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Nottingham Forest Fan Asks What or Who is the ‘right man’ in football management?

The job of the manager at a football club is without doubt the most crucial position to be filled. The late and great Brian Clough was of the opinion that the appointment of a manger was so important that, should the board then relieve him of his duties, they should also step down from their position. Certainly the role of the manager has changed since Clough was in his pomp, as he stated himself,

“Once you’re a manager, everything lands on your doorstep. If a fan trips up on his way into the ground, if a player gets barracked from the terraces, if a seat doesn’t work properly, if a season ticket holder can’t find a programme seller, if the postman brings a sackful of letters saying the team’s no bloody good it will all end up in the manager’s office. You can stake your life on it.”

Duties Clough used to perform such as watering the pitch, painting the stands or driving the team bus are now delegated to others and even transfers and contract negotiations are often now dealt with directors of football or the various other titles they may hold. But it is through the manager that the team ethos and tactics are developed and coaching is becoming more and more important with the elevation of coaches such as Brendan Rodgers and Steve Clarke into management positions would testify.

A cursory glance at available managers who are members of the League Managers Association reveals that there are currently 87 football managers out of work (I take this as out of work in terms of being a football manager as there are plenty of names who are involved in the media and other jobs within the industry) which I would take as a conservative estimate. Managers come and go from football clubs on a somewhat alarming basis now, the most comprehensive report I have read on this comes from Dr Bridgwater who examined trends in football management between 1992/93-2005. Across the 4 leagues, the report found that 536 managers had been dismissed during this period an average of around 30 per season, whilst a much smaller figure of 48 resigned.

So what makes a manager ‘right’ for a club? My team, Nottingham Forest have recently appointed Sean O’ Driscoll as manager, and it has been frequently written and stated by my fellow Forest fans that he seems to be the right man for the job. Based on what I have heard him say and do over his just over initial month in charge I am inclined to agree. Yet O’Driscoll arrived with very little fanfare from the national press and with a win percentage of around 30% from his previous two clubs of Bournemouth and Doncaster Rovers, a figure which is actually lower than the Average Win percentage of the 536 dismissed managers mentioned previously. We have had 18 managers since Brian Clough resigned in 1992/93 but none of them have felt as right as O’Driscoll despite some of them having arguably better records than him. Billy Davies, Gary Megson, Steve McClaren and even Steve Cotterill all arrived with bigger reputations and better statistics yet none of these appointments felt as positive as the one of Sean O’Driscoll. Sean brings with him a footballing ethos, his teams are known for playing an attractive brand of football which Forest became famous for under Brian Clough but historically have always had being very much a ‘gentleman’s club’ in the post war years prior to Clough’s arrival. He seems to be well respected by his former players and fans of both Doncaster and Bournemouth and does not seem to feel the need to big himself up to the media preferring a more quiet, considered approach earning himself the ironic nickname of ‘Noisy’.

Had Forest gone for one of the ‘iconic’ names supposedly being discussed, McCarthy, Hoddle, Strachan, Erikson etc., I do not think the fit would have been right. O’ Driscoll is someone Forest have been linked to several times in the past and I think the fact his appointment has been met with near universal approval from the fans, has certainly made his job in the first few games easier. Equally Forest fans never really took to the likes of Gary Megson and Steve Cotterill, whose tactics were the polar opposite of what many Forest fans have been brought up to believe is the way to play football. We also struggled with the blandness of Calderwood and aloofness of McClaren. Billy Davies was very good at creating a ‘them and us’ mentality but reliance on this only lasts so long and holes and flaws quickly became apparent in his arguments and conduct towards the board and our late owner Nigel Doughty. O’ Driscoll is a sensible appointment and a safe pair of hands just like Pearson will prove to be at Leicester and Martin Jol is proving to be at Fulham. The spikiness which increased between Forest and Derby during the Davies era will hopefully mellow under O’Driscoll who, I would imagine, has a lot more in common with Nigel Clough. I cannot see Clough kneeing Sean in the back and him subsequently talking about in the media which has caused a lot of antipathy towards one of our greatest players, something I would like to see reversed over the course of the season.

Sometimes the manager of a club just feels wrong. In recent history Newcastle, a club I have admired since the swashbuckling days of Keegan and the dignity and achievement of the Robson years, have appointed their share of managers which just do not fit their club. I see Newcastle as an attacking, entertaining team, no doubt based on my early years watching football and that impressive Keegan team which had considerable flair with the likes of Ginola, Asprilla alongside the graft and nous of players like Beardsley, Rob Lee and Ferdinand, it was a team I recall thoroughly enjoying to watch, likewise in the Robson era. Compare that to the appointments of the likes of Allardyce, Souness, Roeder and, I still can’t believe it, Joe Kinnear. None of those felt like they should be managers of Newcastle United. Allardyce in particular is probably the antithesis of all I believe that Newcastle United stand for. His short lived reign and fan protests probably prove that he was just the wrong man for Newcastle and we see a similar scenario developing at West Ham United. The Hammers have a reputation for being a passing footballing side and the fans there seem to have struggled to adapt to the percentage football that Allardyce like his teams to employ. Souness just did not seem to have the personality to create any sense of warmth between himself and the Newcastle fans and, like Allardyce he was sacked as fans began to turn on him.

