Ian Herbert: Bolton demise shows folly of letting the fans pick managers
Gary Megson was the man who took Wanderers into the last 16 of the Uefa Cup
Is it the red hair? Perhaps the fact he was a combative, no-nonsense midfielder? Whatever the answer, the latest unravelling in the rapid fall from grace of Bolton Wanderers this week exposes the way football has treated Gary Megson over the past five years for what it is: folly.
There is a symmetry about the timing of Bolton's decision to sack Megson, in the winter of 2009, and Owen Coyle, fours days ago. Both their sides were 18th at the time, except Megson's Bolton were in the Premier League, while Coyle's have fallen into what for them, with about £110m of debt, is a Championship abyss.
Coyle felt the love in the media this week when it was pointed out that his side would have been sitting a respectable 12th, three points off the play-off places, had his players only won at Millwall last weekend. No one ever bothered to mention that Megson had two games in hand back in the winter of 2009, which could have shifted his side up to 10th. He cleared off out of town.
He was the man who took Bolton Wanderers into the last 16 of the Uefa Cup and brought Gary Cahill to the Reebok when Martin O'Neill wasn't much interested in him, yet he departed as the manager the supporters never liked; abused in the stands even before he was appointed because Bolton felt they deserved better and who was absent from the fans' forums which Sam Allardyce always frequented. When I tweeted the view that Bolton's demise left Megson's treatment looking very bizarre on Tuesday, a fan replied that "it wasn't really about results. It was more him as a person. You can't take on the fans". Megson is "not happy unless he's fighting with someone I'm afraid", replied another.
Certainly, some managers can cause a row in an empty room. It is one of the reasons why Glenn Hoddle only frequents TV studios. Yet it really has been very difficult, in the course of researching the particulars of Megson, to find anyone who can provide evidence of such character flaws. He was, by all available accounts, perfectly happy to engage with fans at Sheffield Wednesday, where he was quite welcome before his premature dismissal by the interfering and overbearing Milan Mandaric. When Megson's Wednesday won the steel city derby 1-0 in front of 36,000 fans last February and went third in the League One table, his euphoric players ran to him and hoisted him up, in a show of support.
He was sacked three days later, by an owner apparently affronted by a manager who had the temerity to question his interference. David Jones, whom Mandaric had already interviewed, was less awkward and his reward was the chance to take Wednesday to promotion, with Megson's team. As Coyle cleared his Bolton desk on Tuesday, Jones was getting the dreaded vote of confidence from Mandaric after seven defeats in eight which leaves Wednesday grounded third bottom of the Championship.
Under the terms of a severance agreement which puts him on gardening leave, Megson, who twice won promotions to the Premier League for West Bromwich Albion, would need Mandaric's approval to go for the Bolton or Blackburn Rovers job. That he won't get a call from either is a symptom of the current attachment to the "new breed of manager" in British football – the ones who have the star quality or who have perhaps been touched by Manchester United and so will delight the fans. The thought of Roy Keane and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer have been royally entertained in Lancashire this past week.
Some of the new breed do have the star quality, such as Liverpool's 39-year-old Brendan Rodgers, who we have discovered this week to be a very smart student of old men's techniques – presenting his players pre-season with a sealed envelope containing the names of those who would rest on their laurels, just like Sir Alex Ferguson did in 1993.
But sometimes it is best to dismiss what will go down well with supporters. Coyle, a "new breed" candidate who has been on the fringes of Liverpool's interest in the past three years and Arsenal's when it seemed Arsène Wenger would stay no longer, talked such an extremely good game that you knew his players would run through walls and hedges for him. But players can only take that form of coaching so far. There comes a time when tactics and a strategy have to kick in. There was a feeling at Turf Moor that Coyle's departure for Bolton wasn't such a disaster, even though his successor, Brian Laws, didn't see 2010 out.
Of course, there's nothing new in a manager being recruited for his perceived star quality: his name, his face, his press conference style – and perhaps the colour of his hair. As Simon Kuper and Stefan Szymanski's book Soccernomics points out, it is why no club ever hires a woman, and it is actually also why Arsenal were so brave to hire Wenger. Tony Adams, Arsenal's captain at that time, recalls in his autobiography Addicted how he thought a the time: "What does this Frenchman know about football? He wears glasses and looks more like a schoolteacher. He's not going to be as good as George [Graham]. Does he even speak English properly?"
Liverpool were also brave to hire a man who sounded like a schoolteacher in 2010, but when Roy Hodgson went down badly with supporters at Anfield, he experienced what Megson felt and the powers-that-be down there didn't hang about. Anfield would have been wise to maintain Hodgson's employment in the early years of transition to new American ownership but they allowed the supporters to appoint their manager instead. Star quality? No. Just 18 rocky months with – and for – Kenny Dalglish.
Of course, the best evidence that football and not fans should drive the managerial recruitment process comes from a manager who has certainly never attracted a Messianic following such as Bill Shankly or Matt Busby and who has a distinct lack of universal popularity – which can perhaps be traced to the feeling that he has sold out to the American owners, because he has stayed on too long or perhaps because he sold three of his best players in 1995. His side happen to have been one of a fair few with experience of leaving Megson's Bolton with no points gained, but Sir Alex Ferguson got over it. His club don't let setbacks or supporters bother them too much.
Rugby puts football's failures in a better light
The Gloucester flanker Andy Hazell was terribly polite on Twitter yesterday, which made a rather pleasant change to the depressing depths plumbed by Ashley Cole and t***gate. But the way that Hazell managed to land a flurry of punches to his opponent's head followed a knee to the same place, and escape with no apology and not a word of censure from the authorities that night point to the very substantial difference in the way that footballers and rugby footballers are scrutinised.
We obsess about diving in football, when Premier League figures show that cautions for 'simulation' in the last three seasons read as followed: 2009/10 – 22, 2010-11 – 9, 2011-12 – 20. (That's 1.66 per cent of bookings last season). Imagine the penalty, therefore, if a footballer undertook the kind of unadulterated attack carried by Hazell during his side's game against French club Mont-de-Marsan. He could expect to be out for half a season. When I argued on a Radio 5 Live phone-in after the Olympics that the Team GB = good, football = bad was too simplistic a notion, three parents called to say that rugby stadiums, not football, was the environment for their children. Not so. Time for the Rugby Football Union to start applying Football Association standards of discipline.
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