Chris Sutton: Slow Down the Managerial Merry-Go-Round

“Barcelona v Celtic. Derek Rae and Old Bhoy Chris Sutton preparing for the kick off. Live on BT Sport” byNinian Reid is licensed under CC BY 2.0

You’re Better Than That – Exclusive Extract CFB. Written by Chris Sutton.

Slow Down the Managerial Merry-Go-Round

Imagine starting a new job and you only get four chances, four tilts, four shots at being successful. If you were a straight-out-of-college teacher, you’d have just four lessons to prove your worth or be given your cards. Or if you were a newly qualified doctor, you’d have to make spot-on diagnoses of your first four patients or face being struck off. Or, if you were a freshly appointed football manager, you’d have to avoid humiliation in the first four matches of the season to sidestep the sack. 

Frank de Boer only got this many chances. The Dutchman was just four league games into his new job as Crystal Palace manager when he was shown where the Selhurst Park exit door was. Each of those games had been a defeat, sure, but this was no way to treat any new appointee, let alone one with such an impressive and glittering CV, having led Ajax to four consecutive Eredivisie titles. The decision was one of lunacy. It didn’t make any sense whatsoever.

De Boer’s experience in September 2017 is probably the most extreme example of a Premier League manager getting the bullet from a trigger- happy club. But he was far from alone. De Boer was simply the first of 15 Premier League bosses to clear their desks that season. It didn’t end there. Across the 92 clubs in the Premier League and Football League, no fewer than 65 managers left their jobs in 2017–18, 54 of which were sackings. The average length of service of those 54 managers was little over a year. This wasn’t an atypical season. The following campaign, 2018–19, saw 59 bosses leave their roles, whether of their own volition or, more likely, having been given the boot.

The managerial merry-go-round is spinning faster than ever, with managers holding on for grim life. Back in the day, when I started as a player, there certainly weren’t the impulsive, knee-jerk sackings there are today. A manager was given time to mould his squad. But football’s clearly a short-term game now. Owners want instant success and they’re not frightened to make changes the minute they feel their club is on the slide. And this short-termism goes against everything that football clubs stand for.

Managers used to know that they’d get time and opportunity. Now, if a side doesn’t win for six or so games, the boss knows he’s on the brink. That never used to be the case. When Martin O’Neill first went into Leicester City in 1995, it took him eight games to register his first win, but look at the job he eventually did there, getting them promoted in that first season and then winning the League Cup twice.

This growing impatience is borne out by the numbers in the history books. Take Sunderland, for instance. Between 1980 and 2000, the club appointed eight permanent managers. In the first two decades of the 21st century, they appointed 16 – exactly double the number of appointments over the same time frame. They’re not alone. Southampton also employed 16 managers between 2000 and 2020, but just six over the previous 20 years. Leeds are in the same ballpark: 17 appointments this century compared to half a dozen across the final two decades of the last.

In the ten seasons between 1999 and 2009, 78 Premier League managers moved on, whether pushed or jumped. This figure rose by almost 30 per cent by the end of the following decade to a straight one hundred. It’s a clear measure of the merry-go-round’s continuing acceleration. 

Within these increasing numbers, sackings have risen out of all proportion. The 1995–96 season, the first to feature a 20-team Premier League, saw just three managerial departures. Over the next two seasons, only four of the sixteen managers to leave their jobs were sacked. Just a quarter. The remainder left of their own volition, in the main heading onwards and upwards to better roles. Ten years later, in the 2007–08 season, seven of that Premier League campaign’s eleven departures were firings. By 2013–14, almost all managerial departures in the top flight – eleven out of thirteen – were at the behest of an impatient board or a chief executive with an itchy trigger finger. What’s hard to understand is that these days – in most cases – the manager goes through a rigorous interview process for the highly competitive job that it is. He’ll sit in front of the owner or the board and will tell them he’s got a long-term plan. Every candidate will say the same thing – that the job is about developing youth, about nurturing from within. But they’re not being straight. The owners will say, ‘Fantastic interview. You’ve really impressed us. You’ve got the job.’ The truth, however, is that they want success in the shortest amount of time possible.

