Part 2 of our 18 for 18 series looking back at football in 2018 sees CHARLIE MORGAN take a swipe at the men who have continually lined their pockets in various jobs acting as a lifeboat to sinking Premier League ships.
Consider, if you will, what’s become a common scenario periodically spread throughout recent English football history. Some perilous combination of misfortune, out-of-form players, dated managerial ideas or protesting fans drags a club perilously close towards the Premier League relegation zone. Such is the cut-throat nature of the league and its owners that a manager cannot reasonably expect to keep his job, should spiralling fortunes fall on his watch.
So, he gets sacked. And these teams, often those who form the backbone of the Premier League, and even English football at large, look for desperate assistance. They send out the last flare shot from their stranded vessel and pray something will sail over the horizon to save them. A knight in shining armour. Prince Alarming, if you will.
More often than not, these jobs have been presented to the group of English men that, historically, have formed a borderline protection racket over these sorts of clubs. The names roll off the tongue and would form one hell of a police line-up, should they ever be apprehended for their crimes against the establishment. Alan Pardew, Sam Allardyce, Tony Pulis, Harry Redknapp, David Moyes; a motley crew of gunslingers and mercenaries, parachuted in under an often-enormous pay packet to save the day.
They were often lauded as the less exotic, but far more sensible option, than their ‘sexy’ European counterparts. A study conducted by John Goddard, a financial economics professor at Bangor University, has largely disproved this. Measuring the years 1992/93 to 2015/16, he found overseas managers amassed an average 1.66 points per game, compared to British managers’ 1.29. That equates to 14 points over the season.
One can discount the much-touted idea that British managers have a worse record than their foreign equivalents because they typically manage outside the ‘Big Six’ teams: 54.9% of their games over the period were managed by a British/Irishman. Moreover, the protestations from what Bob Mortimer christened ‘the British Managers Club’ on the Athletico Mince podcast that foreign coaches get longer in the job are also incorrect. 544 different British/Irish managers oversaw 1,170 managerial spells and lasted 86.3 matches on average. In contrast, 80 foreigners completed only 115 spells, each lasting an average 58.2 matches.
Perhaps in part due to studies like this, it seems as if the clubs in the Premier League, and the football-watching public at large, have finally begun to bring these managerial cynics to justice. With some of them looking further down the leagues for managerial employment, and some no longer managing at all, perhaps the glory years of the British Managers Club are beginning to wane.
Trying to unearth the roots of why this has happened leads to two main theories. It could be argued, unhelpfully for the sake of a conducive train of thought, that these theories are intrinsically linked. But alas: are these British managers being ignored because of more imaginative, original thinking from the clubs they might ordinarily frequent? Or are they simply no longer fit for purpose, their gunslinging defiance suffering a drawn-out death?
Some still occupy a seat at the top table
Chris Hughton, though in the same broad age bracket as some of these managers, is not the same journeying mercenary as his counterparts. After steady stints at Newcastle, Birmingham and Norwich, where fans hold him in high regard, he has managed Brighton & Hove Albion since 2014. A promotion to the Premier League, and the potential for semi-permanence in the division, excludes a man far too affable, respectful and likeable to be anywhere near this lot.
Mark Hughes and Roy Hodgson, men with lengthy managerial CVs, still ply their trade in the Premier League, at Southampton and Crystal Palace respectively. Despite not hopping from club to club at the same rate as others (we’re looking at you, Pardew), the demise of Mark Hughes has been coming. After three consecutive ninth-place finishes with Stoke (very impressive), and one finish in thirteenth (less so), he was sacked by Stoke in January 2018 with the side languishing in eighteenth.
Some supporters can mark the exact moment it started to crumble: after resting key players for a game against Chelsea, in which they lost 5-0, Hughes was then lambasted when the fully-fit team lost to Newcastle the subsequent weekend. Many questioned his tactical adaptability, and the 2-1 defeat to League Two side Coventry City in the FA Cup was the final nail in a battered and bruised coffin.
However, he had kept his new club Southampton in the league by the end of that season, reportedly netting a £2million bonus for doing so. And then, true to form, performances have begun to drop back down. They currently lie in sixteenth but, you could argue, they would be a lot lower if some of the other teams in the league weren’t so objectively shocking.
