Issue The managerial failure cycle – bad choices or bad strategy?

As told by Jason Mckeown

The recent demoralising defeats to Port Vale and Chesterfield have once again heaped the pressure on Bradford City manager Peter Taylor. This weekend the Bantams face a crucial home game with Stockport that could determine his immediate future, but already it seems implausible to believe Taylor will be employed at Valley Parade beyond the expiration of his contract in May.

It will soon be time to search again for the man to revive this ailing football club but the fact we keep going around this cycle of getting rid of a manager and replacing him with new one – with little success in reversing a slide down the leagues – can already leave us pessimistic that the next manager isn’t going to be any better.

To blame the club’s decline on poor managers would be over-simplistic and, no matter who takes residence in the dug out after Taylor, there will still be all manner of financial issues that hold us back. Yet so much is reliant upon the manager that it is such a key position to get right, and as thoughts soon turn to filling a vacancy it is a process that needs to be reviewed in order to increase the chances of it succeeding. We can’t just keep hiring and firing and hope the law of probabilities means we’ll stumble on the right manager eventually, can we?

Over the last few days Michael has written two excellent articles – here and here – on what the club and supporters might be looking for in the next manager. Too often, it seems, football clubs in general appear to have no thoughts on the right person to take their club forwards beyond sacking the present incumbent and waiting for CVs to file through in the post. It seems a backwards methodology in these days of recruitment specialists and head hunters and, as City apparently keep getting the choice of manager wrong, it’s worth posing the question of whether this is because as employees we keep making bad choices, or because the qualities we are looking for have either not been considered enough or were misguided.

Let’s try and find out…

Chris Hutchings
“Oh Wetherall’s free! Fantastic header!”

Sunday 14 May 2000, and Martin Tyler’s description of David Wetherall’s winner for Bradford City against Liverpool – which confirmed the club’s Premier League survival – is relayed around the world. A pitch invasion follows the final whistle and the celebrations in and around Bradford go on long into the night.

But something’s not right. Rather than looking joyous or even relieved, manager Paul Jewell is sporting a scowling face that radiates the pressure he has been under from media, supporters and his boss. A few weeks later he quits, fed up of the way he has been treated. And the last successful Bradford City manager we’ve had goes onto enjoy a fine career elsewhere.

It is at this point the look behind the strategy should begin; because although the steep decline that followed was more to do with finances than bad management, nothing on the pitch has proved a success since.

I never agreed with the decision to appoint Chris Hutchings as Jewell’s successor, but it’s difficult to dispute the logic that led to Chairman Geoffrey Richmond promoting Jagger’s assistant. Since Lennie Lawrence departed in 1995, Richmond had enjoyed great success promoting from within after both Chris Kamara and Jewell delivered a promotion and survival in the division above the following season. An Anfield-esqe bootroom culture that promoted continuity was a worthy blueprint.

I never agreed, because the circumstances were different. Kamara and Jewell took over a club with the resources and capacity to be better than they were, but City had now climbed to a level they had not previously reached for almost 80 years – and we needed some experience to help us negotiate uncharted territory. Instead Hutchings was entrusted with the biggest transfer budget this club is ever likely to have, and given a remit to improve the style of football and guide City to a mid-table spot.

History shows this was far too ambitious – not to mention damagingly expensive – and, as clubs like Stoke and Wigan continue to battle to preserve their top flight status year-on-year, the idea that City could prosper by turning to flair and playing 4-4-2 at Old Trafford now seems breathtakingly naive. A more experienced manager would surely have known that the strategy was all wrong.

Jim Jefferies
“It is my opinion that he was an undiluted disaster for Bradford City from beginning to end”

With such a talented squad at his disposal, it was no surprise that Hutchings quickly came under pressure as results were poor, and Richmond – to his later regret – failed to back his man and sacked him. What we needed was an experienced man who’ll who whip these under-achievers into shape. A no-nonsense manager.

Such requirements led to Jim Jefferies, a tough-talking Scot who’d enjoyed great success in Scotland, taking charge. Yet within weeks he was telling Richmond that the club was effectively relegated and needed to get rid of the fancy Dans. It was only December.

In the excellent ‘The Pain and the Glory’ book Richmond was scathing of the job Jefferies did, but in some respects ‘the Judge’ did a good job in at least helping the club prepare for tough financial times ahead by getting rid of high-earners and sellable assets before the end of the season. He was given little money to spend on replacements with City now in Division One, and it proved a thankless task trying to take the club forwards when so much quality was being taken out.

Jefferies left the club after 13 months, and with such fiscal times on the horizon, the search for a new manager centered on candidates with experience of finding lower league bargains and happy to manage on a small budget. Peter Jackson turned the position down, so in came the Lawman.

Nicky Law/Bryan Robson
“I’m just hoping we can bring back the 16,000 who were here for the first game.”

As City went through the turmoil of administration and emerged skint and picking up out-of-contract players from Brentford, it was difficult to imagine a better person to have in charge than Nicky Law. He managed the club well through a very difficult 2002/03 season – targeting battlers over flair – but was a victim of rising expectations soon after. The remaining high earners departed in the summer of 2003, and the wage constraints meant that Law struggled to find replacements good enough to keep City in the division.

So Law was sacked after 12 winless games, and with Gordon Gibb now in charge it is interesting to speculate how his approach to recruiting the next manager differed. Gibb had enjoyed success building a theme park with sufficient attractions to keep people visiting, and it was clear that much of the thought behind appointing former England captain Bryan Robson was to increase falling attendances.

