On the eve of England’s crucial “must not lose” Euro 2008 qualifier against Croatia, lanky striker Peter Crouch was already talking up the Three Lions’ chances of going all the way in Austria and Switzerland. Sadly for Peter’s prediction, winning the competition meant qualifying for the final tournament and Mladen Petric’s 77th minute winner made sure the national team were going to have a football free summer next year.
Certainty just does not exist in football. There are too many factors. Margins for error are so tight that a goal here or a red card there can completely unbalance the most obvious of outcomes. There is an unfairness that comes from the certainty of these outcomes. Victory and success is celebrated by everyone from chairmen, shareholders, managers, players and supporters.
The rewards of success for those celebrating may be different, whether it’s cash bonuses, prestige or bragging rights but the situation is none the less jubilant. The impact of failure on the other hand is starkly different between those who have been defeated.
Although it is the eleven men on the field who carry the hopes of the team, any lack of success falls squarely at the feet of the manager. As Steve McLaren found out and Sven Goran Eriksson before him. The playing staff were relatively unchanged, the tactics were similar but both were relieved of their duties. Does this mean that they did a poor job or does it mean that they did the best with the materials they had to work with?
Already in the Premiership this season six club bosses who began the campaign in August have failed to make it until Christmas. Bolton promoted Sammy Lee to the managerial hotseat after several years as coach under Sam Allardyce, who was off to take the helm at Newcastle. Little Sammy’s Bolton team was essentially the same as when Big Sam was at The Reebok Stadium but a run of bad results meant Lee was unemployed by September, only 3 months after taking charge. Bolton has since brought in Gary Megson and with the same players as his predecessors has put together a decent run of results. Sammy Lee may, quite rightly, feel hard done by. Is 3 months really enough time to decide whether or not someone is good enough for the job?
Martin Jol suffered a similar fate at Tottenham. Just 2 months into the season and after back to back 5th place finishes his position was made untenable by a mixture of poor results and underhandedness from the board. He even suffered the ignominy of being virtually the last man at White Hart Lane, including the fans, to discover he was out of a job. Did a man who had brought Spurs so close to Champions League qualification in consecutive seasons, only deserve 2 months of the new campaign in which to work his magic again?
Since Jol was shown the door at Spurs, Chris Hutchings at Wigan (3 months in charge) and Billy Davies at Derby (whom he got promoted last season) have been unceremoniously given the elbow by their respective clubs. It seems that in the world of top flight football the cost of defeat by far outweighs the gains of victory. A small club like Wigan exist only to survive in the Premiership. With the lack of quality and funds they have winning the league is out of the question however all the parachute payments in the world cannot prevent a club from feeling the impact of relegation. So maintaining their top flight status is the clubs goal from day one and this can sometimes be just as challenging as mounting a challenge for the title.
With this in mind the replacements drafted in to save those clubs in trouble are generally very curious. Wigan has appointed Steve Bruce, a man who has been in charge of six clubs in 9 years and who went down with Birmingham City only 18 months ago.
Derby too has brought in a man who is all too familiar with relegation dogfights. Paul Jewell’s Wigan team were only 90 minutes away from the drop in May but survived and it seems now that he is the man to rescue Derby from their plight.
What we see is almost musical chairs with managers at the bottom clubs switching seats in a vain attempt to stem the tide of failure. The chairmen of these clubs seem happy to appoint men who are experienced in fighting against failure week in week out, rather than searching for the man who could take them to that next level. There is always a wide gulf between getting promoted and staying up the next year.
Only a handful of teams have got up and stayed up. At the very top of the Premiership now there are two men who between them have over 30 years in charge at their clubs and it is no coincidence that they are the most successful teams in the 15 years since the Premiership was born. Only a handful of clubs throughout the division can boast a manger that has spent more than 2 years at the club.
So what do we learn from all this? Football clubs are like families and the more stable they are the happier everyone is and the more successful everyone becomes. With the transfer windows on offer, managers have only two months in the summer and one month in January to replace and strengthen their teams.
With no such window set aside for the appointment of managers if a set of players are failing to perform it makes sense to replace the man who is in charge. A new man is brought in to work with the same players until he can bring in his own and the cycle begins again.
The need for periodical change of manager is endemic for all but a few clubs. Where one man fails another is always there to take his place. So perhaps there is some certainty in football after all.
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