Nurturing from within is not a swift process. But swiftness is what the game’s about now. Quick fixes and instant success. Unfortunately, though, there’s only one team who can win the Premier League each season, or the FA Cup or the League Cup or the Champions League. If a big club doesn’t win one of those, it’s a season of failure in the eyes of many of its supporters.

In de Boer’s case, the Palace owners’ excuse was simply that they’d made a bad decision. But think about the process, the outlay, the contracts. Think about how competitive the process is. Think about how much detail would be involved. And then to hand somebody a job before sacking them after just four games. It doesn’t go hand in hand with what they say. ‘We have every faith in you. Here’s your three-year deal. We want to you to be here long term.’ And yet you lose four games and you’re out of a job. 

These days, there’s no room for manoeuvre. Managers have to win games right from the off, so logic would tell most of them to go for tried and trusted – perhaps signing a player in his mid-twenties who’s played two or three hundred games and has international experience, rather than taking a punt on a seventeen-year-old who’s showing promise in the youth team. This obviously goes against the grain of what managers say in the interview process, when they’ve pretended to be all about the youth team. The reality is that it’s win at all costs. And not just that – it’s win early at all costs.

While they would have an interest in young players, that’s not really a new manager’s job these days. At the top level, it’s about trophies, it’s about honours, it’s about money. The youth team will always be further down the list of priorities. The primary objective is to win fast. If you don’t do that, you’re out of a job. That’s what it is now.

Take Chelsea, for instance. In 2008–09, Luiz Felipe Scolari felt the guillotine’s blade in February. The first World Cup-winning coach to manage a Premier League club wasn’t even given a full season to prove himself in English football. And even when a manager has brought success to Stamford Bridge, there’s no guarantee that they’ll be there for anything like the long haul. Roberto Di Matteo was, after all, given the boot just six months after delivering both the FA Cup and Champions League.

Chelsea’s ruthless, unsentimental nature has undoubtedly worked, though. Whatever people say, Roman Abramovich’s time there has been absolutely phenomenal. He’s had great success. There’s not a lot of common sense in this approach though – unless a manager has the backing of the owner to spend money. Then you have a chance. At the top end at least, you can see how this short-termism can produce success if you have the spending capacity. Abramovich has certainly been the benchmark and the model for other overseas owners.

Di Matteo isn’t the only manager who might have thought the success he brought to a club may have granted him a little more job security. In November 2019, Mauricio Pochettino left north London, despite in the previous five years having taken 

Spurs to their most consistent run of high-placed top-flight finishes since the early 1960s. And, of course, the Argentine’s departure came less than six months after he guided the club to its first-ever Champions League final. Sentimentality was clearly in short supply. Claudio Ranieri knows all about that.

Precisely 297 days after leading Leicester City to their first-ever title – and undoubtedly the most romantic fairy tale in the history of the Premier League – the Italian drove out of the King Power Stadium’s car park for the last time, having been informed his services were no longer required. Grazie e arrivederci.

In running their clubs, ruthless owners and chief executives do still have to pay attention to fans. They are the lifeblood of any football club and will have strong feelings about who should be recruited as the next manager. Doing so successfully comes down to ambition and expectation. A massive problem now is what’s being said on social media. Do clubs pay attention to it? I think they do. And that’s not necessarily wise. Football clubs are big businesses. Listening to outside influences may not make commercial sense. 

But clubs do listen to fans. And certain fans have it in for certain managers. There are managers out there who are met by negativity when their names are mentioned whenever there’s a vacancy. When jobs come up nowadays, everybody wants the new, young, up-and-coming forward-thinkers, but I still think there’s a place for the likes of Sam Allardyce and David Moyes. I thought Moyes actually did a good job in his first spell at West Ham. They cut back on players, but he kept them in the Premier League. And he was rewarded with being replaced. 

While a lot of football fans view these kind of managers as dinosaurs, I think they deserve more respect for their work at the clubs they’ve managed. They must have something about them. Everybody nowadays wants a manager who’s animated in the technical area, jumping up and down. But what purpose does all that leaping about actually serve? Fans want to see passion, but I feel that sometimes those managers are behaving like that for effect – that they feel obliged to do that because that’s what fans want. It certainly feels more natural for some managers, like Jürgen Klopp banging his fists on his chest.

