When Nigel Adkins took over as Southampton manager, they were 18th place in League One. The previous season they had finished one position below a play-off place, but the 7pt gap meant they may as well have been 4-5 places away, it would still mean League One football again for a club relegated from the Championship in 2009. Five seasons had now passed since The Saints last competed in the Premiership and the supporters were desperate to return to English football’s top table.
In 2009 the club had gone into administration, resulting in a 10pt deduction. But for that penalty they would’ve finished just 2pts off an automatic promotion place. Up stepped Nicola Cortese, an Italian banker who had brokered the deal to buy the club for Markus Liebherr, a German-born industrialist. Only after the purchase did Liebherr realise there was no senior management structure and so invited Cortese to take over the reins. Within a month Cortese had sacked Alan Pardew, who had just masterminded the club to only their 2nd major trophy when they beat Carlisle United in the Johnstone’s Paint Trophy. Under Adkins they didn’t score for three matches but soon found their form and finished 2nd to Brighton gaining promotion back to the Championship. A year later they finished 1pt behind Reading to gain their 2nd successive promotion and now Premiership football.
They won just 1 of their first 11 games and were 18th at the turn of the year, but as of 18th January 2013 they sat in 15th and 3pts above the drop-zone. But Cortese had decided enough is enough and the axe has fallen on a promising young English manager who had been getting results.
Cortese is not alone in making snap decisions to chop and change managers. On the first day of the season Tottenham, West Brom, Liverpool, Swansea, Norwich and Aston Villa all had managers taking charge for the first time.
Already this season we have seen clubs such as Chelsea, QPR, Blackburn, Nottingham Forest and Wolves toss aside managers in a desperate bid for improvement. These clubs all have owners who believe the answer to disappointing performances on the pitch is to immediately change the bums on seats in the dugout. Owners at Liverpool, Newcastle and Manchester City have already shown themselves to be ruthless in their pursuit of success.
But does this knee-jerk reaction ever really produce the results so desired?
Roberto Di Matteo paid the price for seeing his Chelsea side dumped out of the Champions League, a trophy he’d seen them lift barely 6 months before. Kenny Dalglish was sacked from Liverpool despite two cup final appearances and almost winning 2 of the 3 competitions they were entered in. Chris Hughton lost his job at Newcastle when they were mid-table in December 2010. Barely a week later Sam Allardyce was removed from his position as Blackburn manager when they were one place above Newcastle.
Tony Fernandes bought Bernie Ecclestone’s share at Queen’s Park Rangers in August 2011. By January he had sacked manager Neil Warnock with the club in the bottom 4. He replaced him with Mark Hughes and then just 10 months later, having allowed Hughes to spend big, he stopped the music again to bring in Harry Redknapp.
This reaction from owners seems to be worse in The Championship. Current Sheffield Wednesday owner, Milan Mandaric once had 5 different managers during a 12 month period in 2007 when he was owner of Leicester City. After one sacking, particularly early in the season, he defended his actions claiming if he waited until the end of the season to sack the manager, the club could be relegated and then what would he do? The fact that the club went down and probably compounded by the inconsistent actions of the chairman, seemed to be lost on Mandaric.
Meanwhile up at Blackburn, Steve Kean was appointed successor to Allardyce having worked as first team coach to Big Sam. Kean managed to survive in his job despite the club being relegated to The Championship. Blackburn were unbeaten in their first 6 matches in 2012-13 but Kean was ‘forced to resign’ after their first defeat. Owned by a subsidiary of the VH Group, a poultry and processed food company from India, Blackburn seems to lurch from one embarrassment to another. When the Venkys took over at Ewood Park they claimed money was available for transfers, but the £5m they provided would hardly pay an agent’s fees these days. Their poor PR handling and treatment of Steve Kean would hardly encourage many managers to go there.
At the City Ground the Al-Hasawi family bought the club in July 2012 and soon sacked Steve Cotterill and replaced him with Sean O’Driscoll. Boxing Day 2012 with Forest lying in 8th place, they come from behind to beat Leeds United, 4-2 and O’Driscoll is sacked.
