The pain game, one year on

Three top football managers lost their jobs 12 months ago. Simon O'Hagan talked to them on a poignant anniversary
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'Proud of

what I

achieved'

Ossie Ardiles

THE world has turned full circle for Ossie Ardiles since his dismissal from Tottenham Hotspur on 1 November last year marked the start of 10 days of managerial mayhem in the Premiership. Last Monday, a year minus two days after losing his job at White Hart Lane, Ardiles was sacked again - this time as boss of Guadalajara, would-be high- flyers in the Mexican League.

Ardiles had only been there since the season began in August. But the mere 10 games in which he was in charge - eight of them defeats or draws - were enough to persuade the club that he was not for them. This weekend the 43-year-old Argentinian was returning to the Hertfordshire home he has kept on, hoping to be offered a new job in management while cheerfully acknowledging that "the only thing you can be sure about in football is that at the end of the day you will get the sack".

Anyone who went through what Ardiles did during the final phase of his 17 months at Spurs can hardly be blamed for seeing things that way. Speculation about his future had gone on for weeks before the axe finally fell, the pressure on Ardiles always borne with stoicism and good grace. As so often seems to be the case with sacked managers, his last match ended in victory - 3-1 at home to West Ham. That was on Saturday 29 October. But it was too late. On the Monday night, Alan Sugar, the Spurs chairman, summoned Ardiles to his home. You're fired, he told him. An official announcement came the next day.

Spurs were a far from disastrous 11th in the table, and as Ardiles pointed out with some feeling last week, not only are the present team hardly any better placed now, but as happened last season they were knocked out in the third round of the Coca-Cola Cup. When Ardiles's Spurs lost 3-0 away to Notts County, the sound of nails being banged into coffins was deafening. When, at the same stage of this season's competition, Gerry Francis's team squandered a 2-0 lead to lose 3-2 at Coventry City, there was hardly a murmur.

But the mood 12 months ago was very different. Spurs were shipping goals - 33 in 15 games - and there was a recklessness bordering on the suicidal about the way Ardiles, his team newly blessed by the presence of the star foreigners Jurgen Klinsmann, Ilie Dumitrescu and Gica Popescu, persisted with a five-man attack. But reflecting on events now, Ardiles stands by his record.

"I'm proud of what I achieved at Tottenham," he said. "I've always wanted to play that way. But expectations were far too high. Maybe we fed them with the players we bought. I knew time was running out, but I never knew really what to expect. I had hope right to the end. Managers do come back from such situations.

"I was very despondent at the time. But these things happen. I've no regrets. Alan [Sugar] supported me through bad times, but the pressure became too much for him as well. What I do feel is that in a way my sacking produced the others. People at other clubs saw what was happening and thought they had to do something too."

After leaving Spurs, Ardiles received job offers, from Argentina among other places, but preferred to bide his time. He did some work for the Malaysian Football Association. He edited the programme for the Copa America in Uruguay during the summer. Then he was tempted to try his hand in Mexico.

Guadalajara are the country's second team, behind America of Mexico City. They are too proud to let foreigners play for them - up to five per team are permissible - but that didn't make Ardiles's job any easier. He was accused of having communication problems - an irony considering he was back among Spanish speakers for the first time for 17 years - and he admits that his ignorance of Mexican football generally was a problem. In terms of media pressure, it was as bad as England, and when Guadalajara lost at home to America two weeks ago, Ardiles's number was effectively up.

"I have to say it's still a wonderful job from Monday morning until three o'clock on Saturday," he said. "But after that it's purgatory."

Mike Walker

'We had

turned

corner'

FOR most of the year since Mike Walker became the second of the big three to be sacked - Everton got rid of him seven days after Ossie Ardiles went from Spurs - his chances of finding a new job, he says, have been blighted by a dispute with his old club over the payment of his contract, worth pounds 650,000 over three and a half years when he signed it in January 1994.

The matter was finally resolved in July, after Walker had taken Everton to court. Before then he had received two job offers - one to manage a Premiership club, the other from a club in the Greek First Division. But in accordance with financial custom and practice as it applies in football, Walker turned them down because that might have jeopardised his claim on the money Everton owed him.

"It's nothing new," Walker said last week. "Some managers don't get paid for 18 months or two years. It's scandalous. But in football, unfortunately, things don't quite work as they do in other walks of life. If I'd been there two years and we'd still been bottom of the League, fair enough. But with only 10 months gone I didn't see why they couldn't honour what was almost three more years of my contract."