Here lies the crux of the matter; these managers seem to come into a club desperately clinging on, reap a staggering reward and steer them to survival as the side regresses to their mean, rather than because of a deep insight into the league and its workings. The ‘new manager bounce’ theory is largely a myth, as noted by London-based sport consultants 21st Club. Sides are often on a rotten run of form because of bad luck deciding a few key moments; a shocking missed chance, injuries or a lack of belief can be the difference between claiming three points and none. When a manager is sacked, belief may temporarily surge and the benefits are enjoyed by the replacement. It is not because the new manager brings some revolutionary ideas, as these blokes would have you believe.
One man who perhaps fits this bill better than any of his counterparts is the head-butting, manager-abusing charlatan that is Alan Pardew. Like seemingly every one of these British managers, his CV includes time managing Crystal Palace and West Bromwich Albion, where his managerial stock plumbed new depths.
At Palace, he kicked off the year 2016 by going winless over 14 games, and eventually won only two games before the end of the season. This desperate form was mirrored at the start of the 2016/17 season: he won one of his first eleven games and was sacked in December. The Palace board cannot have been surprised with this lack of stability and conviction, since the man himself isn’t remotely stable either. He headbutted Hull’s David Meyler and called then Manchester City boss Manuel Pellegrini a “fucking old c***” whilst in the Newcastle United dugout.
And at West Brom it seemed to get worse. Tony Pulis started the season as manager and got sacked in November with a 29.75% win ratio. Darren Moore, their current manager, finished the season impressively, with a 57.1% win percentage. But Moore’s good work was entirely negated by Pardew’s tenure in the middle; Pulis’ terrible form would have averaged out to 31.5 points across the whole season. West Bromwich Albion finished with 31.
Just to repeat: the first manager did terrible and was sacked; the last manager was immense, admittedly only across six games, and the man in the middle entirely negated the work of the impressive Moore. Pardew averaged 0.44 points per game which, had he somehow managed them across a 38-game season, would have given him the third-worst points total in the Premier League’s history.
It wouldn’t be surprising to find out Pardew lost some of his marbles at Selhurst Park; in an act of total lunacy, he played three strikers in his first game in charge, and was absolutely torn apart as a result, “just to make a bit of a statement.” Here’s a bit of a statement: Alan Pardew should never manage a top-flight game ever again.
Staying in the top division for a moment, there are other clubs throughout the Premier League that seem to have shown that, with a bit of shrewd acumen, more imaginative appointments can generate real results.
Breaking the mould
From 1963 to 2012 every manager of Watford F.C, apart from Gianluca Vialli, was British. After their double promotion period from 1977-79, landing in Division 2, they have been in the top two divisions of English football for all but two seasons ever since. They are a quintessentially English side, playing their football at Vicarage Road since 1922.
And yet, over the last few seasons, they have managed to adapt to the modern environment Sam Allardyce questionably described last year as a “foreign league in England.” Slaviša Jokanović won 21 of his 35 games and gained automatic promotion to the Premier League; his successor, Quique Sánchez Flores, led them to the semi-final of the 2015/16 FA Cup and a respectable thirteenth place finish, where a sturdy, well-organised defence was blended with the attacking creativity and clinical finishing of Troy Deeney and Odion Ighalo.
The Championship, which often follows the natural developments in the Premier League a few years later, has also begun to see a shift away from the usual age, nationality and style of play of dated English managers. Whether it be in age, background, or stylistically, the managers in the top echelons of the Championship are miles away from their older counterparts in the British Managers Club. Marco Bielsa (63, Argentina); Darren Moore (44, English); Daniel Farke (41, Germany); Graham Potter (43); Frank Lampard (40); Joe Luhukay (55, Holland); Aitor Karanka (45, Spain); Lee Johnson (37).
Some of these coaches, particularly Marco Bielsa and Frank Lampard from the early rounds of this season, are playing some very attractive football that is often shunned in the Championship in favour of a more abrasive, solid style. These clubs seem to be looking to the medium/long term with these appointments; as a Championship side, it is no longer viable to scrap your way to promotion and then have no subsequent plan. Wolves are a fantastic example of a side that has picked up quality players and played attractive football in the Championship, and bravely carried that on in this season’s Premier League.
The complete antithesis of this? Arguably one of the ringleaders in this group of merry men: Neil Warnock. In his second season at Leeds United, he was sacked with the club five points from the relegation zone in April 2013. By August, he had been appointed as manager of Crystal Palace for the second time. And, true to form, he was sacked in December 2014 after a poor run of results which left Palace in the relegation zone.
