Sack Race

‘YOU DON’T KNOW WHAT YOU’RE DOING’ is every football manager’s nightmare chant. The supporters are no longer supporting. It’s a sure sign of frustration, if not disillusion, an ominous indication of what might come next: the sack. Even one of England’s most successful managers, Gareth Southgate, has recently spoken of the impact of disenchanted voices from the terraces prior to the last World Cup. It caused him to reflect on his position as national coach. Should he move aside?

Forest’s next visitors to the City Ground know a thing or two about the managerial merry-go-round that descends on a club once in a while. A case of sack your way to success … possibly. Leeds United enjoyed exciting times not so long ago, winning games and plaudits beyond the city (no small achievement given their nationwide ‘we hate Leeds’ reputation). Manager Bielsa – famed for sitting on an upturned bucket during a game – brought a refreshingly attacking philosophy to the club. The trouble was that they had a defence like a leaky bucket and came perilously close to Premiership relegation after Championship success. Turn to a new manager! The Argentinian was replaced by the American Jesse Marsch but, a year on, there are rumblings that his days might be numbered.

Whatever happens to Marsch, he’s already surpassed probably the shortest – and most infamous – managerial stint by anyone at Leeds: that of Brian Clough in 1974. Sandwiched between his historic achievement in guiding Derby County to become champions of the First Division and then repeating the feat with Forest, (plus a few extra trophies) he lasted 44 days at Elland Road. He barely had time to tell the players – famously – that they were a bunch of cheats. His conduct in Yorkshire reads like that of a disruptor, going out of his way to undermine what we’d expect of a new boss at a big club.

There’s no set formula as to what makes a successful manager though legendary Liverpool boss, Bill Shankly, reminded us of the virtuous circle – well, triangle – of players, manager and supporters. Clough knew a thing or two about that special relationship. Stories abound as to how one player might receive the sharp end of his tongue, another an arm around the shoulder. And who else could have requested of fans, via a giant banner at the City Ground, ‘No Swearing Please, Gentlemen’? Or be seen to give a couple of Reds’ supporters a cuff round the ear at one match before meeting them on TV and making-up with a kiss on the cheek? The man was one of a kind.

The musical-chairs of changing managers is a brutal one. Perceived failure is given short shrift. Contracts, seemingly written in stone, crumble without trace. It’s a precarious business. Yes, many managers are paid in a year what we’d earn in a lifetime and there are some who operate like mercenaries, sniffing out well-remunerated short-term deals, season after season. But so many work under extraordinary pressures, with the expectation that personal life should be sacrificed for the sake of the professional one and that abuse and, basically, a lack of respect for an individual as a human being, comes with the job.

So it’s a surprise that no official call has ever been made to consider the welfare of football managers. I was reminded of this recently when a friend of mine – who happens to be a lifelong Chelsea supporter – regaled me with the plight of one of their most recently sacked managers. (Chelsea, it has to be said, have form in this department. Even when they brought in old-boy and one of their best-ever players, Frank Lampard, there was little sentiment in his being dispatched with soon after).

Thomas Tuchel, according to my insider-friend, turned up with detailed folders and strategies for groups of players, in marked contrast to the ‘go out and enjoy yourselves’ team-talk of his predecessor. When results started to deteriorate, though, the club ‘parted company’ with him. At the time, Tuchel’s marriage was disintegrating and he couldn’t devote himself to the team. So what? Well, shouldn’t all employees be treated with decency? It doesn’t matter if you’re poorly or highly paid, respect for your fellow human being should be a given. No matter how ruthless clubs are in the pursuit of success, they need to recognise codes of practice that ensure compassion for employees and, more generally, for the health and well-being of all staff in the game. That means from cleaners to coaches.

Forest, let’s remember, have been through a lengthy hire-and-fire period in search of a potential long-term manager. It was never a sterile period but neither was it stable and it certainly wasn’t successful. Managers were given little time to establish themselves on the pitch or terraces and certainly not to nurture a sense of identity with the club. (A long way from the incomparable Clough: ‘The River Trent is lovely. I know because I’ve walked on it for 18 years.’) Then, born of a crisis, along came Steve Cooper. In his relatively brief tenure, he’s taken the Reds to the Premiership and come to grips with coaching a near-new squad. Forest have wobbled – and it’s going to be a tough season – but the offer of a new contract when results took a dive, displayed qualities by the owners and Cooper that are not celebrated too often: commitment and service to the club.

Will Steve Cooper have the chemistry, the coaching ability and the luck to reward Forest with the faith they’ve put in him? Time will tell but it’s worth recalling wisdom according to Clough. ‘Good managers make good sides. There’s no such thing as a side making a manager.’


*Article provided by Stephen Parker (Nottingham Forest Correspondent).

*Main image @LeedsLiveNews what might have been? Brian Clough leading out Leeds for a 44 day stint.

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