The fad of the ‘forward-thinking’ young manager
Southampton’s decision to relieve Nigel Adkins of his duties and immediately replace him with former Espanyol coach Mauricio Pochettino last week was quite rightly labelled a harsh move by the club’s chairman Nicola Cortese considering the form of the improving side, but did the 47-year-old lose the image battle more than anything else? And is this simply the latest instalment in an increasingly clear trend of clubs favouring ideas over experience?
There had been rumblings that Adkins was at risk after the newly-promoted team’s patchy start to life in the top flight, but enjoying a heroes status among the fans after leading the club to two successive promotions, it was thought that Cortese would be unable to justify removing such a popular figurehead, especially when you consider that the original plan laid out by the Italian owner included a five-year plan for promotion back to the promised land of the Premier League, not just two.
Cortese released a statement with the following: “This decision has been made with the long-term ambitions of Southampton Football Club in mind. Whilst we acknowledge the contribution Nigel has made during the past two years, for the Club to progress and achieve our long-term targets a change was needed. Mauricio is a well-respected coach of substantial quality who has gained a reputation as an astute tactician and excellent man manager. I have every confidence that he will inspire our talented squad of players to perform at the highest possible level.”
He goes on to talk about the Argentine’s record at nurturing youth prospects, something Adkins was also extremely adept at considering the involvement of the likes of Luke Shaw and James Ward-Prowse this term at such tender ages, while the timing of the dismissal also seemed extremely odd at first, with Southampton having lost just two of their last 12 games and having secured laudable draws against both Arsenal and Chelsea. They were 15th at the time of the sacking, three points clear of safety and picking up points regularly and starting to look more and more like a team that had enough in the tank to stay up.
Of course, Cortese is known to be something of an egotist and will have no doubt have been put out by the fans continued support of Adkins despite their poor early season form and penchant for letting in bundles of sloppy goals, treating it as a personal affront. He has previous when it comes to clashing heads and sacking perfectly qualified managers, with current Newcastle boss Alan Pardew also unfathomably dismissed back in September 2010.
Similar to how Manchester City prepared for Roberto Mancini’s arrival by letting Mark Hughes take the brunt of a tough sequence of games, Cortese approached Pochettino weeks ago, seemingly anticipating that the side would lose against both Arsenal and Chelsea, leaving them some way closer to the drop zone, thus making the decision somewhat easier to justify. That’s not only reprehensible, it’s depressingly cynical.
Pochettino may well go on to be a success on the south coast, with the early signs of his pressing style visible during an excellent first half performance against Everton before tiring late on. He has a clear plan and ideology, which seems to be the most attractive principles around to prospective chairman these days above other qualifications such as experience and silverware. He may well be to the club what Pardew was to Newcastle after Chris Hughton was ridiculously sacked.
His sacking at Espanyol back in November was widely seen as a reluctant one; the board loved him, the fans did too, and he’d done a marvellous job to make the club so competitive and entertaining with such a paucity of resources, with the cash-strapped outfit forced to sell off star players at every turn, including Jose Callejon to Real Madrid, Victor Ruiz to Napoli and Daniel Osvaldo to Roma.
The BBC profile piece on him introducing him to the wider English world hailed him as a “forward-thinking and thoroughly modern coach.” Now, I’m not entirely sure what that means. Are there backward-thinking managers out there? Are there ‘keep it steady, don’t rock the boat’ centrists? Is it merely an age issue? Are older managers being phased out because they lack a clear footballing ‘philosophy’? It would seem so.
Liverpool have 39-year-old Brendan Rodgers in charge, appointed off the back of one season of top flight experience at Swansea. Tottenham have 35-year-old Andre Villas-Boas at the helm, a man who managed his first team at the age of just 21, while 39-year-old Roberto Martinez at Wigan is casually referred to as a ‘footballing purist’, quite what that means is anyone’s guess, but it’s clear, just as much with styles of football, a hierarchy has been formed in terms of the crucial currency of status – young is good, old is bad, in-between like Adkins is just plain dangerous.
We’ve certainly moved away from the days of the ‘old boys club’, whereby a decent playing career would inevitably set you up for life as a manager, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing by any stretch, it’s a welcome one, but it’s when this shift starts claiming the scalps of credible managers such as Adkins for shinier, newer managers like Pochettino that it starts to get worrying.
It’s very telling that in the list of managers to have taken charge of the most Premier League games, with the usual lot of Ferguson, Wenger, Redknapp, Moyes, Allardyce and O’Neill at the top, that George Graham is still sixth with 332 games despite not having managed in the league since 2001. Alan Curbishley is joint-seventh on 328 games even though he has been unemployed since leaving West Ham in 2008. Graeme Souness is ninth on 319 games, without a job since Newcastle in 2006. New Scotland coach Gordon Strachan hasn’t managed in the top tier since 2004 with Southampton but is 12th. Joe Kinnear, an 18-game spell at Newcastle aside, hasn’t been around since leaving Wimbledon in 1999. It’s taking on an increasingly ‘us’ and ‘them’ mentality.
The attraction with a young manager is clear – they are vibrant, media-friendly and come with 100-page dossiers on what their style means and how best they can implement it. Some dip their toes too far into manager speak, with ‘going forward’ and other made up words like ‘diversivise’ or ‘conversate’, gradually helping corporate, middle-management jargon infiltrate the game; language that’s sole objective in mind is to make the person using it sound more intelligent than they actually are and their ideas appear more worthy of listening to.
Football needs to evolve and fresh ideas are a positive step on the well-worn path of progress (see, I can do it too), but they should not come at the expense of proven managerial talent that’s been successful elsewhere in their career, otherwise, what’s the point of it all? All managers need to get their break in the game somewhere, but now it’s happening right at the top and is used as a statement of intent by owners to the fans, ‘look, we’ve appointed a young coach, aren’t we progressive’.
It’s not reckless, but it’s a gamble, a risky move that has become an accepted truth which has helped give birth to an established trend, with the spiel that these appointments have both ‘the long-term and short-term’ of the club in mind, therefore insinuating that appointing an older manager doesn’t. Every club now looks as if they’re trying to build a lasting legacy, which is admirable, but as with all trends, it’s just not realistic.