Issue #4 Michael Wood on Lies, damned lies, and the spin we put around manager sacking

Preamble 1: The Joke

There is a punchline to a joke – and not a funny one – that goes something like this: “And so I said what’s Paul McCartney got to do with music? He has not had a number one since 1983.”

It is true that aside from charity collectives McCartney has not topped the charts since “Pipes of Peace” but the rise of the joke is that it is almost impossible (if not actually impossible) to listen to any piece of popular music written after the Sixties and not hear the mark of the man who put melody in The Beatles. That juxtaposition between reality and statistic – no number one in thirty years – is worth pondering as a comparison to how football enjoys talking about managers.

Preamble 2: The Spin

I doubt, dear reader, you have looked at a map to see where the Town of Keighley is but were you to do so then you would see that it is in essence a part of the greater Bradford sprawl and while there are no doubt some who would contest the point it is certainly within in Yorkshire. The most famous sons of Keighley include an Oscar winner in Simon Beaufoy, Secret Ruler of the World Dennis Healy and Tony Blair’s New Labour Spin Doctor Alastair Campbell.

Often condemned Campbell’s name has become synonymous with “spin” as a concept attached to lying and a concept that few like. About taking the truth and making it fit the point you want to make rather than making the point from the truth. Even those who backed Blair’s third way and New Labour go queasy when talking about Campbell describing him as a necessary evil but an evil nevertheless. Campbell proudly tells all that his local football team is Burnley, Lancashire.

That is spin. Not just retelling history, but restating geography.

And So To The Point.

Steve Clarke walked away from Old Trafford as a lauded coach who having spent his apprenticeship learning from the best (by which I refer to Sir Bobby Robson) had masterminded a win for West Brom at Manchester United. Less than two months later he was removed as manager of West Brom and it was said that the problem was not the performances in the current season but rather the return over the calendar year.

Not far from Campbell’s “local” team Bradford City manager Phil Parkinson is struggling. His team has a single win (at time of writing) from the previous fourteen matches. Why fourteen matches? What was significant about fourteen matches ago? It is hard to fathom except to say that if one were to cast back to fifteen then there are two wins, to sixteen there are three, to eighteen four and so on.

And it begins to strike one that there is a reason for the seemingly arbitrary drawing of fourteen as a sample size. It is the one which suggests the worst possible situation. There is a reason why Clarke is judged on the calendar year not the current season. It shows a worse situation than the club finds itself in.

These debates too are not just being had in boardrooms – the reason for Clarke’s removal was reiterated by supporters acting a kind of Hawthorne’s Greek Chorus – but wherever supporters meet. What happened where the act of spin – so derided and loathed when done in Politics – is practiced by the man on the street? Why, in our debate, are we so keen to start from a point of dishonesty.

There is, of course, something practical to be said for taking a sample and extrapolating it which is what those who present 2013 as a sample at West Brom would perhaps suggest had done but there is an absurdity to suggesting that the months from August 2012 to December that year are somehow not to be counted any more than one might exclude the three wins in four games which would would add to Parkinson’s record were one to expand it from fourteen to eighteen games. Football is poor at taking a long term view.

There is an assumption in football though that the high watermark is indicative. That a run of ten wins in twelve is not to be looked on in the context of a full season but rather as what can be expected from the next twelve games. Many a club has fired many a manager for not being able to understand this point of sampling. That one only discovers the result of a sample over the longer term and that a spike in data is no more indicative of the average than a dip.

Yet clubs react to dips. Phil Parkinson took Bradford City to Wembley twice last season, Steve Clarke took West Brom to 8th in the Premier League. These are not considered to be highwater marks but rather a reflection of what should be the case. Poor performance which would – in the longer term – point towards the average achievements of both or either club is seen as unacceptable. But why?

People lose their jobs – managers, manager’s staff, players, young players, people working behind the scenes and on and on – on the basis of decisions taken with such poor judgement criteria. That the good times will last forever and the only thing that must follow (unprecedented) success is more success.

People lose their jobs on the idea that Paul McCartney has not had a number one in thirty years and the worst thing is that as supporters we join in the spin that makes that so.