James Lawton: In the managerial sack race the only appraisal that matters is one carried out on the pitch
Saturday 08 January 2011
Roy Keane might not have warmed to the joke on the day he was fired by Ipswich Town.
Surely, though, almost everyone else might agree that if any area of alleged human tragedy cries out for light relief it is the managerial sack race.
Less acreage of column inches and news broadcast schedules have, after all, been devoted to middle-sized earthquakes and wars and who, really, is up for another picture of the tortured Roy Hodgson or Carlo Ancelotti or Avram Grant? The distraction, from this perspective, came bang on time.
It can be found on the website of the League Managers Association, which has recently been posting details of fresh casualties with a degree of poignancy not, in all the circumstances, guaranteed to wrench the heart of a nation contemplating higher interest rates and rising unemployment, which in most cases does not come with extremely well upholstered gardening leave.
The initiative is from the LMA's chief executive, Richard Bevan. He has come up with the extraordinary idea that fired football managers – and this, presumably, includes Rafa Benitez, who has picked up more than £10m in compensation from his two recent sackings – should be treated like everybody else in the workplace.
He starts, reassuringly enough. "No one is saying that a club should never change manager. The football context changes over time, the circumstances of individual clubs alter and the goals of employer and employee may no longer match."
So far, so bleedin' obvious you might say, but what about this? "In this unfortunate circumstance it would seem most sensible for both sides if lessons were adopted from the broader field of human resources to handle this type of situation. Football managers might, for example, like any other type of manager, have regular appraisals."
But of course they do and at this time of year they come at roughly the rate of two a week. They are called football matches.
Keane, whose firing apparently qualifies as part of the LMA general charge of "short termism", has in fact undergone nine recent "appraisals". Seven of them have been lost, leaving Ipswich in 19th place in the Championship, something owner Marcus Evans did not contemplate when he appointed the Irishman nearly two years ago on the grounds that he was destined to be one of the great managers.
To be fair to Evans he was not alone in that assessment, though numbers had dwindled somewhat when Keane walked away from Sunderland after a disastrous run with such little enthusiasm for "mutual appraisal" he refused to answer calls from his American owner and Niall Quinn, at the time a still faithful supporter of the man who had once dismissed him as Mother Teresa.
Keane was nominated by Ferguson as his likely successor at Old Trafford but that was before their relationship crumbled.
Ferguson's disaffection, though, failed to persuade some of us that Keane, with certain personality modifications, would not indeed translate a superbly committed playing career into the authentic material of great leadership. Others, though, saw too many flaws, not least excessive arrogance and a basic failure to see anyone's view of life or football but his own. It is now hard to find a bookmaker who does not say they were right.
One of Ferguson's greatest endorsements followed Keane's extraordinary performance in the second leg of the European Champions League semi-final second leg at Juventus in Turin. Though doomed to suspension for the final, Keane lifted United with an extraordinary tour de force. He played in the moment with a power that was quite stunning. The United manager said it was one of the greatest acts of selflessness he had ever seen on a football field.
It has not been the most striking of Keane characteristics in recent years. The rub of defeat has scarcely softened his tendency to see everything from his own lofty vantage point.
Some will have noted that in his parting speech, which was largely a statement of the central reality that if you win you stay and if you lose too often you go, he illustrated his loyalty to the club with a reference to his decision to move from his Cheshire mansion and live locally. A small point, maybe, but one not without a certain implication that generally the world is expected to operate at his convenience rather than the other way around.
Whatever he does now, and whether or not he attempts to re-kindle his football ambitions, for the moment he leaves a timely legacy. It is that football, whatever Richard Bevan says, is a brutally demanding business which has the most basic imperative: it is to win. And then there is the wider obligation to show an ability to affect any circumstances you find, however difficult.
It is not an easy job, heaven knows, but given the difficulties it might be seen as somewhat amazing that so many LMA members are so eager to swarm into the shoes of the fallen. This is not meant to be a slur; football men are a certain breed, willing to live on the edge of their dreams with all the incumbent risks and insecurity.
Many cannot bear to be separated from the business of their lives, which has occupied the best of their days, and so they take the challenge and the danger and, in many cases, a reward beyond the dreams of "managers" in those other fields of human resources where their union leader so fatuously seeks to place them.
Hodgson, so briefly of Liverpool, is a particularly anguished figure at the moment and the impulse for sympathy may be strong in certain quarters. But did he go, from his agreeable bastion of Craven Cottage and impressive achievements, to Anfield wrapped in a blindfold? No, he reckoned he could make some impact on a club that had become dysfunctional both on and off the field. He reviewed his own experience and he gave himself a chance. He didn't know the limitations, or the attitudes, of the squad he had inherited; he didn't know the force of the emotion which, however irrational, swirled around the memory of Champions League winner Benitez.
Now he knows most of it and he lives on a knife-edge which few in football can envy. Yet he wasn't frogmarched into Anfield. He saw the chance of glory and the cachet of a managing a legendary football club, however straitened its current circumstances.
The same is essentially true of Ancelotti. He knew the track record of Roman Abramovich, but then he also believed in his own strengths and, if the Russian had a terrible record in the treatment of his coaches, well, Silvio Berlusconi wasn't exactly a dream boss over the best part of a decade at Milan – and that didn't stop him winning two Champions League titles or enjoying the football life of an Italian master of the game, a winner on the field and the touchline.
Ancelotti is much less serene these days but, if it is clear that he has been treated badly, that the firing of his assistant Ray Wilkins was crude, even psychologically devastating, and that he has been left critically short of depth in his squad, he is still in the middle of a gamble he made for himself. No one had him at gunpoint.
Here, maybe, we have the vanity of the football man ... the belief that, somehow, he will find a way to triumph over all his difficulties. For the moment it is somewhat stunning that he has not been able check Chelsea's downward spiral. In his brilliant debut year, and breathtaking start to the current season, few football men had ever appeared so secure.
Lose at Wigan, say, and just shrug your shoulders and say it is quite normal, no reason to make a drama. Just regather yourself and your players, go through the classic rituals of recovery. It is the job of the great football manager.
But then if things do go wrong, if they veer beyond your old certainties, the last thing you can do is make excuses. Who do you blame: the fickle, underperforming players, incompetent referees, traitorous chairman, unforgiving fans? Ancelotti is too old a fox to make such mistakes – and nor, we can be sure, would he give much room to the idea of regular "appraisals".
The sack race is not cruel or misguided or out of line with good employment practice. It is football, just that.
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