by Paul Cantwell
A few Fridays ago the new Blackburn manager Michael Appleton watched his side earn a one all draw at Wolves from the comfort of his living room.
There are several things wrong with that sentence, from football being played on a Friday night to the fact that Appleton is on to his third club in barely two months, but the main problem with the sentence is that Appleton wasn’t watching proceedings from the dug-out.
With the details of Appleton’s two-and-a-half year deal having being finalised earlier in the day, there was no valid reason why the new Blackburn boss couldn’t have travelled to the Black Country and overseen his first game in charge. Instead, Appleton did as all managers seem to do these days and took the easy option of ‘sitting this one out’.
Considering Appleton’s previous club, Blackpool, had played his new side only four weeks previous, the research Appleton would have done for that game must surely have still been fresh in his mind and therefore made the new Blackburn manager relatively familiar his new players’ strengths and weaknesses. And as for their opponents, Wolves? Well, Appleton faced them a mere three weeks prior.
Not that Appleton is alone in dodging responsibility in this manner. Far from it. In fact, had the newly installed Ewood Park boss decided to take charge for the Molineux fixture he would have bucked an almost universal trend among newly appointed managers. In an age where statistics – and win percentages in particular – are given such strong currency, it seems newly appointed managers are loathe to associate themselves with an opening fixture for which they are not 100% prepared. On the face of it, this seems reasonable enough, but in examples like the one above where the new manager is familiar with both his new charges and their opponents it seems like a responsibility fudge to not deliver a team talk or at least offer encouragement from the sidelines.
Not that its confined to the Championship. When Harry Redknapp took over the QPR hotseat in November he felt fit enough to make an immediate 400 mile round trip to watch his new side from the stands, but not quite fit enough to venture down to the dressing room to give one of his famous motivational team talks. One wonders whether Redknapp would have been quite so reticent about addressing his new charges had said round trip not involved playing Manchester United at Old Trafford- a fixture not known to have a favourable impact on the win percentage figures of visiting managers.
Similarly, when Martin O’Neill took charge of Sunderland in December 2011 he decided to postpone his ‘official’ appointment until after that weekend’s tricky away fixture with Wolves (which Sunderland went on the lose). That O’Neill had time to both visit the training ground the day prior to the game as well as travel and attend the fixture was apparently irrelevant. Clearly the Black Cats manager (or manager-in-waiting?) felt he couldn’t be expected to perform right away. Strangely enough, O’Neill seems less willing to afford the same bedding in period to his new signings. Both Adam Johnson and Stephen Fletcher were named in Sunderlands squad for their Premier League fixture with Reading in August, less than 24 hours after signing for the club. That the fixture was subsequently postponed is immaterial; clearly O’Neill – like many other managers – feels players should do what they’re paid to do from the off. Unlike managers.
It doesn’t take an arch-cynic to suggest that had these managers’ ‘unofficial’ first games resulted in wins, they would have been only too happy to take the credit. Still, at least Redknapp, O’Neill et al stuck to their guns by claiming to have had no influence throughout. After all, this responsibility-avoidance lark can get quite tricky – just ask Ruud Gullit. Upon his appointment as Newcastle manager in 1998 the Dutchman made it clear he would be leaving first team matters to his coaching staff for the Magpies next game against Liverpool – a full four days later. When the Toon went in three goals down at half time, Gullit seemingly had a change of mind, went down to the dressing room, addressed the players and promptly took credit for the team keeping the score at 3-0 for the remainder of the game. The grin on a clearly self-satisfied Gullit’s face was only removed after a hack asked the eminently reasonable question: ‘why couldn’t you have had a similar effect on the first half?’
It’s hard to say for sure what effect this dereliction of duty has on the morale of the managers new team but it’s difficult to imagine it having a positive, galvanising one. Instead of a we’re-all-in-this-together war cry, the players must surely instead hear the self-serving message of we’re-all-in-this-together-once-you’ve-gotten-that-tricky-away-trip-on-Saturday-out-of-the-way. It’s a bit like Churchill saying he will begin carrying out his duties as Prime Minister ‘once I see how this Blitz thing plays out.’
That the modern manager is under more and more pressure is not in question and in such a ruthless, dog-eat-dog industry it’s no wonder managers defend their career records like the over-protective parent of a bullied child. Each and every defeat is a blemish to be avoided at all costs. But surely it would be more beneficial in the long run for a manager to jump straight in to the role and waste no time in cultivating a united team spirit for the fight ahead. After all a failure to engender such a spirit can result in many more matches watched from the comfort of a living room.