Impact managers used to be home-grown veterans who knew the league – now the likes of Fulham turn to tough foreign taskmasters

Magath insisted no one had died in his boot camps, as if anything short was acceptable

When Felix Magath goes up against Pepe Mel this afternoon, it will not just be one of the spring’s first and fiercest relegation six-pointers, as West Bromwich Albion, out of the bottom three only on goal difference, entertain Fulham, still stuck to the bottom. It is also a test for a new concept in the game, a feature of recent years: the foreign manager as  firefighter.

Both Magath and Mel have been thrown in, with much of the season already gone, tasked with rescuing their teams and keeping them in the top flight. The presumption in English football has traditionally been that while foreign managers can build for the long term, for instant impact in hard times you need someone who knows the league, like Roy Hodgson at West Brom, Harry Redknapp or Mark Hughes at Queen’s Park Rangers, Martin O’Neill at Sunderland or Sam Allardyce at Blackburn Rovers.

But there is a new feeling now in the game that intimate knowledge of the league might not always be needed, that managers can produce the short-term upturn required without having worked in the Premier League before. It certainly takes hard work. A new approach to training tends to be the definitive characteristic of such a change. Even if there is not always enough time to teach the players a new way of playing, you may just be able to spark a reaction from them.

One of Magath’s first acts as Fulham head coach – even before he released Ray Wilkins and Alan Curbishley from their roles – was to cancel a scheduled day off last Sunday. “The most important thing for me is to get the players together and to work as fast as we can,” Magath said as he was unveiled at Craven Cottage on Thursday. “The players have to know me and they have to try to understand what I want. I have to understand the players and I have to think about what I can ask for.”

Time is the most important resource for new managers. The best recent example of a mid-season imported manager is Mauricio Pochettino, who controversially replaced Nigel Adkins last January, but guided Southampton to comfortable Premier League safety with wins over Manchester City, Liverpool and Chelsea. This season Pochettino took Saints into the European positions, and they now look set for a top-half finish.

Southampton sacked Adkins after an admirable 2-2 draw at Chelsea, but part of the thinking behind the dismissal was that Saints had a nine-day break after their next game, free time in which Pochettino could work with the players. He took them to Barcelona for a warm-weather mini pre-season, working on the principles of fitness and pressing that won them the games that kept them up. The players still find his intense training very difficult, but it is working. Magath and Mel must hope that they have a similar impact.

Increasing the level of training is the most common way of kick-starting something. Magath insisted on Thursday that no one had died in any of his fierce physical boot camps, as if anything short of that was acceptable. When Roberto Mancini arrived at Manchester City, in December 2009, he instituted new double sessions, working the players far harder than Hughes had done. It did not go down particularly well with all the players.

Craig Bellamy described in his recent autobiography just how hard Mancini drove the players, even though Bellamy had other plans owing to a long-term knee injury. “He said I had to train every day. I told him I couldn’t because of my injury history. He said I had to do double sessions – morning and afternoon – and I told him I couldn’t.”

Mancini made some impact with City in his first season. They were sixth when he took over and finished fifth, but did win the FA Cup in 2011 and Premier League in 2012. With any mid-season addition, there are short-term and long-term targets and one does not always imply the other.

There are times when the short-term impact can backfire. Paolo Di Canio was not quite as new to English football as Magath, Mel or Pochettino, arriving from the lower leagues, and after having played very successfully in England for much of his career. But he tried to manage by radical culture change, and while Sunderland found the two wins they needed in April last year to keep them up, it was never going to last. Di Canio lost his job early this season.

Nevertheless Sunderland are better off for being in the Premier League than the Championship. The issue is how much short-termism is too much, and whether instant upswings can be made permanent. Juande Ramos arrived at Tottenham Hotspur in October 2007, taking over a team that had rather lost its way under Martin Jol, taking seven points from their first 11 games. He immediately found an environment he did not like.