It didn’t work, and a deflated Gibb would depart just 8 weeks later with Administration 2 just around the corner. Meanwhile Robson was benefiting from a larger budget than Law and was able to bring in experienced loan players, with a greater focus on skill over graft. Results were improving, and though it would probably have proved too little too late City might have managed to avoid relegation had the administrators not taken over and being forced to sell key players.

Robson was left trying to keep City up with players he’d declared only two months earlier to not be good enough for the club and who were welcome to leave. With the prospect of limited funds in League One, he felt it was a job he could not continue.

Colin Todd
“I honestly think Colin should be right up there for any manager of the season…I see him as the man to take us back up the football pyramid.”

With the club in such dire straits that summer, appointing a new manager was hardly the most important priority. Colin Todd, assistant to Robson having come close to landing the job the November before, was handed the reins. However sour it ended, it proved a good choice as Todd steadied the ship while the club limped on following the narrow survival of administration. An 11th place in the first season was beyond Julian Rhodes’ expectations:

I thought we would be facing a relegation battle. Bearing in mind this season was going to be about coming out of administration, I thought we might well be facing life in League 2 when the rebuilding could really begin.

Todd’s time in charge was categorised by low budgets and limited stability. He put together a decent team that threatened to finish in the play off picture, and though the following season saw little progress (another 11th place) the Bantams still only lost 13 games. Todd, however, was under pressure from a section of supporters.

Some argued the former England international lacked passion for the job, and that defeats didn’t hurt him enough. Some argued we could do better than treading water in mid-table. But when he was eventually sacked midway through his third season, City drowned.

Rhodes, who had previously backed his man strongly even during difficult times, admitted that the pressure of supporters and stalling attendances was a telling factor in booting out Todd, especially now he had just launched an innovative season ticket deal that required thousands of people’s commitment.

When it gets to the stage where they [supporters] stop coming then something has to be done. At the end of the day it’s their club.

He was right, only now it was our League Two club.

Stuart McCall
“I will see myself as a failure if I don’t get the club back up at the first attempt, and I’ve got the strongest desire anyone could possibly have to achieve that.”

So out with Todd’s lack of passion and after David Wetherall’s unsuccessful caretaker stint, the hunt for the next manager did not require an advert in the classifieds. We needed someone who cares, someone who will get the players going and someone who will not tolerate underachievers. We need arguably the greatest achiever of City’s modern history.

In came Stuart McCall, along with the investment of Mark Lawn that allowed the club to hand the manager a relatively strong playing budget for the first time since Chris Hutchings. McCall was the overwhelming choice as next manager from fans because of the passion he’d put in to the job, no one can argue they were disappointed on that front at least.

Unfortunately, no matter how much Stuart cared he was in his first manager role and working in a division he didn’t know, and the inexperience was to show as success continued to allude the club. McCall put his neck on the chopping board straightaway by declaring he’d be a failure if he didn’t guide City to promotion at the first attempt – but he did fail attempt one, and then attempt two, and he was on course to fail attempt three before he eventually quit.

Of course the experiences along the way helped him to become a better manager, and by the end he had enough knowledge of the lower leagues to be able to use a reduced budget to bring in non-league players that could make the step up. Nevertheless, just like with Todd, the lack of speed to the progress left McCall under heavy pressure.

The passion and how much he cared went against him in the end. We didn’t want someone who would be more upset than us if they lost, we needed a wise head who had a track record for success. Passion was good, but the very reasons McCall was brought in were no longer what the club was looking for. This time a job advertisement would be needed.

Peter Taylor
“4-3-3 can be 4-3-3 and not just 4-5-1”

Which brings us back to Taylor, who was appointed on the basis of his outstanding track record in delivering success and high level of experience. However, criticisms over the football Taylor favours have followed him throughout his long managerial career, and he is now heavily slated for style of play City have produced for much of the season. We know Taylor will be gone soon and, when the discussions over the qualities to look for in his replacement begin, it’s likely that style of football will feature strongly on the next list of interview questions.

So there we have it

“There’s only two types of manager. Those who’ve been sacked and those who will be sacked in the future.” (Howard Wilkinson)

Hutchings to Taylor via Jefferies, Law, Todd and McCall. All were branded failures and, with such a cycle of hiring and firing helping the Bantams fall from the Premier League to League Two, one is again left to wonder what could possibly lead us to believe the next guy will prove any more successful?

But is it a matter of changing managers proving futile, or is our ongoing failure to find the right man more to do with the goalposts continually shifting?

Was Nicky Law sacked because the lower league manager route was wrong, or was hiring someone with great experience of handling small budgets actually a sound strategy that should have been continued? Instead of getting some guy who used to play for Man United to pack the stadium out, after Law should we have recruited then-Doncaster manager Dave Penny, for example?

Did Stuart McCall fail because he cared too much, or was the passion we hired him for the right quality required and Dean Windass should have been given the job instead of Taylor? We ask for one quality in a manager, don’t like some of the other characteristics that manager brings and then dismiss that original quality during the next search.

We want a manager who is not the last one, and so we go and get one – and in doing so we always find that the next guy is lacking some things but not the same things. So while we might have thought we’d found the solution, we end up finding a new thing to be the problem.

Circumstances – not least City’s changing financial capabilities – have changed often during the last decade. But as we soon start to prepare to recruit another manager it’s to be hoped the criteria will be more thought out than finding someone “not like the last manager.” Because over much of the past decade, that has often appeared to be the case.