Patience may be a virtue – but it’s one not often displayed among football club chairmen.
Amid the clamour of supporters who can’t see beyond the next fixture, the chance to make the manager the fall guy for a run of poor results is often too tempting for boardrooms to ignore. It pleases the fans who want a new face at the helm and it makes the suits appear decisive – glossing over the fact they were also responsible for the hiring of the guy they deemed fit to fire.
The phenomenal successes of Sir Alex Ferguson over 25 years at Old Trafford and Arsene Wenger in 15 years at Arsenal is oft-quoted by those who favour stability in a world of knee-jerk reactions. Ferguson, it’s argued, would’ve been sacked long before winning his first trophy at Manchester United, after flattering to deceive in his first three seasons (on the third anniversary of his appointment, a banner was unfurled reading: “Three years of excuses, ta-ra Fergie”). So the turnaround doesn’t have to happen overnight.
Well, it’s a noble sentiment – but one completely undermined by Martin O’Neill’s remarkable transformation of Sunderland. When Steve Bruce was axed at the end of November, the Black Cats were hovering precariously above the drop zone. Two months later they’re in the top half and – even more remarkably – as many points clear of the bottom three as they are the Champions League places. And that’s without any major activity in January’s transfer window.
There have been other managers with ‘healing hands’ who have revived ailing clubs. With Tottenham Hotspur rock bottom of the Premier League in October 2008, and with just two points from their first eight games, a change was inevitable. Out went Juande Ramos, in came Harry Redknapp – and by May he had led them to eighth and a League Cup final appearance. But that was just the start – Spurs finished fourth the following season, reached the Champions League quarter-finals the next year and are now serious contenders for the Premier League title.
In February 1998, Brian Little quit with Aston Villa languishing in 15th. Former Villa player and coach John Gregory was brought in from Wycombe and won nine of the 11 remaining league games to haul the club up to 7th and a place in Europe. By the end of that calendar year, Villa were top of the Premier League – and boasted a February to December record of 66 points from 31 games, title-winning form.
On the opening day of the 2009-10 season, former Scotland midfielder Paul Lambert led his Colchester team to a 7-1 mauling of League One title favourites Norwich City. A second defeat was too much for the Canaries’ board, who sacked Bryan Gunn and poached Lambert. A knee-jerk reaction to fire Gunn so soon? A too-simplistic solution to replace him with the man who masterminded the 7-1 rout 10 days previously? Perhaps – but my word it proved to be the best decisions they ever made. Nine months later, Lambert was proudly hoisting aloft the League One trophy – and he secured a second promotion the following season to guide Norwich back to the Premier League.
Getting the right manager in place is an inexact science – Alan Pardew’s appointment at Newcastle wasn’t warmly received coming so soon after he was sacked by League One Southampton, but he has shaped a side good enough to sit above both Arsenal and Liverpool at the time of writing.
Knowing when the time is right for a change is equally difficult. Patience can pay off if you give the right man time to mould a squad in his image – but if you’re part of the ‘quick fix’ brigade, Redknapp, Gregory and Lambert have shown it is possible to sprinkle some fairy dust and breathe instant new life into a struggling club.