by James Bennett
A radical question for you to consider – is there such thing as a bad manager? After all, even Les Reed managed to win one of his seven matches as Charlton boss. Even Steve Kean got his Blackburn side (briefly) to the top of the Championship this season. Even John Barnes managed a 65% win rate at Celtic. Even Roberto Mancini managed to contrive to win the Premier League last year. So is it really true that a manager has as much of a say over how a team performs as the media has us believe? Is it the situation that has more bearing on that: the wrong combination of manager, squad and club?
Recent evidence would suggest so. Look at the Championship at present: as well as Blackburn’s presence towards the top of the league, in part guided by the recently-dismissed Kean, a figure of fun widely regarded as totally inept at his job, towards the bottom you have the two sides I predicted for automatic promotion at the start of the season, Bolton and Birmingham, along with perennial underachievers Ipswich. Of these three clubs, two have recently parted company with the managers, while Lee Clark, newly appointed at Birmingham over the summer, is surely only being given a stay of execution because he is new to the job. This follows on from last year, where again the two clubs I predicted to be automatically promoted, Leicester and Nottingham Forest, both sacked their high profile managers, Sven-Goran Eriksson and Steve McClaren. Despite both clubs having these successful managers, both of whom having won trophies and managed England to varying degrees of success, and strong squads for the league, both clubs struggled, in particular Forest.
The most interesting thing (aside from the fact that I’m clearly useless at predicting who will win the Championship) is that all of these managers have, at least at certain points during their careers, been regarded as quite highly rated. Owen Coyle arguably still is despite his failure at Bolton, thanks to the media’s sycophancy which endured throughout the rut that began in January 2011 and ended with his sacking earlier this month. Paul Jewell, while regarded with some suspicion these days, still has three promotions to his name, which included taking two clubs into the Premier League for the first time.
It is Clark’s struggles, though, that are the most intriguing of this season’s batch. The Geordie arrived in south Birmingham in late June on the back of a sacking at Huddersfield that many observers felt was harsh. In just over three years in Yorkshire, he won nearly half of his games in charge, and guided the team to a Football League record 43-match unbeaten run from 2010 to November 2011. Despite this, just three months after the unbeaten run came to an end, and with the team nicely poised in a promotion battle they would eventually emerge victorious from, Clark was surprisingly dismissed, with the board justifying their decision by stating that he had underachieved given the money he had been given – as if two play-off campaigns and a record unbeaten run at a club that had been in the bottom two tiers of the Football League for over 10 years was underachievement.
Surely then this would be the correct appointment for Birmingham. A match of talented young manager and a relatively unchanged squad that Chris Hughton took to 4th in the table alongside a successful Europa League campaign – what could possibly go wrong?
In the event, it has been nothing short of disastrous thus far. The Blues have picked up just 3 wins in 12 in the Championship this season, alongside defeat to struggling Coventry in the second round of the League Cup. The natives are restless. The failure to win promotion at Huddersfield casts an increasingly large shadow as the process of revision begins – were the Terriers board right after all? His departure seems inevitable with the next heavy defeat – it nearly came at Millwall earlier this week, with Birmingham 3-0 down at one point, but a Marlon King-inspired comeback rescued a point, though their winless run was extended to 4 matches. The Championship table may be close but the relegation black hole remains ominous in the rear view mirror.
So why are these talented managers who know what it takes to win matches struggling? Of course it could be that I’ve over-estimated them, but that would be to ignore all the other managers who have had struggles. Alex Ferguson would never have become a Sir had he been dismissed by Manchester United with the rapidity of most 21st century managers, Brian Clough had mediocre spells in charge of Hartlepool and Brighton, and Arsene Wenger couldn’t prevent his Nancy side being relegated or avoid the sack at Monaco. Though it would be wrong to suggest that every managerial career ends in failure, very few managers escape the profession without a bad season or job to their name – that doesn’t make all managers bad managers.
It would be a fallacy to suggest there are no bad managers, of course, but the wrong situation or environment is a greater cause of managerial strife today than sheer lack of ability. Sometimes the wrong appointment can be made in terms of playing or management style – a likely partial explanation for Clark’s struggles at Birmingham. But another explanation may be down to the clubs themselves – sometimes a manager can rise through the ranks too quickly, or be taken aback by the pressures of managing a bigger club.
Take Paul Buckle, for instance – an undoubtedly talented young manager who took Torquay back into the Football League and nearly into League One, before leaving for ‘big club’ Bristol Rovers. There, he was given a considerable budget and carte blanche. But he was also handed an expectant fan base who hoped for an instant return to League One, especially given the funds that were handed to the new manager.
In the event, despite bringing in proven League Two stars, including players he had worked with before, his brief reign at the Memorial Stadium was a nightmare from the moment Rovers lost to Buckle’s former club in their first home match. He was sacked just after the turn of the year, with just 8 wins from 29 matches.
I don’t know exactly why Buckle failed, but clearly he couldn’t handle a situation that was rapidly unravelling in front of him. After four years of low expectations at Plainmoor and the comfort of a board that remained faithful to him even during sticky patches, he suddenly shifted to a completely different environment. The Rovers fans were numerically larger than the Torquay fans and weren’t as placid. With transfer spending comes pressure to get it right straight away, especially after a relegation. Ultimately it was too much to deal with, a costly error for both parties. It’s an interesting case study for how managers sometimes struggle when they leave their comfort zone for a greater challenge.
I suspect this is primarily why Lee Clark is finding it tough. He has moved from a promotion-pushing League One side to a club that was competing in Europe last year and is desperate to return to the Premier League. He has the pressure of Hughton’s success to live up to. The players aren’t unaware of this, knowing that they are capable of winning matches – egos can become uncontrollable very easily at this level. Inevitably the pressure from all angles falls on the manager, as he is seemingly the only variable from last year – it may not be true, but perception is more important than reality in this context.
Anything less than last year’s success will be considered a failure. Though he may not be a bad manager, at St Andrew’s Lee Clark looks destined to be a failure.