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British football scores an own goal

Many managers barely survive a year in post. Martin Baker talks to experts who make a case for clubs using forensic business skills to find the best staff

"Football… bloody hell!" Sir Alex Ferguson, famously wrestled to the ground by the English language and Manchester United's astonishing comeback against Bayern Munich in the 1999 Champions League Final, produced a quote so inarticulate it has achieved a kind of gnomic eloquence.

The sentimental subtext is clear enough: the words express the awestruck admiration of a grown man reduced, temporarily, to a schoolboy. Football is: gladiatorial heroism, a contest of spirit, technique, physicality and will, with the added spice of luck and (let's be fair here) a bit of acting skill to coax decisions from the referee. That night, this wonderful, heady mix of sport and theatre was easily enough to overwhelm one of the game's most seasoned managers and commentators, a man who may have thought he'd seen it all.

But as Sir Alex moves upstairs to become a directors' box-dwelling £2m-a-year ambassador for Manchester United, he is becoming a full-time inhabitant of a world where he may find "he ain't seen nothing yet". Football is awash with money from the new Sky television deal, and beset by the hysteria of fans who behave like religious zealots (the ubiquitous banners "In Fergie/Moyes/Arsene We Trust" are implicit deifications of the manager, substituting for "God", after all).

Nothing particularly new there. We all know that there's loads of money in the game, and that it's a secular religion, an emblem of personal identity for many of its followers. But, given the stupendous financial pressures and potential rewards of the modern football industry, a big question presents itself: why on earth doesn't football really run itself as an industry?

At present, there are three very big managerial vacancies in the Premier League: at Manchester City, Chelsea, and Everton. In industrial terms, these jobs would probably be described as the role of chief operating officer, with added bits of director of communications and marketing thrown in (think how Ferguson, Arsene Wenger and David Moyes – during his Everton tenure – have been identified as part of their clubs, as an element of their brand). So will the disciplines of executive search be applied? Will football's chief executives and chairmen use forensic business skills to find the best employees for key positions in one of the world's most high-profile leisure industries?

Absolutely not, according to Clara Freeman, a businesswoman and former board member of Marks & Spencer with responsibility for human resources: "I've no inside knowledge, but I'm pretty sure that the Manchester United job search wasn't subject to proper process and best practice."

It is faintly comic to conjure Sir Alex sitting down with an HR specialist to do it by the book. In this parallel universe of high improbability, he'd write a job specification, a candidate specification (skills, experience and qualifications), deciding on the most appropriate recruitment process, putting together a search committee (to include chairman, directors and HR support), maybe briefing a head hunter, perhaps advertising the job externally in the Sunday newspapers, and circulating the vacancy internally for possible candidates and suggestions. Then there'd be a deadline to set for applications – and, of course, there'd be the mandatory publication of an equal opportunities statement. Next up, the committee would sift all applications, discuss a long list, reduce it to a shortlist, invite the candidates to interview and to meet others in the organisation where they'd be working. After the final round of interviews, the offer of appointment would be made, subject to salary and negotiation of other terms and conditions, and references.

Instead of which, Fergie effectively told the United board to appoint Moyes, and they meekly agreed. The only reference Moyes seemed to have needed was one: the word of the "Godfather in Red". Neville Southall, former Everton goalkeeper, turned professional sceptic and media wag, called the handover a piece of "well-organised chaos". The inference is clear: Southall thinks it was a deal done in private between two men whose only cultural difference is the short trip between Govan and Partick.

But does it really matter? Once Manchester United had made the announcement of the departure of Sir Alex to the New York Stock Exchange, where some of its share capital is listed, it was important to act quickly – and the new manager was a known entity from his 11 years at Goodison Park.

Well, in this case, maybe United did get the right man. Time alone will tell. But football as an industry would do well to take account of the benefits of proper process-transparency and fairness, according to Freeman: "That way, you reach the widest possible pool of talent; both the organisation and the candidate have a proper opportunity to determine exactly what the role is, what sort of individual is needed to fill it, and choose the candidate who best fits the bill."

Richard Bevan, of the League Managers Association (LMA), has seen over 250 managerial changes since he joined the organisation in 2008. "Over 30 per cent of these dismissals are with managers given less than one year in the job," he says. "As a result, the lack of strategy in the recruitment process does contribute to the high turnover of managers. This high level of turnover results in losing precious elements of continuity and consistency, which are essential to success."

The film producer Gary Smith, a lifelong Blackburn Rovers fanatic and former City fund manager, has a similar view. He argues that more transparency and business process might have helped to avert the calamitous events at Blackburn over the past year: "Rovers have been a role model in how not to run a football club. The owners sack an established manager in Sam Allardyce, appoint a rookie, stick with him for way too long, and then go to the other extreme and have five managers in one season. On top of that they've destroyed the stable structure of the club and ripped the soul out of the community that is, or was, Blackburn Rovers."

Bevan, of the LMA, would agree: "Managers have the confidence that they will be given sufficient time to succeed in the role, allowing them the opportunity to have an impact at the club and build towards a vision of success. This all starts at the recruitment process. Simply dismissing a manager after a poor run is detrimental not only to the club, but to the game itself."

Bryan Gray was the chairman at Preston North End who appointed David Moyes manager in 1999. He believes a formal business process should extend to the mode of communication: "David [Moyes] always called me 'chairman', which was his approach. Also, we never spoke after a game. We always made time for reflection first."

Gray spoke to Wolves chairman, Steve Morgan, "about the chairman-manager relationship. There needs to be an element of formality, as well as support. Steve listened, but I think he did otherwise".

Morgan recently sacked Dean Saunders as manager, and his pain is evident in his resulting statement: "I'd like to thank personally, again, all our supporters who have put up with such disappointment and frustrations over the past two seasons. I know the fans are fiercely loyal but I equally know they are really suffering right now; we all are."

All of which leaves football as an overfed, dystopian monster, gorging itself on money and sentimentality – not exactly the best apparatus for decision-making.

Gray argues that sentimentality has had a curious effect on managerial succession, and that in football, managers who have consistently failed are rewarded by being touted for and often given jobs they have demonstrated a lack of aptitude for.

Examples (mine, not Gray's) include: Alan Shearer, appointed by popular acclaim to manage a Newcastle team to relegation; Alex McLeish, rewarded for taking Birmingham City down from the Premier League with a short-lived tenure at rivals, Aston Villa. Roberto Martinez is favourite for the Everton job after Wigan's relegation. Darren Ferguson may stay in a Championship where he has had little success, by getting a job at Wolves or Millwall, according to the marvellously ghoulish football website thesackrace.com.

Bevan is trying to get club executives to adopt a steadier approach: "It is vital that we continue to work with football clubs, owners, supporters and the game's stakeholders to show that dismissing managers is not the answer should a team experience a series of poor results. It is essential that managers have the confidence that they will be given sufficient time to succeed in the role, allowing them the opportunity to have an impact at the club and build towards a vision of success" he says.

But those days seem far away. The very fact that managerial succession in this high-profile, moneyed sport, can be the subject of a bookies' market – the subject of "sporting" uncertainty – speaks eloquently of the unpredictability of football as an industry.

English football is a global cultural icon, an emblem of the country's prestige as a sporting venue – and yet it doesn't know how to go about appointing its most important employees. As Sir Alex may find himself saying all over again: "Football.... bloody hell."