The cases of managers just not being ‘right’ for football clubs is something we see very frequently. This is not because they are bad managers. Roy Hodgson is undoubtedly a decent manager who has had a steady managerial career albeit with middling clubs yet he floundered terribly at Liverpool. As a historically left wing, working class city, was Hodgson whose interests in fine wine, literature and the theatre a mismatch? Certainly, it is difficult for a set of fans to warm to and support a manager who does not really represent the beliefs and convictions of the club he is managing and the city or town he represents as I myself have experienced under the likes of Megson, Cotterill and that man Kinnear again at my own club. Hodgson displayed a complete inability to connect with Liverpool’s fans and coupled with some pretty awful signings and displays such as defeat to Northampton in the cup, did not stand a chance. The fact that he did well at Fulham and West Bromwich Albion perhaps shows that Hodgson is more geared to over-achieve at less glamorous clubs rather than at, historically at least, larger clubs. Compare this to Dalglish who is so ingrained in the minds of many supporters. He may have been the ‘right’ man for Liverpool second time around but the fact he had only watched lots of football on the television and been out of the game for so long meant that, ability wise, he was probably no longer up for such a job.

Other good managers have fallen by the wayside for not being the ‘right’ man for the job. Juande Ramos had arguably over-achieved at Sevilla winning the UEFA cup is successive seasons, as well as several domestic cups, and was widely tipped as the next big thing in football as he was hired by Tottenham. His tenure lasted only a year and his non passionate displays on the touchline as the going got tough at the start of his first full season would hardly have enamoured him to Spurs fans. Ramos was also sandwiched by more popular managers in Martin Jol and Harry Redknapp which made it even more difficult for him. I can potentially see the same situation with Villas Boas, a man who seems difficult to warm to and again may not be the ‘right’ man for Spurs. Historically, similar to West Ham I suppose, they are known as being a stylish, swashbuckling side and the methodical somewhat distant approach Villas Boas seems to favour may not fit with this.

Of course there are managers who just seem to be ‘right’ for their club. David Moyes with Everton just seems to, from the outside admittedly, be a good fit. Certainly, since I have been watching football, Everton have, on the whole been in the shadows of Liverpool and the differences in finances between the two clubs is clear and can be seen by the totals spent since the Premier League began. Moyes has that look about of him as being able to hold his own, as being a scrapper who learnt his trade at a struggling Preston North End and he has an obvious hunger about him to succeed, to drive a club on, and he seems to have the ability to get the Everton fans behind the club despite the off field struggles they continuously face. I, and I am sure a lot of other football fans, have immense respect for the job he has done and continues to do at Everton and, his character and skills just seem to fit with the ethos of Everton as a football club.

Martin O’ Neil, despite my Forest biases, seems to be the right fit wherever he has managed due in no small part to his cult of personality which puts him ahead of many of the bland managers we see in the English league. Can you imagine anyone but Tony Pulis at Stoke City? As much as I dislike the tactics he employs with Stoke, he certainly has an ethos in signing strong, direct players and playing to their strengths off a direct game based on pressure and set pieces and I take my hat off to him in the way that he has established Stoke as a top flight side over the last few years. This has resulted in the phrase ‘Stoke is a tough place to go to on a cold Tuesday night’ entering football parlance and into the book of clichés used by pundits. Whoever succeeds him will have the unenviable decision of replicating his work or trying to bring in a new style such as Sammy Lee tried to do at Bolton before they quickly returned to type under Megson. Owen Coyle initially seemed to want to shift away from the Bolton type but after watching the game on Friday versus Forest, he seems to have resorted to that direct game utilising every inch of Kevin Davies frame which may be more down to the pressure he is under to get results following a disappointing last season. Whereas some clubs are known for playing slick passing football, such as the previously mentioned West Ham and Tottenham, some teams are known for being, for want of a better word, ugly and the Stokes, Boltons and any team associated with the likes of Aidy Boothroyd, Gary Megson or Steve Cotterill.

Just like football clubs who have a history or playing entertaining football must be careful in choosing the ‘right’ man, so should those more associated with a more direct game. Of course there are anachronisms, Arsenal are renowned for playing passing football under Wenger but also have a poor disciplinary record making Wengers contempt of Stoke somewhat hypocritical and Leeds under Revie were probably unfairly tarnished and have subsequently been remembered as “dirty Leeds” despite the fact they had excellent footballing players and, by all accounts, played some beautiful football in their pomp.

Taking Tony Pulis again, you would not imagine he would be the ‘right’ man for say Swansea or Wigan just like Roberto Martinez or Michael Laudrup would not seem the right men for the Stoke City. It would be interesting if anyone could come up with examples of what were considered initially to be the wrong appointment being successful and perhaps changing a clubs ethos from long ball to short passing or vice versa and whether therefore it is the status of the club at the time of the manager joining that makes him the ‘right’ man or the ‘right’ man being successful as he is already in tune with the clubs ethos. A sort of chicken and egg conundrum if you will.

So whilst talented managers with good histories often take over clubs, sometimes they are just not ‘right’ for that particular club and it is interesting that directors, chairman and owners do not look into character and suitability more frequently and the word ‘right’, in terms of football management has not been explored more extensively by the media. Is the word ‘right man’ an intangible concept that can only be proven with hindsight, or can you judge whether a man is right for the job before he is appointed? Whilst local rivals in particular sneered at Forest’s ‘ironic’ not iconic hiring of O’Driscoll, the majority of Forests fans took it as we have a quiet confidence that he is going to be the right man for the job and the way he gone about his initial business has only enforced that view. He is not a journeyman who moves around for money, he is a manager who wants to develop football clubs and instil legacies, all whilst not having a media circus following him around. With a bit of luck and lots of hard work, I am confident he can achieve plenty at Nottingham Forest.

Any comments of who seems ‘right’ or wrong for jobs they have held or hold in football management would be greatly appreciated for further discussion.

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