Structural faults

Poor results certainly hurt Iain Dowie at Charlton but, as Tom Green explains, the club’s commitment to a continental-style structure both helped cost him his job and land him the post in the first place

When Charlton recruited Iain Dowie, few people realised that a potentially more significant appointment had already been made. In May, days after Alan Curbishley and his coaching team had departed, Andrew Mills, a former agent, was appointed the club’s first “general manager – football”. Later, when Iain Dowie was appointed “head coach”, it became apparent that after 15 years with Curbishley as manager, Charlton were trying a new structure. There would be a new “four-man football management team”, said Charlton chairman Richard Murray: Dowie, his fellow coaches Les Reed and Mark Robson, and Andrew Mills.

“Andrew will report to me,” Murray explained, “and will work closely with Iain and myself on transfers. Iain, of course, will identify our transfer targets and it will be Andrew’s and my job to try and secure them. Andrew will also support in many other important areas such as international and domestic scouting arrangements.”

It all sounded sensible enough. A new structure for a new era. Dowie hadn’t chosen the rest of the coaching team, but he knew them well and said he was happy with them. What could possibly go wrong?

Pretty much everything, as it turned out. Charlton’s worst start to a Premiership season led, after just 12 league games, to Dowie being sacked. No clear reasons were given, other than that after a review of the management structure it was decided that Dowie hadn’t delivered on what he promised.

Looking back, the warning signs were there all along. Whatever his job title, Mills was brought in to be what is normally called director of football – a role that few, if any, English clubs have been able to make work. It’s common overseas, but in this country the manager traditionally has complete control over team affairs and a direct line of communication with the chairman. Most Premiership managers won’t accept anything less. Harry Redknapp, for example, walked out on Portsmouth in 2004 when Velimir Zajec was brought in.

Billy Davies, apparently first choice to replace Curbishley, was reported to have rejected the job because he wanted the final say on new signings. With Mills in place, it seems, despite what Murray said, that wasn’t going to happen. So Davies left Preston to join Derby instead. Davies is the sort of strong-minded character who thrives in English football management. When he joined Derby he took most of his coaching staff with him. Just like Martin O’Neill did when he joined Aston Villa. And just like Dowie wasn’t able to do when he left Crystal Palace for Charlton.

You can see why club directors are reluctant to cede complete control to a new manager – they have personal investments to protect, or shareholders, or both. But success seems to come to those, such as Randy Lerner at Villa and David Dein at Arsenal, who are able to stay out of the dressing room. They have strong managers who they leave to get on with the job. Most fans prefer it that way, too. We, like the players, want a single person, the manager, to identify as the leader of the team.

At the time of writing most of my fellow Charlton supporters seem willing to give the board the benefit of the doubt. Murray and his colleagues helped get the club back to The Valley and into a stable position in the Premiership, the argument goes, so they must know what they’re doing.

But the board have put themselves in the firing line. Not only did they make what they now say was “a mistake” in appointing Dowie, they created the new management structure. The appointment of Les Reed, who has never managed a club before, shows them committing to this structure even more strongly. He is very much a coach, with a far narrower remit than ­managers have traditionally.

Charlton fans won’t care, of course, if the results start to come. But if they don’t, at what point do the chairman and the board become accountable? Experience shows directors to be reluctant to take responsibility for poor results. Structures might change. Directors of football might be brought in. But when you lose too many games, it’s still the manager (or head coach) who gets the sack.

From WSC 239 January 2007. What was happening this month