Walker's move to Everton from Norwich had also been acrimonious. Having made a name for himself and the club in the Uefa Cup, Walker says he was hoping for more support from the Norwich chairman, Robert Chase, than was on offer. "Once Everton came in I had to make a decision," Walker said. Chase, meanwhile, was left accusing Everton of making an illegal approach, of which the club was subsequently found guilty by the Football Association.

The Everton team Walker inherited from Howard Kendall were lying 16th in the Premiership and going nowhere. Bringing with him from Norwich his coach Dave Williams, Walker set about what he thought was his brief - to sort out the playing side from youth team upwards. In this he feels he achieved something. But where it really mattered - at first-team level - things got worse. Only victory at home to Wimbledon on the last day of the season kept Everton up.

As the 1994-95 season unfolded, hope soon turned to despair. Without a win in their first 12 Premiership games, Everton bumped along at the bottom of the table - humiliatingly for a club with aspirations to be among the game's elite. Defeat by Portsmouth in the Coca-Cola Cup made life even more unbearable. Finally they won, 1-0 at home to West Ham on 1 November. Then, four days later, a goalless draw at Norwich marked their second clean sheet of the season. "We seemed to have turned the corner," Walker said.

In fact he had hit a brick wall. He agrees with Ardiles that the latter's sacking created a climate in which his own became more feasible. "There was also a 12-day break to the next game, against Liverpool," Walker said. "The feeling was that if we won that one, it wouldn't have been possible to sack me." Walker never got the chance to find out. On 8 November, Peter Johnson, the Everton chairman, told him he was being dismissed.

A year on, Walker says he is not bitter. "What's the point of that? I can only react to things I can affect. I can't affect a chairman wanting to sack me." Like Ardiles, he notes that, in terms of Premiership form, his old club have not improved much from when he was in charge.

Since his contract was settled, Walker has applied for one job, as manager of Wales. He was disappointed to lose out to Bobby Gould. He has been linked with vacancies at Wigan and Peterborough, but having learnt the managerial ropes at Colchester, he says he is not interested in returning to the lower divisions. A job abroad would appeal, but jobs anywhere at the moment are not forthcoming.

So Walker, who was 50 at the end of September, remains at home in Norwich and involves himself with a business he set up with a partner two months ago. "But it's very much on the basis that if anything comes up in football, I'll be able to go off and do that." Some priorities never change.

Ron Atkinson

'I don't like to look back'

WITH the blood now flowing, Ron Atkinson became the third and last victim of the Premiership's autumn cull when on 10 November, two days after Mike Walker's sacking, nine after that of Ossie Ardiles, Aston Villa decided that they too were not prepared to keep a manager who suddenly seemed powerless to stop his team plummeting towards the bottom of the table.

By now, the English game was virtually immune to shock. On 9 November, the Sun had published its match-fixing allegations against Bruce Grobbelaar. The sacking of Atkinson could barely compete for attention, yet in some ways it was the biggest surprise of the three.

Whereas neither Ardiles nor Walker had proved themselves at the highest level, Atkinson was different. The Big Ron sobriquet reflected not just his physique but his personality, outlook and ambition. No manager was more liked - by players and public - or more committed to good football.

Only seven months previously Atkinson had pulled off a tactical coup when his Villa team outsmarted Manchester United in the final of the Coca- Cola Cup, denying them the chance of the treble. Yet as the 1994-95 season got under way, that was forgotten as Villa entered a slump which saw them knocked out of the Uefa Cup by Trabzonspor of Turkey (though Villa had beaten Internazionale in the previous round) and lose eight out of nine Premiership matches, culminating in a 4-3 defeat at Wimbledon after they had led 3-1.

The day after, Doug Ellis, the Villa chairman, announced Atkinson's dismissal, striking a contrasting note to the one he had sounded the week before when he described his manager as one of the top three in Britain. "To say I was stunned is, I can assure you, an understatement," Atkinson said.

His pride hurt, Atkinson had to come to terms with life out of the limelight. He still had his media work, but at 55, older than any other Premiership manager, he seemed to have lost his relish for the fight. It was an illusion. While Ardiles played chess and Walker did the garden, Atkinson re-emerged, taking over from Phil Neal as the manager of Coventry City in February this year. "It's smashing to be back,"he said as he set about the task, duly achieved, of providing enough of his legendary inspiration to keep his new team in the Premiership.

Coventry have struggled again this season, and it seems that Atkinson's powers have indeed waned. But the team are still in the Coca-Cola Cup and the man himself thinks only of the future. "I don't really like to look back," he said last week. "As far as I'm concerned what's past is past." For some, there will always be life after the sack.

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