But to others it doesn’t feel right. And it doesn’t necessarily make you a better manager. Isn’t the job more about the information that players are given throughout the week and at half-time? 

If fans see a manager standing still, they interpret his body language as him not caring. But that’s just balls. There’s not a manager stood in his technical area who isn’t desperate to win. People just show it in different ways. But a lack of passion is the first thing cited whenever a team goes on a bad run. And that’s one thing that some fans get really badly wrong. I’ve never played alongside a player, nor been in a dressing room with a manager, who didn’t want to go out and win the game, who didn’t have the fire in the belly. 

Managerial changes can, of course, destabilise a club and bring about player insecurity – especially if they happen frequently. An incoming manager might prefer a certain player over another. Kenny Dalglish signed me for Blackburn Rovers and we won the league, but then he went upstairs into a director of football role. Ray Harford inherited the job and left me out, leaving me to scratch my head wondering why. These things happen. Football is a game of opinions. 

It was similar at Celtic when Martin O’Neill, a manager I really liked and respected, left and Gordon Strachan took over. I had respect for Gordon when he first came in, but then we fell out pretty quickly. And managers are quite within their rights to change things. They have their own ideas on players – as they should have. I’ve never known a manager to go into a new job and not want to give himself the best opportunity. In the current climate, managers are absolutely entitled to think selfishly. It’s a matter of survival. They’ll adopt whatever means to stay in the job as long as possible. We’d all do the same if we were in that position. 

A player shouldn’t fear a managerial change, though. His security comes from his ability and from knowing where he is in the pecking order, whether he should be playing or not. I played with the likes of Henrik Larsson, Alan Shearer, George Weah and Gianfranco Zola, and understood where I was in the food chain. But when you’re left out in favour of a player who you deem to be inferior to yourself, that’s when the problems start. That’s when the disagreements come in. 

Players will always be susceptible to the vagaries and opinions of managers, but they are especially so in the current climate when managerial turnaround is so high. At the start of the 2019–20 season, the managers of eleven of the twenty clubs in the Premier League had each been in their jobs for less than 18 months. In most cases, clubs do not prosper under short-term appointments. Watford are an exception to the general rule. What’s happened there is absolutely remarkable. Nigel Pearson marked their tenth managerial appointment in a six-year period (and rather a left-field one when considering those who’d gone before him), but where you might think the resulting instability would surely bring the club crashing down, they’ve enjoyed a decent level of success over that time – promotion to the Premier League, reaching the FA Cup semi-final in 2016 and the FA Cup final in 2019. The turnover of players has been pretty extraordinary too. It’s been like a cattle market there. A change of manager usually sees a big overhaul of players, so if you’re a young player at Watford coming through the ranks, you must be thinking Where’s my pathway? From afar, it doesn’t seem the right way to do things. Long-term success from short-term gain? It’s illogical, but it works for them. There must bemethod in their madness. But how long can it continue?

The further you go down the scale, though, the harder it gets. Rapid-fire hiring and firing doesn’t make sense down there. Look at what happened to Fulham. They sacked two managers – Slaviša Jokanović and that man Ranieri – during the 2018–19 season, and the guy running the recruitment there is the owner’s son. He spent in excess of £104 million bringing in new players, but they sacked the managers? Surely the head of recruitment is the one to be sacked. Certainly that’s how it looks from the outside. 

At certain clubs, there are non-football people, from more of a business background, who are making purely football appointments, such as selecting a manager. There is a strong argument that we need more football people in club boardrooms making these decisions. But, of course, just because a person had a good football career on the pitch doesn’t necessarily mean they become the best managers. Far from it, in certain cases. A great number of the most successful managers didn’t have stellar careers as players.

I had five managers in my five years at Blackburn, but this was different to the hiring and firing that’s happening now. That was the result of circumstances. No one could have foreseen Kenny going upstairs. The thought process at the time from the owner, Jack Walker, was of continuity, hence promoting Kenny’s assistant Ray Harford. I felt that was a logical progression, even if the appointment didn’tparticularly help me in my second season at Ewood Park. But then things didn’t go well under Ray and, from that moment, the club was always scrambling.

