Tuesday, 18 January 2011

Time: Football's most precious resource

Earlier this month I wrote about football being a 'results business'. Now, as I struggle along with work, Sam Poplett has written this superb follow up on the all too short shelf-life of Premiership managers. You can read Sam's other works over at www.chelsea.vitalfootball.co.uk or you can follow him on Twitter...

It won’t have gone unnoticed to observers and fans but football is fast losing its greatest and most important resource of them all: time. Forget about how the influx of money and foreign players has rejuvenated the English game into one of the most watched on the planet and think about how those factors, amongst a great deal more besides, have contributed to the situation we currently experience in the Premier League.

It’s staggering to note that the average tenure for three-quarters of the 20 current Premier League managers is just a smidgeon over a year. Arsene Wenger, David Moyes, Mick McCarthy, Sir Alex Ferguson and Tony Pulis are the quarter not represented in that statistic, their average tenure stands at a much more impressive 11-and-a-half years. In fact, it’s even more incredible when you look beyond the averages towards the total years in charge; that aforementioned quarter have a total of 57.5 years in charge at their current clubs whilst the other 15 managers have a grand old total of just 17 years

Looking at the most recent previous managers of the three-quarter segment indicates an average incumbent of just a smidgeon under 2 years, so there is clearly evidence there that the problem of time, or a serious lack thereof, is prevalent and is becoming increasingly more so.

It is wrong, though, to point the finger at the influx of foreign owners into the English game; it is not a question of whether an owner is Russian, American or British but rather whether they are patient, understanding and willing to give their manager time. See Mike Ashley at Newcastle United as the perfect example; he’s British, he’s been a successful businessman and made many millions but he doesn’t have a clue about football. The sacking of Chris Hughton earlier this season was rightly condemned throughout the game, another example of how Ashley hasn’t the knowledge, or the patience, to run a football club.

In football terms, more often that not, time is rewarded with success. How does anybody expect a manager to come into a football club, adapt to the new surroundings, new players and new coaches and put his footballing philosophy into place in three or four months? How on earth can you hold somebody accountable for failure when you’ve only given them 14 weeks in the job? It’s an old football pearl of wisdom but Manchester United would shudder at the mere thought of what would have happened if Sir Alex Ferguson had been stopped, judged and harangued after six months of his United reign.

One must be understanding of the precarious nature of life near the bottom of the Premier League table. The threat of relegation and the subsequent exodus of star players and financial devastation will be in the forefront of the chairman’s mind every morning. But how often have quick-fix sackings and rash appointments worked for clubs in the long haul? Usually it is the panic and scare mongering in the boardroom that drives the hierarchy’s decision to let the axe fall, the accountant’s constant reminders of repayments and creditors are what tips chairmen over the edge.

Take Gerard Houllier at Aston Villa, a man four months into his job and already under immense pressure and scrutiny. He’s come in with his different methods and ways of working (some may say outdated but who are we to judge on that?) and people expect him to emulate his predecessor, Martin O’Neill, within weeks. He’s yet to even make a single transfer signing of his own (the free signing of Pires aside) but already there are people calling for his head.

Look at Carlo Ancelotti at Chelsea, a man who won the league and FA Cup double last season in his first campaign in English football. Clearly he is a top-class manager and yet, once the first signs of the brown stuff hitting the fan emerge, his head is next on the chopping block. Forget about the fact that the Chelsea board sold several key squad members in the summer without replacing them adequately, and against Ancelotti’s wishes. Forget about the fact Ray Wilkins, Ancelotti’s trusted right-hand man, was sacked so unceremoniously a couple of months into the season.

Football is such a results-based business that a lot of people actually do forget all about those factors and look just at what happens on the pitch; if you’re winning then you’re the best in the world, if you’re losing then you might as well start clearing your desk already. There’s no middle ground, there’s no understanding and there’s certainly no time allowed to regroup and put things right.

Gladly, it appears both Randy Lerner and Roman Abramovich, the respective owners of Villa and Chelsea, continue to back their managers. Lerner has apparently given the green light for Houllier to sign Sunderland’s Darren Bent for a reported £18m, a sign that he has absolute and unwavering support for his manager. It’s a most welcome sign. Even Abramovich, so often in the past a man not concerned with wielding the axe if results fall below par, seems to be showing some compassion in giving Ancelotti support and the time to turn things round.

However, for every Houllier there is a Hodgson, and for every Ancelotti there is a Grant. Roy Hodgson, of course, was dismissed from Liverpool after just half a season in the job, a ridiculous amount of time for anyone to make an impact. Avram Grant, the West Ham United manager, is a nailed-on certainty to follow Hodgson in the great Premier League sack race, also after just five months in the job. The saving grace for John Henry and the Gold-Sullivan-Brady troupe, the respective owners, is that neither Hodgson nor Grant were their appointments. And we all know how much owners like ‘their own man’ in the job. It’s fair enough; if you’re looking at investing a couple of hundred million pounds into a business you want to be sure it’s in safe hands. Likewise for transfer money, you can perhaps understand the Liverpool board’s unwillingness to let Hodgson spend more of their money after some of his dubious recent signings.

