Bearing a Rudge

It’s war at the Britannia Stadium, after manager Johan Boskamp found his authority undermined from the stands by Stoke’s director of football. Andy Thorley reports

November 1, 2005 and Stoke City win a crucial game away at the Ricoh Arena. It might not seem the sort of match to begin a feud between the club’s managerial staff that is likely to see at least one of them leaving his job. However, this is the sort of thing that passes for normality at the Britannia Stadium.

After Tony Pulis’s sacking in June – officially for “not exploiting foreign markets”, unofficially for playing some of the most boring football ever seen – the board appointed Eidur Gudjohnsen’s dad, Arnor, to find a new manager. He put forward Jan De Koning, a former Ajax youth coach who didn’t want to be boss, but suggested his friend, former Holland striker Johan Boskamp. The latter came with a decent pedigree, having taken Anderlecht to three Belgian titles; he took over with De Koning as his assistant.

Boskamp and director of football John Rudge then set about flying around Europe to hunt for players; all seemed well as the season began. Boskamp was relying on Rudge to find him British players and soon Paul Gallagher and Luke Chadwick arrived to supplement Boskamp’s foreign buys and, unexpectedly, the rebuilt team started brightly. Then came Coventry.

It appears that Rudge came down from the directors’ box to pass a note to De Koning containing tactical instructions. De Koning then conveyed these to the players without first consulting the manager, who was talking to another player at the time. When Boskamp returned to the dugout he was told what had happened by one of his substitutes – resulting in a furious row.

After that Coventry match (as it happens won with a goal from Gallagher that was set up by the club’s record signing, Guinean Sam Bangoura – showing the kind of international co-operation the new era was supposed to usher in) both Rudge and De Koning were given leave. According to the official website this was to give all parties a chance to cool down and the matter should be “resolved next week”.

This didn’t account for the strength of feeling Boskamp had on the matter. He would walk out on the club unless his colleagues were sacked, he said, as his judgment had been questioned and his authority undermined. That resignation was averted when, after three days of talks with the chief executive, Tony Scholes, a statement was released saying there had been “a full review of the roles of the football management team” and that all three parties were returning to work as before. But that fooled no one. Boskamp frequently made a joke of not knowing Rudge’s name and when Radio Stoke asked his worst moment in football for an on-air profile he said simply: “Coventry.” (Boskamp is forthright, to put it mildly. A player who pulled out of a transfer to Stoke was described as “a shit guy” on Radio Stoke while defeat at Sheffield United over Christmas was dismissed as another example of “shit luck”.)

All parties hid behind the official statement until January, when chairman Gunnar Gislason finally acknowledged what everyone else knew all along – relationships had all but terminally broken down. If someone has a problem working at the club, he said, then it is up to him to resign, an option Boskamp looks set to take. “I signed a rolling contract and on June 30 I’ll stop it, unless things change. I would like to stay here for five years, but I have my principles and I will not change my mind.”

The supporters are largely on the side of the manager. John Rudge, who has been at Stoke since before the Icelandic takeover and has previously been regarded by the board as integral to their plans, isn’t popular with the fans. Partly this is due to his link to local rivals Port Vale, where he was manager for 15 years, but many also remember that when Steve Cotterill resigned in 2002, Rudge refused to take over as caretaker – a stark contrast with his recent proactiveness in the tactical department.

Many fans question the need for a director of football at all, given that there is a manager, assistant manager, a chief executive and the not inconsiderable figure of Gerry Taggart, who has been barking out Boskamp’s orders from the dugout since the split. Rudge has made his public snipes with more subtlety than Boskamp. News of the permanent signing of Luke Chadwick contained the comment from Rudge that “Chadwick was a player I brought to the club”. The significance of that sentence was obvious. De Koning has meanwhile maintained a dignified silence throughout.

The final factor is the opinion of Stoke’s owner and major investor, Magnus Kristiansson, who has got through four managers since taking over in 1999. While not on the board of directors at the Britannia, Kristiansson wields the power – he put Stoke up for sale in protest at Tony Pulis being given a new contract last year, but when no acceptable bids came in the club were taken off the market and instead the manager removed. In reaction to this crisis, Kristiansson has apparently told Boskamp: “You will finish what you have started.” Whatever the outcome, the local paper, the   , won’t have to try hard to fill its back pages for the next few months.

From WSC 229 March 2006. What was happening this month