Often this overreaction from owners just fuels the ridiculous demands of football fans who act like spoilt kids when their team loses. An example of this was at Liverpool when they lost the opening game of the season to West Brom, 0-3, and there were some fans calling for Brendan Rodgers head. After one match! This cry has consistently come out at every Liverpool defeat this season, but just goes to illustrate how little thought is given to the consequences.
Just imagine how you would feel in your own workplace if they kept chopping and changing managers all the time, and especially every time the customers called for it. Morale would be continually low and fairly soon there would be a belief the employees were in charge as they seemed indispensable no matter the performance levels. It is very difficult for managers to maintain any sort of discipline and control if the staff know he is unlikely to be in the job long.
Examples where sticking with managers has worked can be shown in 1974 when Manchester United were relegated under Tommy Docherty. They came straight back up the following season and Docherty took them to two Cup Finals in 1976 and 1977. In 1978 Tottenham were relegated under Keith Burkinshaw. He kept his job got them back up the following season and they went onto win the FA Cup in 1981 and 1982 and the UEFA Cup in 1984. During the late 90’s, Charlton Athletic were desperate to get in, and stay, in the Premier League under Alan Curbishley. They won a dramatic play-off final against Sunderland in 1998 to gain promotion from The Championship but went back down the following year. Curbishley then took them back up as Champions in 2000 and they managed to establish themselves as a Premier League club for the next 7 years before Curbishley left and they went back down.
At Newcastle it will be interesting to see how the owners intend to honour the 8-year contract they have given Alan Pardew if they go down this season. All this changing of the man in charge just makes the new incumbent’s job so much harder. They have to try and get immediate results with somebody else’s playing staff and then are not given any time with the new signings they make themselves.
Two examples of good ownership can be found at Middlesbrough and Everton. Steve Gibson is renowned for his support of managers, when others would have kicked them into touch long ago. This has resulted in a relative period of stability at the club as both fans and players know the manager is unlikely to be the scapegoat for poor performance. Bill Kenwright at Everton is another who has given support to his manager, David Moyes who has been in charge at Goodison for almost 11 years. Without spending vast sums of money, Moyes has been able to build teams at the club in the full knowledge he is in for the long haul.
But is this all just a reflection of society these days? You can quite easily stop and start a game on Football Manager or FIFA and play it again till you get the right result, so does that just create an unrealistic ambition of your own experiences? Do we just want too much too soon and are we totally unprepared for something which is seems to be in short supply these days – patience?
If football clubs were run as public companies with shareholders, owners would get to understand how much the share price drops on any uncertainty as to the future direction of the club. Perhaps this is why so many poor businessmen are able to take over football clubs when they would get found out in the corporate world. Or should we be more selective in who takes over our clubs? The ‘Fit and Proper’ test does not extend to checking whether the incoming owners actually have the money to buy the club, but then in a free market surely an owner can sell for whatever price they want accept – i.e. Ken Bates? Is this all just a necessary by-product of the popularity and financial worth of football itself? There are good and bad business owners in every industry but not all of them have their activities played out so publicly as they do at a football club. Plus, customers of businesses in other industries can just vote with their feet, but at many football clubs support comes at the price of freedom of choice.
The examples at Chelsea and Southampton may well be the worst examples of profligacy in football ownership and they may well not be the last, and I am to conclude that none of this is any good for the game. Of course, the mismanagement at Portsmouth Football Club which has put the club on the verge of extinction, will probably take some beating and football really needs to decide whether it can be run as a business or as a sport.
Swindon fans are waking up to the possibility of administration as their owner no longer wishes to finance the club anymore and selling players may be their only option. This could lead to the very real prospect of losing their talismanic manager, Paolo Di Canio and then what happens to the progress they’ve made in the last few seasons?
Chelsea fans should take heed. What would happen to them if Abramovich ever withdrew his money – assuming, of course, it was ever his money in the first place?