Thursday, January 10, 2008

The Final Season

When the global asset price bubble began to unravel so abruptly last summer, I was reminded of an interesting analysis I had read just a few months earlier.

The analysis postulated that the frenzied price rises witnessed (in property, equities, fine art etc..) must lead surely to just one of two possible conclusions. Either they were justified by fundamentals (low global interest rates, strong economic growth, central bank competence etc..), and thus were not a bubble at all.

Or much more worryingly the scale of the madness, and the implications of its breakdown, was so great that it would surely be the final bubble, since the social and economic implications thereof would be so catastrophic as to signal the end of civilisation as we once knew it. The happy scenarios he painted included nuclear war, social instability, hyperinflation, famine etc..

The implications for those who chose to save the old-fashioned way, to avoid the overhyped US or UK property markets like the plague, or to conclude that the mania to own football clubs might be indicative of the same phenomenon, were that you were acting irrationally because you could ultimately only be proved right intellectually, not financially.

The rational person therefore joined the party and danced the night away, levering up every asset they could get hold of (courtesy of the ever-accommodating banks), aware that they were either right, or if not would simply drown with everyone else anyhow.

It's too early to conclude whether the world has successfully skirted a middle ground between the two alternatives. I regularly remind myself that whilst the bad news will most likely emanate at a glacial pace, the events of the next few years will be condensed into just one chapter in tomorrow's history books. This all leads me naturally on to Sam Allardyce.

Big Sam today became the eighth Premiership manager to be sacked this season, a ridiculous statistic. Why did I begin a post about managerial sackings by launching into a tirade about 'the great unwind'? Because football owners are acting as if season 2007/08 is likely to be the final season, as opposed to merely the precursor to season 2008/9....and 2009/10....and 2010/11.

Whilst the knife is still dripping their outgoing manager's blood, it would be helpful to learn exactly what club directors expect to achieve via these types of decisions, and more importantly what were the expectations they initially had which presumably weren't met. Was it promotion or a trophy? Or multiple promotions? Perhaps increased attendances? Either way, I suspect an expectation was not, "...avoid a brief run of disappointing results at all costs."

With specific regard to the panic-stricken mini-League at the bottom of the Premiership (think Derby and Fulham), the bookmakers got their relegation odds right from the outset.....they were expected to be down there. And moreover, not only might their original manager have kept them up anyhow, they may have been better off with him post-relegation, than they will be with his replacement. I tried to make this point from time to time about Iain Dowie last season, albeit with limited success.

It seems sackings can be put into two broad categories. Firstly there are those which appear brutal at first sight, but which are merely the correction of an obviously suboptimal appointment in the first place. It would appear that Chris Hutchings and Sammy Lee would join Les Reed in this category (interestingly all were former assistants to their former boss).

The second category might only be described as the 'nonsensical' one, in the absence at least of any material and damning information to which fans and observers are not privy. What, it would seem reasonable to ask, did the board of Newcastle United expect Allardyce to have achieved by January 9th 2008? Why, more pertinently, are they acting as if this is the final season, as if all those that follow are of no consequence?

A board cannot by definintion, have complete certainty that they have the best available and affordable man at the helm. However, so long as reasonable confidence can be garnered that they have appointed a person of competence (and Allardyce's track record suggested they certainly had) then the most sensible course of action is surely to give them the one thing they want more than any other.....time.

A club like Newcastle, whose dysfunctional nature increasingly appears structural rather than temporary, was surely crying out for someone with both competence and a suitably large ego (at least larger than Glenn Roeder's). Someone who could shake up the coaching staff, redevelop the Academy, and perhaps most importantly build a squad of players that responded to his methods, rather than merely the one he largely inherited. The creation of the transfer windows has ironically slowed down the ability to achieve the last goal, at precisely the time that it seems club boards have speeded up the distribution of the P45. It doesn't make any sense.

As someone who loves Charlton, but more generally would like to see football brought a little closer to the 'real world', it would be reassuring if managers would get sacked more often for reasons other than merely recent results. I suppose Jose Mourinho would fall into this category, as would Rafa Benitez if he gets the rumoured chop.

It would be an implicit signal from the board to the fans that whilst short-term results are satisfactory, the prosperous medium and long-term future of the club is not guaranteed. In short, they would cease to act as if it's the final season. Perhaps I should instead view Iain Dowie's sacking by Charlton in this way, despite his last few results having been a marked improvement on what came before.

When Allardyce arrived at Newcastle, it was a significant coup because, like Alan Curbishley at Charlton, he could have continued to earn his living at Bolton, well-aware that a unilateral sacking was a virtual impossibility given what he had achieved there. Bolton's style of football was much-maligned, but his achievements are worthy of recounting since it is fair to say that they were a team that Charlton could have emulated given similar resources, but ultimately fell significantly behind.

After steering Bolton to a play-off defeat to Ipswich in 1999/2000, Allardyce secured promotion in 2000/01, just a year after Charlton too had returned to the top flight. In the subsequent years, they secured shaky finishes of 16th and 17th, before embarking on the consistent run which saw them achieve final positions of 8th, 6th, 8th and 7th. Unlike Charlton, they also managed to reach a League Cup final, losing to 'Boro in 2004.

I'm willing to conclude that their success was not merely down to good fortune. Allardyce's ability and willingness to create his very own version of the 'United Nations', whilst not overlooking the more traditional English talents of Kevin Nolan, Kevin Davies et al, appears to be straightforward, yet no other club has managed it for so long, with the same limited resources. Moreover, their form after Allardyce's departure has clearly fallen sharply. His latter-day appraoch was very much the antithesis of Curbishley's preference for honest pros, who had spent at least part of their career at another British club.

