Monday 29 December ~

The departure of the Barnet manager, Paul Fairclough, for a position on the club's board at the last weekend of the year, means that four of the ten longest-serving managers in England's four professional divisions are now with clubs in the top six of the Premier League. Alex Ferguson naturally leads the way (22 years), with Arsene Wenger third (12 years, just behind Hereford's Graham Turner), David Moyes fifth (six years) and Rafa Benitez tenth  (four years). Only five other Premier League managers have been with their clubs for more than two years, including the three that came up last year - the other two are Gareth Southgate and Martin O'Neill.

From this list, you could draw the conclusion that clubs tend not to get rid of successful managers - or that clubs that stick by managers they believe in are more likely to be successful. Both are true to varying degrees, but the second explanation is the one that clubs such as Newcastle, Tottenham and Man City should set aside time to think about. Since the turn of the century they have each gone through five or more permanent managers and, even though two of them have appointed Kevin Keegan, it could be argued they have each also had a prospect who might have been worth sticking with. Tottenham let go of Martin Jol for no compelling reason (now with Hamburg, two points off the top of the Bundesliga), while Mark Hughes is perhaps City's best bet as a long-term manager since Steve Coppell's awkwardly swift departure in 1996. But Hughes's chances of surviving beyond January look bleak. As for Newcastle, well... OK, maybe apart from them.

Encouragingly for the medium-term predictability of the Premier League, clubs that part with ultra long-lasting managers often have severe trouble with the succession, as the league positions of Crewe and Charlton suggest. Manchester United have been this way before, of course, in the years immediately following Matt Busby's reign. It is scarcely clearer now than at any time in Ferguson's reign who his successor will be, and the same is true of Arsenal, where Arsene Wenger looks increasingly exasperated with England, referees, the media, other managers, football in general and possibly life itself.

Stable management is not a guarantee of success, but it is a necessary precondition. Perhaps that lesson will finally sink in throughout the league when post-Ferguson Man Utd and post-Wenger Arsenal implode, Chelsea's cash tap is turned off, and Everton and Villa fight out the title with Liverpool. It won't happen as neatly as that, of course, but if the top four are ever to be dislodged, the other potential contenders need to start thinking five years ahead, not six months. And don't even mention the name Keegan. Mike Ticher

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