Trigger happy

When clubs get it wrong off the pitch, it can be the manager who unfairly pays the price

This season Leyton Orient fans have been made fully aware of how quickly a team’s fortunes can change. The club finished seventh in League One in 2010-11, just one point short of a play-off place. In the summer they rejected an approach from Barnsley for their manager Russell Slade. Yet by the end of September they were the only side without a victory in the Football League. On the last Saturday of the month, the two other winless teams, Doncaster and Plymouth, broke their ducks by beating Crystal Palace and Macclesfield respectively. These wins came directly after both clubs had laid off a manager.

It’s not clear whether the various people jostling for control at Plymouth were all in favour of removing Peter Reid, credit for which was taken by the club’s “interim chairman”, Peter Ridsdale. Meanwhile, Sean O’Driscoll was dismissed the day after Doncaster chairman John Ryan had said: “Those clubs who sack managers willy nilly end up relegated. The board and I are not going down that path.” The clubs had been firmly rooted to the bottom of their respective divisions but the sackings were greeted with dismay by supporters.

Peter Reid joined Plymouth in 2010 when the club was in the process of a financial collapse that led to relegation from League One. Players went without pay for months and were persuaded not to strike by Reid who also settled an outstanding utilities bill himself. While takeover talks stalled, Reid assembled a team of youngsters and free transfers who made an understandably poor start to this season. The thanks he got was to be sacked by employers who may soon be leaving.

In 2009 O’Driscoll took Doncaster back up to the second level for the first time in 50 years while playing a fluent style of football that drew admiration from all quarters. He had been linked with several other jobs over the past couple of years but opted to stay at Rovers. In August Doncaster were so short of cash that they asked supporters to help with buying a striker during an injury crisis. But now the club has to pay off O’Driscoll and his staff and compensate Wrexham for having taken their manager, Dean Saunders.  

A managerial sacking will often be presented as a response to fan discontent but it is frequently just a thoughtless impulse. The manager is a scapegoat for a board who want to be seen to be doing something, especially if that involves deflecting attention from themselves. Relegation can seem bearable, however, if there are signs that the club is planning for the long term. While Doncaster fans may have despaired about the club’s poor form this year, most will have vivid memories of 1997-98 when the club, on the verge of bankruptcy, went down to the Conference having conceded 113 goals in 46 games. Dropping down to the third level under O’Driscoll would have seemed like a minor inconvenience in comparison. Nor will fans accustomed to the former manager be encouraged by an early comment from his successor: “We have to knock the stuffing out of teams, the football comes later.”

One level higher up, another manager widely regarded as an idealist has so far avoided O’Driscoll’s fate, although his departure is still being forecast on a regular basis. The three League titles and four FA Cups won by Arsène Wenger seemingly counted for nothing when weighed against Arsenal’s defensive collapses at Old Trafford and Ewood Park. The diagnosis is grave. Being in the bottom half after six matches is indignity enough for Arsenal supporters but it will be a full-blown national crisis if they finish lower than fifth. Fortunately Wenger’s employers don’t seem inclined to heed his detractors, even if it’s only because they wouldn’t know what to do without him.

In the meantime the doom-mongers can’t seem to grasp that Arsenal don’t have an automatic right to succeed. It used to be that even the “biggest” clubs went through downturns caused by the loss of key players or the youth products not being as good as their predecessors. That process has been halted by money, with the richest few able to insure themselves against real failure. Arsenal have now lost some of their insulation – Wenger has competition when he shops for bargains abroad and his side has been preyed upon recently by a wealthier rival in Manchester City. For the time being at least Arsenal are back down among the ordinary mortals. Just where they were, in fact, when Wenger took over.

From WSC 297 November 2011