Every time pundits told him he'd gone a step too far (Diouf, Okocha, Djorkaeff, Campo, Anelka etc..), he consistently proved them wrong. And if any Newcastle fans claim that they would not want success playing in that style, then I'm willing to wager they're talking out of their not inconsiderable backsides.

An opportunistic club will recruit Sam Allardyce (perhaps by jettisoning a perfectly capable incubment!), whilst Newcastle will doubtless continue on their 52-year quest for another trophy. However this managerial madness presents opportunities for the enlightened club who can firstly identify real talent, secondly define reasonable and achievable goals, and finally guarantee the patience required along the way.

This fairly straightforward approach, served Charlton well under Curbs for 15 years from 1991, although initially it was one forced upon us by a dire financial situation. Likewise, the oft-underestimated success delivered by Lennie Lawrence was achieved in the context of near-bankruptcy and ground-sharing. It's not for nothing that I believe leaving The Valley in 1985 was the best thing that happened to Charlton. Being too risk-averse to dare consider sacking two such competent managers was one partly fortunate outcome.

A quick review of the ten longest-serving managers in the Football League suggests that a combination of ability and patience is a surprisingly intoxicating one:

Dario Gradi (Crewe) - 24 years
Alex Ferguson (Man Utd) - 21 years
Graham Turner (Hereford) - 12 years
Arsene Wenger (Arsenal) - 11 years
John Coleman (Accrington Stanley) - 8 years
David Moyes (Everton) - 6 years
Martin Ling (Orient) - 4 years
Steve Coppell (Reading) - 4 years
Steve Tilson (Southend) - 4 years
Paul Fairclough (Barnet) - 4 years

Other than pinching yourself that the 7th longest serving manager amongst the 92 clubs was only appointed in October 2003, what else strikes you about the clubs they represent? Would it be reasonable to conclude that their fans are satisfied with their achievements under their current gaffer's tutelage? And would it be reasonable to assume that each has suffered temporary losses of form that caused their fans some angst at the time?

The obvious point that I've so far failed to mention concerns the ability for bigger or richer clubs to wave a fat wad of cash at your highly-regarded manager, thus damaging the very foundations that he has been patiently allowed to build. I am too cynical to suggest a tide might be turning, but it would be reassuring to think that in a pensive moment, the likes of Allardyce, Billy Davies or Lawrie Sanchez might regret the day not so long ago when they quit a job where they were much-admired, to follow the filthy lucre.


At 8:27 AM, Blogger Wyn Grant said...

It's an excellent post, but I think the problem at Newcastle is the fans rather than the board. They have the most excessive and unrealistic expectations of any fans in the Premiership, although Spurs run them a close second.

At 11:02 AM, Blogger Blackheath Addicted said...

Excellent indeed. Chuck Prince may have summed up the mood with his comment about having to keep dancing if the music keeps playing, but Goldman Sachs showed him that you can keep dancing but to a different tune. And where is he now? Like Big Sam, walking away with pride wounded but bank balance considerably enhanced.

I do think you underestimate the elements of luck and timing. Allardyce was fortunate that Bolton just stayed up in the Premiership first off. We were lucky to get Curbs and he was lucky that he was afforded an opportunity to learn his trade at a club with low expectations and willing to give him plenty of time.

I do think your argument about the common theme for long-serving managers is a touch circular. If the fans/board are satisfied with their achievements it follows that the manager is much more likely to keep his job - and vice versa. And it's a little unfair to suggest that Sam and Curbs were just chasing the dosh. I think both were deflated by not getting the England job and realising that if they were to get that job they needed to prove themselves at 'bigger clubs'.

For some years we thrived on the back of the delusions of others as they failed to make the best of their resources. I hope we can get back among them to resume the process of building up our resources. In the interim let's just enjoy the fun. After all, each sacking creates an opportunity for someone else and when football clubs' bubbles burst they only affect a closed community. When Prince and his cohorts screw up the consequences are a little more serious.

At 11:43 AM, Anonymous KingKerouac said...

In answer to your question, 'What did the board expect Sam Allardyce to have achieved by 9th January 2008?'
That was a different board, different owner, different chairman.
They kept faith with Allardyce, long after the fans had lost faith. This was not because of expectation levels, but merely because this was the worst football they had ever seen.

At 1:16 PM, Anonymous newyorkaddick said...

Wyn: good point about the fans - probably no coincidence that both Spurs and Newcastle have such high managerial turnover, but at what point do they realise the turnover and lack of success are probably linked?

Blackheath: there is obviously a degree of circular argument regarding the long-serving managers, but David Moyes is a good example of a manager who would surely have been sacked by other clubs after finishing 17th in 03/04 (they finished 4th in 04/05). On a different point, I didn't mean to imply Curbs chased the dosh - he patently didn't given he took six months off after Charlton - in his case, 15 years was time enough, but he left the club in a considerably better state than he found it in.

KingKerouac: good point, I should have mentioned the new Board - however, who will they attract who's more competent and more importantly how long before they too are jettisoned after a brief spell of poor results? Judging by the share price performance of Sports Direct, I wouldn't have great confidence that Ashley will get it right.

At 6:32 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

If managers are going to be sacked for other than footballing reasons could Wenger get the sack for selective myopia and Ferguson for forgetting who provides the dosh for his expensive wine cellar? Excellent points made by the way, very entertaining as usual.

At 10:09 PM, Blogger Kings Hill Addick said...

Great post. Like Blackheath Addick I am a little doubtfull that Allardyce and Curbs left just to chase the dosh. I actually lean towards them both realising that it was time to make a quick escape before their luck ran out and their teams furtunes took a dive, taking their hard earned reputations with them.

At 10:47 AM, Anonymous Simon said...

Hello NYA, hope all is well. For once a comment not on the Tevez affair. Good article and thought you might want to have a look at this for further proof of the madness that is football....

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