The team were struggling, the fans were fractious, the chairman was notoriously impatient and the papers full of speculation. Yet the manager survived. I put it to the chairman, as politely as possible, that he had shown his manager unexpected loyalty.
"The rules have changed," growled the chairman. "Now you have to pay them off properly. It's too expensive to fire them these days." He might have been discussing his butler.
The rules have changed again. The agreement, brokered between the Premier League and the League Managers Association a decade or so ago, still stands. A dismissed manager can take his club to binding arbitration with a resolution inside two months. The new breed of chairmen pull the trigger anyway. When, like Newcastle United owner Mike Ashley, you have a personal fortune approaching £2bn, and an annual £30m minimum in television money spilling into club coffers, paying off Sam Allardyce and his band of merry men, even to the tune of £4m, makes little impact.
Allardyce is the seventh Premier League manager to be fired this season. The eighth change, Steve Bruce's departure from St Andrew's to take over at Wigan, may well have preempted his sacking by Birmingham.
The elite division, in part because of the LMA agreement, in part because Premier League managers tend to be men of big personalities and a track record of success who chairman are reluctant to fire, used to be a relatively safe place to manage. Three of the five managers to have lasted more than five years are in the Premier League, Alex Ferguson, Arsène Wenger and David Moyes. The others, Graham Turner (Hereford) and John Coleman (Accrington) spent most of that time operating in non-League – and Turner is also Hereford's owner.
Figures compiled by Dr Susan Bridgewater of Warwick Business School show until this season the average tenure of a dismissed Premier League manager was 3.15 years. In the Championship – which does not have an arbitration agreement – the time span is less than half that, just 18 months. It is, to quote one executive, "the killing ground". Watford's Aidy Boothroyd, appointed March 2005, is the division's longest serving boss.
The average tenure of dismissed managers across both Leagues in 1992-93, when the Premier League began, was 3.12 years. This has declined to 1.38 years so far this season with Premier League managers now being given less time than anyone.
The price of failure is one reason. Going down costs a club £25m overnight and, if not rectified during the two seasons of parachute payments, can push a club to the brink (witness Coventry, QPR, Nottingham Forest, Sheffield Wednesday, etc). Hence the sackings at Derby, Fulham, Wigan and Bolton. The other reason is the influx of moneyed owners in a hurry. Ashley's motives in buying Newcastle remain unclear. Having made his fortune buying ailing brands and turning them around there is inevitably speculation that he intends to sell the club. Allardyce's inability to revive it would not help such an aim.
But since taking over Ashley appears to have undergone a personality change. A once-reclusive man dubbed "Britain's answer to the late Howard Hughes" in the Sunday Times Rich List now cavorts with the Toon Army in bars and in the stands wearing a Newcastle United shirt. The Burnham-born billionaire wants sexy football, plus the reflected glory of overseeing success. In that respect Allardyce's sacking is a cross between Jose Mourinho's at Chelsea, where another rich owner wants to be entertained, and Martin Jol's at Spurs, where expectations are almost as warped as at Newcastle.
Dr Bridgewater has conducted research that suggests changing a manager only produces a short-term dividend. Long-term results remain the same. Richard Bevan, chief executive of the LMA, said: "We have been consistent in our view that if a club has managerial stability it is far more likely to be successful."
Premier League managers increasingly seem to be on a par with their counterparts on the Continent. In Italy's 18-team Serie A there were seven managerial changes before the winter break. In La Liga only Barcelona's Frank Rijkaard (appointed 2003) and Villarreal's Manuel Pellegrini (2004) have survived more than two years. The difference, Frank Clark, the former Nottingham Forest and Manchester City manager now with the LMA, has noted, is that in those countries there is an expectation that coaches will rotate, there really is a merry-go-round. This is related to the fact that presidents often conduct signings making the manager essentially a coach rather than a club-builder.
With the increase in foreign owners and managers the rotation culture may develop in England. At the moment, when it comes to managerial tenure, expectation and reality do not mix, which has also been the situation on Tyneside since Kevin Keegan left.
All change: The eight Premier League managers to reach the end of the line this season
Jose Mourinho: Chelsea split, Sammy Lee: Brief Bolton tenure, Martin Jol: Shown door by Spurs, Chris Hutchings: Wigan fall guy, Steve Bruce: Birmingham walk-out, Billy Davies: Dumped by Derby, Lawrie Sanchez: Fired by Fulham, Sam Allardyce: Out of NewcastleReuse content