Wednesday, 21 November 2012

A Familiar Set of Circumstances


There are few guarantees in a Premier League season, but a change of manager at Chelsea is becoming somewhat of an annual occurrence. Last season it was Andre Villas-Boas, the year before that Carlo Ancelotti...and now the axe has befallen Champions League winner Roberto di Matteo. To say the Italian's dismissal is a surprise would be to stretch the truth, considering the length of time it took for him to be appointed permanently, but to say his sacking is both harsh and ruthless would be nothing less than an understatement. And yet, the majority of onlookers have taken the news with a pinch of salt, which suggests a problem that is not exclusive to the bowels of Stamford Bridge, but rather throughout football as a whole.

The position of football manager is becoming an increasingly tenuous one, something which di Matteo's sacking articulates perfectly. Here is a man that last season took charge of a team that was low on confidence and short of form, and by the end of the season oversaw a dramatic European triumph as well as success in the FA Cup. The only blemish on the former West Bromwich Albion manager's record was his inability to overturn the Blues poor league form, something that he appeared to be remedying after a strong start to this season's campaign. However, last night's 3-0 defeat to Italian champions Juventus was enough to convince Roman Abramovich that another change was needed. Initial reports suggest that former Liverpool chief Rafael Benitez is set to land the job on a 'caretaker' basis, an appointment that I feel (for the record) is a shrewd move.

Benitez's suitability for the Stamford Bridge hotseat is beside the point of this article though, for I am more concerned with the increasing prominence of the managerial merry-go-round that continues to blight every football season. Whilst the hiring and firing of managers makes a good news story, it also worryingly undermines the position and increasingly unsettles team up and down the country. A fine example from this term comes from two promoted sides, they being Reading and Southampton. Both Brian McDermott and Nigel Adkins were showered with praise last season not just for guiding their respective sides to promotion, but also for the style in which they achieved it. Slow starts from both teams this time around have, however, raised questions about both of their long term futures at each club. Sam Allardyce, on the other hand, seems to have won over his critics from last term due to newly promoted West Ham's strong start to the campaign. Indeed, recent reports have indicated that Allardyce is due to be rewarded with a new contract at the club, something which itself demonstrates the fickle nature of both the press and (some) supporters.

The success being enjoyed by Big Sam is demonstrative of the benefits that can be reaped by sticking with a manager in the face of adversity. I have always struggled to understand why any chairman would appoint someone to a long-term contract, only to dismiss them within a year. There are, of course, certain pressures that come with running a football club, most of them being financial, that sometimes dictate that a manager must be moved on. Recent examples of such scenarios include Steve Kean at Blackburn Rovers, Avram Grant at West Ham United and (arguably) Mark Hughes at Queens Park Rangers. It is no coincidence, however, that these three cases are all instances of clubs who were (or are) involved in relegation battles. The financial incentive to survive in the top flight needs no explanation and the respective struggles of the three sides noted dictated that a change of manager was required, and indeed should have been implemented earlier than it was. Abramovich can not lean on any such excuse. 

Generally speaking, I believe that all managers should be given a minimum of three years in the post before they can be fairly judged. Obviously, if things were to take a turn for the disastrous then a shake-up may be required, but there is no doubt that 12 months simply isn't a requisite amount of time to make any genuine or distinctive progress in any post. I look to my own club, Wolverhampton Wanderers, with concern at the time of writing due to our disappointing league position (16th), but then apply perspective and understand that our new manager, Stale Solbakken, needs to be afforded time to implement his own method and style on the team. Our chairman, Steve Morgan, has already shown that he is a patient man (he stuck with Mick McCarthy for too long) and so I am understandably confident that the future is bright at Molineux. Roberto di Matteo deserved similar treatment from his employers. Recent weeks have been frustrating for Chelsea fans, but the team has shown enough this season to suggest that they are heading towards being a really top side both domestically and in Europe. Clearly, that wasn't enough for Roman Abramovich. 

How well Benitez will fare (if he is appointed) remains to be seen, but one can only hope that if he does overturn Chelsea's recent slump that he is given a fairer chance than his predecessor was. The looming shadow of Pep Guardiola over the club might determine otherwise, but I would still be shocked if the ex-Barcelona coach opts to take over at Stamford Bridge. After all, why would anyone uproot their family for a 12 month gig?  

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