The managerial question that will probably come back to bite

Manchester United’s record-breaking title triumph on Saturday was another excuse for the media to shower manager Sir Alex Ferguson with gushing praise – and with good reason. The latest league championship means Fergie has now won 47 trophies over his managerial career – making him easily the most successful British manager in history – and no matter how many times the story of the job he has done at Old Trafford is retold, it never fails to be inspirational.

A one-off, never likely to be equalled may be – but there is so much about the legacy Ferguson has built that should act as lessons for football clubs up and down the country, at all levels.

Almost as famous as the success he has achieved are the struggles Fergie endured during his early days at United. In the modern era no football club would tolerate their manager failing to live up to its expectations in the way the Manchester United Board did during the late 80s. To say they were handsomely rewarded for maintaining patience in Ferguson is an understatement, yet still no football club owner or set of supporters have afforded their present manager a similar length of time to build a club before demanding their dismissal.

Indeed the previous argument used by people backing an under pressure to “remember it took Sir Alex time at Man United” has been mocked to the point of parody. It has become an ‘excuse’ that lacks credibility, or as the excellent RochdaleAFC.com put it in July 2009, when talking about our then-manager Stuart McCall:

Can anyone still try using Alex Ferguson at Old Trafford as an excuse for not getting rid of a manager with a straight face?

Straight face or not, Ferguson keeps lifting trophies while the majority of the rest of English football gets through manager after manager, sometimes stumbling on the right one but in the majority of cases looking back on their current appointment as a mistake. Unless success is fairly immediate, the opportunity for the manager to build up the club on and off the field in a similar to manner to Ferguson is lost. For the under-pressure manager the priority is obvious. Why devote time and resource to matters such as improving the youth set up, if you’re a couple of games away from the sack?

While Ferguson has built his Old Trafford empire, 16 different managers have occupied the dug out at Valley Parade. Clearly more failures than successes during that time, and it is revealing how the club’s most successful period – 1995-2000 – occurred from a hire-from-within approach that ensured greater continuity and evolution. All kinds of strategies have been tried since, but the decline down the leagues illustrates how unsuccessful they have proved.

Equally telling is the immediate backwards direction the Bantams embarked upon after removing managers awarded an above average tenure – Colin Todd and McCall. Both driven out because they were struggling to take the club forwards, but their departures had an entirely opposite effect. Todd and McCall were as close as City have come to following the lessons of Ferguson, but in the end fear became too strong and action was taken.

This summer City are once again looking to recruit a new manager, and though off-the-field events completely overshadow this task right now the apparent neglect over making a decision is troubling. Over 40 people applied for the vacancy in February, but Head of Operations Dave Baldwin has admitted the majority have not being contacted yet. A six-person shortlist was then apparently drawn up, with only John Hughes interviewed. Later we were informed the next manager was between current interim boss Peter Jackson and Dagenham & Redbridge gaffer John Still. Though in recent days Still has committed his future to the relegated League One club. Sammy McIlroy could be a late contender after leaving Morecambe.

Has the club kept in touch with Hughes? How many of those 40+ applicants have since got other jobs or being left feeling let down by the lack of response from City and so no longer be interested – either this time or the next occasion City are advertising a managerial vacancy?

Jackson remains the likely choice as manager. He’s been asked to sort the retained list, and even made a first signing for next season in Ross Hannah. Joint Chairman Mark Lawn’s comment that Jackson is signing players any manager would be interested in is ludicrous, however. Whoever is given the job eventually, City are very fortunate that Jackson is willing to continue managing the club with such uncertainty at the moment.

Nevertheless the whole manager recruitment approach is troubling. Of course there are more important matters at the moment, but given the club has in recent days attempted to blame this poor season on Peter Taylor one might think efforts to truly get the appointment right on this occasion would be more determined and proactive. Baldwin has confirmed City will still exist next season no matter what happens, and the club surely has to start planning for it regardless of where they are playing.

At the very least, it seems unlikely the next manager of Bradford City will be given much time. Longer term building seems to be yesterday’s idea and, no matter what the playing budget might be next season, the manager who oversees it will be expected to over-perform. Whether City are at Valley Parade or elsewhere next season, the backwards steps taken over the past two years means another campaign of failure and under-achievement won’t be tolerated by many. Despite the size of the rebuilding job, progress will probably have to be swift.

You just get the feeling this next appointment will be heavily criticised, retrospectively.

Jackson has probably already had his honeymoon period, while a new manager would be quickly criticised not because of the job they have done but because of the lack of thought that went into appointing him by the club. When in the past Lawn and Julian Rhodes have been able to devote their full attention to finding the right manager they have – rightly or wrongly – been judged to have failed. This time hiring a manager is halfway down a sizeable to do list, and it will arguably be more luck than judgement if their eventual choice proves to be a success. Then again, there’s a question mark over whether it will ultimately be Lawn and Rhodes who make the decision.

Despite the fact Sir Alex Ferguson turns 70 at the end of this year, it appears a safe bet that he will still be in the Old Trafford dugout the next time City are beginning the search for a new manager.

