Should I Stay or Should I Go?: The Dichotomy of Football Management and Loyalty.

“I remember when I got promotion with Notts County, Chelsea offered me a job and I thought a lot about it, turned it down and got the sack six months later. So when people talk about loyalty, I think that is a load of bull.”
Neil Warnock

Who’d be a football manager? When you’re not holding internal disciplinary meetings with your players for filming themselves racially abusing a woman on a pre-season tour, you’re facing up to the media after an embarrassing home defeat and having to remind them how many times you won the league in your previous jobs. Despite being significantly less-well remunerated than the foetus at left-back, the buck stops with you every week.

It doesn’t matter if you’re new to the league trying to implement a new style, or that your employer is too busy vomiting into fireplaces to address your concerns over the clubs training facilities. It’s irrelevant that the players have gone out and nicked a taxi at two in the morning during a warm weather training break, or that your star player would prefer to sit this crucial end-of-season game out rather than risk injuring himself ahead of international duty. When all is said and done, football is a results business (after commercial concerns and developing markets have been taken into account, of course), and a manager’s job is to get results. And if you decide to take a more enticing job with a bigger budget, better facilities, less pressure and greater prospects? Then prepare to be labelled a traitor.

Loyalty in football, we’re told, is a thing of the past. It went out of fashion with those big baggy shorts made famous by Sir Stanley Matthews and skaters in the nineties, footballs the weight of your Nan’s Christmas pudding, and fascism in Europe. Though admittedly the latter is making a big comeback. Loyalty in football is no more. It has ceased to be. Loyalty has expired and gone to meet its maker. It’s shuffled off this mortal coil, run down the curtain and joined the choir invisible. Loyalty is an ex-concept. So why, when it comes to football managers at least, do we still bang on about it?

“Managers are held to a higher standard when it comes to loyalty, and in my opinion rightly so. They’re supposed to be the figurehead of the footballing operation, a personality that can unite players and fans to a common cause and ultimately deliver success.”
John McGinley, The Grand Auld Podcast

The question of loyalty in football managers has come to the fore again in recent weeks thanks to Brendan Rodgers’ defection from Celtic to Leicester City. Lauded by most English-based pundits as a move up the football pyramid, the departure of Rodgers provoked backlash from the regulars at Parkhead. In the club’s next game, a visit to Tynecastle to face Hearts, the away supporters unfurled a banner denouncing the coach that had won two Scottish Premiership titles, two Scottish Cups, and three Scottish League Cups since joining in 2016. The message from the fans was clear, ‘You traded immortality for mediocrity. Never a Celt – Always a fraud’.

Rodgers’ decision to leave two-thirds of the way through a season in which an unprecedented ‘Treble Treble’ was on the cards is a headscratcher, particularly when, according to reports, Leicester City were prepared to install an interim manager to replace the sacked Claude Puel, and wait until the summer to secure the services of Rodgers. Many might point to the fact that the Foxes are still in with an outside chance of securing a place in next season’s Europa League, and perhaps the Northern Irishman might fancy his chances on the continent with greater financial backing, having been utterly outclassed in his attempts to conquer Europe north of the border.

Giving himself a head start on the summer also makes sense. By joining the club with over two months of the season left to play, Rodgers is able to fully assess the squad at his disposal, work out which players are surplus to requirements and the areas in which he needs to strengthen, and fully assert his style of play onto the team.

Outside of his surprising decision to up-sticks mid-season, the move in and of itself makes sense. While Leicester City might not hold the same historic weight in the game as Celtic, they have recently won the Premier League and reached the quarter-finals of the Champions League. Beyond total domestic domination for a prolonged period, there was realistically little more he could achieve at Celtic Park, given the financial paucity of the Scottish game. In theory, he arrives at the King Power stadium with reduced expectations, namely playing attractive football and having a go in the cup competitions.

With Rangers slowly but surely working their way back to the levels of a decade ago, alongside the ever-increasing competitiveness of Hearts, Aberdeen and Kilmarnock, it looks only a matter of time before Celtic dominance in Scotland is challenged, a fact that, ultimately, lands at the feet of the manager. For many Celtic fans, Rodgers departure was inevitable, and had he stayed to the end of the season there may have been a shred more goodwill on show.

