Championship’s managerial churn hurts clubs and hits player morale
Being a Championship manager is a precarious business, only ever a short run of defeats from the sack. Fifteen have been dismissed this season and five clubs are on to their third manager. A cycle of constant change rarely seems to help.
Overall there have been 19 managerial changes in the division by 14 clubs, leaving 10 managers in the position they started in when the first ball was kicked in July. The Championship is a division few want to be in – for most it is as a vehicle to reach the monied top flight– and that means clubs are willing to make bold decisions to try to get out of it.
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Going down and being two years away from the Premier League is an even greater worry than missing out on promotion. Huddersfield and Blackpool have turned to the experienced Neil Warnock and Mick McCarthy to try to get out of trouble. Bottom-placed Huddersfield finished third last season and were 90 minutes from the top flight but lost the playoff final, further evidence of the second tier’s competitive nature.
Last season there were 11 permanent changes in Championship dugouts, and during this campaign League One and Two have had 10 and 11 respectively. “When I first went into management in the early 90s, there was an almost unwritten law that a manager would need three years to sort a football club out,” the former Stoke manager Tony Pulis says.
“The first year to assess what you had, the second to deal with the weaknesses and turn them into strengths and, because you had the opportunity to turn things around, the third year would be successful – and if you weren’t, you would hold your hands up and accept change would come. If you look at it now, managers are getting three months and people are starting to question what you are doing and not doing, which is completely unrealistic in my view.”
Slaven Bilic was the latest statistic in the merry-go-round, the second Watford dismissal of the campaign, after being given five and a half months. He was replaced within minutes – 17 to be precise – by the former Sheffield United manager Chris Wilder, who started the season at Middlesbrough.
For the players, the hiring, firing and perspiring are part of the job, although adding further unknown to an already tumultuous environment is hardly helpful. “The games come round so quick and fast that the preparation, at times, revolves around rest and recovery, so there is a massive difference in terms of preparation to the Premier League, where you have more time on the training ground and to analyse the opposition,” Pulis says.
“I used to say to the players: ‘The most important thing is to turn up every week,’ because anyone can beat anyone in the Championship. We got promoted with Stoke, despite having the 14th-highest wage bill, because I had a group of players who, every game we played, turned up and gave everything we had. The key factors are the togetherness of the group, the strength of character coupled with people who can do their jobs well, especially at the top end of the pitch.”
It is hard to build cohesion in an unstable environment. There is a desperation for the “new manager bounce” to legitimise a change in the dugout but, as Kolo Touré’s nine-game winless run at Wigan showed, a new man does not always have the desired result. Watford are on to their 19th manager in 11 years, a process that has, unsurprisingly, failed to bring stability. Bilic potentially set his own downfall with six wins in his opening 11 games, something his successor will be hoping to replicate to push back towards the playoffs.
Many clubs use metrics to select their manager, relying on data to find out who would be the best fit for the squad. When Steve Cooper was appointed at Nottingham Forest, due diligence showed how the former Swansea head coach’s style would fit and that his record of getting the best out of young players made him an ideal replacement for Chris Hughton after a poor start. The club surged to promotion, showing what a smart approach to hirings can do and the benefit of accepting a longer-term project.
When there is constant churn, players can become weary, wondering why the next man through the door should be expected to change everything when those in power have consistently got it wrong. Footballers will await the next sacking after a few defeats in a row, expecting any moment to be called in for a meeting.
Those repeatedly held accountable for poor results are the managers, whereas people higher up are left relatively unscathed. As much as football likes to think it is different from other industries, an unstable work environment is unhelpful to employees whether in an office or on a training pitch. “I don’t see it getting any better – life is that way now,” says Pulis. “People want instant success.”