John McCormick writes: Neil Carter’s The football manager, A history was published in 2006. Carter makes it clear that short managerial stays have been part and parcel of the professional game for longer than we’ve been watching it: even before the war “the intensification of competition brought with it managerial insecurity” (it’s an academic book, you have to expect this language); between 1945 and 1960 over 600 managers left their clubs; between 1973 and 1993 an average of 17 new managers arrived every season; by the start of the Premiership the average tenure had dropped to 1.5 years. We’re par for the course, with fifteen managers, including caretakers, between 1973 and 1993. The last six years are not unusual and, from this perspective, Di Canio only had about a year left unless he achieved something.
Carter’s book traces the development of the football manager in the context of relationships – with directors, players, fans, and the media – and highlights an evolutionary process, from upper-crust committees or directors making all of the decisions and working class players carrying out orders, through the appointment of administrators who could take over the directors’ workload and act as an intermediaries with the players, to the use of former players in this role. These gradually began making the footballing decisions while the directors got on with running the club. Given these circumstances it’s not surprising that we grew up in an era when managers watched and then signed players on the basis of a few minutes of playing time, and that we nodded when they used phrases like “naturally fit”. It goes a long way to explain some of the mediocrity, from Jim Baxter to (you can insert the name of your choice here), we have all seen in the past.
There was some evolution. Science began to be used, occasionally a continental influence meant the manager found himself with limited powers over the signing and selling of players and the direction the football took, and sometimes a single director or chairman negotiated with players. Indeed, it was with such a format that Liverpool FC had its most successful period. I do wonder, however, about the extent to which such changes happened in the majority of clubs.
This leads me to believe we followed the English tradition a little too ardently. Our recent managers have had coaching badges, not surprising as they have been compulsory for about ten years, but they have all grown up in the traditional English ethos. They are former players – very good ones, it must be said – who did leave some negotiation to others but tended to keep power and decision making to themselves and operated with backroom staff (and also with a chairman while Sir Niall was there) hewn from the same block of wood as themselves. I’m sure they will have taken some account of stats and of current science and medicine, but to what extent? Does this account for the injury list and players slumping towards the end of the season? I can’t think of a better explanation, especially after the stories we heard when Di Canio first arrived.
Di Canio was different and he broke the mould. He too was a very good former player, he too had backroom staff who share his ideas, but that’s where the similarity ended. He played in England but was not brought up in the English tradition. I don’t find it surprising he eschewed the title of manager. What we had was very much a chief coach, defining a culture of modern professionalism and working with the players. The result was a new system, a new culture and, overall, I think this had to be the right way to go.
We appeared to have arrived at a very healthy situation, which probably did not exist previously, where we finally had everything in place, including a potentially very good team, for a serious crack at the top half of the table. Was the only thing we need a period of stability to provide the current chief coach and his staff with space so the culture embedded and the team took off? Results, team selections (I don’t know about coaching) and other statements and decisions led me to doubt Di Canio’s judgment and now he’s gone we’ll never know if time would have let him get there.
Di Canio’s support team – fitness coach, director of football, have also gone and as we changed our whole scouting team, most of our coaches and many more backroom staff we will have to rebuild from the bottom up. Whoever is our new manager will no doubt want to bring in his own team. The question is, what ethos will it stamp on the club? Will it revert to the old traditional system? Will it build on the foundations left behind by Di Canio? Is there a middle way? I have a feeling Ellis Short knows what he wants and used Di Canio as the starting point to getting it. When Di Canio didn’t prove up to it he was let go. That doesn’t mean Short will be deflected. I’m watching this space with interest
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