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George Elek: "We're talking about managers all wrong"
Born winners, slow starters and frauds - managerial narratives ignore the chaos of club football.
Never read the comments. It’s advice to live by, to die for. Just don’t do it, it’s never worth it.
Henry Winter interviewed Nathan Jones for The Times a few weeks ago and, rather than clicking on the link and reading the article, my muscle memory sprang into action as I scrolled down to see what the underbelly of the cesspit formerly known as Twitter had in store for me.
Lots of nice comments from Luton fans, some not so nice ones reminding voyeurs like me that Jones actually only won promotion with the Hatters once, and then some predictable bile from fans of teams who wear red and white and are still scarred by their brief dalliance with the intense Welshman.
“Never going to happen, totally finished,” says one Saints fan.
“Employ him at your peril,” warns Mick from Stoke.
This is something we see more and more: the concrete certainty of a football fan that the manager who was sacked by their club wasn’t just the wrong man at the wrong time, but an inherently useless fool who, ideally, should never work again.
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It doesn’t only come from the wounded survivors. I find the general discourse around managers fascinating and exhausting in equal measure. Whether it’s casual armchair fans, tactical students of the game, transfer obsessives, your run-of-the-mill season ticket holders or even pseudonymic YouTubers, absolutely everyone has an opinion on the gaffer and the job they are doing.
And not just the one in charge of their club, but every single sacking throughout the pyramid is met with analysis from all of the above, from every fan of every club, telling someone somewhere it was the right or wrong decision.
This is normally based on a) league position and/or b) win percentage. If a) is bad, look at b). If b) is also bad then he deserves it. But if a) could be perceived as good and b) is OK then it’s unfair. If b) is good but a) is bad then he deserves more time, but if a) is good and b) is bad then the jury is still out. And that is that.
Now, I need to express a bit of self-awareness here. I spend most of my Mondays telling people what I think about managers, whether one guy is a good fit for another club, or if someone deserves or deserved to be sacked. I am just another voice in this tumble drier of opinion, and by no means a more valid one given I’ve spent as much time in a dugout as anyone else.
But it’s the total lack of nuance in the conversation around managers that I find the most perplexing. There is an idea that a sacked manager can have no complaints if they are let go when their team is towards the bottom of a division. And there is seemingly little regard for circumstance such as budget, squad quality, club infrastructure or even general working environment.
In a 24-team division, one team has to finish 24th. Even if all 24 managers work tirelessly and successfully on player development and tactical processes, one team has to finish 24th. Does that mean that the boss of the bottom club is, by definition, not performing to an acceptable standard? Or can it just be that he’s a victim in a game in which some just have to fail?
Former Swindon boss Luke Williams is an interesting example of how one man can approach a burning building armed with a thimble of water and be vilified for not putting out the blaze, only for it to become apparent that he may well have been more than capable if he was just given a fire engine.
He was sacked from The County Ground in the summer of 2017 after Swindon’s relegation to League Two, to general euphoria amongst a fanbase who pointed the fingers squarely at the Head Coach for their plight. David Flitcroft took over and lasted until March before it was Phil Brown’s turn to hang around for a few months before being given his marching orders.
Williams is now one of the most exciting Head Coaches in English football, winning promotion with Notts County back into League Two, where they are now one of the title favourites. His brand of possession-based attacking football has been a breath of fresh air and has translated seamlessly to the step up into the EFL.
Had Williams been touted for a return to Swindon ahead of his appointment at Notts County in 2022, it would have been met with uproar from Robins fans. But in hindsight you have to wonder whether the environment that Williams was working in under owner Lee Power, with a talented but young squad, may have played a key role in their demise rather than the buck starting and stopping with the man in charge.
From a notion of where the buck stops comes a desire to paint managers in a defined profile, taking tiny shards of evidence and puffing them out into sweeping generalisations on characteristics of a manager and their teams.
I’m annoyed that, having just been dismissive of Swindon fans, I’m now going to come out to bat for Michael Appleton, but they do say ‘write what you know’, don’t they?
Every time Appleton is linked to a job ,there is this line that does the rounds about him being a ‘slow-starter’. Blackpool fans spoke of it. Charlton fans were warned about it. Even Oxford fans debated it ahead of the rumoured second coming earlier this year.
It seems to date back to his first spell at Oxford, where he joined late in the summer as part of a takeover, overseeing a behind-time squad build, and got off to a torrid start. They lost their first four league games, waiting eight until they tasted victory and were in the relegation zone after 10.
Oxford fans had seen enough and wanted Appleton gone. He was given time and, long story short, he took them up the next season and later left the club, and the devastated fanbase, as an upwardly mobile mid-table League One side.
He then took over at Lincoln City in 2019, who had lost seven of their last nine, and won eight of the next 26 – a significant and immediate improvement ahead of higher heights to come the following season.
