Here today...why the manager's job has become more uncertain than ever

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Peter Reid yesterday became the first managerial casualty of 2005, leaving his post at Coventry City, which he had occupied for barely eight months, with the time-worn phrase "by mutual consent". When Reid's replacement is named, he will become Coventry's fourth manager in a little more than a year and if 2005 is as bad as the 12 months that preceded it, the sackings, resignations and mutual consents will come at the rate of one a week.

A record 54 managers in the Football League and Premiership changed jobs in 2004, making it the year of the black-bordered sheepskin coat, the worst for English football managers in the history of the professional game. While a handful were genuine cases of managers opting to leave - such as Harry Redknapp and Graeme Souness - the vast majority were not, and the total was an increase of more than half on the figures for 2003.

There has never been a year like it. Of the 92 leading clubs, exactly half changed their managers, while Southampton's players found themselves coached by no fewer than four individuals - Gordon Strachan, Steve Wigley (twice), Paul Sturrock and Harry Redknapp. As proof that change does not work, those four men managed a total of fewer than two wins each, while Sturrock was sacked after a victory over Blackburn.

The Scot had apparently "lost the dressing-room", which in the Premiership at least was the fashionable way to lose your job in 2004. Gérard Houllier and Sir Bobby Robson departed shortly after it became clear they could no longer count on the support of Steven Gerrard and Alan Shearer, men they had considered favourite sons.

Southampton's senior players thought Sturrock's methods too dated, his outlook too provincial and, coming from Plymouth, he commanded insufficient respect. Sturrock, who talked of being unable to fit in with the "pop star culture" lasted 13 matches, which was five more than Southampton's chairman, Rupert Lowe, a man who makes Doug Ellis look like a hoary sentimentalist, allowed Stuart Gray in 2001.

"The ego factor with top players is more pronounced," said Sturrock, who is now in charge of Sheffield Wednesday. "They have greater power and you can't afford to be as rough-handed with them as you can with the pros of the Football League. I am sure some people at Southampton looked upon me as a virtual nobody just up from the sticks."

Losing your job because you no longer command the support of your senior professionals is not a new concept. Duggie Livingstone was sacked immediately after winning Newcastle their last domestic trophy, the 1955 FA Cup, because he had wanted to drop Jackie Milburn for the final, which as he scored against Manchester City after 45 seconds proved to be a poor piece of blue-sky thinking.

But it is a growing phenomenon. If, as the journalist John Carlin suggests in his book White Angels, Real Madrid represent "the new football", a template to which all other major clubs will be drawn, it is no coincidence their managers have a shelf-life of months. In the mind of Real's president, Florentino Perez, the galactico is everything. Carlos Queiroz was appointed because he was a "technician", in contrast to the gruff old disciplinarian Vicente del Bosque.

When Madrid's season collapsed in April, Perez concluded he actually needed someone to kick the well-toned backsides and brought in Jose Camacho, he of the sweaty armpits and the rasping tongue. The galacticos wanted their backsides untouched; Camacho lasted three matches. The eccentric Wanderley Luxemburgo is the fourth manager of the year at the Bernabeu, which now boasts a director of football.

So when, despite knowing Houllier had fulfilled his brief by returning Liverpool to the Champions' League, the board at Anfield learned of Gerrard's disquiet, they felt they had to act. A choice between keeping arguably the best midfielder in England and a reasonably successful manager was no choice at all.

Robson's dismissal was rather vaguer. His chairman, Freddy Shepherd, contributed to his demise by publicly undermining him but Robson as convinced that Shearer was no longer the force of old, which was not a message the lion of St James' Park wished to hear. Robson received messages of condolence from Tony Blair and Sting when he went, although unlike Sturrock, he failed to get his contract settled.

Two Premiership managers, Jacques Santini and Redknapp, resigned because they felt they were no longer able to manage, suffocated by the post of director of football; a position that has never successfully been employed in England and which has not had much impact in Madrid.

When the media gathered at White Hart Lane to see the Tottenham management team of Frank Arnesen, Santini and Martin Jol unveiled, Jol joked that it was typical of Spurs that they should be led by a Dane, a Frenchman and a Dutchman. He was more right than he knew. It was absolutely typical of Tottenham and since Santini, the one man who had to communicate with both the players and the media, spoke virtually no English it was bound to end in tears.

The tears were no less real beneath the Premiership and since the compensation packages were so much smaller, they fell far more bitterly. From the first week of January, when Billy Dearden was fired at Notts County, to 20 December, when Keith Curle was relieved of his duties at Mansfield, the departures seldom stopped.

Some were unbearably sad. Gary McAllister left to nurse his very ill wife. Eric Black, his successor at Coventry - the Midlands was a dangerous place to be in 2004 - lost his job because he was judged to be less charismatic than Reid. In October, Jimmy Quinn resigned as manager of Shrewsbury. He had won back their place in the Football League but he quit after 14 games of the season. "I felt under pressure ever since I took the job," he said. "People lost a bit of faith and, rather than wait for two or three weeks to get the sack, I thought I would resign."

Other sackings were hard to argue with. Paul Groves, one of three men to manage Grimsby in 2004, was dismissed after a 6-0 defeat by Oldham. Groves had earlier overseen a 4-1 reverse against Wycombe, a 5-1 humiliation at Port Vale and an 8-1 massacre by Hartlepool.

The hiring of Brian Horton, who promised "only a path full of muck and nettles", unquestionably saved Macclesfield Town from relegation to the Conference.

At Scunthorpe, Brian Laws was fired and then reinstated after the former chairman Steve Wharton regained control of the club. Laws proceeded to take Scunthorpe to the top of League Two and when Wharton demanded a Cup run, the Iron promptly drew Chelsea.

Colin Lee was sacked for allegedly wanting to succeed Sturrock as manager of Plymouth, despite the fact he revealed his chairman, Jeff Bonser, had supplied Plymouth with his telephone number and encouraged him to go to Devon. Paul Merson took over at the Bescot and saw Walsall relegated.

However, the award for the worst managerial appointment of 2004 goes to Firoz Kassam, chairman of Oxford United. In the spring Kassam, like Bonser, dismissed his manager, Ian Atkins, for flirting with another club - in this case Bristol Rovers. His choice of replacement was Graham Rix, who had been a disastrous manager of Portsmouth.

Nevertheless, Rix was handed the title of acting manager and given six matches to prove himself. He won none of them. In November, after eight defeats in nine matches Rix was moved to a position where he could do less damage. At least unlike Luigi del Neri, sacked by Porto in the summer before playing a single competitive match, he had a chance to fail.

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