Premier League managers beware: the sacking season is fast approaching. Those who believe there is no such thing and that a chairman’s knife can be wielded at any time of year may be surprised to learn that Paolo Di Canio’s dismissal by Sunderland and Ian Holloway’s resignation at Crystal Palace before British Summer Time ended were early exceptions to the normal rule.
In fact, there are three main sacking “windows”. The first begins towards the end of November and lasts until midway through January, allowing the new man to buy a player or two. March then brings a brief panic, before the main changeover period each summer.
Last year there were three November-January casualties (at Chelsea, Queen’s Park Rangers and Southampton), after two, three and four respectively in the previous seasons. Now that the bottom two clubs have already made a change, it is those immediately above them where the incumbent must bite the bullet rather than face one.
Fulham’s Martin Jol is the bookmakers’ odds-on favourite to be next man out, ahead of Norwich’s Chris Hughton. Both teams – and managers – have suffered a run of fixtures against the leading clubs, which in Norwich’s case came to an end on Saturday with a home game against West Ham that they succeeded in turning round after deservedly trailing 1-0 at half-time.
Jol must hope for a similar break, having seen his team beaten 3-1 by Manchester United and 4-0 at Liverpool, where their performance was limp in the extreme. After the United game, the affable Dutchman claimed that there were “six or seven” worse teams than his, but Fulham supporters who travelled to Anfield must feel they would struggle to name that many.
Jol’s argument against a change of manager is that “I think you have to be an expert if you are in the bottom four or five to keep teams up and I don’t think there are a lot of experts”. For two seasons he has done that comfortably, finishing ninth and 12th, but to save him – if it is not already too late – Fulham must win games against the weaker teams. Swansea visit Craven Cottage on Saturday week, after which there is a trip to West Ham. Jol has a new owner in the American Shahid Khan, who has so far preached not rushing into things; he has time now to consider them and may soon decide that decline has gone too far.
Norwich, under the benign ownership of Delia Smith and her husband Michael Wynn Jones, are not essentially a sacking club and there will be pleasure far beyond Norfolk if Hughton comes through unscathed. He had been particularly unfortunate in a crop of fixtures bringing heavy defeats by Arsenal, Chelsea and both Manchester clubs, and the concern was that the players’ attitude in losing 7-0 at Manchester City nine days ago was as poor as Fulham’s on Saturday.
Norwich had also failed to beat (or even score a goal against) Hull City, Aston Villa and Cardiff City, so going in at half-time a goal down at home to West Ham amid some instinctive booing from their home crowd felt like a potential tipping point. In the second half, however, the team responded to their manager’s demand for greater urgency and physical pressing of the West Ham midfield, producing what he called “a very, very good reaction”.
Crucial breaks – easily underestimated amid all the technical analysis – went their way too and by Saturday night there were five teams, including West Ham (where Sam Allardyce is not a popular figure), below them in the table.
“You don’t veer from the things you do week in and week out, and you have to have a belief that that’s going to see you OK,” Hughton said. “If we’re talking about pressure I’m under, then big teams in the top five or six have to take that pressure as well. The way the game is now you’re putting more into each performance and the defeats don’t get any easier.”
Jol will be feeling that today, as will Cardiff’s Malky Mackay, who faces extra difficulties in the unpredictability of the club’s owner, Vincent Tan. After the highly regarded Iain Moody, dismissed by Tan, was appointed as sporting director by Crystal Palace this weekend, it was inevitable that Mackay would be asked about following him to the managerless south London club. “I’m proud to be the Cardiff City manager,” was his diplomatic response following the 2-0 defeat at Aston Villa.
The former Real Madrid defender Aitor Karanka, who comes with a glowing reference from Jose Mourinho, is on Palace’s shortlist, although the caretaker Keith Millen believes the job should go to someone with Premier League experience.