Size isn't everything
Reading fan Roger Titford believes that, far from going on to greater things, by leaving for West Ham Alan Pardew has turned his back on a chance to really make his name
“West Ham swoop for Reading’s Alan Pardew.” It seemed a clear enough story for the media: swoop, birds of prey, tasty morsels seized, law of the jungle and all that. Except, this time, the prey fought back and, for a few days, a “mouse bites eagle” story looked possible.
And that wasn’t the story a lot of the press were looking for. “Get real, Mr Madejski,” they implied. “This is what happens in football, let him go, let’s have closure, the natural order of things.” West Ham fans seemed not unsympathetic to Reading’s situation, but they said: “It’s happened to us – Ince, Ferdinand, Cole – and so it’s going to happen to you. That’s football.”
At the outset the media did not have much grasp of John Madejski or his outrage. He’s a bit different from the typical chairman: no formal involvement in football before the age of 50, no ambition to move into football politics, but 13 years now spent developing Reading FC. The big thing is that he wants to do it “the right way” – solid foundations and a belief in contracts. His stance: why should a contract in football be regarded any differently to one elsewhere in business?
The day West Ham dismissed Glenn Roeder, Reading almost went top of the Football League for the first time. Pardew was six months into a new three-year deal and had just spent a transfer budget of over £1 million (not many of those in Division One nowadays). A fortnight earlier he had told the fans that he “hope[d] to be Reading manager for a bloody long time”. The vibe between chairman, manager and fans was as good as it gets.
West Ham’s shopping list for a new manager which, helpfully for them, appeared in the press the following week had a crafty look about it. Three of the four names were managers of their direct rivals for promotion: Pardew (Reading), Gary Megson (West Brom) and Paul Hart (Forest). The rumours flew and the betting suddenly saw Pardew’s odds to be next West Ham manager drastically shortened. He then stated that rumours he had already signed a contract with West Ham were completely unfounded. Was that all that could be denied? He was still, after all, employed by one of West Ham’s main rivals. Not a denial of interest or negotiations? As denials go it rated alongside “his leg was already broken, ref”.
Madejski rightly took it very hard. Pardew had been granted a clause that allowed him to speak to Premiership clubs, but to go to a key competitor (who coincidentally Reading were playing in a week’s time) – that’s different. The margins of success in getting to the Premiership can be very narrow – a point, goal difference, a penalty shoot-out. Yet the rewards are so massive. The accountants Deloitte & Touche reckon the play-off final can ultimately be worth over £30m (hence Reading’s opening bid for £15m compensation). In business, you don’t find the sales director of Ariel suddenly turning up as the sales director of Persil a week later, trying to undo all his previous work.
Madejski was determined to make that point and, in doing so, may well have put something of a dent in West Ham’s and Trevor Brooking’s reputations. He twice denied West Ham permission to speak to Pardew, refused Pardew’s resignation and took out an injunction to prevent him from joining West Ham. The action was settled on the steps of the court with West Ham paying £380,000 compensation, legal costs, accepting a no-poaching agreement and delaying Pardew’s appointment for a month.
West Ham’s defence had been to say that Madejski put the matter in the public domain by announcing news of the approach. Given that bookies had, by this point, stopped taking money on Pardew as West Ham manager, it’s fair to say the public were already aware of what, officially, was not happening. Legally and morally, game, set and match to Reading. While the League Managers Association offered to investigate if the club made a formal complaint, the world of football did not exactly come rushing to Madejski’s support.
Indeed, Brooking speculated, without adverse comment, in the Daily Express about how he could get Pardew “involved” before his notice period was up and the Sun floated a story that Reading full-back Nicky Shorey might become a target, despite the no-poaching agreement. No such kid-glove treatment for Reading in the press.
Pardew’s view was that the West Ham job was simply too good an opportunity for him to pass up, whatever the other ramifications of his decision. It’s not gone down well in Berkshire. Contracts apart, many fans use a rough and ready rule of judgment on the rightness of these kind of decisions – what he owes the club versus what the club owes him. He had done three quarters of an excellent job and all he “owed” on that basis was the rest of this season.
At Reading, one question is, still, how do you become that “bigger club”? We have the infrastructure, stadium and academy. But when you suddenly enjoy perhaps half a good season your key talent gets ripped away and the contracts you have are simply a negotiating tool for compensation.
The media effectively support this, first by largely endorsing the insider attitude of “Oh well, that’s football” and second by resisting change in clubs’ perceived status. For example, Robbie Earle in the Evening Standard wrote: “But for all that, [Reading] can’t match the size, history or tradition of West Ham. In real terms no matter what Pardew does at a club like Reading there will always be a question whether he can do it at a bigger club.”
Breaking up is hard to do
November 1990 Howard Kendall, Manchester City to Everton
The former midfield star had left Everton immediately after leading them to a second championship in 1987, to try his hand at Athletic Bilbao. After just over two seasons in Spain he was sacked, but wasn’t out of work for long, replacing Mel Machin at Maine Road. He took City to fifth in Division One but then the call came from Goodison Park. “Manchester City are a mistress, but Everton are a marriage,” Kendall said. Divorce followed in 1993 and, after a brief reconciliation, again in 1998.
June 1991 Ron Atkinson, Sheffield Wednesday to Aston Villa
Big Ron had led Wednesday into, but also out of, the old Division Two, and while they were down there pulled off what remains the last lower division cup final win, 1-0 over Manchester United in the Rumbelows in 1991. But that summer Aston Villa called. Ron seemed set to go, but then said he was staying at Hillsborough. Soon after, however, Atkinson had taken up his place on Death Row, awaiting Doug Ellis’s axe, which fell just over three years later.
November 1994 Brian Little, Leicester City to Aston Villa
Former Villa hero Little was making a name for himself at Leicester when the crisis blew up for Big Ron. Suddenly, the manager’s seat at the club where he won two League Cup winners’ medals was vacant. But this was in no way connected with Little’s decision to resign at Filbert Street. Oh no. It was just good fortune that he was only out of work for a couple of days.
December 1994 Mark McGhee, Reading to Leicester City
When Little resigned at Leicester, Mark McGhee felt a sudden desire to do the same at Reading, who were in the top six in Division One at the time. Leicester were 21st in the Premiership, but the lure of the “bigger club” proved irresistible to the Scotsman. In May 1995 the Foxes were down as Wembley reverberated to the chant of “Are you watching Mark McGhee?” Reading were 2-0 up in the play-off final against Bolton. Had Stuart Lovell not missed a penalty to make it 3-0, then a side deserted by McGhee would have been in the Premiership. That didn’t happen until a year later.
December 1995 Mark McGhee, Leicester City to Wolves
McGhee’s feet were still itchy 12 months on and he chose to replace Graham Taylor at Molineux. At the end of the season Martin O’Neill’s Foxes won the Division One play-off final against Crystal Palace through a shinner from Steve Claridge; Wolves had narrowly avoided relegation. McGhee was sacked in 1998 and has had to rebuild his career at Millwall, while O’Neill won two League Cups with the Foxes before moving to Celtic in 2000.
November 2001 Steve Bruce, Crystal Palace to Birmingham
City’s decision to axe Trevor Francis created a crisis at Selhurst Park, as Simon Jordan showed how little he understood football by trying to hold Steve Bruce to his contract. The deadlock was ended by substantial compensation and, bizarrely, Francis wound up swapping jobs with Bruce. However, Birmingham will undoubtedly feel they had the better end of the deal.
From WSC 201 November 2003. What was happening this month
You must be logged in to comment. Please register if you don't have an account yet.