Fifteen years ago, Brian Clough made a ‘tired and emotional’ appearance on the ITV programme Sport in Question (it is available easily enough if you search for him on YouTube). It was tragic to see a man ravaged by his vices to such an extent that the word incoherent was probably a mite generous. However, when the discussion came to Notts County, who had just sacked their third manager of the season, Clough showed that enough of his innate wisdom remained to make a telling observation.
His solution to the chaos on the other side of Nottingham was simple. Should a chairman appoint a manager and then subsequently sack him, then the man who made the mistaken appointment should stand down as a matter of common decency. Although it is something that will remain forever hypothetical, it would be more than interesting to get Darragh MacAnthony’s thoughts on the old maestro’s proposal.
The Marbella-based businessman appointed Mark Cooper on November 14, 2009, following Darren Ferguson’s departure a few days earlier. It would be an outright lie to say the results have been anything near what would have been hoped. One win from thirteen games, conceding an average of a goal every 43 minutes, is not the form to inspire confidence of successfully negotiating the relegation battle Posh are embroiled in. This writer does not subscribe to the view of Graham Taylor that every manager deserves a minimum of two years. In every walk of life, people come into jobs and for whatever reason, it is obvious fairly early on that it’s not going to work out. Clough would have to cite his time at Leeds as one of those instances, and it’s possible Mark Cooper and Peterborough were just bad footballing chemistry.
That is the rational argument, and it happens in every walk of life. But let us suggest you hired someone tomorrow and had to let them go ten weeks later with it clear they were unsuitable. Even without the massive payout that compensates failure (or mistreatment) in the football world, you would sit down and work out how and why the recruitment process went so badly astray. A look at Cooper’s appointment uncovers gaping holes in the logic applied by MacAnthony and others. The ex-Tamworth boss had done superbly well with Kettering Town, taking them into the Conference, enjoying a great FA Cup run in 2008/09 (where they scared the living daylights out of Fulham) and being amongst the front-runners at the start of this season in the race to make the Football League. No doubt he was and remains a young manager with promise, but maybe a job in the higher echelons of English football came a little prematurely. And maybe Peterborough should have gone for a manager who had achieved success at a higher level instead of one for whom the job was not a step-up, but a ten-storey trek without the benefit of an elevator.
Paul Ince’s traumatic period at Blackburn should surely have shown MacAnthony and Barry Fry the danger of what they were getting into. The self-styled ‘guvnor’ had done superbly well to keep Macclesfield Town in the Football League and won promotion with MK Dons from League Two in 2007/08. However, like Cooper, he found himself in a hopeless tailspin three tiers above any level he had ever managed at previously. Less than half a season into his tenure, he found that whatever patience existed had worn thin. Again, this doesn’t mean getting rid of Ince was a bad move. Their subsequent survival under Sam Allardyce would suggest the polar opposite. But it raises the same questions as to why he was appointed in the first place. The decision represented the sort of gamble to make even the most hardened banker blush.
There is a twofold damage to this ‘hit and hope’ approach to recruitment. One does not yet know whether Cooper’s faith in his own ability has been dented after the setback of his 79-day sacking. Steve Staunton, a bright and articulate footballer tipped as a top manager of the future, got the dream job managing the Republic of Ireland despite having no managerial experience. It would be an understatement to say Ireland under-achieved under a man for whom it was “too much too soon.” He now struggles desperately at Darlington, a club in turmoil, and thus one of few in the Football League who would give a shot at redemption to a man unfairly tainted by failure. Another disturbing angle in this story is the fact that it is merely the exacerbation of a trait that has been creeping into football in the last few years. Half-season managerial runs (Phil Parkinson at Hull, Bryan Gunn at Norwich) now barely raise an eyebrow. A decade ago, exaggerated comparisons would have been made with the positively trigger-happy Jesus Gil of Atletico Madrid, famous for getting rid of managers with alarming frequency. Signor Gil appears to have inspired the Briatore era at Queens Park Rangers. Their managerial situation went beyond farcical when Paul Hart became the eighth man to be waved goodbye in two years a fortnight ago.
They say the lesson of history is people never learn the lessons of history. Well, in 1967/68, Derby County finished 18th in the old Second Division. This was following a finish of 17th the previous season, during which they had installed a new manager to revive their fortunes. He would take time to overhaul the playing staff, groundsman and even the tea ladies, who he sacked for laughing at a Rams loss one Saturday. They would go on to win promotion in 1968 and the first division in 1972. They owed this success to two things. Firstly, they had given him time. More crucially, they had appointed the right man to start with. That man of course was Brian Clough. His observation may have been soaked in liquor, but it came from experience. Hopefully MacAnthony and Fry will learn this for next time.