Tony Parkes was caretaker boss for the best part of a season before the club announced Sven-Göran Eriksson was going to be the manager. But Sven changed his mind and went to Lazio instead. Then Roy Hodgson was brought in. He was sacked less than 18 months later with the club bottom of the league. Brian Kidd replaced him, a coach with a fantastic reputation at Manchester United as Fergie’s sidekick. But that didn’t work out either and the club were relegated. The decline all stemmed from fact that we had lost Kenny, the manager who’d won the club’s first title in 81 years. As players, we felt we had lost our figurehead. 

It was the same when I was at Norwich City when Mike Walker, the most successful manager in the club’s history, left. There had been a long-term plan around Carrow Road – everyone was talking about keeping the squad together and about the chairman Robert Chase loosening the purse strings. We had finished third in the Premier League the season before and had famously defeated Bayern Munich in a UEFA Cup tie. On our day, we could beat absolutely anybody. I signed a new deal just before Christmas, which paid out £500 a goal if we won or drew. I scored twice against Spurs the day after Boxing Day and was absolutely flying. The club was in a really good place. 

But, at Norwich, long-term planning on the pitch and off the pitch amounted to two totally different things. Less than two weeks later, Mike Walker cleared off to Everton and they then sold Ruel Fox to Newcastle. That was the end of the long-term plan. In such a short space of time, the positivity and the aura that that team had around them disintegrated. The wheels hadn’t gradually fallen off. They had snapped off overnight.

That was a quarter of a century ago. Long-term plans have long since disappeared from the agendas of football managers altogether. They’re too busy trying to find the magic formula that delivers instant success. But something needs to change. There has to be a solution to this churn of managers and to the insecurity it brings upon clubs and the game in general. The logic has gone and we need to rediscover it.

I can certainly see the sense in introducing a managerial transfer window, one that operates in the same way as the transfer window for players. This is how it could work: owners, chairmen and chief executives would be restricted to two periods in a calendar year when they could remove their existing manager and recruit his replacement.

With such a system, the interview process would need to be more stringent. Clubs would have to get the appointment absolutely spot on. And, when it comes to nurturing players and allowing managers to do what they say in the job interview, I think it’s a strong idea. It would be good for the game. We might actually see some youth development from the big clubs. We’re certainly not seeing enough at the moment. 

Clubs would argue that they need to retain the right to fire or hire managers when they want to fire or hire them, that they need to have the decision on timings in their hands. An owner would feel that, having put money into a club, they couldn’t have this power taken away. I get that.

But, conversely, a managerial transfer window would breed more stability for clubs across the season, with managers unable to have their heads turned by other teams at inopportune times. The owners would have to show patience and faith. Further down the line, they’d have more of an idea of their manager’s ability because he would have had longer to prove himself – to prove the appointment right or to prove the appointment wrong.

Patience is a much-missed virtue in football. It used to exist. Alex Ferguson famously went 42 months before he won his first trophy at Old Trafford. He’s the greatest example of a long-term approach paying dividends, of being able to give young players the opportunity on merit. He was the benchmark. There have been echoes of this patience on display in recent years at Anfield, where Jürgen Klopp took almost the exact same amount of time before his first piece of silverware as Liverpool boss. And then he went and won the biggest one of all, the Champions League, in what was effectively the last game of the four-year period in which he promised to win a major trophy.

Largely, though, gone are the days when, if you were the manager of a big club, you were treated with patience. Look at Ole Gunnar Solskjær. He went into Manchester United in the December, passed his audition with flying colours, had a dodgy end to the season when things started to unravel and all of a sudden people were questioning him. At Old Trafford, they don’t seem to remember the slack given to Fergie back in the day.

Fergie’s short-lived successors – David Moyes and Louis van Gaal – would certainly have welcomed the breathing space that a managerial transfer window may have provided.

And it goes without saying that Frank de Boer would have been in favour too.

Published by Callum McFadden

Football CFB founder. Freelance football writer & broadcaster of over 350 interviews with professional players and managers across all levels of football.

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