Peter Corrigan: Time for a pointless sacrifice - the boss

A very sore point
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The Independent Football

My early days as a football reporter involved several years of accompanying a team on long and dreary train journeys around the country. Not as long and dreary as they would be nowadays – assuming the big clubs still travelled by train – but tedious enough for card-playing to be the only relief.

My early days as a football reporter involved several years of accompanying a team on long and dreary train journeys around the country. Not as long and dreary as they would be nowadays – assuming the big clubs still travelled by train – but tedious enough for card-playing to be the only relief.

Nine-card brag was the favourite game because it built up massive kitties and was generally more exciting than most of the football they played when they reached their destination. I usually played with them (the cards not the football) largely because I was the only one they would trust to look after the kitty while they were otherwise engaged on the pitch. There is no better way of understanding football people and the way they think than to be part of their off-field culture and my most vivid recollection of those times is that when one of the players was having a bad run he would gather the cards off the table and throw them out the window.

The others would shrug, produce another pack and start dealing. I never grasped why a good shuffle wouldn't suffice but the logic of football ways often defies analysis, which is why every time I hear of a manager being sacked I think: "There goes another pack of cards out of the window." Those who have been bewailing the spate of manager departures this season – last week, Andy Kilner of Stockport and Andy Ritchie of Oldham were the 20th and 21st to go – ought not to look for more profound reasons for the cull than the long-established belief that all the club's ills follow the manager out of the door.

Faith in human sacrifice did not die with the pagans and if they tend to be done in batches it is because many dithering chairmen are emboldened by sackings elsewhere. Not only in politics are there advantageous times to bury the bad news.

Football managers must wish they had opted for a career running the big corporates. When Sir Peter Bonfield left BT last week, after a record not unlike taking Manchester United from the top of the Premiership down to the Conference in six years, he received a pay-off of £3 million.

Such patience is not available in football and never has been. By placing full responsibility on the manager, all levels of a club have a ready means of disposing of their sins. When did you last hear of players rebelling against a manager's dismissal? Some are honest enough to admit their part in his downfall but a squad of footballers is full of factions and cliques, jealousies, bitter rivalries, directors' narks ... able to unite only through success.

When a manager falls, he takes the collective blame with him and most players see the event as a new chance to impress. The sad part is that it often works. Many a caretaker manager finds that the team suddenly start playing well and wonders what he is doing right. The directors take it as vindication of their decision. Very rarely do these post-sacking surges last long but they do provide some evidence that all that was needed was fresh air from some direction. If managers were more alive to that theory they could organise their own upheavals and change their assistants or bring in a new coach and take a slightly different role.

Then there's the fact that sacked managers can be better for the experience. Hardship is a good teacher. They get meaner and more focused on what's important. Clubs don't seem to mind if a manager has a sacking on his record. A scarred warrior always looks more capable of coping with battle, despite the evidence that he isn't.

It is a nonsensical situation but it will remain so as long as management is such a mystic art. Who knows what the successful formula is? How many top footballers of the past – intelligent, articulate and level-headed – have fallen flat on their faces at the first managerial hurdle? How many others have taken one look at the job and sought shelter in a television studio?

Look how well Liverpool are doing despite the hospitalisation of their manager Gérard Houllier. His assistant, Phil Thompson, is doing an excellent job but you wouldn't dream of suggesting that Houllier is no longer needed. Too often have bright coaches been separated from their superiors and been found short of what is necessary. Don't tamper with a winning team seems a good motto, although it might dawn on Houllier now that he is out of danger that his team would do just as well if he stayed in bed on a Saturday afternoon instead of ranting and raving and waving his arms on the touchline.

The confusion doesn't excuse the unfairness of it all. The sacking of Stuart Gray by Southampton reeked of premature panic and his unseemly replacement by Gordon Strachan, bombed out of Coventry, has created a dramatic situation full of possibilities.

You cannot blame the chairmen too much. The game is so commercially competitive these days that they are tempted by haste with no deep knowledge of what they are involved with. But where they are at fault is in not appreciating that the ridiculous demands of our domestic competitions mean that at any given time the top 10 clubs in each league are in various stages of contentment, the middle few are hopeful and the bottom 10 are in various stages of abject fright.

No matter how many managers are sacked, those statistics will remain the same and the only answer is to change the format of our season. I suggested such a change about 25 years ago and offered a solution that did away with the present method of promotion and relegation, which is at the heart of most of our troubles. I have no intention of boring you with the details but it involved splitting the season in half and blocks of teams moving up or down to give the second half of the season a completely fresh look. If I can think of a way, better brains could do better. Reorganisation is the only way to reduce the panic and bring a new sense of proportion to the game.

In my painful and costly period as a racehorse owner – well, half of one – my attitude to the use of the whip was that if my horse was engaged in a tight finish I would not object to the jockey giving him a reminder or two about the urgency of the situation.

We all need a bit of encouragement to produce our maximum effort at times. As things turned out, a close finish never materialised because he had a distaste for going flat out that a stick of dynamite up the behind would not have cured. In case anybody considers my attitude to be cruel, I would like to point out that he is now enjoying early retirement in a lush field in Donegal while I am still trying to recover my losses.

Whipping remains a controversial part of the sport and there has been a curious development which was reported in the Racing Post last week. The Jockey Club, in conjunction with the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, have been experimenting with two new "soft" whips, which have been designed to lessen the effect of the blows. Jockeys have been taking it in turns to try them out but, amazingly, punters have not been told which jockeys have been using them.

This means that you could be putting your money on a horse whose jockey has less persuasive power in his whip than his rivals. By all means conduct the experiment but let the punters into the secret because it must make a difference when summing up a horse's chances.

Tony McCoy used one of the whips in a race at Cheltenham last week and said it was so ineffective the horse was "laughing" at him.

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