“There was a realisation within many supporters this season that he was coming to the end of his tenure as Celtic boss, but what surprised and angered everyone was the timing of his decision. Rodgers had the chance to make himself a legend of a historic and massive Scottish institution, instead he knowingly burned his bridges and tarnished what had been a successful and joyous period in the Celtic story.”
John McGinley, The Grand Auld Podcast

But while it stings to see their manager leave for a bumper wage packet, bigger budget and as many packets of Walkers crisps as he can eat, the bitterest pill for Celtic fans to swallow is the about-face-turn of a coach so desperate to remind them of how much he loves the club. Just a month after taking charge at Parkhead, Rodgers declared that he didn’t see Celtic as a “stepping stone” and wanted to remain in Glasgow “as long as I can”. He talked about being appointed as one of his “proudest moments”, and was effusive about the stature of Celtic in world football. By the end of his first season, Rodgers was playing the boyhood club card, talking about how he was “born into Celtic”, while towards the end of last season he spoke of a sense of “loyalty” towards the supporters. Not exactly the kind of rhetoric that precedes a manager upping sticks for a little more bunce.

Watford fans, who gave Rodgers a traditional welcome for his first match in charge of Leicester City at Vicarage Road, won’t have been shocked to see their former manager contradict himself and head for pastures new. In 2009, having guided the Hornets away from danger at the bottom of the Championship, he was being linked with the vacant job at Reading, who’d just lost out to Burnley in the playoffs. His response to the speculation was calm, measured, and predictably contained the words loyalty and integrity. Days later, he was unveiled at the Madjeski Stadium.

Not that Watford are strangers to managerial treachery. Before Rodgers, Marco Silva was the face of unfaithfulness, as he spent three of his six month spell in Hertfordshire making kissy faces at the Everton board in the hope of taking a quick jump up the zero-gravity ladder. In response, and with their season going off the rails thanks to the distraction in the dugout Watford sacked the Portuguese for being unloyal disloyal and he ended up at…Everton, a few months later. Sean Dyche and Slavisa Jokanovic may have afforded themselves a wry smile at that particular turn of events.

“Brendan Rodgers left Celtic for personal ambition. In the time since his departure, through all the PR nonsense, he’s admitted as much himself. Whether that’s the chance to earn an even bigger job in England, work with a much bigger transfer budget, or simply to enhance his own paycheck is impossible to determine. Make no mistake though, it was all about him.”
John McGinley, The Grand Auld Podcast

But in this modern world of instant gratification, 24-hour-news fetishisation, and disposable culture, shouldn’t football managers be looking out for number one? Given that the average career in management lasts between 15 and 20 years, aren’t coaches right to pursue every opportunity to further their careers? In a study by Voucherbox, it was revealed that the majority of managers last around 91 games in a job, while only 40% of managers are ever given a second crack of the whip in the Premier League, a number that dramatically falls once you take Sam Allardyce and his band of merry men out of the equation.

In the League Managers Association’s end of year report for 2016/17, figures showed that, in the Premier League, the average tenure length of all dismissed managers that season was 1.31 years. In the Championship, that figure fell to below a year, and in England’s top four leagues combined, the average is 1.16 years. Given how fleeting the top job has become at any club, its understandable that managers aim for self-preservation over preserving any kind of loyalty status.

At Celtic, Brendan Rogers worked under the most patient chairman in the league in Peter Lawwell. Since taking over in 2003, Lawwell has appointed five managers at Celtic Park, and given them an average of 175 games in charge. With tensions growing in the background around player recruitment and transfer funds, and with Rodgers unable to make any headway in Europe, the former Swansea and Liverpool boss might just have checked his running total, seen it hit 169, and decided to hedge his bets.

Loyalty is of course a two-way street. Just as managers should be indebted to clubs and owners who stick by them in tougher times, so too should the board be prepared to stand by their man when the going gets tough, provided the manager in question has shown enough to justify that loyalty. Eleven days after Rodgers jumped ship to the Premier League, West Bromwich Albion manager Darren Moore was given his marching orders in the Championship. Moore had been appointed full-time following the Baggies relegation from the top flight, having picked up the Manager of the Month award in April during his spell as caretaker at the Hawthorns. In the ever-competitive second tier, the Baggies have spent most of the season in the playoff places and, despite losing to promotion rivals Leeds and Sheffield United, followed by a draw against rock-bottom Ipswich Town, the West Midlands side were fourth when Moore was asked to clear his desk.

