Football: Reluctant caretakers simply cannot clean up

OLIVIA BLAIR ON the short straw drawn by stand-in managers
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The Independent Online
Poor old Chris Hughton, he was even less in demand than a Spurs season ticket on Monday after "his" side had succumbed to Crystal Palace (apparently, several fans nailed their season tickets to the club shop wall after the game; having drowned their sorrows they returned to find someone had nicked the nails but left the tickets).

The Spurs caretaker manager arrived belatedly at the post-match press conference to find only the tea ladies left to hear what he had to say, which couldn't have been much since he was only in the job 24 hours.

Caretaker managers are invariably thrust reluctantly under the spotlight - Tony Parkes, for example, looks as though saying boo to a goose would be beyond him - and Hughton, a capable full-back in his day but never one to court the limelight, resembled a rabbit caught in headlights when quizzed beforehand about his team selection.

There was a sense of deja vu about the whole affair since it was exactly three years ago that the former Spurs defender Steve Perryman was given one game in charge to stake his claim on the post vacated by Ossie Ardiles.

In the event, Spurs lost 2-0 and a disillusioned Perryman left to coach in Norway. But who'd be a caretaker manager anyway. It's got to be the most undesirable job in football because let's face it, a caretaker manager is onto a loser whichever way up you look at it. Win - and it is down to the players; he'd inherited a decent enough team anyway. Lose - and he obviously wasn't up to the job in the first place.

Not that either scenario bothered caretaker manager extraordinaire Parkes. He took charge at Blackburn after Ray Harford's resignation last October with Rovers rock bottom and without a Premiership win. By May, they were a creditable 13th having lost just eight games. Had Parkes been up for the job he'd have had a good case.

But he wasn't; he'd made that clear from the outset, unlike John Hollins who has taken every possible opportunity to broadcast his desire for the vacant manager's seat at Queen's Park Rangers, which he's currently keeping warm.

Unfortunately for Hollins, QPR have been linked with every unattached manager going (as well as plenty of attached ones) so he might have to be content with the caretaker manager's job at Harchester Rovers in Sky's new Dream Team soap now that Ron Atkinson has abandoned acting in favour of real life drama at Sheffield Wednesday where he has as his right- hand man the season's most successful caretaker manager (to date).

Peter Shreeves, for whom the phrase right-hand man was surely invented, was in the Hillsborough hot seat when Wednesday thrashed Bolton 5-1 after a disastrous run which had prompted David Pleat's dismissal. While not wanting to take anything away from Shreeves, the reality is that the Wednesday players were under less pressure to perform than when Pleat was in the firing line.

Ditto those Nottingham Forest players who hadn't managed to win in 17 games for Frank Clark last season yet beat then second-placed Arsenal in Stuart Pearce's first game as caretaker manager. It obviously had something to do with Psycho's leadership qualities, but not that much.

Clark, of course, went to Maine Road where one of his first acts was to hand P45s to several of the backroom staff, among them the club stalwart Tony Book. The manager for five years (from 1974-79), he was also caretaker manager three times, bailing City out after Ron Saunders left in 1974; in 1989 when Mel Machin went; and again in 1990 following Howard Kendall's departure, prompting a former team-mate to say: "When the holocaust comes I want to be standing next to Bookie." Perhaps Book's motto should have been "Once more into the breach..." since this is Manchester City after all.

Perhaps the highest profile caretaker manager's job of them all went to another former City manager, Joe Mercer, who was given seven games at England's helm in May 1974 before Don Revie was appointed. Mercer's record was a creditable one - won three, drawn three, lost one - but that defeat came against Scotland in the Home Championships.

One thing, however, characterises all caretaker managers - they know there is a replacement waiting in the wings, or even in the stands, as Christian Gross was at White Hart Lane on Monday. At least Gross stayed there; two days earlier Keith Burkinshaw was in charge of Aberdeen (where he's director of football) for a game but found his expertise somewhat undermined by the appearance in the dug-out at half-time of the Dons' manager-in-waiting, Alex Miller. Even with two managers overseeing events, Aberdeen could only manage a 1-1 draw against Dunfermline.

But then Spurs legend Danny Blanchflower reckoned that great teams don't need managers, caretaker or otherwise. "Brazil," he said, "won the World Cup playing exhilarating football with a manager they'd had for three weeks, and what about Real Madrid at their greatest? You can't even remember who the manager was."