Who would be a football manager?

On Monday Alan Smith of Wycombe became the ninth manager to lose his job this season. Here Howard Wilkinson, himself one of the casualties, explains the pressures and pitfalls of life in the limelight
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The Independent Online
Since the end of last season, nine managers of English League clubs have lost their jobs. Some were sacked, some, euphemistically perhaps, have resigned. Presumably the intended outcome of those changes was somehow to produce a more successful club.

The first team's ability to win football matches must come somewhere on that list which constitutes success at a football club. OK, there are exceptions. Bruce Rioch's lot finished fifth last season, qualified for Europe and so far as I know remained undefeated in major competitions this season up to the day he left.

Dave Merrington's last season at Southampton saw them once again avoid the dreaded drop into so-called First Division anonymity (and, dare I mention it, potential poverty). All this by the way, in a season when Matt Le Tissier actually failed to produce his usual one-man rescue mission.

So where are they now? The clubs, I mean, not the managers. Doncaster Rovers remain bottom of the third, Mansfield in the bottom third. Queen's Park Rangers have moved, but down. Manchester City, like the grand old Duke of York, remain half way, neither up nor down.

In the Premiership Arsene Wenger has the task of improving a team that has done very nicely, thank you, without his particular blend of Gallic charm and Oriental inscrutability. Southampton have just won their first game in the Premiership under one Graeme, and Leeds have yet to notch their first point in the Premiership under another Graham.

It would seem the improvements sought for on the winning front have not yet materialised. But then, is it winning we're looking for here?

I was at Meadow Lane last Saturday watching Notts County and Wrexham grind out a 0-0 thriller. Last season Notts County did not have great difficulty scoring, they finished a creditable fourth, only to lose disappointingly to Bradford in the Wembley play-offs.

However, the Magpies faithful were not happy. Their song was definitely more a case of "One for Sorrow", and only very occasionally "Two for Joy". It seems they were not happy with the type of football being played - "pass the ball, get it on the floor", being more the order of the day. So Colin Murphy, County's general manager, decided to give them what they wanted. On Saturday his team passed, as they have done all season, and they never looked like scoring, as they haven't done all season.

Were the natives happy though? No, they were not. They were very definitely restless. Could it be that winning football matches is then vaguely attractive to supporters, I'm forced to ask.

I read recently that it's supporters and the media that sack managers. What a load of nonsense that ought to be. That decision ought to be the sole responsibility of directors. Supporters and the media have a right to express their opinion, but to allow them the power - or even let them believe they have the power - to perform the ultimate act is a very slippery slope on which to plant your directorial rear.

Having said that, there are situations where a crowd's response to the management affects the team's performance to the point where it becomes impossible for a manager to manage. But the directors must still exercise their collective responsibility, and it's one they abdicate at their peril.

Of course, there are occasions where the manager becomes the convenient carrier of the proverbial can. In such circumstances his dismissal might be cynically viewed as a short- term act of appeasement, designed merely to deflect criticism.

Direct face-to-face hostility is part and parcel of the manager's lot. Time numbs the nerve endings, but even those with skin the thickness of an old bull elephant have their sensitivity pierced at times. A few wisecracks, strategically lobbed across the locker-room at the golf club on a Sunday morning, added to prolonged direct confrontations, have been known to precipitate an emergency board meeting on many a Monday morning.

The media also has responsibilities, and presenting a balanced point of view is chief amongst these. The current fashion for phone-ins is depressing, a little like reading the death column in your local newspaper.

They are so negative. Customer protection is a principle for which we are justifiably proud in this country and the BBC stands in the vanguard on such matters, but does football, or the BBC for that matter, really need an ex-Cabinet minister starting his radio programme by effectively asking, "Right, who's for the chop this week?"

The fans have their chance before, during and after every game in the stadium. Shouldn't issues like ticket allocation, travel arrangements, prices, police protection or non-protection, as the case may be, dominate?

However, "nil desperandum". With only two months of their season gone, the Brazilians, by sheer coincidence, have also sacked nine of their coaches. Even in the land of the beautiful game, it would seem, it's more beautiful to win.