relationship supporters have with their clubs?
Although club-specific, the posts have helped to push the boundaries about the way we think about the role that managers play and the benefits or otherwise that different lengths of tenure potentially bring to football clubs. Each writer has shed light on the subject one way or another, whether it be pointing out that Alan Pardew and Paul Tisdale’s longer tenures may be down to pragmatism in the board room, more than anything, or talking readers through how the normal waxing and waning fortunes of football clubs — outside those at the very top of the pyramid — endure almost regardless of who’s at the helm.
It’s been made clear that deity status is increasingly reserved for an extreme few and that permanence, as Mark Yates discovered at Cheltenham earlier this week, provides no guarantee of support. Despite his success at Exeter, Paul Tisdale — for example — has never been truly accepted by an element of the club’s fanbase since day one. And of course, each Arsenal defeat puts further pressure on the Arsà¨ne Wenger who — one suspects — risks souring his relationship with some Arsenal supporters the longer he stays on.
Longevity, then, certainly doesn’t equate to a unanimous backing but, even so, this series has made clear that there are benefits to be gained from holding fire. Both Newcastle and Exeter have enjoyed some strong finishes and, in the latter’s case, several promotions while at both clubs youth players are being blooded in ways they might not have by managers with less knowledge of — and trust in — the youth set-ups. The FA would arguably do well to take note of such developments.
What’s more, in Exeter’s case, the club is materially more distinctive than it was before Paul Tisdale was appointed in 2006. As Gary Andrews writes, ‘Before Tisdale, the Grecians were just another lower league club, hard pushed to say what differentiated them from other provincial teams. Having a cravat-wearing and articulate manager not averse from moving from 4-4-2 to 3-4-3 to 4-2-3-1 from match to match, playing attractive football … undoubtedly gives City a unique selling point.’ Of course, part of the reason why some Grecians haven’t taken to Tisdale could well be down to how he has weaved his own character into the club’s identity — Exeter City is, one might argue, Paul Tisdale and vice versa. But, on the whole, surely such a Ferguson-esque scenario is preferable to and healthier than — Hartlepool as just one example — replacing Danny Wilson with Chris Turner, Turner with Mick Wadsworth, Wadsworth with Neale Cooper, Cooper with John Hughes, Hughes with Colin Cooper and Cooper with Paul Murray in the same period.
On the other hand, perhaps more than ever there are wider forces at work than just a single manager’s ability to work their magic. As Matt Rowson reminds us in his piece, ‘at Watford a coach HAS to fit into the structure rather than expecting to define it’ and the ‘Orns lack of consistency at managerial level doesn’t seem to have done them too much harm, results-wise. Southampton and Swansea are probably the only other English examples of a pre-defined ‘way’ which acts as a safeguard against managers coming and going, but the contrasting fortunes of Leeds and Blackpool — to name but two — go to show that the infrastructure, or lack thereof, that’s in place at a club and the fitness and properness of its owners is almost always going to outweigh how skilled whoever happens to be managing the first team at any given time is.
In this sense, we should be refocusing our critical faculties away from the managers that face the media spotlight every week and towards their paymasters and — vitally — the associations that are supposed to govern and regulate them. Of course, this is already being done on a daily basis by journalists, writers and supporter groups (indeed, just a few months ago we ran an ownership series ourselves) yet the obsession with managers endures despite of this — load up the fan forums of a club in poor form and it’s more likely that supporters will be blaming their latest defeat on the individual in charge of the playing staff rather than those who hold the purse strings or those who allow owners of ill repute to ride roughshod over our clubs.
So, rather than debating the pros and cons of minimum windows for managers or, on the other hand, simply shrugging our shoulders we should be thinking about what it will take to shift the public debate upwards — for example, by using the stats that opened this post not to merely comment on the incredulity of it all but as a way of beginning to think about how we can start properly holding owners (and those above them who are in charge of the rules) to account.
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