Monday was a pretty ordinary December day in the English Premier League, with coaching changes and the rumor mill grinding like a buck-toothed kid with bruxism. The knock-on effect of the January player transfer window creates this de facto winter managerial window, when antsy chairmen swing the ax to give the new man a chance to make roster changes. We’re also halfway through the season, and in such a short-term business such as soccer, five months seems like a generous amount of time to draw conclusions.
It’s typically dubbed the “managerial merry-go-round,” but none of the carousels at fairgrounds I’ve been to have signs saying “no strangers” and “previous riders only.” Yet on Monday we had one-time Crystal Palace player Alan Pardew leaving Newcastle and moving to Selhurst Park, and former Palace manager Tony Pulis, along with ex-Tottenham boss Tim Sherwood, being linked with the vacancy at West Brom caused by Alan Irvine’s exit. Then serial club-swapper and boyhood Newcastle fan Steve Bruce was aligned with Pardew’s old gig.
The only truly strange element to all this was that Pardew (pending official confirmation) appears to have switched smoothly between clubs. Given his occasional temper, the always-febrile atmosphere in Newcastle and the bile thrown at him by some of the fanbase, it wouldn’t have seemed too far-fetched for Pardew’s last act at St. James’ Park to be a descent into Lord of the Flies-style madness. Perhaps a crazed dash down the touchline into the Gallowgate End and an attempt to strangle the black-and-white-striped hordes with their own “Pardew Out” banners, while braying “who’s the muppet now, eh? EH?”
Late in the day, this old-boy networking got a Taser-strength jolt when reports emerged confidently claiming Fabricio Coloccini was about to take over at Newcastle. It briefly seemed possible, as if it were the kind of cheap, crazy decision a rum-addled Mike Ashley might make from the distance of his vacation home in Barbados. Have enough coconut-based cocktails, and appointing the unqualified 32-year-old captain might just work!
Player-managers, after all, are still acceptable in England, where inspirational, heartfelt leadership from those who “have the respect of the dressing-room” is still valued above almost anything else. It wouldn’t fly in the U.S., which has minimized the inherent volatility of sports better than any other nation.
In the U.S., coaching is a serious occupation undertaken by specialists. It’s precisely codified and compartmentalized. Take the NFL’s middling Houston Texans, who have 19 first-team coaches; a typical EPL side might have six or seven. In America, cold-headed business principles rule the day, not the instinct that at base, “sports is a lottery; this guy seems lucky, let’s have him buy the ticket”.
But no; Coloccini won’t be calling substitutions from his position in defense as the key employee of a club he’d been desperate to leave a year ago. Instead, we see the same recycled names being linked with these jobs, which is partly down to media relationships: Out-of-work managers and their agents will express their interests to journalists they know, while the left-field foreign candidate hasn’t forged such links. But the same names do keep getting the jobs. It’s easy to think that Harry Redknapp could keep working for as long as he wants, traveling endlessly between every medium-sized club in southeast England.
Perhaps we shouldn’t criticize owners for making predictable choices when so many bold ones lately haven’t worked: Paolo Di Canio at Sunderland, Pepe Mel at West Brom, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer at Cardiff, for example. Still, clubs devote extensive time and resources to unearthing young players who are hidden gems, but comparable defined development and scouting strategies aren’t in place to find and groom future managers. Coach selection is about availability, reputation, contacts and making a good impression at the interview, and especially at this time of year, with millions of pounds on the line, it’s often rushed and panicked.
Chairmen of relegation-imperiled teams are like chronically ill patients in constant search of a miracle cure. There are 19 league fixtures left and West Brom are currently 16th in the standings, just four points from 12th – which, all in all, is about where a reasonable person would expect a club of West Brom’s means to be. Its net summer spend on players was only 13 million pounds. But it’s now searching for its fourth permanent head coach in 12 months.
Coaches follow a manager as he goes from club to club, rarely staying to take over from him on a full-time basis. Often they assume interim charge, then leave when a new man comes in and brings his own staff, taking their knowledge of the squad with them.
Brendan Rodgers looked to have a definite career trajectory: ascending the coaching ranks at Chelsea under José Mourinho’s mentorship, from the academy to the reserves. But there was never any suggestion he’d get the top job. When Mourinho left, owner Roman Abramovich appointed his friend, Avram Grant. Rodgers had to leave and prove himself as a manager in the lower leagues, starting with Watford. Then he had a brief and unhappy spell at Reading, and that might have been the end of him as a manager. He almost returned to an assistant’s role, at Manchester City, before Swansea came in for him. And despite Liverpool’s current season, that clearly would have been an underuse of his talents.
At four seasons, Pardew was the EPL’s second-longest serving manager. The list is headed by Arsène Wenger with his 18 years at Arsenal. That’s more than the next seven managers combined. Apart from West Ham’s Sam Allardyce and Leicester’s Nigel Pearson, everyone else has been in charge of their clubs for less than three years. The carousel never stops rotating, no matter how dizzy everyone gets.