Yet there has to be some accountability. Everyone at Liverpool has commented on how Hodgson was never the right man for the job but someone at the club appointed him, someone headhunted him and decided he was the best available on the market. Similarly at West Ham, some bright spark thought it was a good idea to give Avram Grant the manager’s job! And, so often, these guarded executives never get hauled out and asked why. Until there’s greater responsibility and answerability of those who are in charge of recruitment, football clubs will always have someone to hide behind when things go awry.

Ask any manager in the game and it’s doubtless that most, if not all of them, would forsake £10m, £20m, even £30m in transfer money for a bit more of that most precious of resources in football: time. Sir Alex is fast approaching his 25th anniversary at United, undoubtedly he wouldn’t have achieved all that he has without the vast sums of money he’s had the luxury of spending over the years.

But he also wouldn’t have got past the first six months without the time and support he’s received from the board. It’s doubtful whether he’d have even lasted six months in today’s climate. Certainly the chances of us seeing another manager spend a quarter of a century at one club look very unlikely indeed.

Thoughts, comments and opinions please...


  1. Really interesting piece Sam. Great line of thinking in regards to it and nicely backed up with the stats managers.

    However, there is an underlying current in your piece that insists any manager will be successful with time and sometimes that isn't the case. They can manager themselves into a corner or simply run out of fresh ideas to keep the squad interested.

    And it is simply come down to the chairman putting that manager out of his misery.

    Also, Avram was appointed by Gold, Sullivan and Brady. He was very much their appointment. They took 50% in January 2010, another 10% in May and then appointed Grant at the beginning of June.

    Just a little tidbut; great piece though.


  2. Ryan - Fair point about Grant being a West Ham board appointment. I should have double-checked that!

    I suppose there is a general assumption that managers will always succeed given time in this piece, certainly I feel it's obvious there's more chance of them succeeding with more time than less.

    I guess I'm one of these old-school football thinkers who believes once you make an appointment you should stick to it through thick and thin until it's absolutely necessary to wield the axe. I'm a Chelsea fan and I was still sticking by Scolari before he got booted in February 2009!

    What I was trying to get across though was that football managers need time to settle, time to adapt, time to put their methods and philosophies across to the players, time to make the squad and team their own, etc.

    It doesn't seem inconceivable that, 4 or 5 years down the line, managers are going to be out on their ear before they've even settled into their comfy office chair. It really is getting ridiculous now.

  3. Managers might not be giving the amount of time that they should but too much is expected of every manager in the English football game.

    If something goes wrong its the managers fault. Keane was a flop at Liverpool, it was Rafa's fault even though he didn't want the player.

    I think that the board and the backroom staff need to be held accountable much more. A Chairman is charging one man to make the decisions that are worth multi million pound sums. Many boards also have too much expectation. Lets face it only one team can win the league each season, if you had 20 Alex Fergusons in the EPL not all of them can win the league.

    As you have mentioned Roy lets use him as an example to my next point.

    Roy was appointed by Christian Purslow, Hick and Gillett. All showed incapable of running a football club with little knowledge and an aim just to make as much money as they could. Liverpool appointed a manager that didn't fit in with the culture, had a poor away record and his win ratio for Fulham was good, in relative terms. He was appointed on the basis of one good season, with Fulham and the level of experience he had outside of England in under developed league where he help revolutionise football.

    Football teams around the world are too quick to appoint managers. If you were in any of industry you look for a manager with this level of responsability for months. Scouting and interviewing too get the right man. Instead in football, you could appoint a manager on reputation within a month. Sometimes without an interview process, some managers might even be offended by being asked for an interview. We appoint former players with no experience at top clubs in expectation that they can do jobs. The recruitment process in the industry is flawed, no wonder these people don't last long. A little bit more research on Hodgson and you would have seen he was not the right man for the job from the start, I think NESV learned this pretty early on but tried to stick with him. Instilling Kenny in now gives them many months now to weigh up.

    Then you have the decisions that these teams men have to make. Buying players, coaching, tactics they are expected to do almost everything especially the lower down the leagues you get. No wonder League Two is the worst league to be in for a manager.

    The Lyon model seems to be the right model. Having many people involved in decision making. Those who are picking the players and making the decisions need to look beyond the current manager, have a long term plan for the a club and a strategy in place.

    This seems to be what Liverpool are doing and NESV are a breath of fresh air in an approach which might spread throughout the league. Kenny is an interim manager giving Liverpool time to around. We are putting a good team together at Liverpool. Clarke was a great move that would build up the players coaching and tactical side, while Comoli will be a man who should be working alongside whoever the manager is and the NESV people to implement a long term strategy identifying the players we need. Often to many managers think they need to ship the old mans players out for his new players to play a certain way. Like Roy was doing looking for the Likes of Carlton Cole and Robert Huth.

    But the bottom line of my comment basically is, the manager doesn't get enough time that is correct. But the problems are deeper then that and right at the start of the recruitment of a manager and the strategies of clubs need to be changed.

    I agree with Richard Bevan when he says that managers need to come in with appraisals. Setting realistic goals based of the resources avaliable and the long term strategy. Board and their teams need to take more responsability then throwing it all on one man.

  4. It is quite a business and it is growing in a impressive pace. but I really love the sport and I hope that it can keep it up a longer as it can.


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