Football League managers left high and dry by need for instant results

At 6.55pm last Saturday, Ray Trew, the owner of Notts County, thanked Jamie Fullarton for his efforts, praised his professionalism and predicted he still has a bright future in the game.

But the 69th day of Fullarton’s first managerial job was one to forget. A 4-1 defeat at home to Exeter City left the club 19th in League Two and Fullarton was unemployed, two months after replacing Ricardo Moniz.

Sometimes there is barely time to pause for thought. They moved on quickly at Meadow Lane and a day later Mark Cooper, sacked by Swindon Town in October, became County’s third manager of the season. The cycle continues.

It is a fragile existence, being a manager. Those who have experienced the pressure of having no idea where the next win is coming from are not seeking sympathy when they speak of the strain it can place on their family and friends, the sleepless nights after a defeat, the overriding feeling of relief rather than euphoria after a win. Most managers relish their work and the potential riches on offer are vast, meaning any analysis of the challenges facing them must be tempered by an understanding that, away from football, there are more demanding jobs that pay significantly less.

Yet others can discover the game they love has a nasty habit of chewing people up and spitting them out, and the League Managers Association is concerned that an endemic sacking culture is having a debilitating effect on its members’ profession, with clubs increasingly unforgiving during times of struggle and novice managers becoming particularly vulnerable.

The LMA’s statistics are cause for alarm. Its report for last season showed the 47 managerial sackings across the top four divisions was the most since the high of 53 in 2001-02; 17 first-time managers lost their jobs and the average tenure of a sacked manager was 1.23 years, the shortest since 1992. Those numbers were not an anomaly bearing in mind that out of the 40 managers who have been sacked this season, 29 happened before 31 December– a record – while a quarter of those sacked in the Football League lasted less than six months in their posts.

Those 29 managers had an average tenure of 1.58 years and the longest serving manager in England, Arsène Wenger, increasingly looks like the last of his kind as he approaches his 20th anniversary at Arsenal. Eleven first-time managers have been let go.

“The attrition rate raises some very serious concerns,” the LMA’s chief executive, Richard Bevan, says. “Dismissing first-time managers without affording them the time and opportunity to establish themselves in the game is hampering the development of predominantly young British managers in this country.”

Dave Robertson was the first manager to lose his job this season, paying the price for Peterborough United’s poor start in League One. Like Fullarton, Robertson’s first job did not last long and he has since taken over at Sligo Rovers in the League of Ireland. Despite the bruises, they go back because management is an addiction.

Yet Robertson knows other first-time managers are put off by the experience. “Seventy percent of first-time managers don’t get the opportunity to manage again,” he says. “I said: ‘No way I’m going to be one of those stats’. But I can see how it can dampen their love for the game because of how harsh a feeling of responsibility it can be.”

The combination of trigger-happy chairmen, demanding supporters, rolling news and social media is a potent mix and the LMA’s studies have shown that “at any one time 40% of managers are at risk of developing serious health problems”.

For Robertson, his final days at Peterborough were tough on his family. “I had been at the club for 10 years before becoming manager,” he says. “We lived in the city, my two boys were in school in Peterborough. When the pressure comes and the results don’t, it’s tough. I had a 12-year-old and a six-year-old at school in the city and people were saying: ‘Your dad’s a rubbish manager’ and you have to hear all the other things that are said.

“It does have an impact on you and your family. The boys went through the obvious frustration of feeling hurt because there were friends from school who were repeating those things.”

Who’d be a manager? David Weir lost too many matches when he was in charge of Sheffield United in 2013 and his first job ended after four months. Now he is Mark Warburton’s assistant at Rangers. “Your family see you suffering,” Weir says. “You’re in the middle of it, trying to remedy it, and they see that. They see the worry, the phone calls, how hard you’re working to try to get success, and they feel disappointed as much as you do and have no control of it. Your closest friends and family – plus staff – feel that disappointment. The football industry now is so sharp and cruel.”

Yet if clubs are acting impulsively, it is often because they are in the same boat as their managers, searching for the perfect formula while working to a tight deadline. The issue is not black and white and if a manager is not getting results, the outcome is inevitable. “We often make the mistake of portraying clubs as having the perfect way of working, but we are humans, we are not robots or programmed a certain way,” a figure involved in recruitment says. “People make mistakes. You don’t always have the time to spend weeks and months finding the right manager.”

Take Walsall. Dean Smith managed the League One club for almost five years before joining Brentford in November and he survived a long run of games without a win. Yet his replacement, Sean O’Driscoll, was sacked earlier this month. He appeared to be the right fit when he was appointed; but then many people thought Claudio Ranieri would take Leicester City down. Football is not an exact science. Do Walsall deserve criticism or the benefit of the doubt?

In the Premier League, it is easier for clubs to devote resources towards implementing a long-term structure and only five managers – Steve McClaren, José Mourinho, Garry Monk, Brendan Rodgers and Tim Sherwood – have been sacked this season. That is harder to achieve in League One and League Two, while 35 managers have been sacked in the Championship in the past two seasons.

Paul Clement was sacked by fifth-placed Derby County after one winless run. Steve Cotterill was League One’s manager of the season last year after leading Bristol City to the title. Yet Cotterill was shown the door in January and his replacement, Lee Johnson, has led them seven points clear of the bottom three. Job security is lowest in the Championship – the average tenure of the managers who were sacked last season was 0.91 years and 1.32 years in the first half of this season.

A prominent figure at one Championship club tells the Guardian that the division is about instant gratification, constructed around the lure of the Premier League. So many clubs believe that they should go up. There are three promotion spots.

Most clubs will assess their position once the play-offs are out of reach. The decision to sack a manager is not taken lightly.

Everyone thinks twice. No reasonable owner enjoys it. Yet there is a feeling that keeping faith with an ailing or underachieving manager for the sake of continuity can be counter-productive. In continental circles, the thinking is that a manager who is producing losing football is wasting time and money, whatever the circumstances. The problem in England, perhaps, is the cult of the manager is still too strong, raising expectations to an unrealistic level. “On my pro licence [course] Rafa Benítez said: ‘When you win a game you’re a genius and when you lose a game everyone thinks you’re a clown’,” Robertson says.

The challenge is finding a better balance and while some managers are guilty of tapping into the raw emotions of supporters, want too much power and fail to appreciate, say, the value of a sporting director, it is impossible to achieve anything substantial without solid structural support. Unless clubs improve in that area, realising that the rush of appointing a new manager cannot obscure historical flaws, the chopping and changing will surely only get worsecontinue.

“That’s the chance you take, I suppose, and circumstances change,” Weir says. “You go into a job asking all the right questions, setting the right parameters, and all of a sudden the parameters change and your job changes. You’re judged on the job they want you to do rather than the job they wanted you to do. That’s not an excuse because we didn’t win enough games but the job was a long-term project and I very quickly realised that wasn’t going to be the case any more.”

Far too many managers will empathise with that tale of broken promises and dysfunction.

Powered by article was written by Jacob Steinberg, for The Guardian on Friday 25th March 2016 11.08 Europe/London © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010


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