Seize the moment

With chairmen often criticised over unjust sackings, Adam Bate asks if managers are actually being given more time than they deserve

On October 18, Steve Gibson accepted Gordon Strachan’s resignation as manager of Middlesbrough. The Championship season was just 11 games old. It is the second October in succession that the Boro chairman has overseen a change of manager. This may lead some to question Gibson’s long-established reputation as the most patient chairman in English football. In truth, could he perhaps be guilty of that little mentioned phenomenon – changing the manager too late.

We all know the drill. There’s a familiar sequence of events that follow a sacking. First we are treated to a damning set of statistics from the League Managers Association – an organisation that somehow equates deposed football managers to those puppies discarded with the Christmas decorations. If this isn’t enough, the boss in question will then be guaranteed a warm welcome on the Goals on Sunday sofa – cue back-slapping and contrived belly laughs.

Of course, if the sacked manager has anything about him whatsoever we will eventually hear someone trot out “the Fergie story”. You know the one. Mark Robins scored the winner for Man Utd against Nottingham Forest in the FA Cup third round in 1990, thus saving the Scot his job. As a result, the path was clear and 11 Premier League titles, two Champions League trophies and a knighthood followed. And the gods of management decreed that henceforth this anecdote should be relayed at any available opportunity. Yes, even when Bolton Wanderers dispense with Gary Megson.

The problem with “the Fergie story” is it implies that all managers are destined for greatness if only they are afforded the gift of time. Old sages point to the fact that the most successful managers were the ones who were at their clubs for the longest. And yet they miss the obvious point that, even in more patient days gone by, these individuals were given that time because they were damn good at it. Bill Shankly brought promotion in his second full season with Liverpool. Brian Clough achieved the same feat at both Derby County and Nottingham Forest. More recently, Arsène Wenger’s second season saw Arsenal claim the double.

These early achievements quite rightly earn the manager some leeway if and when the hard times come. When Everton stood by David Moyes after they finished 17th in his second full season in charge, it was subsequently hailed as a masterstroke – a lesson in the merits of patience. However, this patience had been well earned with Moyes winning the LMA Manager of the Year award the previous season. Why should Strachan and his ilk be afforded the same treatment?

The logic of the argument also happily ignores all those clubs whose fortunes were turned around by a change of manager. Lawrie Sanchez’s friends in the media rallied round and bemoaned his luck when he was sacked at Fulham. In truth, he had looked more likely to lead the club to relegation than, as Roy Hodgson did, the Europa League final.

Even more dramatically, it was the departure of Bruce Rioch that ushered in the Wenger era at Highbury. This managerial switch brought about two Doubles and shaped the entire ethos of that famous old club forever more. The truth, it would seem, is that just about every great managerial appointment is preceded by a great sacking. But it doesn’t even require the replacement manager to deliver unprecedented success for a sacking to be proven justified. It could be argued that any loss of faith from the owners fatally undermines the relationship with a manager.

Spanish football expert Sid Lowe has argued persuasively that Sevilla were wrong to stick with their coach Antonio Álvarez in the summer, only to dismiss him before the end of September. The error, Lowe argues, was not in the sacking – his replacement Gregorio Manzano is widely regarded as a superior option – but in feeling obliged to retain Álvarez after he had scraped into the Champions League qualification spots the previous season.

This all brings us back to Steve Gibson and those clubs that continue to struggle despite, or perhaps because of, the patience of their chairmen. The owner’s decision to stand by Gareth Southgate to the bitter end of Boro’s last Premier League campaign consigned the club to relegation. Gibson’s choice to retain Southgate through the following summer, only to lose his nerve in autumn, then effectively wrote off the following season – not least because Strachan took the side from fourth in the table to a hugely disappointing 11th. Clearly, the warning signs were there but Strachan was instead handed the key to the summer transfer kitty. The next time a football manager and the ex-pros in the TV studio lament that the axe fell too soon, ask yourself the one question they won’t – was it in fact not soon enough?

From WSC 286 December 2010