Call the caretaker

Some are wild cards, some club stalwarts. Jon Spurling looks at the life of the acting manager

Newcastle and Sunderland rarely admit to having anything in common, yet the clubs’ recent moves to formalise the positions of Joe Kinnear and Ricky Sbragia represents a rare moment of triumph for caretaker managers. The fact that both clubs hankered after bigger names suggests that neither man’s position is secure, but at least they are likely to emerge with their self respect intact, unlike many hapless interim appointments.

Kinnear’s almost universal savaging by the media – the “Who Is Joe Kinnear?” line was used even by the broadsheets to illustrate the increasingly farcical character of “Sid James’ Park” – is similar to the treatment meted out to a raft of temporary bosses. “Maybe we should let the 2002 World Cup go and concentrate on 2006,” argued a typically downbeat Howard Wilkinson after his England team drew 0-0 in Finland to leave them bottom of their qualifying group in October 2000. “As ever, Howard meant well,” recalled former FA executive director David Davies. “In the media, it would look bloody terrible. I couldn’t believe what I’d heard.”

A similarly hapless example is that of Stewart Houston, who stepped into the breach at Arsenal in the wake of George Graham’s departure from Highbury. Despite being nicknamed “Cone Man” by senior players, Houston steered the team past Sampdoria into the 1995 Cup-Winners Cup final. He left soon after the season finished, however, complaining of feeling “unappreciated”.

There are also those stalwarts who step in during crises created in the boardroom. Former Real Madrid star Luis Molowny took charge of the first team five times during the 1970s and 1980s when restless club presidents fired high-profile coaches for failing to match the achievements of previous decades. Molowny even won two Spanish Cups. Tony Parkes, having made 350 appearances for Blackburn, took charge at Ewood Park on no fewer than six occasions in the wake of managerial casualties over a 20-year period. In 2004, his daughter informed him of his sacking after Mark Hughes brought his own coaching team to the club; Parkes has of late been caretaking at Blackpool. Arguably the most thankless job was that given by Leeds United to Eddie Gray in 2004. “You have absolutely no idea how utterly depressing this is for me,” he explained after financial meltdown under Peter Ridsdale brought about relegation to the Championship.

Not all caretakers have been fall guys. Wilf McGuinness endured a stressful 18 months in charge of Manchester United in 1969-70, during which time all his hair fell out, never to return. On his departure Sir Matt Busby, whom McGuinness later suggested “remained the de facto boss anyway”, stepped in temporarily. The next manager, Frank O’Farrell, later intimated that Busby’s interference contributed to the decline that led to relegation in 1974.

That same year, Joe Mercer’s brief sojourn as England coach (“Let’s all at least bloody smile, eh lads?” he suggested in his opening team meetings) met with approval from several of the “mavericks” whom Alf Ramsey and Don Revie mistrusted so much. “Joe let us express ourselves in a way Alf and Don didn’t,” claimed Frank Worthington. “Some of us could have done with a bit more of that devil-may-care approach when it came to playing for England.”

There will always be caretaker bosses who look on the role as a millstone around their necks – “Believe me, I can’t wait to ditch this bloody job,” claimed a desperate Niall Quinn after Sunderland’s wretched start to 2006-07 – while others have wondered if they should have taken up coaching earlier, as Trevor Brooking did after five games in charge of West Ham in 2003.

In an era when billionaire owners treat their clubs like medieval fiefdoms, we will continue to see managerial temps grabbing their moment with varying degrees of enthusiasm and success. Then again, if the caretaker’s “danger money” is anything like Joe Kinnear’s reported £30,000 a match, or when members of the Sunderland team repeatedly comment on how stress-free life is under Ricky Sbragia, perhaps the upheaval is worth it after all.

From WSC 264 February 2009