It is a role that crops up at this stage of every Premier League season, and this year Dick Advocaat has stepped in to play it. He is Sunderland’s final gamble, their last investment in their hopes of staying in the top flight. He is the last-gasp-rescue manager.
Managerial changes are part of the rhythm of the season, of course, especially for those sides at risk of losing their footing at the table’s dangerous edge. But the striking thing about the appointment of Advocaat is its sheer lateness. The January transfer window had receded far into the distance by the time Sunderland were beaten 4-0 at home by Aston Villa last month, leaving owner Ellis Short with just one lever left to save his club from relegation.
So Advocaat was given a contract until the end of the season, just nine games in which to try to spark enough of an improvement to keep Sunderland out of the bottom three. If they do that, then Advocaat and his team could well be there next year. If not, then who knows?
The evidence of the last few years suggests that it will certainly be difficult, that this type of late-season salvage operation usually does not work. Of the last 10 managers drafted in under similar circumstances to Advocaat, only three have brought about an improvement in results, and safety: Lawrie Sanchez at Fulham in 2007, Paul Hart at Portsmouth in 2009 and Roy Hodgson at West Bromwich Albion in 2011.
What those three coaches all had was experience, and that is what Advocaat brings to his first role in English football. Although the Dutchman has been in charge of Sunderland for only one game – a 1-0 defeat away to West Ham United – it was not without positives.
Southampton 8 Sunderland 0 - the goals in pictures
Southampton 8 Sunderland 0 - the goals in pictures
12 min – Vergini attempts to clear, but instead sends a dipping volley past Mannone.
18 min – Davis supplies a cross that Pelle finishes simply from close range.
37 min – Tadic’s clipped cross allows Cork to side-foot in at Mannone’s near post.
63 min – Bridcutt kicks the ball against himself as Pelle’s shot trickles towards goal.
69 min – Pelle shoots across Mannone and into the far corner from Tadic’s clever pass.
78 min – A poor clearance from Mannone goes straight to Tadic, who curls the ball in first time.
79 min – Wanyama slams a shot down the middle from 10 yards.
86 min – Substitute Mane scores from another Tadic assist.
Coaches always talk of the importance of “buy-in” from the players and Advocaat has got that from the group at Sunderland. He has won leagues and cups in the Netherlands, Scotland and Russia, as well as the 2008 Uefa Cup with Zenit St Petersburg. Sunderland, by contrast, were only Gus Poyet’s second management job.
The Sunderland squad’s confidence was low when Advocaat took over last month but the players are said to be working tremendously hard for their new coach, who has brought a new energy and focus to a squad which had lost both. Advocaat, a fresh pair of eyes and ears at the club, has put new faith in strikers Connor Wickham and Steven Fletcher, starting them both at Upton Park, which Poyet had been reluctant to do in his final months.
After such a long career, Advocaat knows precisely what he wants. He has impressed this on the players and now everyone at Sunderland is hoping that it will be enough to drag them over the line in their final eight games. The next of those is tomorrow afternoon against Newcastle United, a team with a manager, John Carver, who is essentially a fort-holder until the summer, in no danger now of going down.
The last time Newcastle were relegated, in 2009, it was under a rescue-act manager, Alan Shearer, who had no managerial experience and who won only one of his eight games.
While Advocaat has a good chance of lifting Sunderland to safety, he must be conscious of what happened last season at Fulham, when a team heading for the drop decided to put their faith in a veteran European coach with his own clear ideas. Felix Magath replaced Rene Meulensteen last February, with Fulham firmly bottom of the Premier League table. At his unveiling at Craven Cottage, when asked about his infamously physical training methods, Magath set a very low bar. “Until now everyone has loved my training,” he said. “No one died.”
If “buy-in” is the most important thing, there was none of that at all from a squad Magath made little effort to win over. Some of Fulham’s most accomplished players – Bryan Ruiz, Fernando Amorebieta, Kostas Mitroglou, Maarten Stekelenburg – were isolated from the main group and never selected. Those who were allowed to train found Magath’s methods, his unpredictability and his demeanour baffling, as he kept schedules private and changed them on the slightest whim. If he was trying to prompt a response from his players, it did not work. Fulham took 10 points from his 12 games and stayed bottom of the league.
Most examples go this way. Those managers who have been thrown the reins for the final lap are, generally, less experienced than Magath or Advocaat but with more knowledge of the Premier League. It does not usually work.
Nigel Adkins took over for Reading’s final eight games in 2012-13, took five points and they finished in the same place, second from bottom. The year before, Terry Connor was put in charge of Wolverhampton Wanderers after Alan Curbishley had turned the job down. Connor, who had been Mick McCarthy’s assistant, could not inspire an improvement. They played 13 games, drew four, lost nine, finished bottom and went down the following season as well.
When Hull City placed Phil Brown on gardening leave in March 2010 they did not look for a new manager but a new “football management consultant”. They found one in Iain Dowie. He had only nine games in charge, he took just six points, and that was that.
The most successful counter-example was four years ago at The Hawthorns. West Bromwich’s form was tailing off and, although it was not looking fatal, the club decided to intervene before it was. Roberto Di Matteo was dismissed in mid-February, Roy Hodgson recruited, and he steered the team to 11th. Hodgson brought even more experience to that role than Advocaat or Magath, as well as knowledge of the Premier League. The players bought into his approach immediately, recognising they had to be in shape if they were to pick up points.
Most last-gasp-rescue managers simply do not have these resources at their disposal. The circumstances of their appointment always show the desperation of the club, the poverty of their players, the limitations of the remaining time, with the transfer window already gone. If the club was in good shape they never would have got the job.
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