“It was like a wedding buffet, cakes, pastries, sauces – and that was what they ate regularly,” Ramos remembered in a recent interview. “Honestly, there were players who were fat.” Ramos improved results, guiding them back up the table and winning the 2008 League Cup. But his changes soon became too restrictive and Ramos was replaced by Redknapp, a more conventional impact manager, the following year.

Rafael Benitez’s time in charge of Liverpool, starting in the summer of 2004, was a longer-term success, as he won an FA Cup and Champions League and built a team which finished second in the Premier League in 2008-09. But that needed a short-term cultural change too.

Benitez introduced more Mediterranean ingredients into the cooking at Melwood, removing the frozen food lunches and beans before kick-off. Benitez, in that field, followed Arsène Wenger at Arsenal, the paradigm example of cultural shift improving results, in the short and long term.

Language, though, is the last great hurdle, the problem that will always afflict foreign managers, even the very best. Benitez’s English was good when he arrived, as is Magath’s and Mel’s now, but even then it can be hard to convey messages perfectly. Early on in his reign, Benitez was taking a session in a heavy gale, which was disrupting Steven Gerrard’s crosses to Peter Crouch.

“Stevie,” Benitez said, “be careful with the wine.” Some players laughed but few understood. Benitez soon realised that he meant wind.

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Caption competition
Caption competition
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

Bleacher Report

Daily Quiz
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

Day In a Page

Michael Calvin: Time for Old Firm to put aside bigotry and forge new links

Michael Calvin's Last Word

Time for Old Firm to put aside bigotry and forge new links
Isis hostage crisis: The prisoner swap has only one purpose for the militants - recognition its Islamic State exists and that foreign nations acknowledge its power

Isis hostage crisis

The prisoner swap has only one purpose for the militants - recognition its Islamic State exists and that foreign nations acknowledge its power, says Robert Fisk
Missing salvage expert who found $50m of sunken treasure before disappearing, tracked down at last

The runaway buccaneers and the ship full of gold

Salvage expert Tommy Thompson found sunken treasure worth millions. Then he vanished... until now
Homeless Veterans appeal: ‘If you’re hard on the world you are hard on yourself’

Homeless Veterans appeal: ‘If you’re hard on the world you are hard on yourself’

Maverick artist Grayson Perry backs our campaign
Assisted Dying Bill: I want to be able to decide about my own death - I want to have control of my life

Assisted Dying Bill: 'I want control of my life'

This week the Assisted Dying Bill is debated in the Lords. Virginia Ironside, who has already made plans for her own self-deliverance, argues that it's time we allowed people a humane, compassionate death
Move over, kale - cabbage is the new rising star

Cabbage is king again

Sophie Morris banishes thoughts of soggy school dinners and turns over a new leaf
11 best winter skin treats

Give your moisturiser a helping hand: 11 best winter skin treats

Get an extra boost of nourishment from one of these hard-working products
Paul Scholes column: The more Jose Mourinho attempts to influence match officials, the more they are likely to ignore him

Paul Scholes column

The more Jose Mourinho attempts to influence match officials, the more they are likely to ignore him
Frank Warren column: No cigar, but pots of money: here come the Cubans

Frank Warren's Ringside

No cigar, but pots of money: here come the Cubans
Isis hostage crisis: Militant group stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

Isis stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

The jihadis are being squeezed militarily and economically, but there is no sign of an implosion, says Patrick Cockburn
Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action

Virtual reality: Seeing is believing

Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action
Homeless Veterans appeal: MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’

Homeless Veterans appeal

MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’ to help
Larry David, Steve Coogan and other comedians share stories of depression in new documentary

Comedians share stories of depression

The director of the new documentary, Kevin Pollak, tells Jessica Barrett how he got them to talk
Has The Archers lost the plot with it's spicy storylines?

Has The Archers lost the plot?

A growing number of listeners are voicing their discontent over the rural soap's spicy storylines; so loudly that even the BBC's director-general seems worried, says Simon Kelner
English Heritage adds 14 post-war office buildings to its protected lists

14 office buildings added to protected lists

Christopher Beanland explores the underrated appeal of these palaces of pen-pushing