“Insanity,” said Albert Einstein, “is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.” That seems to be the logic that plenty of Football League chairmen abide by – with several teams falling short of their ambitions this season, the festive period saw goodwill cast aside as many managers paid with their job. Incredibly, of the 92 clubs in the Football League, a quarter have appointed new bosses within the last three months – hoping to instil some mid-season alterations to improve their fortunes.
According to the cliché, football is a results business – but results can’t be achieved on a whim. The decision to sack the boss means sacrificing a particular footballing philosophy and corresponding methods, and rebuilding under a new leader (who often begins their tenure under pressure to perform season-changing miracles and being judged directly against their predecessor). Ringing the changes doesn’t guarantee an improvement – especially when it is a manager that is popular amongst fans and players that gets shown the door.
Somewhat surprisingly, it is the Premier League clubs that have been most loyal to their managers this season. That could be accredited to the bizarre nature of the 2010/11 top-flight campaign: the table still hasn’t adopted a natural order, and some clubs aren’t sure whether they’re in contention for Europe or in a relegation dogfight. With the league table poised so delicately, not many clubs want to risk making such a decisive change in their hierarchy.
West Brom were the most recent top-tier club to part company with their manager. Seemingly under little pressure, 40-year-old manager Roberto Di Matteo was given the boot a month ago. Like Chris Hughton at Newcastle, Di Matteo wasn’t afforded a whole Premier League campaign to institute his plans despite leading his side to promotion in his first season – fans and pundits alike were incredulous at the board’s betrayal of the personable Italian. It did, however, pave a route back into management for Roy Hodgson.
Hodgson’s credentials look good on paper – he took over at Fulham four years ago when the Cottagers were in dire straits and kept them up, so the immediate task at the Hawthorns of avoiding relegation ought to be less problematic. If the results don’t start coming soon though, the fans could quickly become disillusioned – even when the Baggies were yo-yoing between the divisions under Tony Mowbray and Di Matteo, they at least had the reputation of being a ‘poor-man’s Arsenal’. The results weren’t always great, but at least the football was aesthetically-pleasing. Hodgson’s notoriously drilled and agricultural style meant his spell at Anfield was doomed from day one; if results and performances worsen at the Hawthorns, the board will have a lot to answer for.
If it was a shock to see Avram Grant appointed at the helm of West Ham last summer, it was an even bigger surprise to see him keep his job throughout the winter-long speculation. Co-owners David Gold and David Sullivan were being typically undiplomatic in public with their assessment Grant’s viability while the Hammers languished at the bottom of the league, but they backtracked when it appeared that the Israeli’s potential replacements (which included Chris Hughton and Sam Allardyce, who had both recently been unfairly ousted by Newcastle and Blackburn respectively) weren’t interested in the position. Arguably, the mistreatment of Grant by the owners only served to rally sympathetic support behind the manager – and the impact of his January signings and the eventual-debut of Thomas Hitzlsperger has lifted the Irons off the foot of the table.
The winter transfer-window often gives onlookers a decent impression about how safe a manager’s job is. If the gaffer is allowed to address certain issues by bringing in new faces in January, it tends to suggest a faith in their reasoning. Alan Irvine was unpleasantly surprised a month ago though – the Sheffield Wednesday board sanctioned the signings of five new players before sacking Irvine at the start of February, adding him to the long list of managers put on the scrapheap by Milan Mandarić.
Irvine’s replacement Gary Megson hasn’t enjoyed an especially promising homecoming during his first month back at Hillsborough, but their plight pales into insignificance compared to local rivals Sheffield United. After performing poorly under Kevin Blackwell and Gary Speed earlier in the year, local lad Micky Adams was prised from Port Vale in December to reignite the passion that has ebbed away from Bramall Lane. 12 games later and still winless, the Blades’ season is descending into a farce under Adams which could end with them squaring up in the Steel City derby in League One next year.
Vale replaced Adams with Jim Gannon, who wasted no time in alienating the backroom staff at Vale Park by calling them ‘underqualified’. Adams left the club lying healthily in second-place in the League Two table, but under the Irishman the side has slipped down to sixth – and club affairs took a turn for the ridiculous when Gannon entered an unenviable war of words on the team bus with assistant manager and former bricklayer Geoff Horsfield a week ago, en route to their fixture with Aldershot.
Former Bolton player Owen Coyle was brought back to manage his old club a year ago when Gary Megson’s spell in charge was brought to an end – though there was nothing rash about the decision. Megson wasn’t popular with the fans and had taken the Trotters backwards during his two years at the Reebok. Coyle’s short managerial record in England was quite remarkable, and he had once before been courted by Wanderers when managing Scottish outfit St Johnstone. The evidence for Coyle as the keystone became apparent as Burnley slipped to relegation when he left Turf Moor, whilst his Bolton side overcame their demotion worries to finish comfortably in mid-table. Similarly last season, Dario Gradi found his way back to the manager’s office at Crewe Alexandra with the club struggling to adapt to life without him, having recently relinquished the job he had held for a quarter of a century.
Most mid-season managerial sackings, however, reek of desperation. The chairmen set the benchmark unattainably high at some clubs, and all too often the boards act whimsically when a perfectly-competent manager has a little stutter, and so sacrifice any long-term stability they could offer. When Allardyce was linked with West Ham all the tabloid-talk was about him having the attributes to save their season, but this undermined his true value – during his eight-year spell at Bolton he proved an archetypal example of what can be achieved with a bit of continuity. Less than half of the current Football League bosses have been in their current job for a calendar year – perhaps some of the struggling clubs will learn the value of stability rather than allowing the revolving-door to keep on spinning.