At Blackpool, many of the uninspired fans were nearly won over after a start of P8 W3 D2 L3, but then Josh Bowler left, wasn’t replaced and injuries hit.
The form tanked and Blackpool made a change at the turn of the year. But it wasn’t a slow start that was the issue. Yet it was again being discussed by both Oxford and Charlton fans as part of Appleton’s DNA, rather than a product of quite obvious circumstance in one job the best part of a decade ago.
It works the other way, too, if I may don my Brutus robes, with some Oxford fans bemoaning the appointment of Liam Manning on the basis that he’d been sacked from a club in the relegation zone of their league. His achievements in the previous season of taking MK Dons to 3rd were ignored in favour of the more recent, alarming form line.
Manning’s Oxford currently sit 2nd in League One behind a Portsmouth team managed by John Mousinho, a January hire that caused one of the more ferocious winter storms seen on the south coast in recent years. That storm has calmed, and settled into a sunny unbeaten run dating back to March.
Blackburn fans, understandably sick of a season-on-season trend of toppling out of the promotion race late-on, decided that this was a Tony Mowbray problem rather than a Rovers problem, and told Sunderland fans as much after they appointed him a few weeks into last season.
Fast-forward to May and Sunderland go nine unbeaten to force their way into the top six, at the expense of a Jon Dahl Tomasson-led Blackburn who, having occupied a play-off berth for much of the season, endure an eight-match winless streak to end it, culminating in a 4-3 final day win at Millwall which ironically allows Sunderland to creep into the play-offs.
Now, of course some clear characteristics follow a manager from team to team throughout their career. Some are clearly born of philosophy, such as Russell Martin favouring a possession style that can lead to being caught playing out from the back, to the intangible streaks of “Streaky” Lee Johnson’s sides.
The above isn’t an attempt to argue against the importance of managers; Head Coach recruitment is key to implementing best practice at a club and it’s almost impossible to achieve success without the man in the dugout performing well.
This piece is by no means trying to diminish the role of a manager, but arguing that the perception of the degree to which a manager can affect performance and the responsibility that they bear has become skewed.
To go back to Nathan Jones, for a while it looked like he was the man responsible for both Luton’s success, and then Stoke’s failure, but the trajectory of both clubs since his departures suggest he was one cog within two machines with very different efficiency. Jones alone was not enough to fix Stoke, and his departure wasn’t enough to break Luton.
Twenty years ago, football clubs were run along simpler lines. There was a more easily defined hierarchy. Today, more and more employ Directors of Football with investment in data and sports science that leads to a swelling non-playing staff. So you could argue that Head Coaches have a diminishing impact on a football club’s fortune at a time when, conversely, the role has never come under more scrutiny.
Part of this boils down to the fact that making a change at the top is the one variable an owner can always control, even outside transfer windows when there is little other action one can take to arrest a slide. This causes an unjustifiable amount of job insecurity, for managers are constantly teetering on the edge of a perceived abyss with a bad run able to crush a hero into a zero.
In Italy they have a rule that a manager cannot be employed by two clubs in the same season, in an attempt to stop the merry-go-round, but all this has done is create a ride with so many horses that it has ground to a halt.
But I do like the idea of something similar, such as being unable to appoint a new manager during a season unless it’s an internal appointment. Just something that means a club both has to stand by the person they hired, and creates an environment where a manager isn’t always the fall guy regardless of circumstance.
It’s good to see some clubs being rewarded this season for being more patient than most. Johnnie Jackson’s first season at AFC Wimbledon stopped just short of being a total disaster, but having been supported in the summer he has grown into the role and now has them firmly in the League Two promotion picture.
Preston sit 3rd in the Championship having stood by Ryan Lowe last season when many North End fans questioned his ability, and Mark Bonner was able to steer Cambridge to safety last season and now has them in mid-table having surely come very close to losing his job.
We can’t credit the above successes as being solely down to the men named, but when you wade into tomorrow’s EFL managerial debate, just remember that we only know part of the story, they might not be ‘his’ signings, and Wikipedia can tell us only so much.
Football is chaos. There are thousands of variables at play, which culminate in a result that will set that week’s narrative, often decided by a solitary goal, or a single action. To try and define a team by the performance of a man who doesn’t even kick the ball fails to grasp this chaotic and often random essence of the game that we all love.
Unless it’s anything to do with Neil Warnock, who absolutely does guarantee survival and anyone who ever said otherwise needs a history lesson.
Elsewhere, on the NTT20 Podcast this week…
We’ve got more managerial chat on the menu! For further discussion on this topic, listen to our bonus podcast episode with Omar Chaudhuri of Twenty First Group, discussing:
How to judge managerial performance
When to make a change
How to approach a manager search