The myths and misconceptions around managerial continuity 1

Roberto Mancini

Roberto Mancini was sacked late last night, and so this morning’s papers will presumably feature plenty of criticism of Manchester City and regret over the lack of managerial continuity that they’re promoting at the club.

…and, needless to say, a couple of writers will throw in comparisons with Sir Alex Ferguson’s reign at Manchester United, and deduce that managers who are given longer terms always succeed.

This has become one of the big myths in English football: amidst the universal lament over the declining lack of patience chairmen have with their employees, the belief has been peddled that any manager in any situation will always do better ‘with more time’. It’s rubbish – it’s an LMA-sponsored mantra of self-interest.

Furthermore, the comparison with Ferguson is completely redundant – that personality at that club amounted to a entirely unique situation, the like of which will probably never again be seen in the domestic game. Ferguson was appointed during a different era of the game, and as such his terms of employment do not sync with the modern football world. There was no Premier League, there was no vast financial reward for high league placings, and he was able to build his legacy at a time when the difference between success and failure in the top division was far less stark than it is now.

Alex Ferguson became part of Manchester United, rightly so, but he was able to do that under a different set of conditions. The club dominated the 1990s, to the extent where any failure to win the Premier League or compete properly in Europe in the next decade was termed a ‘bad season’ rather than a reason to question his role at the club. Rightly so, he showed a tremendous aptitude for rebuilding a team and adjusting his own tactical philosophies as the game around him evolved.

But the point remains: he was able to create an immunity for himself that no other manager can ever hope to achieve.

The lack of job security for managers isn’t, with a few exceptions, the product of a new breed of chairman, it’s symptomatic of the adjustment those same decision-makers have had to make to the changing football environment. The landscape has altered, and the battles which have to be fought have intensified – that’s what money will do to a sport. It’s not that short-term failure has become more intolerable, it’s more that it’s now far more damaging to a club, regardless of whether that team is competing for a championship or raging against relegation. A good chairman recognises the trend at a club, he doesn’t blindly ignore it and hope it will be corrected over the period of many years.

When Martin O’Neil was removed from his job at Sunderland by Ellis Short earlier in the year, there was many an incredulous ex-player willing to berate the American for allowing O’Neil such a short tenure in the North-East. He needed more time, the lack of patience was ‘ridiculous’, and so on and so on.

No, not at all.

O’Neil left Sunderland with the club circling the Premier League drain. Their form was awful, the collective confidence in the squad was non-existent, and they were heading out of the league. How could Short have afforded O’Neil more time, when time was the one commodity the club did not have. Had O’Neil been allowed to stay, it would have been loyalty for the sake of loyalty and Short would really have been putting his club at more risk.

If a manager is not doing a good job, and he shows no signs of improving, then within reason it doesn’t really matter when he’s sacked – because it’s still the right decision. How valuable would Short’s loyalty to O’Neil have been if they had dropped out of the Premier League and foregone the reward of the extravagant new television deal? If Sunderland sack Paolo Di Canio next season, and then replace him with another manager who also keeps them in the Premier League, then all three moves – O’Neil’s sacking, Di Canio’s sacking, and the appointment of AN Other manager would all still be ‘the correct decision’. The structure of professional football today emphasises the importance of the final destination, and not the means by which a club arrived at it.

In Manchester City’s case, the cost of underachievement is obviously more subtle, but it’s every bit as real. Roberto Mancini’s failure to compete for the title this season damaged the club’s reputation, and the group stage exit from the Champions League combined with the humbling Wembley loss to Wigan only compounded that. It isn’t just fan expectations at stake either, nor revenue from success in those competitions – the perception of the club has changed slightly: they’re not a brave new force in English football, they’re a club stocked with mercenaries and characterised by in-fighting. It doesn’t matter if that’s true or not, because that’s the impression given – and that’s the association City have to take to the negotiating table with sponsors and potential commercial partners.

Mancini may well have been responsible for last season, but that doesn’t mitigate City’s receding PR value this season. His performance – and his players’ performance – this season have devalued the club’s brand and created a lingering negative around the team, and that’s a serious problem in the modern game whether anyone believes it should be or not.

That’s the fundamental difference between 2013 and 1986: the connotations of short-term failure are much more serious. Just preaching continuity, and encouraging clubs to stick with under-performing managers is just a willful avoidance of the dangers of doing that.

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