Glenn Moore: Failure is not forever as the sack is losing its stigma

Increasingly, the manager is a short-term 'department head’

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The Independent Football

When Giuseppe Sannino became Watford’s new head coach this week it was his 15th such job in 17 years, including two spells at each of Varese and Palermo. In none of them was he coach for three full seasons.

This is not unusual in Italy. The longest-serving coach in Serie A is Francesco Guidolin of Udinese, like Watford a club owned by the Pozzo family. He has been in Udine since May 2010 but prior to that had 16 jobs in 22 seasons, including three spells at Palermo and an earlier stint at Udinese.

The other coaches appointed in Serie A in summer 2010, Massimiliano Allegri of Milan and Atalanta’s Stefano Colantuono, had previously held six jobs in seven seasons and eight in nine respectively. This in a league in which coaches cannot work at two clubs in one season.

In England, managers rattling through such a rapid series of jobs have until recently been fairly unusual. Tommy Docherty may have quipped “I’ve had more clubs than Jack Nicklaus” but even he only had eight in 18 years before his star waned and he had a series of short-term posts here and in Australia. In general, the big-name survivors have put down a few roots. Ron Atkinson had 11 jobs in 28 years, including West Bromwich Albion twice; Harry Redknapp, 29 years in the game, is in only his seventh post, including Portsmouth twice; West Ham is Sam Allardyce’s sixth job since his first managerial post in England at Blackpool 19 years ago. Neil Warnock is looking for his 14th job, but he has been in the business 33 years.

While these managers have achieved longevity, hundreds have been cast out after a year or two, and a job or two. In England, clubs historically retain managers who have been successful, and do not offer second or third chances to those who have failed.

That is beginning to change. Aston Villa is Paul Lambert’s fifth post in eight years, Blackpool is Paul Ince’s sixth in seven. Both men are at clubs where there is a strict transfer model in place which they have had to sign up to. This, increasingly, is the modern way.

There is claim and counter-claim as to how many of Tottenham’s summer signings were the preferred choice of Andre Villas-Boas but there is no doubt they were made in conjunction with technical director Franco Baldini, usually in line with a principle laid down by chairman Daniel Levy (buy young, with an eye to resale values). At Liverpool Brendan Rodgers is one voice in a transfer committee deciding acquisitions. At Swansea Michael Laudrup is the latest manager working to a style template. At West Bromwich Richard Garlick, the sporting and technical director, is the key man in recruitment, not the manager.

Many observers would argue that the manager is the most important man at any football club. Manchester United’s long-term dominance, on the pitch and in the superstores, owes more to Sir Matt Busby and Sir Alex Ferguson than to any player or administrator. Bill Shankly and Don Revie raised Liverpool and Leeds to new levels. Perhaps the best examples of a manager’s influence are Ferguson at Aberdeen and Brian Clough at Nottingham Forest, both clubs achieving heights under their management unequalled before or since.

Yet the modern philosophy at an increasing number of clubs is that espoused earlier this season by Southampton chairman Nicola Cortese. Talking of his club’s outlook, he told Leaders in Football: “We came up with plans that were not traditional in England. The manager has an important role, but basically is just a department head like any other.”

Hmm. It will be an extremely quiet news day when Sky Sports’ breaking-news ticker reads: “Arsenal sack HR director”.

That, though, is the new philosophy both at clubs such as West Bromwich and Swansea, which are run by men steeped in the game, and Cardiff, where a football novice runs riot. Jeremy Peace and Vincent Tan do not have much in common, but both appear to believe one coach/manager is much like another. The likes of Steve Clarke and Malky Mackay are as expendable as the chef or groundsman. 

This attitude is replicated down the leagues. Every time a club suffers a bad run the chairman reaches for the axe. Since the pool of talent is not limitless we are beginning to see the advent of serial managers like Sannino. Michael Appleton has had three jobs in as many years, so too Portsmouth’s Richie Barker; Preston North End is Simon Grayson’s fourth in five years. Martin Allen, with a reputation as an impact manager, has had nine jobs in 10.

Does this matter? Changing a manager can be expensive as he and his staff have to be paid off and his replacement will often want different players. More damaging is that this turnover fosters a short-term outlook. Why would a manager bother with a club’s youth system when he knows he will be fired before any of the players are old enough to play for him? Why, knowing the first bad spell will result in the sack, would he pick a talented but raw teenager ahead of a solid, if uninspiring, senior player, often one from overseas?

The smarter clubs will have a youth system run independently of the manager with a long-term staffing: Southampton, where Les Reed works under Cortese, is a good example. But at others academy staff change at the whim of the manager.

More positively, failure no longer tarnishes a manager. Five of the Championship’s top six are led by men who were fired from their last job. It is claimed Villas-Boas has already had enquiries, while Mackay will leave Cardiff with managerial credit as well as hard compensation in the bank.

That will soften the blow but, having taken Cardiff into the top flight, and formed a rapport with the supporters, Mackay would have preferred to continue trying to establish them in the Premier League. Instead he will be waiting by the phone, with the removal men on hold and a rental property in mind.

More than ever, it seems, a football manager’s life is destined to be a transitory one.