Football: Blessed are the clubs who manage to keep their nerve

Libero
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The Independent Online
The annual first managerial cull of winter is with us - the second will follow in January after the last chance of salvation has disappeared with the third round of the FA Cup - sparked by David Pleat's dismissal at Sheffield Wednesday. So who's next?

Everton's Howard Kendall was getting his retaliation in first. "This is typical of the way so much pressure is heaped on people in my position," he said when it was suggested that it might be him. "Whoever is down there at whatever stage of the season is being hyped like I have never known before."

He makes a valid point. Of course managers whose teams are floundering will always come under scrutiny but even those who have made less than perfect starts to the season or who languish in mid-table, all of 10 or 11 points behind the second-placed team, seem to be forced these days to spend more time talking about their job, and keeping it, than doing it.

This is new to the game. Never before has there been so much television and radio time or newspaper space to fill, such is the explosion in interest. Opinion and speculation is now commonplace where once it was sparing. Supporters' views have spread from fanzines to "red-hot soccer chat" shows.

"Ask him when he's going to resign," I was instructed by an Aston Villa fan as I made my way to Brian Little's press conference after the home defeat by Chelsea last week. No doubt that fan was cheering three nights later as Villa saw off Athletic Bilbao.

Such is the instant gratification culture that anything less than comprehensive victory achieved with style to spare is unacceptable. The constant attempts to rewrite the old truism that only one team can win any one competition have reached frenzied proportions. Forgive Libero for spoiling the fun - for all but those beleaguered men involved, that is - but you do sometimes wonder what is the point of sacking managers, apart from diverting attention away from inadequate players going through motions and chairmen who have been guilty of poor judgement. Besides, it often emerges there is a paucity of available candidates.

A report by the League Managers' Association last week found that generally results do not immediately improve when a new manager takes over. It echoes a survey conducted by our own Norman Fox just over a year ago - shortly after Pleat had taken Wednesday to the top of the Premiership and Howard Wilkinson had left Leeds United. Now Wilkinson is among those touted for the Wednesday job, along with Ron Atkinson and Joe Royle. They both left their previous clubs in circumstances similar to those they will inherit; low morale and league position despite lots of money having been spent. But then, that is the silver lining of being sacked. In the singular world of football, it seems no impediment to getting another job.

Managers, Alf Ramsey once said, get too much credit and too much blame. It was echoed by Terry Venables last week when, as poacher turned gamekeeper, the Portsmouth chief executive said that Terry Fenwick's position was safe. "Five defeats don't make you a bad manager and five wins don't make you a good one," he said. Blessed are those who keep their nerve. The example of Martin Edwards with Alex Ferguson is worth citing again.

Clearly, everyone thinks they would make a good manager. Take Carlisle's owner Michael Knighton who has sacked Mervyn Day and replaced him with himself; the ego has landed. Libero, though, is different; he knows he would make a good manager. All he needs is time and patience and the support of David Mellor. Then he might last until January.

The linking of Howard Wilkinson's name with the Sheffield Wednesday manager's job has been curious, almost as curious as the fact that he and the FA did not rush out a denial.

Given that Wilkinson is less than a year into a lucrative four-year contract as the FA's technical director, one might have expected him to issue some sort of statement that he was not interested in the job.

After all, his current position requires a long-term commitment, as his Charter for Quality, which will considered by the full 90-member FA Council tomorrow, amply demonstrates. The need is for change, as Wilkinson insists, but surely not from a personal point of view at such a delicate time?

Kenny Dalglish, usually a man reluctant to comment on press speculation, was remarkably swift to deny that he was up for the Rangers job in Glasgow. Surely this cannot have been on instructions, what with the possible effect on Newcastle's share price? Unfortunately with the whole truth a casualty these days, by such hidden-agenda yardsticks must managers' statements now be judged.

A Series of high-profile penalty takers have failed to convert in recent weeks; Teddy Sheringham (twice), Robbie Fowler, Ian Wright and Dwight Yorke. The new rule that goalkeepers are allowed to move before the kick is taken would appear to be having some effect.

Perhaps the balance has swung too far away from the kicker; after all, the punishment for an offence in the penalty area usually merits a goal. One hopes that the authorities are monitoring the statistics this season with a view to a rule change - the 10-yard penalty spot?

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