But, Cardiff fans proclaim: “he’s won more promotions into the Premier League than any other man!” They’d be right: he’s secured eight, in fairness to him, and has managed a remarkable 1432 games. But he is no longer a viable option beyond a quick-fix promotion-grabber, as his current Cardiff side demonstrate.
This summer, Warnock signed four Championship players, Bournemouth’s Harry Arter on loan and only one non-British player – Victor Camarasa – also on loan. Their style of football is abrasive, direct and carried out by players who are not talented enough to play with flair, and win, in the top division. The blame must largely be laid at Warnock’s feet as another one of these coaches who, whether naively or stubbornly, refuse to change their approach, even when they are exposed as not up to scratch.
The last, and perhaps greatest, addition to the club. The foreign import.
At the risk of attracting the wrath of a certain corner of the internet’s football fandom, there is a man in the never-ending, tumultuous soap opera currently being filmed in Manchester who might fill the final seat on this carousel of doom. The man with an ego more than heavy enough to sink the proverbial ship. The once ‘special’ and ‘happy’ one: José Mourinho.
When Mourinho first came to England, in June 2004, he was the complete antithesis to the other managers in the league. He was suave, sexy and charming; perhaps to such an extent that the media seemed infatuated by him. His results before taking the Chelsea job, and until his return in 2013, were hugely impressive. He won the Premier League in his first two seasons, setting record points and goals conceded totals, and then three domestic league titles, three domestic cups and a Champions League at Inter Milan and Real Madrid.
Even after bringing another league title to Chelsea on his return in the 2014-15 season, something seems to have changed in Mourinho over recent seasons. His tactics, which had always been conservative and about winning at the expense of all else, seemed more outdated. Perhaps this was due to the likes of Pep Guardiola, Mauricio Sarri and Jurgen Klopp looking to play much more ‘beautiful’ styles of football, with effervescent attitudes and players.
Jonathan Wilson, in his excellent book ‘The Barcelona Legacy’, outlines how Mourinho became “the anti-Barcelona” when he missed out on the Nou Camp job to Pep Guardiola in 2008. He beat Guardiola’s Barcelona over two legs in the 2010 Champions League semi-final with 19% possession in the second game, which confirmed his commitment to his anti-Barcelona style of play. The Real Madrid dressing room then seemed to refute his tactics and personality by the end of his reign.
These events seem to have imbedded a negative, almost pessimistic mentality in Mourinho that have been further accentuated in press conferences this season. Clearly, Mourinho is still a more than competent manager, and people claiming a lack of identity in his team are wide of the mark. However, his insistence on a cautious approach in big games seems dated compared to his counterparts both in the Premier League and across Europe.
Perhaps it is his demeanour, and the aura surrounding him, that has dragged him into this conversation of outdated British managers. He seems to fit the bill quite astutely: questionable negative tactics, occasionally involving lumping it forward to a big bloke? Depressingly so. Unwavering stubbornness, leading to a refusal to take the blame when these tactics don’t work? Too right.
But the most poignant of all is the ‘quick-fix’ mentality of his appointments, albeit over a longer term than the likes of Pardew, Pulis et al. The ‘third season syndrome’ is a well-documented Mourinho phenomenon, but it does seem to ring true. He is recruited by a club to bring instant success, usually at the expense of youth players at the club and their transfer budget. But what has he fixed at Manchester United? Granted, he won the EFL Cup and Europa League in his first season but Louis Van Gaal won the FA Cup at Old Trafford, and he was widely berated. And sacked two days after this victory.
A welcome beginning of the end
There can be no debate here; some of the men in this British Managers Club have given a huge amount to English football. However, their careers become more fluctuating and uncertain as they near their end; Harry Redknapp and Alan Pardew were once very capable managers, but where are they now?
And you know what? That’s a good thing. A post-Brexit Britain may be looking inwards for solutions to their myriad of problems, rather than outward, but this should not happen in football. It is a privilege for every fan in the UK that the world’s richest, most-watched and talked-about league is on their own shores. It should be filled with the best, in all respects. This does not extend to the mercenaries we’ve discussed, who are used to taking piles of struggling clubs’ money in exchange for a brief surge, followed by a depressing return to their strife.
They are the dinosaurs of a surpassed era which, while holding a special place in the hearts of millions, has long passed. The survivors fixate on the dying embers of the light, watching the kingdom they once ruled pass into younger, more ambitious hands. But whether the remaining men cede their power graciously, or at all, remains to be seen.