Fickle Fans Mean Few Managers Get The Same Chances

In football, as in life, your face has to fit. Some players can do no wrong, some can do no right. The same applies to managers.

Steve Kean never had a chance at Blackburn considering how quickly a section of fans were on his back. Like Roy Hodgson at Liverpool, some were never going to accept him. They may be right of course, judging by his tactics in the second half of the game against Sunderland, but short of propelling Blackburn into the top six this season, he was always up against it. However, if Blackburn went on a run of six games unbeaten, those protests would soon die down (stranger things have happened). It’s part of the habit of football fans to think that our club deserves better – that our manager does not match the ambition of the club, does not match its size, its stature. Of course usually the manager is as good as the club can get.

Andre Villas-Boas was a condemned man a month ago. The vultures were circling, though mostly in the press rather than in the stands. Now all is rosy. It’s no surprise – patience has disappeared from the game, and fickleness has taken its place. And then there’s Owen Coyle. Proof that the fickleness of fans can be influenced by the media – Coyle was seen as the antithesis of the deeply unpopular Gary Megson. This bright new hope was intent on marrying attractive football with winning football. What a breath of fresh air – and early results proved this.

Yet Megson took over Bolton when they were bottom of the Premier League table with only 5 points from 10 games. However there were fans who never took to his perceived dour style of football. The shadow of Allardyce hung over him – unattractive football, but football that brought results. Nevertheless, that season they reached the last 16 of the UEFA Cup for the first time in the club’s history. They also stayed up – hardly a cause for celebration, but mission accomplished surely? Bolton finished 13th in the 2008/2009 season, but poor form the following season saw Megson dismissed in December – though Coyle’s start to this season was the worse for Bolton in over 100 years.

But while a week is a long time in politics, a year in football can seem like a lifetime. Seventh at the end of 2010, we enter the end weeks of 2011 with Bolton bottom of the Premier League. Bolton have won just 8 of their last 33 games this year. Their form has plummeted, along with Coyle’s reputation. Coyle has been hit by injuries of course, but that’s part of the game. I haven’t watched every Bolton match, but as someone who will watch any football at all, I’ve seen enough. And like when City won at the Reebok, earlier this season, I saw little different from the Megson days. The ball was still being bumped up to Kevin Davies for him to fall dramatically to the floor as if he had been punched. Bolton showed great spirit, but then I have always associated them with that. Did it drain away under Megson?

When managers like Megson put out reserve teams in Europe to rest a team for a “vital” league game which they then proceed to lose anyway, they don’t help their cause. But Allardyce has done it regularly as manager too, so Megson is hardly alone. But the fans just couldn’t warm to his style of football. The odd break here or there though and they’d have put up with it easier. A few soundbites, some passionate press conferences and a few fights with opposition managers, and he’d have been more popular.

Some are luckier. As Fulham manager, Martin Jol has played 29 games, winning 10 drawing 9 and losing 10 – and that includes some less than illustrious opponents in the Europa League. Yet Jol is one of those managers that will never get the vitriol of others. His face fits as the genial, astute, knowledgeable manager. Over at Wigan, Martinez seems to fit the same profile too – you’d struggle to envisage the fans turning on him, even if the club were relegated. I’ve heard plenty of Tottenham fans blast Harry Redknapp over the last year or so for his management skills – they have gone quiet recently. Plenty of Manchester City fans would never accept Mark Hughes because he played for “them”. Aston Villa fans revolted at the possible recruitment of Steve MacLaren, and got Alex McLeish instead. Out of the frying pan…..

Roberto Mancini has been a great case in point. In his early days he was no better than his predecessor to many, their key tool in pointing this out being the comparison of points per game, the two figures being almost identical. There was no time to assess his merits over a long period, to see how he shaped the team and club. No, he had trillions to spend, so we can all judge now. Any defeat led to calls by a minority for his head, in the same way that any player was utterly useless and a waste of money if god forbid one week they didn’t put in a man of the match performance. But when a manager delivers a club’s first trophy in 35 years and first qualification for the Champions League, these people tend to pipe down. I wrote a blog in the summer asking how much power fans should have? We are the lifeblood of the game after all, the soul of the club (if such a thing were to exist, which it doesn’t), but we are also incapable of sensible, rational thoughts much of the time. Knee-jerk reactions are our forte. Always have been, always will be. As one person commented below the blog:

“Far too many supporters are overdosing on football manager games and think they have an idea about running a football club.”

But more to the point it’s not just results that decide how fans judge a manager. It’s their perception of the man, irrelevant of the cold, hard facts. Their past, how they come across in front of a camera, whether they say the right things, how glamorous their appointment was. That’s not to say the likes of Coyle or Martinez or Jol are getting it too easy -Coyle should (and probably will) be given time to save Bolton’s season – it’s just a shame the same courtesy wasn’t extended to others. You’d think that fans would judge managers on results – but sometimes that’s barely half the story.