The former Portsmouth and Derby County centre-back, along with much of the football commentariat, admits to being surprised by the decision, but holds no ill-will for the club’s board.

“It was a shock at the time but I am buoyed by where I left the club and I’ve given them the platform to hopefully this season claim that Premier League prize. It was just trying to work through those choppy waters and I thought we were still in a position where we could press on and get there, but it is what it is and it’s time to move on”
Darren Moore

West Brom chief executive Mark Jenkins pointed to Moore’s inability to “engineer the consistency of form and results” to convince the board he was the man to take the Baggies back to the Premier League. Whilst some may suggest the league table contradicts that point, a section of regulars at the Hawthorns have popped their heads above the parapet in recent weeks to back the decision, suggesting that the manager had been struggling to get the best from his star players for some time. In the end, the decision to sack Moore was driven by money. The way the club is currently run, West Brom can’t afford to spend a prolonged period outside of the top flight. It remains to be seen how their decision to dispose of a young, talented and popular coach will affect the club’s future.

Perhaps Rodgers and West Brom have got the right idea. Football, for better or worse, is a business, and there’s very little place for sentiment when there’s so much at stake in the bigger picture. But are the vast amounts of money being pumped into the Premier League eroding a sense of common decency in the game? Or is loyalty a quintessentially British affectation?

When it comes to changing managers, the top flight in England is relatively trigger-shy. From 2011 to 2016, the Premier League ranked fourth in total managerial changes compared to their fellow elite European leagues in Germany, Italy and Spain. The Bundesliga posted similar figures, with just one more managerial change over those five years, though the concept of bigger clubs poaching players and managers in Germany is considered completely normal. Niko Kovac was plucked from Eintracht Frankfurt by Bayern Munich after guiding Die Adler to the DfB Pokal last season, while Julian Nagelsmann will be leaving 1899 Hoffenheim, the club that gave him his break in management, to join nouveau riche RB Leipzig at the end of the season.

In Spain and Italy, changing managers is as common as changing bedsheets. The pressure of working under club presidents is far greater than the model in England, and coaches that struggle to live up to the heightened expectations of fans fall on their swords more regularly. There were 70 managerial changes in La Liga between 2011 and 2016, and a staggering 88 in Serie A – on average fewer than three teams out of twenty kept their coach on for more than a season.

The notion that it all used to be so different is also flawed. Analysis of the managers in situ ahead of the first Premier League season in 1992/93 suggests that a lack of loyalty is not a new phenomenon. Of the twenty permanent managers in place on the opening day of the new top flight, fourteen went on to leave the club of their own volition. Three of those managers – Mike Walker, Joe Royle and Gerry Francis – left for pastures greener. In comparison, if we look at the predecessors of the twenty current Premier League managers, sixteen of those were pushed before they could jump. The tables, it seems, have turned.

And for those of you screaming “FOOTBALL WASN’T INVENTED IN 1992!” at your phone/tablet/laptop, firstly why not get some fresh air, and secondly the following stats are for you. If you were under the impression that coaches were given a job for life back when the game was played in sepia, you’re sadly mistaken. Though figures show a drop in average tenure length in the last decade, the longest average was still only seven years in 1973, dropping to two years in 1977 and floating between three and four years throughout the 1980s. Undoubtedly the ever-growing financial heft in the game has destabilised the life of a football manager, giving greater justification for a lack of perceived loyalty.

Ultimately, its a debate to be had on a case-by-case basis. David Moyes received a standing ovation from the Goodison Park faithful during his last match in charge of Everton before joining Manchester United, a gesture unlikely to be afforded to Brendan should he even darken the doors of Parkhead again. In the words of Bananarama, it ain’t what you do, it’s the way that you do it.

 

Thanks to John McGinley from The Grand Auld Podcast for providing a Celtic fan’s insight for this piece. 

 

 

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