Studs Up

The Merry-Go-Round
March 20, 2009, 3:15 pm
Filed under: Football


Some big news this week was that Rafa Benitez has finally signed a new contract with Liverpool, ending speculation about a move to Real Madrid, or anywhere else for that matter. It would be possible to wander down the very long road of what this means for Liverpool’s long-term ownership future, how much control Benitez now has over transfers, Liverpool’s academy and all the rest of it, and of course how it will affect Liverpool’s form on the pitch. But I’m going keep my comment on the matter simple: Liverpool have held on to the best man for the job.  However, even though there has been more debate over Benitez’s future and its significance for Liverpool than any Liverpool fan would want, his eventual long-term commitment to Liverpool does also highlight another interesting issue, namely the English Premier League’s “Managerial Merry-Go-Round”.


If Benitez remains at Liverpool for the duration of his contract, he will have given a decade of service to the club, which would establish him as a genuinely long-serving manager. But I was surprised to learn that Benitez is already the 4th longest serving manager in the Premiership, which lead me to the even more surprising discovery that the Premier League’s 5th longest serving manager is Middlesborough’s 38 year-old Gareth Southgate! Perhaps I am being naive in my surprise at this, seeing as it is hardly a revelation that managers sometimes do not get much of a chance to repair things when results aren’t good. Especially at the bottom of the table, the huge gulf in revenue between the Premier League and the Championship is enough to give any Chairman’s trigger-finger a nervous tick. But to put things in perspective, since Southgate took charge at ‘Boro, Chelsea haven’t won the league and Liverpool haven’t won a trophy, and since the appointment 15 managers have arrived in the Premier League. So although pressure on managers in the modern game is not a new thing, it seems to me that things have possibly reached a stage where more than being merely a rarity, established managers in the Premier League are in danger of extinction. 

However, what really interests me is the question of whether all of this is as barmy as it is generally considered to be. A widely voiced opinion in football is that managers are generally not given enough time to establish a regime and correct any teething troubles. But I’m inclined to wonder, when we look either at failing clubs with a string of short-term managerial appointments, or successful clubs with just one long-term manager, are we actually looking at a sort of “chicken and egg” scenario?


For example, it took time for Alex Ferguson to get things right on the pitch at Man Utd, indeed it is even said that he was one game from being sacked ahead of a 3rd round FA Cup tie with Nottingham Forest back 1989. But in reality, Ferguson was clearly a good manager in light of his successes at Aberdeen, and his successes with Utd have vindicated any decision that may have been made in ’89. I’m sure Ferguson himself would argue that he’s been at Utd for a long time because he’s been doing a great job, rather than the other way round. Another example is Sammy Lee’s short career in management at Bolton. When Little Sam took over from Big Sam in April 2007, he immediately set about instilling his own slightly different philosophies onto a side that had been used to a successful period of “kick ‘n’ rush” under their old boss. Things did not work out. The Bolton players were not able to quickly adapt to new tactics, Lee lost his dressing room and more importantly Bolton lost a lot of matches. Bolton’s board of directors did not waste any time in correcting what they perceived to be a poor appointment, and Lee was sacked after only 11 matches (although interestingly, he was not the 1st manager to be sacked that season). His replacement, Gary Megson, was not initially popular with the fans, but his move t0 re-establish the old “long-ball and a bit of a scrap” mentality and subsequent turnaround of Bolton’s fortunes have apparently redeemed his appointment. And while Sammy Lee might argue that, had he been given time, Bolton would be playing attractive football and finishing in the top half of the table, I’m sad to say that I can’t see many people agreeing with him.

I must admit that I did not feel that Paul Ince or Tony Adams were given enough time before they were sacked this season. But having said that, I also didn’t view either appointment with a great deal of optimism from the perspective of their respective clubs. So perhaps for every manager that has fallen foe of a hasty dismissal, there is a shrewd member of a football club’s board who has known a poor appointment when he/she sees one and has wasted no time in reversing it. Steve Wilson’s article on the subject for the Telegraph sets out the issue quite nicely, and the statistics at the bottom actually show that few club’s who have sacked managers after a short time have subsequently seen their fortunes on the pitch get even worse in the mid-term.


Even setting aside the issue of whether or not managers are generally given too little time in modern football, I’m also curious as to whether today’s climate is so different from the way it has always been. Soon to be released is a film about Brian Clough’s short career as manager of Leeds Utd. Back in 1974, Clough was sacked as manager after just 6 games in charge. Clough went on to lead Nottingham Forest to European Cup glory, while Leeds had to wait 18 years for their next trophy. I’ll look forward to watching the film for an insight into the details of that whole saga, but what is clear is that poor appointments and club chairmen with little patience did not come into being at the same time as Richard Scudamore secured the Premier League’s immensely lucrative deal with Sky.

Perhaps it is just the case that with so much more at stake financially, not only have the pressure levels have been raised in world football, but also so has the extent to which the world’s media will debate every decision made. What is clear is that the pressure on a football club’s board to make a decision regarding their manager correctly is huge. And my opinion is that in the case of Rafa Benitez, Liverpool’s board have for once got it spot on.


2 Comments so far
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Totally agree with you on all points. With regards to Gareth Southgate being the 5th longest Premiership manager, I think a lot of this has to do with Steve Gibson (as well as showing a bit of faith in the man) understanding that mid-table mediocrity is perfectly acceptable in comparison to flirting with relegation. Although Boro’s current position ain’t sweet, I’d be surprised with the quality they have in their squad if they were to go down. At the beginning of the season they were touted as a top 6 contender, my point being that they’re starting to show signs of a young, mainly english team who can play decent football and give many top 6 sides a good run for their money, and although having a shit time of it at the moment, will improve slowly and steadily as the seasons progress.
By stark contrast you have Spurs. With a nice structure in place (after initial teething problems a la Santini), Jol had a Spurs side playing decent football who just missed out on a top 4 spot and a prospectively huge opportunity to strengthen their squad with some world class players. Unfortunately, they lost Carrick, but the team could still hopefully build on the unexpected success from the last season. What happened after that is clear, and a good example of pure greed from a business point of view. Instead of slowly building (like any successful business model would indicate) Spurs made a move of Chelsea-esque proportions to lure Ramos to White Hart Lane.
Fast forward one season and Harry-fucking-Redknapp has been drafted in with one, single remit: keep this club in the Premier League. So far, so good – but what will Daniel Levy do next season??

Comment by rich

I like Southgate, so I hope he doesn’t go down. But I must say it looks right now as though he will, which would be an interesting test of Gibson’s nerve.

I agree regarding Jol. Levy made an awful decision when he sacked him.

It remains to be seen what Redknapp will do longer term, but I actually fancy you to grab a place in the “Europa League” this season. Even so, Jol has Hamburg in contention for the German title (even if they’re probably not gonna win it), and had Levy given him his full backing from then until now you could certainly not have finished any further away from that elusive top 4 placing.

Given the money that has been spent by Spurs, their league position is consistently awful. And given that it is a trend that spans many managerial reigns, you have to blame the board. My personal worry is that Gillett and Hicks could have a similar impact at Liverpool, although Benitez’s new contract has settled me down a bit.

Comment by GW

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