McCall’s resolution should be to claim an ebullience

Perhaps you could have had some sympathy with Sammy McIlroy when the Morecambe manager moaned “I’ve been in football a long time and I cannot believe that scoreline. I thought we played some fantastic stuff sometimes.”

His team had not shown signs of being liable for the stuffing they got and the former Manchester United winger’s plan to keep the goals down had been good enough for many other clubs who have frustrated at Valley Parade. McIlroy’s continuation was telling “Stuart McCall was man enough to admit to me afterwards that it was the wrong scoreline, though obviously it’s easier to say when you’ve come out on top.”

Across from McCall’s dug out at Valley Parade in the Midland Road stand four or five supporters spend most of the game grumbling about the City manager and seem affronted when his team starts to score. Post-Christmas football attracts all sorts and in this case it is a collection of agitators playing on a lingering notion that the Bantam’s manager is mis-firing. That City could be doing more, one assumes, although no one will say in what way, or how.

This vagueness of criticism is best illuminated in the comments levelled at Wayne Jacobs – McCall’s assistant – for not being able to “sort out” City defence (The one that has not conceded on 270 minutes). The comment is defined enough to sound expert to the naive but fuzzy enough to not require any analysis to make.

It is ludicrous and cowardly. Cowardly because the speakers are not man enough to comment on McCall for fear of going against his popularity, ludicrous because to assume that Jacobs is in charge of the defending at Valley Parade is no more sensible than to assume that Sir Alex, a midfielder sharp elbowed centre-forward in his day, leaves Mike Phelan to deal with Rio Ferdinand and concentrates on what Michael Carrick is up to when he is going forward.

Nevertheless as McIlroy’s comment signify McCall seems ready to allow the vagaries of criticism to swirl around him. He tells McIlroy that his Morecambe team did not deserve to be spanked but which of the four City goals was not well earned? Which of the chances that City defended should have gone in? When McIlroy says his team did not deserve to be beaten 4-0 it would be out of character and slightly obnoxious for McCall to tell his opposite that a team that puts four past someone without reply does not need to look at percentage on the ball stats and has clearly stuffed them like the festive turkey but it might be more useful in cementing the City manager’s reputation.

After all what is McIlroy doing other than protecting his reputation at McCall’s expense? Did Mark Wright come to McCall’s defence after the 0-0 draw with Chester and say how City had deserved the win? McCall’s tendency to allow grace for his defeated rivals is part of the character that makes him popular with City fans as a magnanimous player but as a manager a section of that support are hearing that every City win was a lucky one – even a 4-0 tonking – while every Bantams draw or defeat is a huge failure.

The Bantams sit in the top three of a tight division. We score from more sources than we have since the days of Lee Mills/Robbie Blake/Peter Beagrie and we play good football and when things click together as they did against Morecambe McCall should take a curtain call of celebration. He needs to be ebullient and tell those people who suggest that his team – or Wayne Jacobs’s part of it – is a shambles at the back that City are keeping clean sheets.

Because in a lack of ebullience from McCall the void is filled by managers like McIlroy casting the impression that City are drifting in luck and vague whispers.

McCall’s new year resolution should be to shout more and give less time for opportunists to steal his microphone.

The Cash, And How To Spend It

Mark Lawn is not happy with Sammy McIlroy after the Morecambe gaffer knocked back City’s offer of £10,000 for right winger Garry Thompson throwing about words like ludicrous. McIlroy says it is not enough for a player of “Garry’s experience and potential” which hitherto had been considered separate quantities. Steve Claridge was trumped for his experience, Issy Rankin for his potential. Seldom is a player considered to have both.

Semantics aside Lawn showed a traditionally Bradfordian approach to the Ulsterman’s comments stating that City made a bid, that bid was turned down and that could have been the end of the story. Indeed had McIlroy not made the offer public it probably would have been and with Thompson having less than six months left on his deal and the ability to sign for whomever he chooses without giving a fee to the Seaside club then one cannot help but think that it is in the best interest of the Christie Park side that his potential availability becomes more widely known.

Get someone to double the offer today rather than let the player walk away for nothing in six months and McIlroy has done a good bit of business and Lawn – and City – can be excused for feeling a little used and Lawn – a recent convert to the world of football directorship – will have to get used to having the sort of sums of money that would be a welcome lottery win being dismissed as peanuts. Stuart McCall speaks well on the dismissed offer – “We know where our club has been for the last few years and we don’t want to go back there.” A manager who is not prepared to mortgage the future of his club to further his career is a rare thing.

McCall has been shopping as he shapes a Bradford City team through evolution. Paul Heckingbottom joined yesterday and Swansea midfielder Ian Craney was tracked until Accrington Stanley paid £85,000 for him. Players at this level who have that sort of value to a club are few and far between and McCall would do well to stay out of the market that starts to spiral. £85,000 would have paid Dean Windass’s wage for another season and costs of employment are a much better use of resources in a saturated footballer market like League Two than recruitment costs.

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