Football: Does it pay to sack the boss?

Norman Fox says that wielding the axe seldom produces the desired results
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The Independent Online
So what can Leeds United expect of their new manager, George Graham, the pounds 350,000-a-year replacement for Howard Wilkinson, a man who gave the club a championship title, youth players for the future and the confidence to rebuild Elland Road but was shown the door when the club were still only two points behind last season's champions, Manchester United, after losing to them last weekend.

The evidence of the past two and a half years of managerial changes involving clubs at present in the Premiership suggests that more often than not change appears to be for change's sake.

The musical chairs scenario means that being sacked has become so commonplace that if it was considered a sign of terminal incompetence, there would hardly be a manager left in work.

Obviously, though, there are exceptions to the theory that a change at the top is largely inconsequential, which is why big clubs like Leeds are still prepared to take the gamble.

The most impressive recent performances have been by managers who have brought teams to the Premiership out of the First Division. Peter Reid first consolidated Sunderland's First Division place and then took them into the Premiership where they look like a secure mid-table side. Bryan Robson, who is well supported financially at Middlesbrough, took over before the start of the 1994-95 season and quickly raised them to the top of the First Division. He took them to promotion and now has charge of one of the most exciting sides in the Premiership.

Jim Smith has elevated Derby County from ninth in the First Division when he joined to mid-table in the Premiership. But when it comes to Premiership clubs swapping managers in mid-season, the evidence ought to make the clubs think more than twice before wielding the axe.

With early results taking them to the top of the Premiership, Sheffield Wednesday are perhaps thinking that David Pleat's time has finally come, but he is more realistic, saying: "The only perfect time to take over a club is when it's successful, but who gets that chance? You use what you inherit and hope to improve on it."

Pleat's initial progress was typical. Players wanting to impress the new "boss" or feeling under threat usually show short-term improvements, but unless the directors come up with large sums of money, the manager's first season ends with the club having made nominal progress. Yet given two years, a manager of Brian Little's ability can offer a good return.

More and more clubs are realising that the arrival of Reid, Robson, Smith and Martin O'Neill in the Premiership has exhausted the supply of outstanding managers available from outside that division. Barnsley's Danny Wilson, hardly a household name, is one of the few potential high-fliers.

Allegedly to make the job more attractive clubs are placing the emphasis on coaching. In reality they believe that the only figures managers, untrained in financial matters, should deal with are 4-4-2 and 4-3-3. Some managers like it that way. Bruce Rioch did not, which was why he left Arsenal, but most recently retired players would prefer to use their contacts to set up negotiations, then leave it to the paid executives to do the deals.

The change at Leeds last week also emphasised that while the modern, commercially minded executives are criticised for wanting instant returns for their investments, only a minority of directors have ever been patient. The difference now is that the supporters are becoming much more influential and the sharp suits in the directors' box use the customers' anger as irrefutable evidence of the need to change the manager, just as they would in any other business. Someone paying pounds 25 to see a team struggling is not going to suffer in silence.

At Leeds, some fans turned against Wilkinson when he allowed Eric Cantona to go to Manchester United, and then more became antagonistic when the team capitulated to Aston Villa in last season's Coca-Cola Cup final.

Once a new group of businessmen had come in last summer, Wilkinson's long-term plans became irrelevant. His argument that a minority of fans had affected the team's performances was seen by the new owners, the Caspian Group, as viewing the situation through the wrong end of a telescope.

They say George Graham has the vision for the job. That they are so easily persuaded to turn a blind eye to his past indiscretions serves only to confirm that head-hunting in the field of management is getting increasingly difficult.